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Rescue our ABC from postmodernist clutches

By John Carmody - posted Wednesday, 26 November 2008

I had thought that the dogma of postmodernism was dead and that its odour had disappeared. Regrettably, this has not happened in the atavistic world of ABC radio management, a vacuum of intellectual and moral relativism where no form of knowledge appears to have any perceived value over another.

In a frank editorial on October 16, The Australian referred to the "dunderheads" who run Radio National, deploring their punitive action when Stephen Crittenden revealed and thwarted their conspiracy to conceal from the audience their plans to destroy a number of valuable and valued programs, including his The Religion Report. "Dunderheads"? As Francis Urquhart says in House of Cards, "Now, you might very well think that, but of course I couldn't possibly comment".

However, I believe that the problem is not really one of intelligence; rather, it concerns philosophy.


The situation is akin to the disputes about school curriculums in English: does one accord parity of esteem to, say, Shakespeare and television soap opera, or are there demonstrable and defendable differences of quality and worth involved that should be reflected in what students are asked to study?

Those who run Radio National act as if they hold the former relativist position. They seem to place little value on the understanding and insight that come from detailed and prolonged attention to a field of knowledge; they consider that good programs can be made without special expertise because no form of knowledge is superior to any other and, consequently, ignorance is no impediment to crafting a program.

They can attack and kill a program of world renown such as The Religion Report for that reason, but also because they are hostile to religion: not only hostile to any reflection on the tenets of religions, but apparently unaware of (or indifferent to) its social, political and cultural significance, now no less than in the past.

Make no mistake: those managers would attack the ABC's specialised programs about science and medicine if these were not protected by the eminence and excellence of such people as Robyn Williams and Norman Swan. Once those great broadcasters retire, though, their programs will be killed off, too, and the material tossed into the homogeniser that produces the cheaper melange of flow programming.

This is not simply my partisan or intemperate speculation. Try this for lucid prose, as written by the ABC: "Changes to the 2009 schedule are necessary as ABC Radio National looks to the future to ensure that its radio line-up is focused not just on traditional content genres but on contemporary intellectual discourse in Australia and worldwide."

What can such jargon mean? The questions facing mankind are, essentially, the same as they have always been: the age-old questions about what is good, true and beautiful. How do we identify those characteristics in our own and others' behaviour? How do we achieve them in our lives?


Inevitably, we will never answer them validly if - confusing the medium with the message, to put it in Marshall McLuhan's discredited formula - we confuse the garments for the person, the cover for the book.

Another unexplained oddity in the ABC's thinking is that to achieve its aim of enlarging what is available online it must necessarily kill fine broadcast programs. What, I wonder, does it propose to put online? Still, when this policy is expressed so clumsily, my perplexity is excusable: "To reach them (that is, 'the burgeoning online audience') Radio National must improve its online presence, ensuring that this audience's bandwidth (also termed 'the online space') is as richly populated as the traditional audience's airways." A decoder is needed for such opaque management-speak.

If this perverse thinking and turbid expression of it were not enough, radio management - seemingly entirely unaware of demographic trends in Australia - has demeaned its audience as "over 50" and, notwithstanding thousands of letters and messages of protest, seems determined to "tough it out", relying on the approaching quiet of the holiday season to score a sly victory.

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First published in The Australian on November 19, 2008.

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About the Author

John Carmody is a broadcaster, medical scientist and cultural commentator based in Sydney.

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