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ABC′s culture of contempt

LEVY. Uechtritz. Loane. Barakat. They're hardly Australia-wide household names, but they tell a story of staff disorder, lousy management and festering discontent at the taxpayer-funded national broadcaster, the ABC.

Last week Sandra Levy, television land's most powerful woman and the ABC's director of TV, left for the Nine Network, following in the footsteps of former ABC news and current affairs director Max Uechtritz, who defected last year.

Last month popular Sydney ABC radio host Sally Loane was dumped for a Melbourne announcer after Loane had successfully boosted her audience ratings. Melbourne is hardly Barcelona, but the decision left many Sydneysiders asking Manuel's eternal question: Que?

Meanwhile last year's dumping of a former executive producer of ABC TV's Inside Business, Neheda Barakat, has recently been contested at the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, amid allegations of bullying by high-ranking ABC executives. On any objective reading, staff discontent at the ABC is reaching unusual heights. The critical question is whether this discontent relates directly or only indirectly to the core political issue at the national broadcaster. That issue is ideology.

News and current affairs stalwarts such as Kerry O'Brien affirm with the passion of a George Pell that there is no systemic ideological bias at the ABC. But discussion of this important point is frequently derailed by argument over the separate issue of whether the ABC contains an inherent pro-Labor, anti-Liberal bias. While the latter is a matter of passion for the dwindling numbers of political party members, there are ideological issues of more immediate concern to most Australians.

One is whether the ABC promotes product that is offensive to the core values of significant groups within the community. The clear answer here is yes.

Take last week's episode of the nationally telecast comedy-lifestyle show The Glass House. As it is not technically "news and current affairs", The Glass House escapes scrutiny on grounds of political bias. Yet it has been the subject of previous complaints, including over an episode last year that gave offence to Catholic viewers because of jokes about Mother Teresa.

Last week's Glass House, meanwhile, contained a four-minute panel discussion about the Catholic Church that contained the following comments: "Any religion that says you're not allowed to masturbate, you're not allowed to use condoms [and] that touches kids, shouldn't be something that you really want to follow."

"Why do they always elect [a] pope who is so old? Why don't they start with a 20-year-old pope? Imagine the pope's 21st birthday! [Here the presenter makes a quaffing gesture] 'Aw, more blood of Christ, come on!' [And] wearing his hat backwards, calling himself Snoop Popey Pope."

"When the Pope comes [to Australia], take him to see what is sacred to us. Take him to see a footy game. I'm assuming he'd be a Saints supporter. Take him to see a Saints v the Demons. And if the Demons win in the presence of the Pope, we can set the Pope on fire!"

"Look at the way we celebrate Christmas [in Australia.] It's like, 'Jesus is born, f... it, let's get pissed and eat ham."'

"When Jesus held the chalice up and said, 'This is my blood you drink, do this in remembrance of me', as soon as he started drinking, you know the disciples [in Australia] are going to go 'Skull! Skull! Skull!"'

Such material passes under the radar of Howard government officials concerned exclusively about ideological bias within the ABC's news and current affairs division. Yet it is arguably far more offensive to sections of the Australian community than any representation, or even misrepresentation of what politicians are doing.

The arrogant sectional bias demonstrated by programs such as The Glass House represents the core, I believe, of the ideological problem that exists at the ABC. It is a variant form of social snobbery that stems from staff culture.

It can be summed up by saying that ABC bias is not the bias of Labor against Liberal. Rather, it's the bias of North Fitzroy against Dandenong. Of Leichhardt against Punchbowl. It is the bias of a self-regarding, inner-urban middle-class elite against that part of Australian society that it regards as unenlightened. Arguably, the majority of that society.

This is reinforced, indirectly, by ABC executive director Sue Howard in a revealing interview recently published by journalist Margaret Simons in the Robert Manne-edited book Do Not Disturb.

If there is bias at the ABC it is a vague "middle-classness" associated with the background of the presenters and program-makers, Howard says. She asserts: "It is not party political bias."

Howard also indirectly confirms what many critics of the ABC's ideological culture believe: that the corporation is, effectively, governed as a workers' collective. When Simons asked who really leads the ABC, Howard replied, after a pause: "I would say the executive group."

This honest answer cannot be underestimated in its importance. While spotlighting the executive group, it highlights the relative insignificance of the ABC's externally appointed board of directors.

The Howard Government's attempts at reforming the ABC have focused largely at the board level and higher. This top-down approach at imposing change has failed.

More radical, roots-up reform, aimed at changing the broader social attitudes of ABC staff through re-education and training is now the only logical way to solve the problem.

The ABC board's chairman Donald McDonald also draws attention to the fact that since Jonathan Shier's era, the ABC is effectively self-governing. Asked for his vision of the ABC's future, McDonald replied: "It's absolutely useless for a person with clarity to say, 'Our vision is to do what we do', but at one level I think that's it. We keep on with what the ABC has been doing since 1932." If that is not the voice of a chairman dead opposed to change, then I'm Kerry O'Brien.

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