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Tuesday, 10 November 1964

Senator CANT (Western Australia) . - Mr. Deputy President, I rise to direct the attention of the Senate to the recent happenings in staff appointments in the Australian Broadcasting Commission. On 27th October 1964 I referred to what I considered to be political interference in the affairs of the A.B.C. Events which have taken place since that time have confirmed my opinion in this respect. At that time, I said that the Premier of Western Australia had become involved with the A.B.C, television programme " Four Corners ". I want to quote the relevant passage from the " Hansard " of the Western Australian Parliament. The first part of the question asked by the honorable member for Collie was a reiteration of a statement in the " West Australian ". The honorable member then asked -

(1)   Has the Premier seen this item?

(2)   If so, does he approve of this gruesome commercialisation of capital punishment?

(3)   If not, will he take immediate action to have this matter fully investigated with a viewto preventing the film being shown?

The "Hansard" report continued -

The SPEAKER (Mr. Hearman): May I point out to the honorable member that this question refers to a matter that is not within the jurisdiction of the Premier, although he may be able to answer it. However, I repeat it is not within his Department.

MR. BRAND: I was about to say that I do not altogether agree with this. I certainly feel that the honorable member for Collie has raised a reasonable query; but as you have said, Sir, it is a matter over which I have no control. I believe that some interviews with Mrs. Cooke have already been televised by another channel -

These interviews were not televised by the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Mr. Brand continued - - and I am not prepared to make any further comment.

MR. H. MAY: Arising from the Premier's answer, may I suggest that he takes such action as is necessary for an approach to be made to the authorities on this matter to prevent the film being shown?

MR. BRAND:I am prepared to raise the point as put forward by the honorable member for Collie.

Mr. Branddid take the matter up with the Western Australian Manager of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. I would not like to say that, as a result of that action on his part, the film was not shown, but the fact is that it was not shown. Whether anything else happened from that action, I am not prepared to say; but it certainly indicates clearly that, despite the warning from the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, the Premier was more than prepared to intervene in this particular matter. The request from the honorable member for Collie was for the Premier to intervene and prevent the showing of the film. Mr. Brand forwarded the request to the A. B.C. In this way, it was a request from the Premier of Western Australia to the Manager of the Commission. It is history now that the film was not shown.

But other events have taken place which are more far reaching. Three members of the staff of the Australian Broadcasting Commission have been removed from their positions with respect to this programme. These men were removed from important work and were not allowed to continue with the presentation of this programme which is deemed to be controversial. It has quite a good rating, if one can take any notice of ratings in respect of television programmes. Of course, the A.B.C. and the commercial television stations do take notice of ratings. "Four Corners" has quite a good rating because of its independent attitude.

Looking at the positions which Were held by the three persons who were -removed from this programme, we find that Mr. Allan Ashbolt was the executive director of " Four Corners "; Mr. John Power was the producer of this programme; and Mr. John Penlington was a reporter for it. The A.B.C. gave the following reason for the changes which occurred -

The changes are a rational readjustment which would place the ultimate responsibility for direction and editorial supervision at a higher level within the Commission's executive staff than it has been before.

I want to remind the Senate that the programme, " Four Corners ", goes into recess every year. It will go into recess ion 12th December next for ten weeks. Surely if there was any rearrangement to be made in the staff connected with this programme, the time for any readjustment .-would be when the programme was in recess and not at this particular time. The timing of the changes can lead to one thought' only; that is, that someone was displeased with the way in which the programme' was being handled. The result of that displeasure is that these three men are being made the scapegoats. The real offenders will be let off. The programme is to be denuded of the trained talent built up over the years.

Senator Wright - Have the three men concerned made any complaints?

Senator CANT - They are rather restricted in regard to the complaints they may make. I will come to that matter later. They are covered by the provisions of the Crimes Act in regard to making statements. If Press reports can be believed at all, I understand that Mr. Ashbolt, who is the president of the registered organisation to which the staff of the A.B.C. belong, was instructed not to make any statement even at the meeting of his registered organisation. I cannot verify that statement. I know only that that statement has been in the Press and has not been contradicted.

Senator Wright - Is the honorable senator authorised by any of these men to make a complaint here on their behalf?

Senator CANT - No, I am not. I am bringing this matter to the attention of the Senate on behalf of the Australian people. It is my place to do that.

Senator Wright - Does the honorable senator not think that it is rather unfair, perhaps, to their interests if they have a case to put to another tribunal that he should mull it here in public?

Senator CANT - I am quite entitled to raise in this chamber what matters I consider I should raise here.

Senator Wright - I am raising the question of personal fairness.

Senator CANT - That is the honorable senator's opinion. If he reads the newspapers, he knows that this matter has aroused heated public opinion. But I suspect the honorable senator does not read newspapers.

If this programme is to continue - and the Australian Broadcasting Commission says that it will continue - from where is the trained staff to come to operate it? We have to consider in this context that Michael Charlton was removed from this programme. Mr. Bob Raymond resigned from it and went to one of the commercial television stations. Now three men, who were top personnel connected with the programme, have been removed from it, and there is no-one to supervise its production.

