New fire warnings might ‘contain very bad advice’

NEW bushfire warnings telling people to take shelter, while also warning that their home may not save them, may cause confusion, the Bushfire Royal Commission heard yesterday.
“This warning appears to contain very bad advice,” said counsel assisting the commission, Rachel Doyle, SC. She suggested it might cause panic if people were told, “You must seek shelter but it is both too late to leave and your home is unlikely to help.”
“I think in a fire that’s the situation that may exist,” replied Tony Duckmanton, manager of learning systems with the Country Fire Authority.
“It is describing what? Certain death?” asked Ms Doyle.
“No, it’s saying it could be too late to leave,” Mr Duckmanton said.
“And bad news to stay?” Ms Doyle said.
“It could be,” said Mr Duckmanton.
He said the responsibility for deciding whether to relocate remained with residents, but it would be possible for an incident controller issuing public warnings to include advice on relocation or where to find a Neighbourhood Safer Place (NSP).
But Ms Doyle was also critical of signs to be placed outside designated safer places.
The signs warn that safety and survival are not guaranteed, that many private houses might offer better shelter, that travelling when there is a bushfire can be extremely dangerous, that NSPs have limited capacity and that there is no guarantee the CFA will be there.
Ms Doyle said: “So the person who is reading that might [think], ‘I wonder if I should have stayed or if I should go back because it’s telling me in part that my own home might be safer?’ Are you able to resolve this ‘tension’, to put it mildly?”
Mr Duckmanton said, “No, I’m not.”
Commissioner Ron McLeod also questioned other advice: “A message like ‘Leave now only if the path is clear’ might give the author some comfort but it doesn’t give much comfort to the receiver . . . How does one ascertain whether the path is clear?
“The only way one can do that, particularly if people are unfamiliar with the area, is to have some indication of which roads are closed definitely or which roads are known to continue to be safe as exit roads.”
Mr Duckmanton replied: “If we know that information we certainly provide it.” But he said even the best road can be suddenly rendered unusable.
The commission also heard of many improvements to the wording of warnings, which will now clearly state the size and location of a fire, whether it is under control, how far it is spotting, and at what time and with what ferocity it is expected to hit towns.
The CFA and Department of Sustainability and Environment now share a website and the new system sends warnings to other public sources such as the ABC and Victorian Bushfire Information Line.

CFA ‘ill-prepared for bushfires’

THE CFA failed to prepare adequately for Black Saturday, which left inexperienced officers managing large, deadly fires, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard yesterday.
‘‘We went into the 7th [of February 2009] without people in the right places at the right time,’’ said Rachel Doyle, SC, counsel assisting the commission.
She said many incident control centres did not have enough staff at the beginning of the day and, in particular, lacked level-three incident controllers who were qualified to manage complex fires. Managers had known beforehand that it would not be possible to staff all control centres fully but did not mention it to their supervisors or request more resources, she said.
Senior staff were moved around the state to fill those roles after fires started. But this was undesirable in the case of severe, fast-moving fires in which the first hour was crucial, she said.
The commission had earlier heard that several fires, including the Kilmore East blaze that killed 119 people, were managed for several hours by underqualified staff who lacked leadership experience.
Failures to tell firefighters of wind changes, or to warn the public of an approaching blaze, were ‘‘at least in part due to the challenges facing relatively inexperienced incident controllers’’, according to a written submission by lawyers assisting the commission.
The CFA was also accused of having inadequate training and promotion procedures for level-three controllers, with ‘‘the potential for both a well-performing candidate to be missed, or a poorly performing candidate to be endorsed’’, according to the submission. It said there was no performance review process for level-three controllers.
The submission said an incident controller for the Churchill fire, Peter Lockwood, was only supposed to operate at level three if he was being mentored, but he did not have a mentor on February 7.
Three burnovers — where crews are flashed over by fire — occurred during the Churchill fire, and CFA inquiries concluded that in each case a warning sent to crews contained incorrect information about the timing of a wind change, exposing crews to risk.
Mr Lockwood was not told of those findings and was fully endorsed as a level-three controller after February 7, the submission said.
Counsel assisting Peter Rozen said firefighting volunteers should be considered for positions on incident management teams and offered better training to allow them to participate.
The commission had heard in earlier evidence that volunteers felt sidelined by career officers, despite many having great depth of experience. They were also frustrated at a lack of consultation.
Ms Doyle said the CFA had failed to implement a coroner’s recommendation, made after the Linton disaster in which five volunteer firefighters died in 1998, to set up a mentoring program for new firefighters.
Neil Clelland, SC, for the state of Victoria, said the government agreed with nearly all the recommendations of counsel assisting on these issues, but did not believe a level-three controller should be present in every control centre from early in the morning on an extreme or catastrophic day.
‘‘[It] may simply result in mandatory levels that are currently unachievable,’’ he said.

