Shier-tollah exiled as old regime goes into hiding

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BY ADAM MACLEAN

A mutiny by his hand-picked senior managers at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has sealed the fate of Australia's self-styled "mini-media mogul", managing director Jonathan Shier, who resigned at the ABC's board meeting on October 30.

Shier will remain until December 31, but with no support forthcoming from his senior managers, many staff are wondering what he will actually do in the next eight weeks.

Shier chose to jump before he was pushed. The ABC board, stacked with Liberal Party members and "hard-right" supporters, negotiated a golden handshake with Shier, reportedly around $1 million. Already around the ABC, such extravagant payouts to failed chief executives have been termed "Golden Shiers".

The secretary of the ABC section of the Community and Public Sector Union, Graeme Thompson, said in the November 2 Australian that if Shier had really resigned, a payout should not be necessary, adding "I think it's an outrage that they continue to pay him his $300,000-a-year salary, if he's not doing his job."

Only recently, the board granted Shier a $20,000 performance bonus. ABC board chairperson Donald McDonald has failed to explain why in August the board was prepared to reward Shier and then by November held no confidence in his management.

In little more than 19 months, Shier, a former Liberal Party activist then for 20 years a television ad-man for various European commercial networks, has wreaked havoc at the national broadcaster like no other.

Redundancy payouts rose 1000% — from $2 million to $20 million — cuts to news and current affairs came close to $4 million and programs like Quantum and Media Watch were axed.

Executive salaries doubled; their car fleet alone went from 220 to more than 400 vehicles. Commissioning fees for writers, producers and musicians were halved, prompting protests from artist unions and lobby groups.

Nationwide strikes by ABC staff were called in response, and later Shier retaliated by summoning the federal police to interrogate staff, which prompted wildcat staff walk-outs.

Members of his hand-picked executive then began bailing out or were unceremoniously dumped by Shier himself.

Adding to the controversy surrounding him, the managing director even delayed the screening of a Four Corners program that ran an expose on the dubious activities of high-ranking Liberal Party figures — an act widely interpreted as political interference on his part.

Most recently, Shier criticised ABC News and Current Affairs for not out-rating Channel Nine in its coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath. Never mind what the ABC is best known for: breadth, depth and integrity of coverage on a budget that is but a tiny portion of Kerry Packer's empire.

But despite the widespread opposition, Shier's legacy will have a lasting impact. His unswerving drive to outsource ABC program-making places the broadcaster's independence from government interference in jeopardy.

His securing of an "extra" $71 million from this year's federal budget came with many strings attached, thus opening the door for governments of the day to make programming decisions at the ABC.

The board should take full responsibility for its initial appointment of Shier. After all, its legislative duty is "to maintain the independence and integrity of the corporation". As one protester's placard outside the ABC board's meeting read, "Sack Shier and Resign".

And yet it will be these very same people who appointed Shier that will choose his successor.

No one can know what lays in store for the ABC when its board includes former Victorian Liberal Party president Michael Kroger, former Liberal Party MP Ross McLean, "new right" academic Professor Judith Sloan, Australian Stock Exchange chairperson Maurice Newman and, not forgetting, the chairperson himself, Donald McDonald, a close friend of John Howard.

Clearly partisan patronage can no longer play a part in important cultural and democratic institutions like the ABC. It only serves to undermine the broadcaster's editorial independence and ability to undertake its legislative responsibilities to "ensure the functions of the corporation are performed ... with the maximum benefit to the people of Australia".

The Labor Party's response has been to only promise to restore $101 million of funding, over three years, with no commitment to an overhaul of the ABC board. The added funding corresponds to little more than 40% of the $240 million needed to reverse the cuts imposed by the Coalition.

The solution advanced by the Australian Democrats and backed by the Greens — leaving board appointments up to a bureaucratic body (itself appointed by politicians) which are then ratified by a parliamentary committee — cannot be taken seriously.

The functioning of a genuinely modern democracy relies partly on its institutions and corporations being held up to intense public scrutiny. This function should not be at the discretion of politicians or bureaucrats.

In its submission to the Senate inquiry into ABC board appointments, the Socialist Alliance called for the democratisation of the ABC. It held up the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission as a model: there, the (indigenous) public elects the people who run the institution.

Nevertheless, ABC staff continue to celebrate the fall of the Shier-tollah. In one of many such festivities, staff drew the infamous Four Corners sweep, initiated 18 months ago speculating upon the date of the managing director's demise — with one lucky journalist, who was only 10 days off the mark, pocketing $500.

From Green Left Weekly, November 7, 2001.

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