Outgoing ABC Chairman Jim Spigelman.15th March 2017.Photo: Steven Siewert Photo: Steven Siewert
Each member of the ABC’s audience has a gripe about the public broadcaster – including those who run it.
Managing director Michelle Guthrie has remarked on the ABC’s “peculiar obsession” with the British royal family and comparative lack of interest in Asian culture.
Chairman James Spigelman has his own bugbear.
“I think there’s too much crime in our news,” Spigelman tells Fairfax Media during an interview in his office at ABC’s Ultimo headquarters.
He’d prefer fewer murders and more public policy and foreign affairs.
Last year, former prime minister Paul Keating said: “What you get on the ABC is: ‘A truck has just overturned on the Pacific Highway’.
“The ABC is letting down in terms of news presentation.”
Spigelman says: “I tend to think he’s right. People expect a different kind of taste in subject matter in an ABC bulletin than they get in commercial bulletins.
“But the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ tradition in journalism is very strong.”
Spigelman’s five-year term has been a dramatic period: $250 million in budget cuts, the axing of the ABC’s international broadcasting service, Tony Abbott’s Q&A boycott and the arrival of Guthrie.
Now it’s over. His office is full of packed-up cardboard boxes; his artworks have been pulled off the walls.
It’s not his choice to go, and he’s honest about it.
“If I had been offered a second term I would have accepted,” says the former NSW chief justice and principal private secretary to Gough Whitlam.
“My predecessor wasn’t given a second term and wanted it; I haven’t been given a second term.”
Few prime ministers give up the chance to select their own ABC chair and Malcolm Turnbull is no different – even though he and Spigelman have been close friends for decades.
In between energy policy announcements in Canberra and the Snowy Mountains, Turnbull travelled to Sydney on Wednesday to attend Spigelman’s farewell.
In his speech, Spigelman revealed a secret plot hatched in the final year of the Whitlam government to buy The n newspaper.
Spigelman, then head of the Department of Media, was dispatched to meet Rupert Murdoch to ask whether he would sell the broadsheet to the ABC. Only a handful of people knew of the plan.
It would have been an explosive move – The n was campaigning ferociously against Whitlam and the ABC has no charter responsibilities for print media.
Spigelman remembers the idea was driven by a desire to reduce the concentration of newspaper ownership not to stifle criticism of the government.
Although the paper was bleeding money, Murdoch said no.
In 2013 Spigelman announced a series of external audits to assess the ABC coverage’s for bias. In his speech he said he was concerned ABC journalists – like those elsewhere – were more interested in same-sex marriage than electricity prices.
“I don’t think it’s changed much,” Spigelman says.
“There isn’t as much attention on the issues of the ‘Howard battlers’, working families, people in the suburbs.
“We should be connecting with all segments of the n population.”
On accusations of political bias, he says: “It’s probably true there are a greater number of Labor voters among our journalists than conservative voters. I wouldn’t have thought that’s unrepresentative of journalism across the board.”
He adds: “To say there’s a single perspective on life at the ABC is wrong.
“If you go outside Sydney and Melbourne you find a more conservative approach. Most people criticising the ABC know nothing about the breakfast program, say, in Perth or Adelaide or Brisbane.”
Spigelman says many staff found the audits – which involve paying outsiders to critique the ABC – “ridiculous” but believes they have been useful.
A review of budget coverage prompted the ABC to focus more on policy than politics; the broadcaster’s editorial guidelines were changed after an audit into asylum seeker coverage.
Last September, Employment Minister Michaelia Cash wrote to the ABC saying it was “required to comply” with the government’s workplace bargaining policy, prompting Spigelman to accuse the government of a “fundamental challenge to the independence of the ABC”.
“That was the only occasion in my five years I thought the independence of the ABC was being threatened.
“I said: ‘You can’t give us a direction on what to do’.
“That was the end of the story.”
He’s also critical of the government for its tardiness in appointing board members.
The terms of Fiona Stanley and Jane Bennett expired last June but they have only just been replaced.
“We have made major decisions during that period and it would have been better to have a full complement of directors.
“It’s not as if these things can’t be organised in advance – they just don’t get the attention they deserve until the last moment.”
Spigelman’s biggest legacy will be the appointment of Guthrie, who last week announced a restructure that will see 200 employees leave the ABC.
While conceding Guthrie’s arrival has unsettled some staff, he praises the former News Corp and Google executive as “very dynamic, very focused”.
“Mark Scott had nothing like her range of experience when he came to the job.
“He hadn’t run anything of this scale.”
Spigelman backs Guthrie’s push for more on-screen diversity and to reach out to younger audiences.
“The biggest challenge facing the ABC is how to maintain an older audience used to appointment television and another generation that doesn’t operate in anything like that manner.”
Bidding farewell this week, Spigelman asked staff to remain true to his guiding philosophy for public broadcasting: “The ABC has to treat its audience as citizens, not consumers. As people with rights and duties, not just wants and needs.”
Outgoing ABC Chair James Spigelman on:
A potential ABC/SBS merger: “I’ve never, ever pushed a merger. Others here have. The ABC is big enough. There’s no case for merging SBS radio with the ABC. It performs its particular responsibilities very well.
“I’m not sure what SBS TV is really for any more; it’s not really an ethnic broadcaster, it doesn’t feel like a public broadcaster. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have good programming, it does [but] there are real questions about SBS television that need to be addressed.”
Managing Director Michelle Guthrie: “Not many people know that when Michelle ran Star TV in India she used to be woken up regularly by Sonia Gandhi or Prime Minister Singh complaining [about coverage]. She’ll have no problem dealing with Canberra.”
On political bias: “There are people who underestimate the range of political opinion among journalists as the ABC. It’s worth remembering Tony Abbott hired our chief political correspondent [Mark Simkin] to be his press secretary. Yes we could have more prominent conservatives than Tom Switzer but the Gerard Hendersons of the world will never be happy unless they have their own show.”
On ethnic diversity: “From the very beginning I was talking about diversity on screen – that we look like an anglo-celtic network. I was told how difficult it is to fix but Michelle thinks it’s a problem and is trying to change it.”