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Saturday, 05 November 2016 08:08

Wi-Fi stuff-up: man who passed programme sponsored review Featured

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The decision of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to make major changes in its main science programme, Catalyst, after a review is telling: one of the five people who was responsible for programmes that led to the review was the sponsor of the review himself!

Richard Finlayson (right, below), the head of television, told Catalyst staff on Thursday that they would all be sacked. The union to which staff belong, told The Guardian that nine staff would be made redundant and eight others will not have their contracts renewed.

The ABC may shout until it is blue in the face, trying to convince people that the review was necessitated by the fact that Catalyst has been operating in its current format for 15 years.

But nothing could be further from the truth. No, the review became a matter of urgency after a second Catalyst episode had to be taken offline, this being a programme attempting to tie mobile phones and wireless transmissions to brain tumours.

Titled Wi-Fried, the reporter Dr Maryanne Demasi was a second-time offender: a two-part series attempting to make a connection between the use of statins and heart disease in 2013 met with a similar fate.

1RichardFinlayson1 250x250It is amazing that none of the five bigwigs who gave the stamp of approval to these programmes — the series producer, the executive producer, the head of factual department, the legal department, and then finally Finlayson — had to take any of the blame. All of them will keep their jobs.

The final review also concluded that the format of the programme should be changed.

The main people consulted for this review were: Fiona Stanley, Ian Chubb, Suzanne Cory, Stephen Simpson, Norman Swan, Jonathan Webb, Robyn Williams and Karl Kruszelnicki. About four-fifths of the audience of Catalyst is in the 50+ category, according to the review, and this in keeping with the ABC's general audience profile.

Thus, one gets the idea: the ABC does not want those who rock the boat. Those who ask inconvenient questions. Those who question the status quo.

An indication of which way the axe would swing was provided early in the piece when Paul Barry, the presenter of Media Watch, proclaimed his judgement on Demasi, saying he thought she should be sacked. The ABC probably felt this was a little too racy for public view, so it omitted his remarks from the online transcript – until iTWire pointed it out.

Then Nick Leys, the ABC media manager, suddenly discovered that a technical problem had caused this particular bit of text to be excised.

The ABC has its pals in the print media, outlets like the online newsletter Crikey! and publications from Fairfax Media, that will never criticise anything the corporation does. The Guardian is the only left-leaning publication that exercises anything like balance when it writes about the ABC.

So, in 2017, we will see a host of programmes from the BBC in that Tuesday 8pm slot. That will take care of avoiding controversy. Finlayson and his fellow executives are unlikely to be bothered by pushing a few junior staff out of their jobs.

Not satisfied with having five people to watch over production, the ABC will now have an exclusive executive producer for Catalyst. Another level of bureaucracy, no doubt with a big pay packet, and the standard 15% superannuation that the public sector pays while the poor jocks in private sector land make do with 9%.

The rearrangement will suit the new ABC chief, Michelle Guthrie, a former employee of News Corporation and Google. All indications are that she is looking to serve broth that has a uniform taste, does not cause any corporate grief, and sits well with the ruling class.

Getting under the skin of big pharma and the mobile phone industry would not sit easy with Guthrie. She has already indicated that Foreign Correspondent and Lateline will also not return in 2017.

It's all part of the brand new digital-first ABC. Expect more dumbing down of the corporation's content in the year ahead.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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