Powerlines a ‘time bomb’

VICTORIA will have more days of catastrophic bushfire loss unless its ageing electricity system gets an urgent multibillion-dollar overhaul to prevent it starting fires, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard yesterday.
Senior counsel assisting the commission, Jack Rush, QC, called for the upgrade and criticised the state’s electricity safety regulator as weak, saying it had surrendered its authority over power companies.
Jonathan Beach, QC, for power company SP AusNet, said the suggested upgrades would cost up to $7.5 billion in its distribution area alone and could force consumers to pay 20 per cent more on their power bills every year for 20 years.
Mr Rush said that without substantial reform “we will continue on days of signifi-cant fire risk to have the sort of losses that we sustained on February 7”.
Mr Rush said the ageing overhead powerline network set up in rural areas in the 1950s should be “done away with” over the next 10 years and replaced by aerial bundling of wires, or by wires being put underground. “Aerial bundling technology pretty much will eliminate bushfire risk . . . Undergrounding would reduce bushfire risk and reduce maintenance and mean longer life.”
Five of the biggest fires on Black Saturday, including the Kilmore East fire that killed 119 people, were allegedly started by electrical lines or fittings. In the Kilmore East fire, investigators reported that a line broke and fell to the ground, producing sparks that ignited dry vegetation.
Mr Rush said a 2004 study found the Powercor network alone had 11,374 route kilometres of conductor (electrical lines) aged between 55 and 64 years, and 10,318 kilometres aged between 65 and 74 years.
Mr Rush said the commissioners should recommend that:
■Parts be replaced when they get old, rather than waiting until they break or look worn. “At the moment the components are not replaced until it’s recognised by inspectors that they have failed or have deteriorated . . . Evidence was given that if the aircraft industry worked on that basis, we would have aircraft falling out of the sky.”
■Inspections of lines be done every three years, as was the case under the public-owned State Electricity Commission before privatisation, instead of every five. “(This) would result in a 70 per cent reduction in the number of in-service failures.”
■The government change regulations to ensure power companies had new obligations to upgrade systems.
■Devices that restore high-voltage power to faulty lines be disabled for the whole fire season on one kind of line, and modified to work only once on another kind of line, to avoid them triggering fires.
Mr Rush was scathing of Energy Safe Victoria, which regulates safety in the power, gas and pipeline industries, saying it had “in effect surrendered its position of authority in the regulatory relationship”. He said its “position of weakness” was made clear by the way power companies dismissed its criticisms.
An audit of Powercor’s bushfire mitigation plan for 2008 had concluded that “the majority of rusty ties and conductors were not being detected in the asset inspection process. When that conclusion was communicated by ESV to Powercor, Powercor simply rejected it”.
Mr Rush also accused ESV of not having the expertise “to meet the distribution companies on an equal footing”. “It is necessary to reform ESV so that it is properly funded so that it is able to undertake a proactive role.”
He said replacing ageing infrastructure would be expensive but that the cost of Black Saturday probably extended to billions of dollars.
Mr Beach, for SP AusNet, said putting wires underground would cost $7.5 billion for the SP Ausnet network alone. “You would be looking at an annual price rise of 20 per cent per annum for the next 20 years.”
Powercor’s submission said that disabling or limiting the devices that restored power to faulty lines would mean long periods without power for affected people in country Victoria.
Energy Minister Peter Batchelor said the government recognised the need for changes to the network to reduce bushfire risk. “We have committed to introduce new legislation to increase the powers available to Electricity Safe Victoria to enhance its capabilities and capacity to regulate the electricity industry,” he said.
“We have convened a national workshop in April 2010 with relevant stakeholders . . . to consider options for reducing fire risk from ageing electricity assets.”
Black Saturday 2009: Allegedly five of 11 major fires
Ash Wednesday, 1983: Four of eight major fires
April 1980: Fire at Pigeon Ponds, near Balmoral
February 12, 1977: Nine of 16 fires
January 1969: Fires in northeastern Victoria
121 — or 70 per cent — of the 173 deaths on Black Saturday were caused by the failure of electricity assets, according to lawyers representing 1100 people in class actions against power companies.
SOURCES: Submission yesterday to the Bushfires Royal Commission by Jack Rush, QC; claims made in earlier hearings by Tim Tobin, SC; and the 2008 report of a
Legislative Council inquiry on the impact of public land management practices on bushfires.

