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The Week the ABC Went to Black

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Governments of all persuasions have never much liked the ABC, and cuts to its budget have occurred with monotonous regularity. With defunding since 2014 now severely affecting programming capacity, ABC Alumni is agitating for a return to proper funding and a commitment to protecting the ABC’s independence. The Alumni, of course, are former members of staff. But in the 1970s, the ABC’s serving staff engaged in almost three years of industrial action against the Fraser government’s budget cuts, which culminated in the longest strike in the history of the ABC.

By Gethin Creagh and Sue Spencer

2.13 pm, Wednesday 15 November 1978. ABC Radio One was due to broadcast the proceedings of Federal Parliament. But this day was different. Lionel Barr, Operations Officer Grade III, working in the ABC Switch Room at Upper Forbes Street in Sydney was surrounded. On one side were two senior managers of the ABC’s Engineering division. Lionel had been given written instructions to allow parliament to be put to air. If he refused, he would be stood down. On the other side were three members of the ABC Staff Association1. The Staff Association had resolved to ban parliamentary broadcasts and Lionel was a member. 

“I was the proverbial ham in the sandwich,” recalled Lionel. “I was directed by management to put it to air but I was also directed by the Staff Association not to do so. Whichever direction I took, I would be in trouble. So, I decided to abide by the decision of the Staff Association.” 2

When Lionel refused to broadcast parliament, he was immediately stood down by ABC management. In response, members of the Staff Association pulled Radio One (Local radio), Two (Radio National) and Three (Regional radio) networks and 2JJ off air. Following a phone call to TV Presentation in Gore Hill, the TV service faded to black. No service continued for the next six days. 

It was the culmination of three years of industrial action against the Fraser government’s budget cuts and deep frustration at management’s reluctance to fight these attacks.

Fraser’s ‘Razor Gang’ slashes the ABC

The Fraser Government came to power at the end of 1975 with a promise to drastically cut public expenditure. 

The ABC was immediately in the firing line of Fraser’s ‘Razor Gang’, as the Cabinet committee overseeing the cuts became known. By the time of the blackout in 1978, staff had been cut from 7600 in 1975 to 6400. The ABC’s operating budget had been slashed by 28 per cent and drama production had been reduced from 150 hours in 1975 to 72 hours in 1978. 

Michael Cosby, who was in charge of the Staff Association committee that co-ordinated the industrial response, remembers that it felt as if the ABC was ‘doomed to extinction’.  

Protests against the cuts began in 1976. 

Among those at the forefront was the then Australian Broadcasting Commission’s first staff-elected Commissioner, a position established in the dying days of the Whitlam Government. The bearded, long-haired 2JJ and 2JJJ broadcaster, Marius Webb, had been popularly elected to the post late in 1975.  

Industrial action escalated in October 1978 when the Minister for Post and Telecommunications, Tony Staley, announced that this staff-elected position on the Commission would be abolished. 

This Day Tonight (TDT) wanted to interview a union representative about the decision but was forbidden to do so by ABC management unless there was a debate. 

NSW branch president of the Staff Association, Tom Molomby, later noted: “It was a mark of how far the program had sunk that no-one on it protested.” 3

But next morning, ABC Radio ran a report on management’s decision to stop the TDT interview. Controversially, the report was then dropped from later bulletins on the order of the Controller of News, Russell Handley. 

Left to right: Tony Staley, Minister for Post and Telecommunications 1977-1980; Russell Handley, ABC Controller of News during the industrial action in 1978 (Photo: ABC 1961); John Norgard, ABC Chairman 1976-1981

Radio and TV News staff went on immediate strike to protest management’s decision.

The Staff Association then convened two large stop work meetings in Sydney’s Regent Theatre where ‘no confidence’ motions were passed against the Commission Chairman, John Norgard, and General Manager, Talbot Duckmanton. 

Anger of staff at the failure of the Commission and senior management to defend the ABC against the government cuts was palpable.

Left: Allan Hogan (after a radical haircut) protesting in 1978. Right: A family concern: editor Bill Russo took this photo of his son at one of the protest rallies.

Science broadcaster Robyn Williams led the charge: 

“I’m sick of watching the ABC fall apart, I’m sick of waiting for one public statement of concern from Mr Norgard, of waiting for the smallest, the slightest action from him or indeed senior management, to show that they are doing something to save the ABC.

“It’s time Mr Duckmanton was told that it’s time he stood up or got out. ... Do we have to continue to haemorrhage until we bleed to death? We need positive and dynamic leadership, not only to fight publicly for the ABC’s existence but give us an ABC we can believe in.”

As Staff Association representative Gethin Creagh recalls, “The general feeling of staff in Sydney was one of dismay and we felt unsupported by those that should have been leading us.” 

However, the major resolution that came out of the stop work meetings would be more provocative. The co-ordinating committee for strike action (Industrial Action Co-ordinating Committee, IACC), led by Tom Molomby and Michael Cosby, was looking for ways to put increased pressure on the government and to also generate more publicity about the ABC’s plight.

Tom Molomby (left) and Michael Cosby, who led the staff’s Industrial Action Co-ordinating Committee - IACC. (Photos: ABC)

“We really wanted to push ABC management to negotiate with the Fraser Government over the ABC’s budget. Something it had refused to do,” Creagh remembers.

