One of the deadliest human instincts is the one that refuses to brook criticism of a much loved person, institution or cause. Tragedies result. Gough Whitlam’s ego for instance.

The latest victim, in my reckoning, is the ABC.

Clearly ABC lovers don’t love the institution of the ABC enough; otherwise, they would be setting up sand-bags in Harris Street now, driven to a showdown by what is going on.

The ABC sags and bags; it’s moth-eaten in too many places, hopelessly prejudiced in others; it wastes money left, right and centre on useless, chest-beating management initiatives while other departments whimper piteously for sustenance and attention …

And whoever utters a word about it? Apart from the illustrious Nancy and her redoubtable owners from this institute, and parts of what is condescendingly dismissed by fierce ABC loyalists as “the Murdoch press”?

This ABC, this extraordinary body whose broadcasts have nurtured and shaped so many of us; this ant-heap which, if I turn on my radio, produces soothing, erudite voices which educate and inform me about science, philosophy, business, architecture, design, history, society, current affairs, religion, indigenous affairs, books, and what’s going on up-country; this astonishing organisation which has dug up so many scandals and revealed so many imbroglios … This institution which – as so many writers, academics, thinkers gratefully acknowledge – can give oxygen to arcane ideas and findings that might go unaired otherwise …

And yet when, the other day, a friend reminded me that my money was helping to pay the salaries of people like managing director Mark Scott or 702’s Deborah Cameron or Radio National’s Fran Kelly or whoever dreamt up the idea of a twitter-feed on Q And A, my amygdala reacted like a mutinous Wat Tyler when he first calculated his tax bill.

ABC broadcaster James Valentine recently ran a segment in which he highlighted the problem of “permissible bigotry”. That is, people that “we” are allowed to slate without copping any flak: Americans. Catholics. Christians. I’d like to think Valentine was being mischievous given the dogma that pounds out over the ABC radio airwaves each day.

What was 702 host Deborah Cameron’s response to NSW voters endorsing Barry O’Farrell and the Coalition so enthusiastically? It was like watching the Queensland floods break over Macquarie Street. Maybe, suggested Cameron, O’Farrell had won by too much and this would prove a problem for him.

Yesterday morning, The Age’s Michelle Grattan rabbited on in her regular spot to an obliging Fran Kelly that no, the National Broadband Network  was not in trouble but because it was such a large initiative there would certainly be glitches down the line – “that’s the nature of big projects” – and this would lead to criticism from the Opposition.

Is there a secret space at the ABC, a bit like a writers’ room on a TV sitcom, where people sit around and dream up these lines?

Perhaps it’s next to the rooms that house ABC News 24, the brainchild of MD Scott which is sucking up dollars, time and personnel that the real ABC needs while proving itself incapable – eg. the Japanese earthquake – of actually covering breaking news 24 hours a day.

Instead, we have (another initiative from the Scott regime), the on-line site The Drum, which has singlehandedly and vaingloriously revealed that the ABC does have opinions and is so heedless now about any obligations to the ABC audience that it has no qualms about revealing them via what’s being published on this site.

There was much media back and forth and scientific argument over the Melbourne radio exchange on 25 March between commentator Andrew Bolt and climate commissioner Tim Flannery over Flannery’s quote that cutting emissions world-wide would have little effect on the planet’s temperature for as much as a thousand years. ABC News didn’t report it, and then the ABC’s Media Watch dismissed the dispute as a furphy a whole 11 days later.

That’s not good enough. It was news. There were leads to be followed, questions to be asked. Clarification to be sought.

How much more damage can be done to the ABC before people who really love the ABC, people who work at the ABC, will come out and say: that’s enough. Stop undermining this organisation.

The omens aren’t good. ABC chairman Maurice Newman’s famous talk to ABC staff urging them to beware the dangers of “group-think” was met with indignation. “There should be no public perception that there is such a thing as an ‘ABC view’,” he argued. It seemed a sensible enough warning.

But publisher Eric Beecher – surely someone who you’d think would care about the ABC and its future – reacted with this at “Newman … has not only insulted the editorial judgement of his senior staff, he has used warped logic to do it.”

I suspect there are many who are bemused by what is going on at the ABC but, first, they are bullied by such comments as Beecher’s into not saying anything out loud and, secondly, they don’t want to say anything in case it provides fuel for the ABC’s enemies.