Unauthorised backburn lit to fight Kinglake blaze

KINGLAKE park rangers denied that they had been panicked into conducting an unauthorised backburn just before fire struck on Black Saturday, and denied they had disagreed over what to do, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard yesterday.
Local resident Craig Draper, of Pine Ridge Road, said he thought the last-minute burn added to the ferocity of the fire attack on his street. It is believed 21 people died in Pine Ridge Road, including five children.
“This backburn has caused the oxygen in the air to be sucked out and, as a result, has drawn the firefront back on us at Pine Ridge Road,” he said in a witness statement.
But this was disputed by two fire investigators, who concluded that the backburn did not affect fire in the street.
Mr Draper, a trained CFA firefighter, said he was disbelieving when he heard of the backburn, which was ordered by acting chief ranger Tony Fitzgerald at around 4.30pm.
He told his informant: “You have got to be kidding. They don’t want to do that on that type of day . . . I asked a few people who worked in Melbourne Water and they said: ‘Everything’s hush-hush and yes, they did do it’.”
Mr Draper also claimed that he spoke to Kinglake ranger Natalie Brida shortly after the fires and that “Natalie stated that she didn’t agree with the decision made by Fitzgerald”. Asked if he was certain that conversation had occurred, he said: “Yes, I am.”
Ms Brida told the hearing she did not have such a conversation, that rangers had not panicked over the approaching fire, and that the decision to start the backburn had been unanimous.
Mr Fitzgerald said he decided on the backburn after having seen three large spot fires in the area.
It was “a last-ditch effort” to burn fuel in the hope that fire would be less intense if it had less material to burn.
Asked why he had not just evacuated himself and his crew, he replied: “I am a part of that community. I have lived there for 14 years.
“Having knocked on their doors, I could see that people were in their houses. I used to walk down Rae Street every morning to the office and in the bus shelter would be all the kids from Pine Ridge Road. That’s why.”
But he did not expect it to be effective: “I don’t think it had a hope of doing anything . . . It was a hopeless situation, hopeless, but it was all I could think of to do.”
He said there was no time to ask for authorisation from the fire’s incident controller. He had also been told by his supervisor earlier that while the Kilmore Incident Control Centre was managing the fire, “They aren’t functioning very well — you are on your own.”
A separate large fire struck the area within minutes of the backburn being lit.
Mr Fitzgerald and his seven crew evacuated, but his vehicle caught alight and the tyres melted. He drove on the rims of two wheels.
CSIRO bushfire analyst Dr Andrew Sullivan said two spot fires had been started by the backburn and one had been sighted by Pine Ridge Road residents, “but whether that fire impacted upon houses, I don’t know”.
In his statement, he concluded that a large fire from the north was the probable cause of flames that destroyed houses in the upper part of Pine Ridge Road: “This section of fire was in no way affected by the presence of the Parks [Victoria] burn.”
A second fire investigator, Francis Crowe of the CFA, also found no reason to believe the backburn had affected the street.