So, staff voted for a ban on parliamentary broadcasts. A prescient amendment to the parliamentary ban was also passed: ‘Any punitive action will result in immediate strike action which will continue until the punitive action is removed.’

 

The ABC Goes to Black

Once Lionel Barr pulled the plug on broadcasting parliament, and was stood down, immediate strike action was the result. The ABC went to black and the Work Area Representative Committee sprang into action setting up a strategic ‘war room”. 

Gethin Creagh was one of the members and helped organise the picket lines: 

 

“I was the owner of a Kombi van, perfect for ferrying people and placards and distributing leaflets. From memory the picket lines were at Gore Hill, where I worked, Frenchs Forest, William Street and the ABC’s Broadcast House headquarters in Elizabeth Street, Sydney. Posters were produced at Sydney University’s Tin Sheds by ABC editors Bill Russo, Anne Mackinolty, Annie Breslin and others.

“My day started very early at union HQ to pick up placards and any other equipment and people that needed to be distributed around the picket lines. Everything had to be in place around 7 to catch the rush hours from 7 am to 9 am and again in the afternoon, 5 pm to 6 pm.”

Tom Molomby remembers one of the best placards was ‘Toot for Support’:

“This was particularly effective outside Broadcast House in Elizabeth Street, where there were traffic lights a few buildings away and where lines of stationary traffic would build up every few minutes. Until the lines were complete, the ‘Toot’ placards would be kept down. Then all together, they would be raised. A mass of cars would break into a cacophony of tooting which, it was reported, had an extraordinarily aggravating effect on senior management refusing to acknowledge our (union) delegation several floors above. The knuckles of one of them went white every time he heard it, I was told.” 4

Gethin Creagh had a similar story outside Gore Hill: 

“Some of our best ‘Toot for Support’ came from the expensive luxury cars headed for the North Shore suburbs of Gordon and St Ives. There were very few strike breakers (aside from management) and I remember NSW Police’s 21 Division, now disbanded, took many photos of striking staff but generally left us alone.”

A senior news manager arrived at the Gore Hill studios in his car and nearly collided with a woman on the picket line. She jumped out of the way to be greeted by: “Get out of the way, you stupid bitch”.

Staff-management relations had reached a nadir.

Normal Transmission Resumed

After six days of black and hours of trying to put in place negotiations between the Staff Association and ABC Management, an agreement was signed. Lionel Barr was reinstated with no penalty; all the bans were lifted; and a process was put in place to facilitate joint staff-management decisions on staff numbers, additional funding and a commitment to a staff-elected representative on the Commission

On 2 November 1978, normal transmission resumed.

Gethin Creagh found the whole experience deeply moving on a solidarity front and politically fascinating. The Australian Journalists Association (AJA), the NSW Teachers’ Federation and the Musicians’ Union all came out in support of the ABC Staff Association strike action. 

Tom Molomby said that the strike brought the community of ABC staff closer together. Television and radio were very separate silos, geographically and professionally, but the strike did lead to many people joining the staff association/union. Community support for the ABC was very strong and a free concert in the Regent Theatre after the strike ended and featuring Fred Dagg (John Clarke), Robyn Archer and Judy Bailey played to a packed house.

As it turned out, the Commission ended up voting against reinstating the position of the staff-elected Commissioner. It wasn’t until May 1983 that the new Hawke Labor Government passed legislation to convert the Commission into a Corporation, which would include a staff-elected Board member. Tom Molomby was voted in as the staff-elected Director on the new Board. The budget cuts ceased, but it was not until 1985 that the budget regained the level of 1976.

Now, as we all know, attacks on the ABC have not ceased. Cuts to its budget have continued in an increasingly aggressive fashion: more than half a billion dollars, cumulatively, has been being cut from the ABC’s budget since 2014.

Among the Alumni’s supporters are many of the 1978-ers, campaigning with renewed vigour for a better deal for the national broadcaster.  

Footnotes:

1 The ABC Staff Association was a ‘house union’ where you were covered not by occupation but by the fact you worked for the ABC. Staff preferred to be part of an ‘association’ rather than a union but legally it was the same as a union. It was formed in 1936 and continued until 1989, when it amalgamated with other unions to form the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU).

2 Channel – The Official Journal of the ABC Staff Association – Strike Edition, November 1978.

3 p.96 Molomby, Tom: Is there a moderate on the roof? published by William Heinemann, 1991. TDT was axed at the end of 1978 and replaced by Nationwide.

4 p.111 ibid.

Special thanks to Tom Molomby for assistance with this article. 

Gethin Creagh joined the ABC in 1971 working as a backroom assist, mixing programs like TDT, Behind the News and Weekend Magazine at Gore Hill television studios. He then progressed as a sound recordist and mixer at Frenchs Forest working on Four Corners, A Big Country, Marque, The Outsiders, Rush and Patrol Boat. Gethin spent a year as a sound recordist in London working with Paul Lyneham and John Highfield. He left the ABC in 1980 to work as a freelance film mixer in the Australian and New Zealand film industries. He has won 6 AFI awards, 7 NZ Film and TV awards, 2 BAFTA nominations and an Oscar nomination.

Sue Spencer was a researcher, producer and executive producer at the ABC for nearly 30 years. In 2019 she received the Walkley Award for Outstanding Contribution to Journalism.


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