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A better process, but what about the product?

By Darce Cassidy - posted Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The new method of appointing staff to the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) and Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) boards is certainly more open and transparent. However this process, in itself, has not guaranteed good decisions.

The old appointment process was conducted in private - almost in secrecy. Vacancies were not advertised. No selection criteria were disclosed. If there was a selection committee that made recommendations to the minister its membership was not disclosed. There was a widespread perception that both Labor and Coalition governments had stacked the board with their supporters.

On the face of it the new process established by the Rudd government, as promised in the election campaign, is a great improvement on the old. Vacancies were advertised. A nomination panel was chosen consisting of Ric Smith AO PSM, Professor Allan Fels AO, Leneen Forde AC and David Gonski AC. The panel was well qualified and non-partisan. More than 300 expressions of interest were considered.


However, under the ABC Act members of the ABC board are required "to maintain the independence and integrity of the Corporation".

Were the members of the selection panel aware for example, that as Acting Director of Corporate Relations at the ABC, Dr Julianne Schultz's was involved in a past attempt to tie the ABC into a strategic commercial alliance with Telstra - arguably Australia's largest, most powerful, and most aggressive communications organisation?

In recommending her appointment to the minister, were the nomination panel aware of the Senate inquiry into the ABC Telstra deal, and Dr Schultz's advocacy of the ABC relationship with Telstra at that inquiry?

Dr Schultz is a distinguished academic and is very highly regarded as the founding editor of the Griffith Review. She is also a former senior executive with the ABC. However in this role her advocacy of the Telstra alliance has been criticised by a fellow academic, by unions representing ABC staff, by former members of the ABC board, and by Friends of the ABC.

Fortunately the proposal was leaked before a contract between Telstra and the ABC could be signed. The Senate established an inquiry at which Schultz, as the main witness for the ABC, pursued the management position forcefully.

In a study of the evidence presented at the inquiry, published in the academic journal Human Relations, Dr André Spicer argued that the ABC-Telstra deal was an attempt "to shift the broadcaster's website from being a technology used to achieve public service goals to being a revenue generator".


A key part of the deal was for the ABC to provide news for display on Telstra's website, where it would be surrounded with advertising. In return the ABC would receive a substantial fee.

But the deal went well beyond simply supplying a news feed. It also potentially gave Telstra even more influence over the ABC than a commercial advertiser would have over a commercial broadcaster. The proposed agreement allowed Telstra to "consult" with the ABC about future content, co-productions and e-commerce ventures. In effect, Telstra could have input to the ABC editorial process (although the ABC would not have been legally bound to accept Telstra's suggestions).

The "terms sheet" made available to the Senate envisaged the ABC promoting Telstra's Easymail service and that wherever possible the ABC would use Telstra's broadband service as a back channel. The ABC and Telstra would be obliged to treat each other on a "most favoured nation" basis.

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About the Author

Darce Cassidy is Secretary of Save Our SBS. His background is in broadcasting and journalism, having worked for the ABC (Four Corners, AM and PM, in various radio management roles), the SBS (Training), and the National Ethnic and Multicultural Broadcasters Council.

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