Always Under Pressure

As we await the report from the Senate Inquiry into the Guthrie-Milne affair, it’s worth noting there’s nothing new about attempted editorial interference at the ABC.

By Eric Hunter

Kerry O’Brien reminded us at the Alumni launch in Sydney last November that worries about the ABC’s independence are nothing new. In the 1970s, the then Liberal government believed that it could, with a compliant ABC management, cause a current affairs story to be ignored. He cited a 1972 This Day Tonight story about the postal union’s claim of extensive financial mismanagement on the part of the post office. The then PMG director-general Ebenezer Lane was invited to offer the official response but he declined to appear.

ABC senior management, with no prompting, decreed that the pre-recorded union interview should not be aired because it lacked a “balancing” view. It was an example of what Tim Bowden, one of TDT Sydney’s producers, called management’s “pre-emptive buckle”. His EP Tony Ferguson argued that the interview was in the public interest and courageously defied management, giving Tim the go-ahead to run it. I was EP of TDT’s separate Queensland edition and Tim rang me to suggest I run the interview simultaneously with Sydney, as lead story in both editions.

I felt I needed to preview the item to determine its interest to Queenslanders, so I told Tim I would record it off-air and if suitable I’d run it later in our program. After watching the interview I concluded any public interest was diminished by the unconvincing performance of the union official, so I decided reluctantly not to run it. But this didn’t change my views about management’s negative attitude.

NOT THE FIRST TIME

This was not the first time the ABC’s top floor had shown its aversion to what they considered troublesome situations. Management (and government) antipathy toward TDT erupted on only the program’s second night, Tuesday 11 April 1967, after we found out the Holt government was about to appoint former Cabinet minister Sir Howard Beale as the new ABC chairman. The story had appeared in a Canberra political newsletter so, as TDT’s first Canberra reporter, I invited the author to talk about it on air. He declined for personal reasons, but he recommended the press gallery journalist (from the Perth Daily News) who had uncovered the plan. He agreed to appear and so I had the honour of presenting TDT’s first hard political story. The journalist’s name was Michael Willesee, about to be named TDT’s first political correspondent, though I did not know this at the time. I had also tried, without luck, to get a government comment, so I sought verification from a former MP who had been strong on ABC issues while in parliament. He was Alan Fraser, former Labor member for Canberra who had heard of the plan and who came on in support of Mike’s story.

The government’s reaction to the story was immediate and furious; TDT was hit with the first of many claims of bias (as were its successors), but curiously the complaint centred mainly on Mike Willesee being the son of a Labor senator. Mike protested that the government’s accusation was a slur on his professionalism and that his father’s status was completely irrelevant.

PM Harold Holt refused to apologise but backed away, saying it was “unfortunate that Mr Willesee got in the line of fire in the course of what I had to say [about TDT]”.

The fallout did not end there.

When TDT began, ABC staff were not trusted to report so-called “high policy” stories without “referring upward” to senior management. While the two most senior program executives, Ken Watts and Neil Hutchinson, had both given permission for TDT to run the Beale story, they did not refer it upwards to Dr Clem Semmler, the dour deputy general manager, who happened to be acting GM at the time and who was less than pleased about this implied slight to his authority. The row simmered on in Canberra so Hutchinson sought Semmler’s permission for TDT’s senior reporter Frank Bennett to interview Holt and ask him to give examples of occasions where he felt the ABC had been at fault. Semmler later revealed that he also referred this request upwards, to the then chairman, James Darling (whom Beale was being lined up replace). Here was the acting ABC general manager asking the retiring ABC chairman to make an editorial adjudication over an appearance by the PM concerning that chairman’s possible successor.

Semmler, in best Sir Humphrey fashion, obligingly provided Darling with his own view, saying that there were more important issues about which to approach the prime minister at some future date. Unsurprisingly, the chairman instructed Semmler to inform Hutchinson of his decision. Darling agreed the Beale issue was not “…of sufficient public importance” to bother Holt with. He said he feared that the matter would direct too much “newspaper and public attention” to the ABC because it involved speculation about appointments to the Commission. (It was too late: the cat was already out of the bag.) Finally, Darling wrote – astonishingly – that if the prime minister were given air time, the leader of the opposition Gough Whitlam might seek equal time which “would be altogether an undesirable development”.

Holt dropped the idea of appointing Beale as chairman and the infant TDT won critical approval (except within government and ABC top management) for exposing a most blatant example of political nepotism. As Bill Peach observed wryly, TDT had quickly found its natural element – hot water.

Fast forward to recent events. If former chair Justin Milne is correct in claiming his expressed views about ABC journalists were his own and no political pressure was brought to bear, then clearly, the pre-emptive buckle is as active as ever. All of which reinforces the necessity of having clear and unambiguous responsibilities set out for all senior ABC appointments, especially the selection of boards and managing directors. For the good of the ABC they can’t be implemented quickly enough.

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Eric Hunter was a senior reporter for This Day Tonight in Canberra and Victoria, and executive producer of two state TDT editions during its twelve years on air (1967-78). He also spent two years as WA State Program Director (1974-76) and for fifteen years was a sessional tutor and lecturer in journalism at the University of