Tim Blair


New Criterion



Wednesday, September 25, 2002
LOVE MEANS NEVER HAVING TO SAY YOU'RE SORRY. According to Auntie, who points to our marriage contract. I was drunk your Honour!

Friends don't have to put up with all the crap. A bucket of cold water now and then is what makes true friendship.

What sort of friends, then, are the Friends of the ABC? Have a look at the evidence.

Friends of the ABC was founded in April 1976, not long after the Government of the sainted Gough Whitlam was administered a sound thrashing by the Australian electorate. The new Prime Minister was the execrable Malcolm Fraser, the same man whose trousers evaporated in a Memphis motel some years later.

It had been an emotional election. The Labor Party was deeply grieved that Governor-General Kerr had stood briefly between the massed canon of the Australian electors and the Whitlam Government, so claiming some of the credit for the resulting slaughter. Feelings of betrayal and fears of conspiracy were the currency of political discussion.

The incoming Government thought the ABC had not been watching both ends of the court. In January 1976 the ABC was presented with a 15% budget cut. The press played with options for re-making the ABC's charter. There was even talk of restoring the hated receiver licence fee, even worse, of allowing paid advertising. Commercial broadcasters circled looking for some choice ABC organs should any float free. Board memberships were left hanging.

In this heated atmosphere a group of 21 notables and others was convened to fight for the status quo. The recognisable names on the list are Patrick White, Donald Horne, Faith Bandler and Dorothy Hewett. If that is a representative sample, the political position of the Friends was somewhere to the left of the spectrum of views found within the Labour Party.

In other words, the Friends rallying to protect the ABC's budget were in no doubt which side of politics was better served by the public broadcaster. Joining the parade were many more people who feared the loss of particular programming, such as rural broadcasting. Others were horrified at the thought of advertising on the ABC.

In the twenty-five years since, nothing much has changed. Every time the conservative parties are re-elected there is a new burst of panic and the number of Friends swells.

Labor Party governments are often as critical of the ABC as their opponents, and make budget cuts. This, however, usually fails to create as much excitement.

The unfortunate result of this history is this. The Friends of the ABC have become, like many Parents and Citizens associations, captive of the organisation they defend.

The big thing is that no change should threaten existing work practices, reduce funding or introduce significant new stakeholders.

The Friends are happy with their doctrines. No-one else is. Labor suppresses its distrust, the Conservatives fume in resentment, willing to strike but unwilling to be seen to hurt. The politically committed within the organisation consolidate, there is constant attrition of funding, and management flounders trying to serve its numerous stakeholders.

Where do the Friends stand now?

More later. You deserve a break.