CFA ‘overlooked’ safety officers


THE Country Fire Authority expected Black Saturday to be the worst fire day in living memory, with great risk to firefighters, but appointed no safety officers to the teams managing the deadliest blazes, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard yesterday.
The inquiry was also told that managers whose incorrect information had caused a fire-ground crew to suffer a “burnover” had not been given feedback about their error despite an internal inquiry on the incident.
Safety officers, charged with firefighters’ well-being, had been mandatory since 2003 and 200 had been trained, but only two were assigned to level-3 fires that day. The Murrindindi, Kilmore East, Churchill, Bendigo and Beechworth control centres had no safety officer, senior counsel Jack Rush, QC, told the hearing.
Department of Sustainability and Environment spokesman Anthony Edgar said he could not explain why no safety controllers had been appointed to Murrindindi and Beechworth.
CFA deputy chief officer Gregory Esnouf admitted Black Saturday was expected to be high-risk in terms of firefighter safety but said many safety officers were assigned to roles considered higher priority. He was “disappointed” that the CFA had not delivered what it promised in this regard.
Commissioner Ron McLeod told him that given the predicted severity of fire conditions that day: “You should be more than disappointed, I suggest. You should be deeply concerned.”
Mr McLeod asked if there was a serious cultural issue with the CFA’s failure to prioritise safety, with possible parallels between the failure to appoint safety officers to look after firefighters and previously reported failures to prioritise public safety by issuing community warnings.
Mr Esnouf said the two problems had different causes but the CFA was not consistent about use of safety officers. Resources were stretched on Black Saturday but there had probably been other instances of it not happening, he said.
Mr Esnouf admitted the CFA’s internal reviews had not discovered the failure to appoint safety officers on Black Saturday. This was realised only after the royal commission raised the issue, he said.
It previously has been claimed that 19 burnovers were reported that day, six of them involving crews from the DSE.
Mr Esnouf said a “near-miss” investigation was held into one burnover — being flashed over by fire — involving the Glengarry West Tanker No. 1 at the Churchill fire. The crew had received a Red Flag Warning for a dangerous wind change at 7pm, which arrived at 6pm. South-westerly wind changes turn the flank of a fire into the new head and on to firefighters. Five CFA volunteers were killed by this at Linton in 1998.
Asked whether the staff of the relevant incident management team (IMT) had seen the Glengarry tanker burnover report, Mr Esnouf said near-miss inquiries concentrated on the actions of the crew under threat.
“We were focusing very much at the crew level. We didn’t pick up that this learning needed to be put back to the IMT,” he said.
He agreed with Mr Rush that if inquiries were to improve performance, people involved had to be informed of their findings.

