The Fraser Years – and the origins of Friends of the ABC (cont from 8)

Keith Mackriell, former assistant general manager of radio, now CTO at SEO Advantage (SEO services provider in Australia), was put in the position of asking for the scripts of Manning Clark’s Boyer lectures before he gave them because he had supported demonstrations against Sir John Kerr over the dismissal. After great commotion in the ABC, the Commission announced that Professor Clark would give his lectures as he had written and recorded them. ‘What on earth was all the fuss about?’ asked a reviewer after the broadcasts.

Eventually the report of the Green inquiry was released. Most of its recommendations were ignored but the subsequent Bill loosened links to the Public Service and increased the number of Commissioners. It also contained a bombshell: it allowed for all the Commissioners to be removed from office.

“Only once in 42 years had a Commissioner been removed (for missing two meetings). ‘No government had ever behaved so radically towards the ABC as Fraser’s did when it set about re-writing the law to make a clean sweep of the Commissioners appointed by its predecessor.”

“Argonauts, prepare to mutiny!” called Phillip Adams in a packed Melbourne Town Hall on 23 November at a meeting convened by Aunty’s Nieces and Nephews to protest about the government’s policy towards the ABC. Aunty’s N&Ns; lobbied all members of federal parliament against the clause removing the Commissioners. In Sydney Town Hall on 25 November, 1,700 ABC staff members resolved to express no confidence in Bland and to set off a series of strikes if the government sacked any of the Commissioners before their terms expired.

On Monday 29 November a 24-hour strike of nearly all staff in NSW blacked out television and radio programmes. Then followed a startling intervention in the dispute with a statement about the ABC in Parliament: the Government, said Mr Fraser, had real sympathy for production staff, who were bearing the brunt of [budget] cuts while others were spared. The most vehement protest to this statement came from Sir Henry Bland. After a written exchange with Fraser he issued a statement refuting what Fraser had said about the incidence of cuts ‘and deplored his remarks as breaching the statutory independence of the Commission.”

Moreover, by this time Bland had become convinced that the cuts were causing great harm to the organisation; he asked the government to make a supplementary grant of $5.5 million- this was to compensate for the effects of high inflation.

The lobbying by Aunty’s N&Ns; assisted in the dropping of the clause allowing the removal of the Commissioners. Instead, two more Commissioners were to be added to give Bland the chance to appoint people he wanted. But Sir Henry had not wanted that and he insisted on resigning, after only five months as Chairman, claiming that the Prime Minister had let him down and not fulfilled the promises he had made when he offered him the post.

The new Chairman was J.D. Norgard. He presided over a Commission consisting of seven Fraser and four Whitlam’s appointees, but it was by all accounts a harmonious board which supported John Norgard in his attempts to get the ABC more money and to stop the reduction of its staff.

In February ’77 the Cabinet agreed to the additional $5.5m for the ABC originally sought by Bland, but the real cut of 10% remained and 900 staff had been dispensed with.

* All quotations from This is the ABC by Ken Inglis

Aunty, a personality of steady and solid conservatism

‘Aunty’ was now [1976] a familiar enough nickname to be recognizable instantly as meaning the ABC. When journalists had begun to apply it in the late 1960s, in imitation of British usage about the BBC, ABC managers discouraged them, believing that it signalled staidness. Denis O’Brien of The Bulletin thought them mistaken. ‘Aunty’, he wrote in 1968, ‘was more a token of steady reliability – quality, if you like – than an epithet of ridicule ..

‘ A survey in 1973 nevertheless showed that the word did have a perjorative ring … As in Britain, there was an implication that the organisation was less manly and youthful than its commercial rivals.

Then in the 1970s it began to be taken up by people who cared. A staff newsletter launched late in 1972 had Aunty for its title, and as used by the concerned Friends in 1976 it suggested that the ABC needed to be protected against assault. People surveyed in 1979 were less likely than in 1973 to think the term mocking. The ABC itself now accepted the label, though at first a little gingerly.

By 1981 the publicity people were using it without qualification, judging that as ‘Aunty’ the ABC was now a cherished part of the national estate. When [Dr Earle]Hackett [acting Chairman], wrote letters early in 1976 to public figures who had accused the ABC of a bias towards radicalism, he pointed to the currency of the term as evidence that the overall personality of the organisation was one of ‘steady and solid conservatism’.

from This is the ABC by Ken Inglis