Australian Journalism Monographs


Numbers 3 & 4, May-November 1999


Whose news? Organisational conflict in the ABC, 1947-1999


                    Neville Petersen

Department of Journalism University of Queensland


Whose news? Organisational conflict in the ABC, 1947-1999 (Extracts from Page 9)

The development of television in Britain and North America now presented new opportunities for ABC news. Two senior news men, Hamilton and the former mounted policeman and Queensland news editor, Keith Fraser, now the head of television news, had been abroad to study their American, British and Canadian counterparts. Both were enthusiastic about TV's possibilities. "The camera's record of an event has as much right to be termed 'news' as a reporter's version printed on paper," Hamilton reported. It has "far greater impact than a version in words only".40 He wanted film of the day, "live" inserts, reports on camera and interviews, and "back projections". But he had miscalculated. Until 1956, the year television began, chairman Richard Boyer believed the news could not be televised. In this he was influenced by early BBC practice. The radio news should be read on television instead. If the ABC surrendered to the public appetite for visual illustration instead of "straight" or "balanced" news it would be a major defeat. The "visual showmanship'~ of the "production boys in the TV studios" would undermine the proven principles of news. Radio news could be tightly edited and controlled. TV news, in his view, could not because many of those involved, editors, cameramen, graphic artists, were not journalists.

For the first three years of TV news Hamilton backed his staff in arguing for more visuals but could not dissuade the Commission. TV news personnel, led by Fraser, repeatedly angered the Commission by bending and breaking the rules, 41 the end consequence being that the use of film in the 15-minute bulletin was restricted to a total of two minutes.42 Film could be used in Newsreel which followed the news but which was not same-day material. Locally filmed topical and timeless material from overseas was featured in Weekend Magazine, a weekly half-hour that was strictly non-controversial and concerned with positive portrayals of Australian lifestyle and development very much in line with Hamilton's overview of the news service. With the introduction of sound cameras, film usage increased when Fraser persuaded the Commission that interviews should not be classified as film. Reporters were not otherwise permitted to appear. These restrictions on film usage were gradually eased after Boyer's death in 1961.

There was however a continuing legacy from this period which was to damage the reputation of news. Such was the distrust of the "entertainers" working in television, which Hamilton came to share, that news criteria and reporting were firmly left in the hands of radio. Their choices of the five or six major stories of the day had to be followed by television news in all states, even if they had film stories they believed to be of greater impact and significance. Hamilton's justification for this was that ABC news should speak with one voice. Because no full-time reporters were assigned to television, radio journalists with little knowledge of television went out with news camera teams. In the words of a former senior news reporter, Tony Ferguson, "a lot of them resented having to do it and you'd have a very indifferent result often". Many of their stories were unusable.43 Radio chiefs of staff had ultimate authority whenever there was conflict over which stories would

Whose news? Organisational conflict in the ABC, 1947-1999 (Extracts from Page 10)

be covered and whether reporters were available. Television sub-editors had to use stories which had first been sub-edited by radio as the basis of their scripts. Every evening television scrambled to put bulletins together because of the late arrival of scripts from radio. Radio deadlines were paramount. Journalists sent to work in television were said contemptuously to be going to "Disneyland" or "the Riviera" by their radio colleagues.44

Yet a high level of professional idealism held all news staff together and appears to have been at its highest level from 1955 to 1965. Many journalists gravitating to the ABC from the press did so to escape the editorial interference with their stories from newspaper editors, largely dictated by the political views of the proprietor. Whatever restrictions were imposed by ABC policy and editors was more acceptable because it was rationalised that this was in the interest of obtaining "truthful" accounts. There was, moreover, the knowledge that they were working for Australia's only national news service. In the words of one reporter "working simply on the national news table and deciding what the news of the day was in ten minutes for the whole of Australia was a unique experience".45 Hamilton was respected as a great manager and decision-maker, and one who made his wishes crystal- clear to news staff across Australia. News staff felt they had "the confidence of the Australian community for uncompromising honesty".46

Because of Hamilton's commitment to Commission policy once it had been determined, and the role of news in the growing status of the ABC, he and his staff were rewarded in 1959 when he became controller of News, and News was elevated to divisional status, equal with Programs and Engineering. Hamilton now worked directly to the general manager. News became perceived by others in the organisation as having an extraordinary degree of autonomy and power. As Bob Raymond, producer of Four Comers put it, "Wally Hamilton had some direct line to God or something. The Department was thought of as being an entity in itself, apart from the rest of the ABC. 47 Eminent newsreader James Dibble thought News was "like an island in the middle of a foreign sea." They were not radio people but belonged to a different profession: newspaper journalists working on a radio station.48 The division regarded itself as "in" but not necessarily "of' the ABC (Semmler 1981, p.93). News was "a monolithic organisation that did exactly what it pleased."