That same motive has been at work in humans forever. Left-wing intellectuals didn’t criticise despots from Stalin to Mao in case it weakened the case for any government that aimed at social equity. When John Howard first proposed Work Choices, where were the squads of public conservatives who must have been able to see what damage it would do to the Liberal cause unless it was carefully and fairly worked out? Do prominent women publicly criticise the Governor-General for her frolics into politics? Nope, they reason that would just encourage anti-feminists.

When I rejoined Fairfax several years ago for a brief stint, I was stunned by what I saw the then CEO Fred Hilmer doing to the company. But I was more astonished by the fact that, apart from mutters around the tea-urn, no-one who loved Fairfax – including the journalists and readers – was saying anything critical out loud, especially in public. The company today is still trying to recover.

There is always a backlash. And when it comes, it is far worse than anything that could have been imagined by the loyalists who kept their mouths shut. For if the one who loves you doesn’t tell you (or the institution or cause) where you’re going wrong and how you might save yourself, you will go wrong ever faster, further – to the delight of your opponents who then move in for an easy kill.

The wreck of NSW Labor anyone? (The wreck of the NSW state?)

This is what I worry about with the ABC: that, as it veers more and more to the left, and into unblinking bias, it will gradually polarise Australians. And that, as Scott pursues his surprising agenda – what is that about; a later career in politics or at the head of a major corporate? – the ABC will look more and more moth-eaten; less able to do the job its charter describes.

In February, Scott’s ABC1 began to rebrand itself with a campaign and a new tagline: Think Entertainment.

God save us. Surely there are plenty more thinking the same thing.


Joseph Stalin did extremely well out of people keeping their mouths shut. In Russia, it was because they were too bloody frightened – or they had already been executed. In America in the Thirties and early Forties, it was because too many people – including President Roosevelt and a team of diplomats and public servants as well as foreign correspondents – couldn’t or didn’t want to believe ill of good old Joe.

Some samples:

  • “I have made exhaustive inquiries about this alleged famine situation … And here are the facts: there is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.” – Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times correspondent, Walter Duranty in March 1933 as millions starved to death.
  • “There was so much prejudice and misunderstanding of the Soviet Union … that I felt it was my duty to tell the truth… while I was in Russia, I came to have a very high respect for the honesty of the Soviet leaders.” – Ambassador Joseph Davies, a liberal lawyer who was posted to Russia between January, 1937 and June, 1938. Davies also cabled Roosevelt on his arrival to say that he had watched confessions in the infamous Moscow show trials and they “bore the hallmarks of credibility”.
  • “His brown eyes are exceedingly kind and gentle. A child would like to sit in his lap and a dog would sidle up to him,” – Davies on Stalin, in June 1938.
  • “He talked as he knew his troops were shooting – straight and hard … an austere, rugged, determined figure in boots that shone like mirrors.” – Harry Hopkins, key advisor to Roosevelt, on Stalin, July 1941.

So much easier to understand Yalta when you read these quotes, reported in a recent book that received, as far as I can see on-line, no coverage in Australia. The Forsaken by Tim Tzouliadis won the 2009 Longman-History Today Book of the Year for its engrossing, if ghastly, tale of what happened to the American migrants who were lured to Russia by Stalin in the 1930s. They were mostly workers and miners who had suffered during the Great Depression.

Russia was promising dignity and reward for the working man and Stalin wanted workers who could turn out Ford motor-cars. Within a few years, in the paranoia of the Terror, most of these émigrés were either killed as suspected spies, wreckers or saboteurs, or sent to the gulags along with millions of Russians.

The bleakest theme of the book is that the American government and people – Roosevelt et al as above – did virtually nothing to save them. Many affected were teenagers, brought to the Soviet Union by their parents. One diplomat described his countrymen, now desperate to get back to their homeland given arrest and probable death awaited them, as “flotsam and jetsam”. He noted a letter from a terrified 19-year-old boy, born in Ohio – “I beg you once more to do something for me as soon as possible” – but there is no record of what happened to the young man for the diplomat didn’t lift a finger. Often such pleas were simply archived.

It was either out of disdain at these Americans’ early embrace of communism, disbelief that something so monstrous could be occurring, or a simple desire not to upset Stalin.

