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Wednesday, 10 May 1972
Page: 2373


Dr SOLOMON (Denison) - I want to discuss the resignation of 4 men from the Australian Broadcasting Commission who were involved in the production of Tasmania's 'This Day Tonight' television programme. The matter is of far more than local significance; indeed it has implications for the future conduct of current affairs programmes on television in Australia. I would be grateful, Mr Acting Speaker, if the honourable member for Sturt (Mr Foster), who is interjecting, would allow me to think. Bruce Grundy, John Honey, Barry Pierce and Roger Lupton resigned on what they see to be a matter of principle. I believe that they are correct in their assessment, that the principle exists, and that it should be adhered to by the ABC or any other organisation whose responsibility it is to interpret current events to the general public. The 4 men resigned because their executive producer stood for election to the Tasmanian House of Assembly in April, and having failed to secure a seat was reinstated in his same executive position. Their reasons for resigning were clearly stated. Particular reference was made to the ABC management's stated views of current affairs reporting. The Chairman, Sir Robert Madgwick, in a speech on 29th July 1969 said:

ABC current affairs programmes are providing a significant forum . . . where differing opinions can be expressed and discussed and held up to judgment. ... In news the ABC's watchword is accuracy. In current affairs it is impartiality.

At a meeting in September 1971 the Commission discussed its current affairs programmes in some detail and reviewed its policy decisions of recent years. The resultant guidelines, the circulation of which embraced the State managers and executive producers of "This Day Tonight', included the following comment:

The revelation of a personal commitment in the Commission's view, reduces the reporter's value to the ABC . . . until the point is reached where his credibility disappears.

The comments read further:

Of no less importance is the pursuit of a policy of impartiality, in the selection of subjects to be dealt with in current affairs programmes.

It is clear to me that in taking their stand the members of the Tasmanian 'This Day Tonight' team acted in accordance with the expressed aims of their employing authority and in that sense alone deserve the support of the Commission. But were the Commission's view of its role in current affairs less well formed I would argue the Tightness of the cause and the necessity for principles to be formulated and followed. And I would do that irrespective of party affiliations, although I concede a certain stimulus arising from the fact that the cause of this particular problem was a candidate for the Australian Labor Party and thus with opposed political interests.

There is, in my opinion, no area of public interest and education as politically sensitive as current affairs. Policy issues are ventilated, politicians are shown arguing the issues or their role in them and other people are given a platform to discuss both. This occurs day to day. The selection of the subjects and persons to be portrayed to a mass audience is a highly sensitive responsibility. It is not easy and it is not in the nature of the task to be able to please all points of view on every occasion. More reason, then, for those charged with such responsibility to be politically neutral, or at least not openly to espouse a specific political philosophy. They may then be subject to accusations of poor judgment but not of political bias. Any known bias must arouse suspicion and thus undermine if not destroy the credibility of the programme.

Comments have been made, since I first made public comment on this matter and drew it to the attention of the Acting Postmaster-General on 3rd May, that any public servant should be entitled to seek political office and deploring attempts to have Mr Holgate removed from his position. I could not agree more. I made my maiden speech on the working of democracy and I hope I have some appreciation of it. I defend anyone's right to stand for election to Parliament. But this is not at issue. Noone has suggested that Mr Holgate should not be re-employed by the Australian Broadcasting Commission, nor that any other public servant should disqualify himself from future employment through becoming a parliamentary candidate. What we do say is that it is necessary and possible to discriminate among positions of varying sensitivity. It is as fatuous to imply that all positions in the Public Service have the same political content, the same access to the public, or the same executive authority as the executive producer of a current affairs television programme. I have already shown the ABC's awareness of the need for discrimination. It can also be argued that the wording of staff rule 172, under which Mr Holgate was re-employed, acknowledges the problem. It says:

The general manager may, upon application (by a person who has resigned to contest an election) . . . reappoint him to the Commission's staff at the same salary as he had immediately prior to his retirement.

It says 'may' not 'shall', and it identifies salary, not specific position. This is a significant choice of words which can hardly be fortuitous. Nor can it be said that the provisions have been interpreted to Mr Holgate's disadvantage. He has his old job at his old salary, while the men whose resignations were made in accord with the Commission's principles have been re-employed at salaries $1,000 to $2,000 below their levels of a few days earlier. I compliment them on their stand; I sympathise with them in their reduced circumstances. They are not ratbags. They are at least as able as their interstate counterparts - a situation not easily achieved by the small Tasmanian community, in competition with larger entities.

While Mr Holgate's campaign is not of first concern to me, some details of his actions before and after his resignation from the ABC are relevant.

Mr Holgate'scandidature was well known before he resigned from the ABC. On 21st March 'The Examiner' newspaper carried a story under the heading T.V. Man Seeks Bass Seat'. It stated:

Television producer, Mr Harry Holgate, will seek ALP endorsement in Bass for the State Election. He is almost certain to receive endorsement. Mr Holgate has withdrawn from his position as Executive Producer of the current affairs programme, This Day Tonight. He has moved to Launceston to fight the campaign. . . .

On 22nd March the Tasmanian Manager of the ABC, Mr A. J. Winter, circulated a memo which said in part:

Mr Holgate,because of the sensitive nature of commentary on election matters at this time, is not actively associated with the day to day running of T.D.T., but is working on general matters answerable to me. He will continue to do so until his resignation, when Mr Grundywill become in all respects the Acting Executive Producer of T.D.T.

On 23rd March an advertisement in 'The Examiner' headed 'Why Harry Holgate wants to serve Bass with Labor' said in part: I have had a continuing close link with the

North. ... As an executive producer of This Day Tonight (formerly Line Up) with a large Northern audience. . . .

On 27th March another advertisement in The Examiner' headed 'Why Harry Holgate is living in Bass' said:

I have resigned from the A.B.C. and have returned to live in Launceston. . . .

On 28th March Mr Holgate's resignation became effective.

On 2nd May, the election having taken place on 22nd April, Mr Holgate was reemployed as Executive Producer of 'This Day Tonight'. On the same day The Examiner' reported from the declaration of the poll that 'Mr Holgate said he hoped to contest an election " in the near future, somewhere in northern Tasmania " '. The next day Mr Holgate was reported to say That is not what I meant. I have resumed my career and intend to concentrate on it'. The newspaper did not publish any retraction of its initial report.

On 3rd May the General Secretary of the Australian Journalists' Association, Mr Crossland, issued a statement in support of Mr Holgate and expressing disappointment in the resignation action of the 4 TDT men. Following the expression of concern at this statement by some local members of the AJA, a meeting of the AJA District Committee on 5th May considered a resolution dissenting from Mr Crossland's statement. The motion was defeated 6 votes to 5 votes, with Mr Holgate present and voting. The four TDT men had made no approach to the AJA, believing that this was not a simple matter of journalistic ethics appropriate for that body's consideration.

In the 10 minutes available to me in this debate to put this matter on the record I hope I have indicated the main issues. In these days the identification of principles is not the hallmark of our community. It is heartening to me to find people prepared to put their livelihood on the line for a belief in proper procedure. I trust that they will receive the support their cause deserves.







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