Federal Politics

Man for all seasons just what the ABC needs

<em>Illustration: Simon Letch</em>
Illustration: Simon Letch 

By a remarkable convergence of the stars, two wise men of Polish ancestry have wound up at the top of Australia's public broadcasters - Jim Spigelman at the ABC and his close businessman friend Joe Skrzynski at SBS. If ever there was an opportunity for a bit of convergent Pole dancing this is it.

The recently departed chairman of the ABC, the stockbroker Maurice Newman, lamented the fact that he was not able to achieve a merger of Aunty and SBS.

Quite why this is regarded as a failure is a mystery, other than because money men love acquisitions, mergers and takeovers.

If a fusion or cross-pollination of our two public broadcasters is still up for exploitation, then the two dancing Poles would be most likely of all to pull it off.

It is not the first time Spigelman has worked for the ABC. He was the national broadcaster's counsel in the famous implied constitutional free speech case decided by the High Court in 1997, Lange v ABC.

The outcome of the case sometimes makes us feel good that we can frolic about in a High Court-divined zone of free discussion. The fact that its practical benefit for the media is zero should not be held against Mr Spigelman personally.


He's had an interest in the intersection of the media and the law for most of his achievement-laden career, culminating in a fantastically detailed and learned speech dealing with comparative perspectives of the principle of open justice at a media law conference in London in 2005.

Among other things, he dealt with the impact of the internet

on the administration of justice and observed that Johannes Gutenberg's transformation of publishing in the 15th century was accompanied by concerns about ''information overload'', precisely what many are complaining about today.

In Spigelmanesque style he put the contemporary angst about how technology is impacting on law and modern life into a historical perspective, quoting a late-15th century Dominican friar Fra Filippo di Strata: ''The world has got along perfectly well for 6000 years without printing and has no need to change now.''

If there's one thing the chairman of the ABC needs to be good at, it is speechifying. The chair has to defend the broadcaster against relentless attack. More than that the chairperson is the very embodiment of the independence and excellence of the entire outfit.

At those tasks Spigelman, with the adornment of his academic distinctions and his many appointments to cultural institutions, will be more suited than his immediate quietly spoken predecessor - despite the attention-grabbing qualities of Maurice Newman's comb-over.

During his 13 years as NSW chief justice and lieutenant-governor Spigelman awakened the traditionally sonorous dinners to mark the opening of the annual law term with a heady cocktail of legal profession war cries, grave warnings about lawyer excesses, literary references and historical analogies.

One of the more celebrated of these perorations commenced like this: ''The rocket boosters on the side of the United States space shuttle must be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. Those booster rockets cannot be made any bigger because they have to fit through a single-track railway tunnel in the Rocky Mountains.''

The chief justice took us through the history of railway gauges. It is four feet 8½ inches in the US, because that was the gauge of the English pioneer industrial economy.

This in turn had evolved from the ruts in roads made by wagons and carriages. Originally those ruts were formed by Roman chariots. All chariots in the Roman empire were built with a distance between the wheels of four feet, 8½ inches.

''That distance was originally chosen because it was the approximate width of the backside of two horses.''

The limitations of space-age booster rockets was defined by the width of the rumps of two Roman horses. And of course the context was the need for a wider standard gauge for Australia's legal system. Mesmerising stuff.

What looms within the next 20 months is a federal election, which Mr Abbott's conservative coalition stands a strong prospect of winning.

Serious budget cuts for the ABC are a distinct possibility. Spigelman, as he always does, will play his politics carefully, but these will be the testing times - to defend the institutional integrity of the ABC without completely alienating the cavemen on the government benches who will be inclined to bash the broadcaster with their wooden clubs and drag her off by the hair into a ditch.

One of Spigelman's admirers and patrons has been Bob Carr, whose government appointed him to the court. Carr is going to Canberra as foreign minister, an important friend in government.

Spigelman, too, wanted to go to Canberra as Chief Justice of the High Court, but was pipped by the Labor government's appointment of Robert French in 2008.

People involved in the decision making say there was a perception that the contender from NSW had become too conservative. If that is so it could be an ideal quality for his new job.

Malcolm Turnbull may not have done him any favours in Liberal ranks by praising the appointment. In Abbott's world of ''nothing but no'', that would run counter to message.

Certainly, the timing of his resignation from the NSW chief justiceship made pretty clear his dis- appointment with the state Labor regime - skilfully depriving them of the appointment of his successor.

Missing out on the High Court job is all to the good, as this gilded orb of an offering has now come his way. Spigelman is a media-sort of man fond of quoting lines about the importance of a free press, ''driven by cantankerous editors''.

The other job for which he would have been an excellent choice is chair of Ray Finkelstein's proposed News Media Council. Too late. Now he's got an entire, vast, publicly funded and vitally important media organisation to play with.


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