At one stage, in 1944, Roosevelt urged his vice-president Henry Wallace to check out Siberia – the site of umpteen death camps if either man had bothered to use their brains or do their homework – as if he were sending him on a merry jaunt: “Oh you must go, I think you ought to see a lot of Siberia.”

The book’s subtitle is “From the Great Depression to the Gulags: Hope and Betrayal in Stalin’s Russia.” I found the book at a Berkelouws’ outlet store and couldn’t put it down. Not so apparently whichever literary editors and broadcasters were sent copies here.

The Forsaken is not just a portrait of horror; it shows how often human-beings stop up their ears and eyes to an idiotic degree in order not to hear and see that which they have no wish to hear or see.

(The horror of what is going on in Aboriginal camps, communities and settlements in northern Australia anyone?)

As for one-time ambassador Davies, when he finally got back to the US he wrote his memoir Mission to Moscow. Fortuitously for him, it was published in 1941 just as the US was entering its war-time alliance with Stalin. Americans were delighted by Davies’ reassurance that Stalin was a “fair-minded and trustworthy” leader. The book sold 700,000 copies in the US alone and was translated into 13 languages.

As a frightening allegory for much of the nincompoopery that is growing around us today, The Forsaken is a book that can’t be beat.


If Australia is to have any future, we will soon have to track down the people responsible for the proliferation of communications managers and officers in all aspects of Australian business, government and life.

It is almost impossible these days to make an inquiry of a council, government department or corporation without having to jump through the Torture of the Ten Thousand Hoops as administered by the so-called communications manager. Their training clearly involves learning these ten key principles in how to deal with questions from the media.

(1)          Never be at your desk

(2)          Never return voice-mail messages until there has been at least one prompt, preferably three.

(3)          Always ask for at least ten minutes worth of detail when speaking to the journalist.

(4)          At the end of the ten minutes, ask for it all to be written down in question-form and emailed.

(5)          Do not reply to email unless prompted.

(6)          Once prompted, take at least two days to locate the correct person to answer the question.

(7)          Find the wrong person.

(8)          Insist on either being present at the eventual interview or listening in on a conference call.

(9)          Ask to check the quotes; forget to send them to actual interviewee.

(10)        Demand to read entire story for approval.

And so on. Very few of these managers are called Mary or Anne or Richard but instead have names like Tasha or Bryce or Appleby. They have little kiddy voices and while I would like to ask God knows why there are so many of them clogging up the communications arteries, I already have the answer. At last count, there were 71 Australian universities and colleges, each with multiple undergraduate courses, churning out these bright-eyed bunnies.

And yet, as our newspapers told us on Monday with the release of an industry report “No More Excuses” – See these two stories  Link 1Link 2 – on the dire starting skills in school-leavers, our education system can’t produce Australian kids who are learned enough to become apprentice electricians.


The funniest, if most appalling, aspect of today’s news story – that the City of Sydney has decided to cope with late night drunks who urinate in public not by building new public toilets, not by insisting pubs have more toilets, not by fining offenders, not by restricting the pub hours but by installing open-air urinals that can be used by four men at a time and which can collect 450 litres of wee – is the note that such urinals are used in London and Amsterdam. As if this bestows some kind of international sophistication when everyone knows both cities are full to the gills on weekend nights with oafs and oiks and hooligans. Yuk.


One of the delights of listening to the conflicted ABC these days is discovering who or what is on their villain list and therefore unworthy of either concern or compassion. This song from Tom Lehrer is dedicated to ABC journalist Felicity Ogilvie and her producers who, last week, were responsible for a report for PM on the culling of feral cats on Tasman Island using a poison bait called “curiosity”. (Ho, ho, ho.)

However important the reason for the culling – that is, saving thousands of rare sea birds (although culling often has unintended consequences, like the unchecked breeding of other predators), what was surprising about Ogilvie’s report – which came complete with the sounds of dog barks and the dog’s trainer congratulating it on its cat-detecting endeavours – was the chirpiness and apparent lack of interest in whether the feral cats, the descendants of pet cats abandoned by former lighthouse keepers, were suffering any pain as they died.

That issue was never canvassed. I dug further. A report from the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment describes the poison used as having an “apparent [my italics] humane mode of action”. So Felicity and Company (just in case it was the editing, not reporter, that was at fault), this song is for you.