Fire victims died trying to save cherished things


THEY died on Black Saturday trying to save things they loved. For Arthur Enver, it was his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. For Robert Pierce, and for Reg Evans and Angela Brunton, it was their homes. For Raye Carter, it was her goats.
The Bushfires Royal Commission yesterday conducted inquiries into the deaths of five residents of St Andrews killed by the Kilmore East fire that started 40 kilometres from where they lived. It hit St Andrews with such speed that those who died had no time to save themselves.
“One minute it was clear and the next there were flames everywhere. I don’t know where the fire came from,” Petra Boumans, Mr Enver’s partner, later told police.
They decided to flee but he wouldn’t get in the the car with her because he wanted to save his Harley.
As she left, he was hunting for the keys to his motorbike. She drove through heat so fierce that her car’s foglights exploded, and she had to drive over a fallen tree across the road. But she escaped.
Mr Enver, 56, was last seen alive by a passerby who reported he dropped his bike on the Kinglake-Heidelberg Road and ran. His body was found 400 metres from the bike by a CFA volunteer who saw him face down with his helmet alight.
A fire investigator concluded he might have been forced off the road into gravel by smoke or high winds, or perhaps his bike developed fuel failure.
Actor Reg Evans, 80, had elaborate plans to save the home he shared in Bald Spur Road with Angela Brunton, 48. He told a worried neighbour that afternoon, “It’s sweet, mate.” But he and his partner died, apparently trying to shelter under a dining table.
Fire investigator John Kelleher reported that their home’s A-frame construction made it more susceptible to wind damage and ember attack, and the loss of the roof contributed to their deaths. He said they had no back-up plan if sheltering inside the house failed.
Robert Pierce, 62, and his son Nicolas fought the fire at separate houses on the same property on Bald Spur Road. Nicolas Pierce told police: “I told Robert we had three or four hours to live or die . . . We shook hands and wished one another good luck.
“He was calm and appeared well-prepared . . . He almost appeared excited and relieved that the fire was finally coming after years of apprehension.”
Nicolas survived and saved one house, despite winds he estimated at up to 150 kilometres an hour and a fire front that lasted two hours. His father was later found dead near the entrance to a “safe room”.
Faye Carter, 68, was checking on her beloved dairy goats during an ember attack while her husband Alan took their dogs into the house.
Mr Carter told police: “I saw the fireball hit our front gate . . . and come straight up the drive like a car . . . Before I had time to react, the fireball hit our house, hit the cane setting at the front of the house, and then the roof exploded into a ball of flame.”
Mr Carter could not find his wife of 48 years and was badly burned. He drove down to his dam and jumped into the water to ease his pain before driving back to search for her again but was defeated by the heat.
He later spent five weeks in hospital having skin grafts to his arms and legs.
Mr Kelleher concluded that Mrs Carter died near the verandah. A large part of the roof had hit her nearby car, possibly also striking her and definitely destroying in one blow both her chances at survival: sheltering inside the house or escaping in the vehicle.

Police refused to enter ‘hellhole’


A POLICEMAN refused to evacuate a badly injured firefighter from Strathewen on Black Saturday, saying: “I’m not going into that f—ing hellhole and nor are any of my members.”
The Bushfires Royal Commission, inquiring into 11 Strathewen deaths yesterday, heard that firefighter Joe Shepherd died several days later. Mr Shepherd, 60, was found on a road near his van and his son Daniel, 32, was found dead inside the vehicle. Their path was blocked by a fallen tree.
The hellhole remark was quoted in a statement by CFA volunteer Michael Chapman that was read to the inquiry. Mr Chapman said CFA volunteers drove Mr Shepherd to a police checkpoint.
Telephone records showed Daniel Shepherd had tried to call 000 for help at 5.21pm but the call went unanswered.
The Shepherds had been trying to help a relative, Hendrik Vreulink, defend his house. They left the property when Mr Vreulink saw fire approaching, with a 40-metre wall of flame across his driveway. Mr Vreulink escaped, fleeing on foot through the bush and then being picked up by neighbour Denis Spooner.
Police arson chemist John Kelleher concluded the Shepherds might have been distracted by spot fires from recognising that a much larger fire was approaching. He said Daniel Shepherd seemed to be following advice to shelter in a car, but this was not appropriate when trees were alight nearby.
Mr Spooner claimed the local council had failed to remove roadside vegetation, which he said was responsible for the deaths of at least five people, including his wife and son, who were trapped by fallen trees. He said rural roads should be treated like firebreaks but instead “they are death traps . . . [Victoria] has got to revise these policies or buy us out and move us out and let the bush take over. It’s time someone took this government to task for all of this . . . People come before greenies. You can always plant another tree but you can’t plant another human being.”
Mr Spooner criticised forensic investigators for combing his property four times and concluding that there were no signs of his son’s presence, even though his son’s watch was in plain view. And he claimed that investigators had failed to find the body of one of his neighbours for more than four weeks: “They thought he was at another house. How do you think his family felt? His kids? They walked through that house when they were allowed back in and he was behind a door. What if they opened the door?”
The commission also heard that Michael Winton, 53, died of a heart attack that began at a police checkpoint where he was stopped from searching for his mother. Irma Winton, 77, died after repeatedly refusing family pleas to evacuate because she wanted to defend her home.
Five people, including three teenagers, died in or near a house in Pine Ridge Road whose roof had been lifted and flipped by the wind, then hurled into forest. Mr Kelleher’s report concluded: “The winds seem to have considerably exceeded design expectations.”

