The Guardian September 20, 2000


ABC "plumber" really corporate butcher

by Marcus Browning

Employers have ways of twisting the knife when they hand out redundancy 
notices. Often they wait until just before Christmas, for example. Or, if 
you're head of ABC Radio's Classic FM network the news that you're sacked 
is announced while you are at home recovering from a heart attack, as 
happened to Peter James last week.

James  who was sacked by the ABC's recently-appointed director of radio, 
Sue Howard  was added to a growing list of experienced managers being 
lopped under managing director Jonathan Shier's drive to destroy the ABC as 
an independent, national broadcaster.

Radio National's manager Steven Alward has joined James. Others, such as Ed 
Breslan from Triple J and Ian Wolfe from News Radio, are soon to follow 
with Radio National and News Radio being merged to become National Talk 
Radio, and Triple J and Classic FM being merged to become National Music 
Radio.

Shier's brief from the Government is to break apart and ultimately 
commercialise the ABC. In six months he has overseen the appointment of 
private sector, profit-bottom-line managers to head the radio and 
television arms.

Just two weeks ago Shier announced the division of the ABC's eight program 
production areas into 21 small cells which are expected to make ends meet 
by forging deals with private production companies and forming 
"partnerships" with state governments.

Shier's appointees  headhunted from the private sector using taxpayers' 
money  are a glaring reflection of his agenda on behalf of the Howard 
Government, which has cut nearly $90 million from ABC funding since coming 
to office in 1996.

So there is the head of New Media, Lynley Marshall, part of whose task it 
is to commercialise the ABC's internet site.

Marshall has had 15 years in advertising in New Zealand, including the 
coordination of commercial radio and showing businesses how to advertise on 
the internet.

Report card

The ABC Section of the Community and Public Sector Union earlier this month 
put out a report card on Shier's first 127 days as managing director. It 
asks what he meant when he assured staff that he is a strong supporter of 
public broadcasting, noting the main principles of public broadcasting as:

* programming and scheduling based on editorial values free from commercial 
or political influence;

* the promotion of editorial integrity that encourages diversity, 
innovation, specialisation and risk-taking, not available to commercially-
driven organisations;

* the treatment of audiences as people with interests rather than consumers 
with wallets;

* merit rather than profit as the criteria of judgement used in all 
editorial decisions. Failure can be tolerated in the search for excellence 
and programs of minority interest can receive equal treatment to those of 
mass appeal.

The union noted that the managing director's stated aim of increasing 
revenue from e-business, particularly in New Media, "potentially introduces 
commercial influence into production areas", and that this re-positioning 
is likely to result in a redefinition of the role of the national 
broadcaster in Australia.

Also that there "has been little or no consultation with the owners of the 
ABC, the Australian people, about the changes".

Accountability

The report points out that the national broadcaster relies on public funds 
provided by way of parliamentary appropriation and that the management of 
the ABC must be held accountable for the way these funds are spent and 
used.

"The new management has failed to respect this fundamental plank of public 
broadcasting and has treated the ABC coffers as though they were no 
different to those of [Kerry Packer's] PBL.

"The ABC has been built on the principle of open, public and transparent 
merit-based selection for all jobs, up to and including the top layer of 
senior executives."

This principle has not been respected as evidenced by the:

* systematic removal of senior staff who have an understanding of the 
principles and rationale for public broadcasting, and their replacement 
with imports from the commercial sector at a considerably higher cost who 
lack such understanding;

* direct appointment of senior staff without merit-based competitive 
selection. In some cases this has been achieved through the use of 
corporate headhunters at a reported cost of over $250,000;

* displacement of senior staff, who have previously won their positions, 
requiring them to reapply for their own positions;

* forced resignation of some senior staff who have expressed reluctance to 
implement some elements of Shier's platform that they consider to be at 
odds with their duty to uphold the principles of public broadcasting.

Waste and inefficiency

"The new managing director promised to be the `plumber', unblocking the ABC 
and allowing the creative juices to flow", says the report.

"Since then we have seen the appointment of a top-heavy executive that is 
slowing down decisions and preventing forward planning whilst our core 
business of making programs languishes."

The past three months have seen the departure of some of the most talented 
program makers in Australia with a proven track record of producing some of 
Australia's finest programming.

This has gone hand-in-hand with the employment of a large number of 
reportedly highly paid executives from the commercial sector with no proven 
track record.

There are also continuing attempts to directly control all staff 
appointments by insisting all appointments be endorsed by the management 
executive.

This new process introduces delays in the filling of positions and is in 
breach of a new agreement which provides a complete and comprehensive 
process that does not include intervention by the executive.

The establishment of the 21 program areas was also on Shier's insistence, 
contrary to informed, internal advice. The resultant redundancy payments 
will drain millions away from program making budgets.

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