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ABC staff lose their seat on the board

THE federal Government has moved to axe the ABC's staff-appointed director in a decision immediately supported by a former director who resigned in May 2004 over alleged boardroom leaks.

The Sydney businessman, Maurice Newman, described the move yesterday as a "sensible thing to do". He said there had been confusion about the role "probably since its inception", which had led to a "certain amount of dysfunction" on the nine-member board.

Communications Minister Helen Coonan announced yesterday that legislation abolishing the position would be enacted as soon as possible, probably before the term of incumbent Ramona Koval expires on June 14.

It is the second time the staff-elected position, created by the Whitlam Government in 1975, has been abolished. The Fraser Government did away with the position in 1978 but the Hawke government restored it in 1983.

While the decision could not have come as a surprise to many ABC insiders, it was greeted yesterday with little enthusiasm.

The broadcaster's chairman, Donald McDonald, said he had worked with three staff-elected directors and, although there had been "tensions", each had made a contribution.

The ABC staff union described the move as part of the Howard Government's "cultural war" on the national broadcaster.

The Opposition's communications spokesman, Stephen Conroy, called the decision "another attempt to bully the ABC into giving the federal Government favourable coverage".

"John Howard is determined to crush the independence of the ABC," he said.

"For 10 long years Howard has pursued a policy of starving the ABC of funds and stacking the board with mates."

The Sydney-based TV presenter and former staff-appointed director widely tipped to succeed Koval, Quentin Dempster, said the decision was "very concerning" in view of Senator Coonan's recent suggestion that the ABC accept advertising.

"We are very concerned about advertising and sponsorship," he said. "We don't want it because it would change the whole nature of public broadcasting values."

Koval described the decision, made while an Australian Electoral Commission election was under way for her replacement, as "deeply worrying" and an indication of further politicising of the ABC.

But Senator Coonan said the staff-elected membership was an anomaly among Australian government agencies that had led to concern about conflicts of interest and the effective functioning of the board.

"Staff issues will not be neglected in the absence of a staff-elected director," she assured. "The interests of staff and our audiences will continue to be among the main concerns of the ABC board."

The decision is almost certainly linked with boardroom tensions in May and June 2004, when Mr Newman suspected Koval of leaking the details of a board decision to commission bias monitoring of the broadcaster's content.

Koval has denied leaking the material, which was widely disseminated on the corporation's Media Watch program.

Mr Newman subsequently tried to persuade Koval to sign a board confidentiality agreement.

Koval is understood to have declined so she was able to continue to discuss relevant board matters with staff

Mr Newman, believed to have been close to Mr McDonald, abruptly resigned.



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Original piece is http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,18594837%255E2702,00.html


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