Fire service funding ‘flawed’


THE system for funding fire services is unfair because only people who take out home or contents insurance pay for it, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard yesterday.
It was also told that broadening the system would create a different kind of inequity because poorer people, such as age pensioners, would struggle to contribute.
“I’m concerned that [a property-based levy] might go into rates notices . . . and the largest user of debt collectors is local government, particularly rural and regional and outer-urban councils [chasing rate-payers],” said consumer lawyer Denis Nelthorpe, of the Bushfire Legal Help Unit.
The Metropolitan Fire Brigade and the Country Fire Authority are largely funded through a fire services levy.
This must be paid to the Victorian government by insurance companies. Companies then pass its cost on to customers in insurance premiums. This means those who do not insure — as was the case with 13 per cent of those burnt out on Black Saturday — make no contribution.
It is possible for fire services to bill uninsured residents for a callout, but this did not occur in relation to Black Saturday, said senior counsel assisting the commission Jack Rush, QC.
Joe Monforte, director of tax with the Victorian Treasury, said a property-based fire services tax would probably lower the cost of insurance. He said another option would be to remove the ability of services to waive costs for callouts, but such a policy would need to take into account the ability of people on low incomes to pay, and the “appropriateness in circumstances such as Black Saturday of billing displaced and distressed property owners”.
Mr Rush also raised the question of whether car owners should be made to help pay for fire services when he noted that road accidents comprise 15 per cent of MFB callouts and 10 per cent of CFA callouts.
He also questioned several witnesses over a lack of accountability by insurance companies over how they chose to pass the levy on to consumers. He quoted a 2003 report that found in the four years leading up to 2000-2001, insurance companies had collected $47 million more from consumers than they were required to pay to the government.
Mr Monforte said this might not be a significant amount in terms of the overall premiums collected.
“I don’t think there’s any evidence of individual companies gouging,” he said.
Dr Richard Tooth, of economic consultants LECG, told the commission that 23 per cent of households spent nothing on building or contents insurance.
Mr Rush said the fire services levy would generate revenue of $509 million in 2009-10.

