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Minister discusses ABC broadcast of Gough Whitlam lecture, saying there are several unanswered questions about the broadcast

MONICA ATTARD: The Federal Government is sending a 'please explain' letter to the ABC board over the corporation's telecast of a speech by Gough Whitlam a week ago. The ABC televised a recording of the former Labor prime minister's speech at an ACTU launch and it's now emerged that the idea for the telecast first came up in discussions between the corporation's General Manager, Brian Johns, and ACTU Secretary, Bill Kelty. The ABC claims that the Whitlam lecture is just one of a number of political speeches it plans to show, but as Jim Gale reports, the Government doesn't seem to believe that.

JIM GALE: You don't need to be a brain surgeon to understand the political climate the ABC is currently operating in. The ABC is independent of government in everything but one: money. The Government controls the purse strings and, at the moment, they're getting tighter. The Government insists that this is nothing personal; the ABC is a publicly-funded enterprise, and it should shoulder its part in getting the Budget in balance. But the conservative side of politics have made no secret of their distaste for the politically correct lefties in the ABC, nor with the board appointed by the former government that includes an ex-Labor Premier. And a leaked Cabinet submission from Senator Alston over the establishment of the Mansfield inquiry has done nothing to diminish speculation that there are extra financial issues at stake in the relationship between the ABC and the Government.

So a few eyebrows might have been raised in Canberra when, late on Sunday night on 9 February, Gough Whitlam bobbed up on the telly amongst the faithful.

GOUGH WHITLAM: The important thing is the next three years and the next thirty. I have an absolute conviction that they can be great years for the Australian Labor Party, the Australian Labor movement, and the Australian republic.

JIM GALE: It was a highly-charged political affair, a celebration of past Labor governments and the light on the hill. But the ABC's decision to televise the Whitlam speech went largely unremarked, until last night, that is, when Media Watch revealed that it all started with a chat between Brian Johns, the ABC's Managing Director, and Bill Kelty. Suddenly, the eyebrows in Canberra were working overtime, especially since the ABC got the Whitlam tape free, courtesy of the ACTU.

The speech was actually recorded by Steve Vizard's production house, Artists Services, who wanted to use the material for a series of documentaries they're doing later this year. But in Artists Services' deal with the ACTU, the ACTU retained first broadcast rights for free-to-air, which they gave to the ABC. Artists Services supplied the tape to the ABC straight after the event. The ABC's head of national networks, Andrew Lloyd-James, says the decision to televise the speech was taken because of the stature of the man and the significance of what he had to say.

ANDREW LLOYD-JAMES: Whitlam is, after all, I guess, one of the great senior statesmen of this country. It was a 30-year anniversary; I think it's a very significant event, and it's the kind of event that we want to capture more and more of.

JIM GALE: But on the World Today program, Communications Minister, Richard Alston, told Fran Kelly he's not at all convinced.


RICHARD ALSTON: Well, I think there are a number of unanswered questions, Fran, even following on from Andy Lloyd-James' comments. Certainly, it's not at all clear to me why they chose to run with this particular lecture. It seems to be in the context of the ACTU launching an initiative, which I noticed that Gough Whitlam made mention of very early on in his address. I mean, the fact is that Gough is certainly a living legend in this country; he hasn't lost his enthusiasm for political advocacy. It's almost certain that any comments that he would make in the course of a one-hour lecture would contain some elements of political partisanship and would inevitably provoke some political controversy and, in those circumstances, I think it's important to understand whether this was simply a one-off deal with Brian Johns, or whether this was a carefully considered decision made by the board, taking into account the political fall-out.

JIM GALE: The ABC says that it always planned to balance the Whitlam speech and will probably televise the Menzies lecture later this year. But the Government says its concern is not so much bias, but the way the ABC made its initial decision. As one government source put it to me this afternoon, the question is: who runs the ABC? The board or the ACTU? Of course, there's more than a bit of rhetoric in that, but in the ongoing struggle between the ABC and the Government over funding, a line like that has its uses.

As well as seeking an explanation of why the Whitlam speech was run, it's understood that in his letter to the board, Communications Minister, Richard Alston, will also be asking the board to investigate whether the ACTUs giving the tape to the ABC was consistent with Section 5 of the Act relating to gifts. Was the tape free of charge technically a gift because the Act specifically precludes the ABC from accepting gifts that are likely to affect the independence or integrity of the corporation.

Brian Johns declined to appear on PM this evening. The ABC is arguing that people give him ideas and proposals all the time and these are passed on to the appropriate people for assessment. That's what happened this time, business as usual. But until Brian Johns and his fellow board members see the detail of Richard Alston's letter to the board, no one will be exactly sure what business as usual will mean next time it comes to negotiating funds for the ABC.