Brown Study

Brown Study

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

I feel as if I am writing the Diary this week, as I recount the ups and downs of my appointment to the committee to recommend members of the boards of the ABC and SBS. My first disappointment was being described in the Australian as a Liberal party ‘heavyweight’. Heavyweight? So, I thought, this is what it has come to: all those days in the gym looking silly, all that money spent on designer mineral water and celery sticks and rejecting the sticky date pudding, only to be branded as a heavyweight. I must get on to Malcolm Turnbull and get a copy of his obviously successful diet.

Then there were the interviews, or at least those I gave before surrendering and turning the phone off; the worst was Waleed Aly on the ABC radio who treated me with such contempt he must have thought he was interviewing Rolf Harris. He also made the mistake that many journalists make these days: instead of asking questions and letting the subject say something of news value, they are so committed to evangelism that the interview is a series of assertions that are more personal abuse than interview. I was going to give Aly a few scoops, but then I thought, what’s the point?

Then there is the alleged Liberal party connection which is apparently one of my many shortcomings. Chris Uhlmann seemed mesmerised by this angle, implying that no one with the remotest connection to the Liberal party should be allowed anywhere near the committee. For the record, I have not been a member of the Liberal party for many years; when I became a trail-blazing journalist, I wanted the appearance as well as the reality of independence. The only time I have thought of rejoining the Liberal party was when Malcolm Fraser resigned.


Generally speaking, being a bit of a punching bag, as I have been over the past week, has been like old times. But what is new, at least for me, is the deluge of text messages and emails you receive these days if you are in the public eye. Some are polite, but some are quite abusive and I could not repeat them here because of the exotic language. Some, also, are decidedly odd, for example the one that, I think, praised my appointment, but went on to say that the ABC needed ‘more zombie content’.

One of the more sustained criticisms was from the Friends of the ABC who made the profound observation that the appointment of Janet Albrechtsen and myself was a declaration of war on the ABC; well, it is not, and, if you ask me, the Friends of the ABC themselves are responsible for weakening the ABC; they have stood by and done nothing during the creeping commercialism of the organisation with its low budget panel shows, superficial news programmes and endless advertisements for their own money-making businesses, to say nothing of the descent into the mind-numbing repetition of official beliefs and views on subjects like climate change and illegal boats, and the ridiculing and denigration of anyone with a different opinion.

But mentioning Janet prompts me to say that I really owe her a debt of gratitude for, in one sense, protecting me: many of the harshest critics have gone for her rather than me. Or at least they did until Jonathan Holmes noted in the Age that ‘if anything’, I was worse than Janet. It reminded me of a ministerial conference on unemployment I was at with Norman Tebbit, the last of the Thatcher loyalists and who addressed the conference after I had spoken. One of his civil servants said to me later: ‘We were so pleased you were able to speak before Mr Tebbit, Minister; it enabled him to come across as a moderate.’

Finally, I wonder if it has occurred to the critics that, despite the grand conspiracy they relish in denouncing, it might just be that Janet and I will do our best to find people who will be good directors, sympathetic to the ABC and SBS, people who can apply business discipline, encourage balanced reporting and generally ensure that both organisations provide entertaining and instructive programmes.

Going to continuing legal education events can be a bore, as there is a limit to one’s interest in some of the obscure topics that get an airing. But I went to one the other night that really opened my mind. It was about how you handle excited, overzealous and agitated self-represented litigants in courts and tribunals, especially if you are sitting on the tribunal, as I have done in fields that attract the vexatious and the voluble, like building, town planning and commercial disputes. One of the speakers made the interesting observation that there is a new phenomena in China: hitherto repressed citizens, perhaps having seen the same thing happening in Hong Kong, have started appearing in courts and tribunals and challenging the almighty Chinese state on corruption, bias, prejudice and unfairness in administrative decisions — and winning or kicking up such a fuss that they get noticed. When this genie gets out of the bottle, it will be a major step towards democracy, of which an essential ingredient is the ability of the citizen to challenge the state. And it fits in well with the narrative that many of us have espoused for years about China, that economic freedom and prosperity breed political freedom and human rights. May there be more of it.

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