Whether you agree with his policies or not, Mark Scott deserves the extension to his contract as the ABCmanaging director, which was announced last week. This is the case in spite of the fact that Scott’s decision to use taxpayers’ funds to move into areas typically the domain of the commercial media has not been a success.
ABC News24 is a disappointment and the online opinion site The Drum has contained material that even ABC management concedes should not have been published.
Then there is Scott’s view, expressed in his 2009 Bruce Allen Memorial Lecture, that the ABC should project Australian soft diplomacy to the world. At the time, Scott maintained that “the values of a nation, as expressed through its journalism, is an important facet of public diplomacy”.
The concern here is that Scott has not been able to deliver the diversity on the public broadcaster that he promised in 2006. Consequently, the ABC is unlikely to project the values of Australia any time soon.
The documentary I, Spry, which will screen on ABC1 on Thursday, demonstrates the problem. Written, directed and produced by the filmmaker Peter Butt, I, Spry is a leftist account of Sir Charles Spry (1910-94), who was director-general of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation between 1950 and 1969. Put simply, Butt does not like Spry or Western intelligence services. In his director’s statement, Butt labels Spry as alcoholic and declares that his view of the world was “out of step with an open, healthy democracy”.
Reviewing I, Spry for The Weekend Australian on Saturday, the normally astute Graeme Blundell demonstrated that he had adopted the Butt line. Blundell maintained that the film “documents the way ASIO evolved from a bumbling group of amateur spies into a subversive organisation beyond government scrutiny”.
This is complete mythology.
In the 1950s Spry and his colleagues at ASIO oversaw the defection of the Soviet embassy operatives Vladimir Petrov and his wife Evdokia. The Petrovs were perhaps the most significant defectors from the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
ASIO established that there was a Soviet spying operation in Australia led by Wally Clayton, who was a member of the Communist Party.
In the past quarter of a century, all this has been documented by the likes of Robert Manne, co-authors Des Ball and David Horner, and David McKnight. More recently, the tale has been told by Mark Aarons in his compelling book The Family File, which is essentially based on the surveillance of his communist family members, including his father Laurie and his uncle Eric, by ASIO. Aarons accepts that some Australian communists were spies for the communist dictators in Moscow and that the Communist Party of Australia received funds from Moscow.
Aarons remains a man of the left. Yet he acknowledges in The Family File that ASIO’s surveillance of his family was “basically accurate”, that “despite many stupidities, considerable crudeness and frequent lapses of professionalism, ASIO had a legitimate task”, and that “for the most part, ASIO’s work was conducted within a largely democratic framework”. Aarons also accepts that, despite its many faults, ASIO stands in contrast to intelligence services in communist countries, which “established elaborate networks to intimidate their own citizens”.
This is not the message of I, Spry. The documentary accepts that there was a Soviet spy ring in Australia in the 1950s. But it concludes that Spry used the weapons of the communists against Australian citizens. This is mere hyperbole.
ASIO made errors but it essentially protected Australia against espionage directed by the nation’s enemies. And it kept a watch on communists, who, as Eric Aarons acknowledged in his 1993 book What’s Left?, would have “executed people” if they had come to power.
Most of the views expressed on I, Spry are critical of ASIO and the documentary is littered with exaggerations and howlers, including the undocumented assertion that ASIO conducted unlawful surveillance on the Liberal prime minister, John Gorton, in 1969. The relevant ASIO file, now released, does not support this assertion.
ASIO was reformed following the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, headed by Justice Robert Hope, which reported in 1977. But despite its success in the Cold War and more recently in thwarting Islamist terrorism, ASIO was attacked and ridiculed on the ABC 1 Hungry Beast program in February in what was nothing but an immature, angry, leftist rant.
If Scott believes that the role of the ABC is to accurately portray Australia to the world, he will need to exert editorial control to ensure that the public broadcaster at least portrays a diversity of views. The presentations of ASIO’s past on I, Spry – and contemporary ASIO on Hungry Beast – are nothing but misleading travesties.