Features Australia

Fear and loathing in Ultimo

29 September 2018

9:00 AM

29 September 2018

9:00 AM

Apropos Michelle Guthrie’s sacking, and the bitchy tweet ‘Excellent decision’ by Four Corner’s Sally Neighbour, the ABC has always been a snakepit for management-staff relations and the sisterhood. Science Show guy Robyn Williams in his just-out memoir Turmoil says he’s called a couple of senior managers ‘vermin’ in internal emails, and others ‘galloping mediocrities’. He writes, ‘I am usually in deep loathing of someone in the ABC and it’s usually someone in charge.’ And later, ‘Hatred…invariably consumes the hater. But I still want to murder that smug bastard in TV management.’

Sadly, Williams has bowel cancer and his memoir deals with that unflinchingly. He snaps that the ABC’s HR minions are all over him about cutting resources, but no chums from the ‘ABC People’ department have ever in 47 years come downstairs to ask about his health.

Managers are also mean to managers. Williams still mourns one of Guthrie’s predecessors, Talbot Duckmanton, general manager from 1965-82. Well-regarded by staff when they weren’t on strike, he was consigned by management post-retirement ‘to the ash can of history’ for his last 13 years, not even beng sent an  annual report.

Williams’ history reads like a caricature of an ABC presenter. His Welsh coal-mining father and union executive Gwyn Williams was not just a Stalinist but a 1950s Vienna-based communist spy, albeit ‘amateur in the extreme’. The family’s sumptuous Russian-zone top flat  (marble staircases and chandeliers) came with two servants. His father’s spy career was ‘brief and, apparently, ineffectual. I’d love to see his files from MI5,’  Robyn Williams writes.

He spent his youth on left-anarchist adventures but then turned his back on Reds, their dull meetings and Stalin’s nuclear fist. Like Media Watch’s Jonathan Holmes, he affirms that the ABC crowd are left-leaners, but says that so are ‘most tertiary-educated folk one comes across. This does not constitute a conspiracy. It constitutes a cultural mix and intellectuals (don’t panic – I mean those who work with their minds) more commonly sound like Reds than do manual workers. It used to be the other way around.’

Leftists are akin to Christ, actually. ‘It is traditional for the Left to have an over-optimistic regard for humanity, as Jesus did, oddly enough, and the right, let’s call him Nigel [Farage?] or Osama [bin Laden?], to think we’re all a step away from villainy and must be thwarted.’


He was a bully at his 1950s London state-grammar school, but we can allow that he was only 15. ‘We learned our Stalinism young,’ he writes. Just to show off, he beat up a ‘weak’ and ‘hopeless’ boy, who was ‘as pugilistic as Bambi’. Williams ‘hit him hard in the face. He turned without resistance and so I pummeled his kidneys as if to break his back, simulating a cold frenzy.’ Williams’ pals, initially gloating, got frightened and intervened at last to rescue the collapsed and coughing student. Williams never apologised to his ‘miserable, crushed victim’ but did resolve to eschew such shameful violence henceforth.

He may have dumped Red dogma, substituting ‘science marches’ for ‘peace marches’, but not the attitudes. He nominates as ‘evil’ the US Tea Party small-government lobby (along with ‘men who beat women’) and Trump for being nasty to climate doomsters. Saying Margaret Thatcher was wrong, he needs to ask, ‘But was she evil?’ – ‘Not ultimately.’ But he is in no doubt Republicans were ‘evil’ to thwart the agenda of Obama, whom he describes as charming and naive. The cohort not called ‘evil’ is Islamist terrorists, who are  just called ‘truck drivers’, ‘zealots’ or ‘fanatics with a purpose’.

His rants must go down a treat in the ABC staff canteen. ‘The newspapers are little more than propaganda sheets and words like “left-wing”, “taxpayer funded”, “elites” and “expert” are constant insults. Even now “inner-city type” as disparagement reminds me very much of the way “international type” was once used as code for “dirty Semite” in Der Stürmer.’

Nations must shun war, he says. ‘Otherwise we shall simply have to take out our babies and line them up to be killed before taking our turn to do likewise to the enemy. Otherwise we shall inherit a whirlwind.’ (A stylist with gravitas, he ain’t).

In his world upside-down, he believes that Rights have captured the Internet via search algorithms (Google chiefs would be amused) and Trump wants to ‘invade North Korea’.

Williams doesn’t come across in Turmoil as a nice guy, but his Science Show of 42 years duration has fostered young scientists and educated the community on the joy of science affairs, give or take its warming-catastrophe hysteria. On Williams’ show a year ago, UNSW Professor Andy Pitman predicted 55 degree Celsius for Sydney-siders. Williams claims that some ABC departments are abjectly downplaying the warming threat to avoid ‘offending financial interests’. Wow.

He frets that blue-collars, jobless factory workers and ‘Mr and Mrs Ordinary’ are tilting to Trump, Nigel Farage and Pauline Hanson out of innate stupidity. He brackets them alongside Neanderthals.

Williams likes to humble-brag. ‘Yes, I have seven doctorates, but if you live long enough most people in public life get lucky, they get doctored…’.  At a Boston ‘dinner of the stars’, he felt embarrassed at being the only one ‘without a Nobel Prize or a book selling more than 5 million copies.’ His real degree is a BSc (Hons) from London University, but we discover that he cut lab work and his BSc was ‘a pretty ordinary one, a gentleman’s degree’.

He’s quirky, retaining his post-Vienna poverty habits. This is notwithstanding annual ABC pay for the Williams couple for decades at maybe $300,000 in total in today’s money, and I presume dual membership of the ABC’s gold-plated defined-benefit super.

But Williams has no car or mobile phone, still uses a typewriter and scrap paper, has a house 3.6m wide and hasn’t bought any clothes for ten years, preferring hand-me-downs. He likes to budget $15 for three days’ food, such as two chicken drumsticks for 80c and a $4 loaf. (He sheepishly admits to buying wine from a separate account).

Instead, he has spent up on his 30-40 global flights, mainly to Greece and Balliol, Oxford. He evinces no sympathy for those hit by green-energy price rises – turn unused devices off, he says, instead of ‘whingeing about the hefty bills’.

I dunno, Guthrie may be well out of the ABC snakepit. #

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