ABC Alumni call for political change

ABC Alumni, a group of former ABC staff and supporters, held its official launch yesterday at the ABC headquarters, calling for secure funding, guaranteed editorial independence, and changes to the way the ABC’s Board and Managing Director are selected. radioinfo was there.

The event was also a celebration of the ABC’s achievements to date, with speakers including Kerry O’Brien the former editor and host of the 7:30 Report, Four Corners and Lateline.

Matt Peacock, a former ABC journalist and the co-convenor of ABC Alumni, opened the event,

“The aims of the alumni, put simply, are the continued advocacy for public media, free, fearless, independent and quality media.”

He also mentioned ABC Alumni’s plans to advocate for restoring the ABC’s service to the Pacific and Asia, which had its budget slashed by sixty percent in 2014, as well as making submissions to the federal inquiry into competitive neutrality, and the senate inquiry into the political interference in the ABC, demanding an “independent and suitably knowledgeable board”. He also announced the group’s plans for more ‘targeted activity’ similar to their pamphletting campaign during the Wentworth by-election.

ABC’s acting Managing Director David Anderson praised the national broadcaster in his speech, emphasising its importance to the Australian community

“The ABC is part of the fabric of our community, and arguably the most loved and important and trusted cultural institution that we have in the country.

“Whether it’s through our journalism where we provide that fact based information so that the people of this country can make the decisions that they need to for the future, whether we’re shining lights into dark corners, whether we’re holding people to account. Giving voices to those that don’t have one.”

Anderson also discussed the importance of the ABC’s independence, a common theme among the speakers:

“It’s our independence that’s most important, and our independence that’s non-negotiable. So our independence is still intact, it hasn’t been breached. But if there was any positive that came out of the last two months, the positive is the groundswell of advocacy for the ABC about our independence and how important it is now and into the future. And something that we are absolutely resolute about.”

He also voiced concerns about the ABC’s financial independence, calling for a “sustainable budget that we can rely on into the future, so that we can continue to provide our services…now and forever more.”

He emphasised the need to move past the events of ex-Managing Director Michelle Guthrie’s sacking and ex-Chairman Justin Milne’s resignation, and the need to reaffirm the importance of the ABC’s content and audience saying, “the dedication and commitment of the ABC staff is stronger than it’s ever been and is unwavering and continues to be strong.”

Kerry O’Brien reminded audience members that the ABC has suffered political interference in the past, both from within and without, citing an example from his work in the seventies on This Day Tonight, when the program was instructed not to run an interview with a trade unionist for postal workers as they had not obtained an interview with the postmaster general. They ran the interview regardless, and the producer was removed from the show. Mr. O’Brien spoke at length about his other experiences with political interference at the ABC, as well as what he considered self-censorship by the ABC.

He spoke about the need to remember the ABC’s history, and the need for board members to advocate for the broadcaster, criticising a lack of enthusiasm among previous board members for the national broadcaster. He urged staff and supporters not to be complacent with regard to accountability:

“I don’t think there should ever be a point when inside the ABC we just assume that whatever we’re doing is right, and good and proper, and that we never need review, and that we never need scrutiny. Of course public broadcasting does, and of course mistakes get made. And of course we have our low times as well as our high points. But nonetheless, the central thread, I think, that has run through the ABC through all of this period is the spirit of the staff. And the spirit of the staff is the pursuit of excellence. And I don’t think that pursuit has ever been lost.”

O’Brien decried what he views as political hostility towards the ABC, today and in the past:

“Now the situation today is as bad if not worse than at any time that I can recall since I have been a part of or even an observer watching the abc. I think the hostility is just bizarre.”

Fiona Stanley, former ABC board member, also backed ABC Alumni’s calls for board members with relevant expertise, as well as a willingness to defend the ABC. “Really aren’t we there as advocates for the ABC? Where’s the advocacy of this current board? For anything other than I don’t know what.”

Matt Peacock concluded with a rallying cry to those present:

“There’s a lot of us out there. And people who want to tangle with us, are going to have to reckon with us. Some parts of the ABC I’ve always detested but there are a lot of parts that I really love, and I imagine it’s the same with you. But for the parts that you really love, we’re gonna have to fight for it. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s what this organisation is all about. Harnessing all our knowledge, and taking it up to them.”

   Reporting: Caitlin McHugh

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