News seemed not to be subject to the same controls, checks and balances that everyone else was and had no trouble with budgets.49

Whose news? Organisational conflict in the ABC, 1947-1999 (Extracts from Page 11)

A former journalist and news executive recalls that all the staff were made aware that they were not under the control of other departments, even of management, and "we were conscious of the fact that we were more or less a law unto ourselves within the ABC". They were told "our own controller [has] access to the Commission".50 It was believed by news staff that the 1946 legislation, in setting up an independent news service, also guaranteed their internal independence.

In this environment it is no surprise that news rapidly expanded, increasing the number of its bulletins and enlarging its staff in all state capitals and major provincial centres. Although many program departments found it difficult to meet their obligations, 34 additional journalists were employed Australia-wide in 1963 and 1964.51 Two years later the ABC news staff totalled 398.52

Adding considerably to the prestige of Hamilton was his role in involving the ABC in Asia. In 1955 he visited Southeast Asia and recommended that the ABC open an office in Singapore. The news agencies, he said, were highlighting social unrest with startling reports with.inadequate explanation. Positive news was also needed. Due to the personal interest of Moses in the initiative, the first men into the area were essentially broadcasters who could work for both Talks and News, a dual responsibility that was rare in the ABC.53 Dissatisfaction with this arrangement led Hamilton to make major changes when he became controller of news. Journalists were appointed to head the bureau and gather material exclusively for news.

Significantly extending his socially purposive and paternalistic approach to ABC news, with the emphasis on providing news from Radio Australia for the region itself, Hamilton claimed that there was an urgent thirst for more news of "the right type" to assist in the development of the new nations. "If they are to progress they must have the information on which they can build enlightened thinking," he wrote.54 The Commission was very impressed with "the valuable work" of the ABC in Southeast Asia55 and had no hesitation in approving Hamilton's plans to expand his overseas operation. By the end of 1967 the ABC had offices in Singapore, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, New Delhi, and Washington, as well as those established much earlier in London and New York, all staffed by journalists.



Whose news? Organisational conflict in the ABC, 1947-1999 (Extracts from Pages 68 and 69)


39. Annual Report yle 30 June 1952, p.5.
40. Hamilton to Finlay 20 June 1956 ABCA 11/1/1.
41. Fraser interview.
42. Commission minutes 11-14 March; 5-7 May 1960 AA CI869/2 Box 2.
Hamilton was so angry at the Commission's attitude at the latter meeting, which made the ban permanent, that his temper almost got the better of him. Moses calmed him down before the Commmission spoke to him. Otherwise he would have been sacked (Moses interview).
43. Ferguson interview.
44. Clayton interview; .Hepburn interview.
45. Shaw interview.
46. Personal communication Keith Fraser 17 May 1994.
47. Raymond interview.
48. Dibble interview
49. Raymond interview.
50. Prior interview.
51. Commission minutes 20-21 'February 1963; 29-30 January 1964 AA CI869/2 Boxes 7,9.
52. Joint Committee of Publlc Accounts Report, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, Government Printing Office, Canberra, 1970:45.
53. C.V.J.(Colin) Mason of News (later a NSW Senator of the Democrats) was the first appointee and he was joined by Keith Mackriell of Talks. Mason had been a broadcaster in New Zealand before joining the ABC.
54. Hamilton to Moses 12 February 1960 with Commission minutes.11-14 March 1960 AA CI86912 Box!'
55. Commission minutes 11-12 November 1965 AA C1869/2 Box 12.
56. See Commission minutes 17-18 December 1956 AA CI869/P!. The partners were the BBC, ABC, CBC of Canada and the Rank Organisation. It was to be Commonwealth-owned and the aim was to end the domination of the TV newsfilm market by, American organisations.
Neville Petersen started with the ABC in December 1951 (in the mail room). He worked for Sporting, Talks and TV News. He was an overseas correspondent for ten years in Asia and Europe and worked for a year with 'Four Corners'. He left the ABC in August 1978, when he was Senior TV News Reporter in Sydney.

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