The point is not so much whether pressures were used on this occasion - I believe that they were - but that the removal of these men has created in the public mind an impression that pressures have been used. There can be no question about this fact, because great publicity has been given to this matter in every newspaper in Australia during the whole of last week. In the " Australian " every day last week not only was there Press comment but also there were pages of letters to the editor sent in by members of the public concerning this programme. Yet nothing has been done by the A.B.C. or the Government to relieve the public mind in this respect. Statements to the effect that this action has to do with staff arrangements are not sufficient to relieve the public mind of its distress over the suppression of this programme. This is particularly so in view of past happenings in connection with the A.B.C. I shall not go through all of their, but shall instance a few to give some idea of the pressures that have been applied to the A.B.C. In 1963 there was the incident of the Bidault film. The Commission said that it was not of good quality, that the sound track was not sufficiently clear to allow the film to be shown.

Senator Mattner - What one was that?

Senator CANT - That was the film on De Gaulle. When it was televised by a commercial station it was proved that the sound track was quite all right, that the film was quite clear and was fit to be shown. The Postmaster-General had the right to intervene from the point of view of censorship, and he did intervene. Whether he acted wisely in doing so is another matter. Subsequently he had to give permission for the film to be shown. He had no power over the Press, which owned the television stations, to prevent them from publishing the Bidault story. The newspapers did publish the story and one of the commercial stations ran it. The Minister was then forced to allow the other commercial stations and the A.B.C. to run the story.

The next incident concerns the need for the Commission to make application to a travel committee for permission for members of its staff to travel overseas to make films. Nowhere in the Estimates can I find any appropriation for this travel committee. Nevertheless, there is admittedly an over seas travel committee to which the Commission must go for approval for overseas travel. If the purpose of the travel is not approved by the Committee, then money for travel is not available. Such a requirement detracts from the independence of the A.B.C. I do not even know which department controls the committee. This is another instance of political interference in the operations of this body.

We come now to the Commission's programme on housing. On this occasion Senator Sir William Spooner was invited to take part in the programme. He gave as his reason for not taking part the fact that he had too' much other work to do. I do not doubt that at that time he did have too much work to do. I know that a Minister is a very busy person. Subsequently Senator Sir William Spooner did get time on television to express the Government's view. This again was an instance of political interference with the A.B.C. After the programme was shown, Senator Sir William Spooner complained that the Government's point of view had not been presented and was then given time to present that point of view. This again was evidence of political interference with the A.B.C. Then we had the scandal involving the R.S.L. Even officials of the Commission are in conflict over this matter. Sir Charles Moses said that the presentation was not balanced but was terribly one sided. Dr. Darling said that the documentary was quite balanced, that he personally saw nothing wrong with it. He went on to say -

I should not be 100 per cent, honest if 1 said that the R.S.L. Dim had nothing to do with Alan Ashbolt's removal from "Four Corners".

Mr. Semmlercame into the picture and said that the general impression that Mr. Ashbolt had been taken off the programme because of the R.S.L. situation was quite incorrect. We know that representatives of the League did lobby here in Parliament House in connection with the programme. This clearly is further evidence of the pressures that are being applied, and of the fact that people are trying to shift the onus from one to the other.

The Dr. Russo talk on Cuba apparently offended our American friends. This led to some criticism. On this occasion the Prime Minister (Sir Robert Menzies) came into the picture and requested that he be given a script of the talk. Security officers were sent to Sydney to get it and Dr. Darling was summoned to Canberra to give an account of the matter. This too, is further evidence of my recent complaint that political pressures are being applied to the Australian Broadcasting Commission, that the producers of controversial programmes are being inhibited in their work, that when it suits somebody at the top those producers can be prejudiced in their employment, and that they are in constant fear that they will not do the right thing but will offend somebody. This all prevents the reporter concerned from reproducing what he believes to be the facts on controversial issues.

As I said earlier in answer to Senator Wright, it has been stated in the Press that the president of the registered organisation concerned in the most recent episode was instructed not to pursue the matter at a meeting of his trade union. That is a complete taking away from the individual of the freedom to air his grievance in the place where it might be righted. It seems to me that we are returning to the conditions that obtained in the early days when the Press had to fight for its freedom. Real freedom for the Press was first obtained when the American Constitution was written. Prior to that, the instrument of the established government was the medium for communicating public information and nobody else was allowed to say anything. If these things I have referred to tonight are allowed to continue, we will quickly return to that state of affairs. It will be a sad day for Australia if the present state of affairs is allowed to continue. It will be a sad day for democracy if freedom of expression is suppressed.

I believe that the Parliamentary question forwarded by the Premier of Western Australia had at least something to do with the withdrawal of the most recent programme to which I have referred. Whether the time chosen to televise the programme was a good one is a matter of opinion. Not only was the incident in question to occur on the day mentioned, but also at that time there was before the Western Australian Parliament a private member's bill which was designed to abolish capital punishment in that State. These were matters of public interest. This was the proper time at which to bring this controversial issue before the people. The programme should not have been suppressed and the employees of the A.B.C. should not have been prejudiced in their employment because of it. \

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