The ABC’s brave new world


WHEN Mark Scott took the podium at the Melbourne Press Club last month, he departed from the text of his speech. He noted that there were many colleagues in the room, and he singled out two: Michael Gawenda, former editor-in-chief of The Age, and Steve Harris, who had been the paper’s publisher and another of its editors-in-chief. In one swift, mocking flourish, Scott — now managing director of the ABC — stripped them of their gravitas.
“They remind me of those two guys in The Muppets,” he quipped to his audience, “the gallery there — ready to provide the ongoing commentary.” The room broke into mirth.
Then Scott took a breezy shot at competitor SkyNews and its Australian Public Affairs Channel, which had asked his permission to send a camera to film his speech: “I’m happy for that to happen. Any contribution I can make so there’s less New Zealand Parliament on Australian television . . .”
Critics and competitors neutered, his dominance of the room established, and his audience now duly attentive, Scott peaceably returned to the formality of his prepared speech.
On a personal level, this looked like an Oedipal display by a younger buck keen to lock antlers with the stags. At 47, Scott is effectively a generation behind Gawenda and Harris, senior newspapermen he worked with at a distance in his previous incarnations as a journalist and then executive with Fairfax in Sydney (Fairfax publishes The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald). He was telling them that they had had their day in the sun, which was now beaming on him. It was the sort of heady, vainglorious moment that probably comes to every successful man, although not all care to parade it.
The display was also intriguing on another level. Mark Scott is doing what no ABC chief has done before him: he is taking on Australia’s media proprietors at their own game. As competitive as any businessman, he has also shown himself to be an astute political player, an unflinching opponent and an expansionist in his vision for his fiefdom. Under his leadership, our venerated Aunty is not just hitching up her skirts a little; she has broken into a cancan.
His plans for the ABC include a 24-hour digital television news station; online “regional hubs” (websites for rural Australia); a new online site, The Drum, that runs written commentary and analysis by ABC broadcast journalists; and web portals for the arts and religion. He boasts that the ABC has introduced hundreds of thousands of Australians to podcasts (radio interviews that can be downloaded on the internet); that Aunty set up the nation’s first catch-up TV service on the internet, iView; and that many of its senior journalists are on Twitter.
The broadcaster is even looking at “future forms of narrative, with initiatives in games, whose stories appeal so powerfully to the generations coming through”, Scott says.
Scott’s most vaulting ambition? To establish an international news service to rival the BBC and CNN and advance what he calls Australia’s “soft diplomacy” around the globe.
Some cynics in the commercial media have dubbed his ambitions Messianic, and his package, “Mark’s plan to take over the world”. Others, pained by the contrast between his focus and energy and the continued floundering in other areas of the media, have mockingly gibed, “Great Scott — a plan!” The proprietors themselves have naturally squawked in protest at Scott’s taxpayer-funded incursions on to what they see as their turf.
But you don’t need to be a media proprietor or a shareholder to wonder what it will mean for Australia’s media — and, ultimately, the openness of its democracy — if the ABC becomes the digital era’s emperor on a throne.
The role of the public broadcaster in a time of media abundance — and simultaneous mass-media fragility — is a crucial one. Would a more dominant Aunty really hasten the decline of quality journalism in the commercial media, as proprietors claim? If so, would the ABC then become a lifeboat for the nation’s journalism — Gawenda points out that it now employs more journalists than The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald combined — or could Aunty’s treasured editorial independence also be endangered by some of Scott’s initiatives?
Rupert Murdoch, seemingly the last of the great media barons, has public broadcasters in his sights. In August 2009, at a speech in Edinburgh, Murdoch’s son James attacked the dominance of the BBC and what he saw as its distortion of the media market. James, who is also non-executive chairman of pay-TV company BSkyB, said the BBC’s $9 billion in government funding was crowding out new and existing news providers.
“The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit,” he said. “The scale and scope of [the BBC’s] current activities and future ambitions is chilling . . . In this all-media marketplace, the expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision, which are so important for our democracy. Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet.”
It was also in August that Rupert Murdoch announced plans to put online news behind a pay wall, to ask a generation that has never paid for news online to pay for Murdoch news online. Bloggers and sites such as Google — “the content kleptomaniacs” — should not be able to use his company’s news free: “The philistine phase of the digital age is almost over.”
Mark Scott retaliated in a speech at Melbourne University in October in which he effectively derided Murdoch as an emperor with no clothes. The ABC would continue to supply online content without charge; taxpayers had paid for it once and would not be required to pay a second time. Murdoch’s pay-wall plan, he said, “strikes me as a classic play of old empire, of empire in decline. Believing that because you once controlled the world you can continue to do so. . . Acting on the assumption that you still have the power that befits the emperor.”
The only media organisations to survive, Scott warned, would be those . . . who can see now what many generals only see after devastating loss — that the tactics that won them the last battle might just be the ones that deliver them defeat in the next.”
Within the ABC, Scott and his plans have been greeted largely with delight. According to many insiders, staff had been feeling battered and bruised by years of management that was seen to be either hostile or lacking in vision. They are relieved to have this time scored a leader with media experience, people skills and ideas who has also become a trenchant advocate for the broadcaster. In a vast continent such as Australia, Scott says, the much-loved ABC “is a commons, a shared space . . . a cultural experience we all have in common at a time when common cultural experiences are harder to come by”.
The host of Melbourne’s ABC morning radio news show, Jon Faine, says he has worked under five managing directors and Scott “is better than the rest of them put together. He’s clear about what he wants the organisation to be and what he wants the staff to do. He’s energetic. He’s affable. If he’s in Melbourne, he will walk the floor. He remembers people’s names, he knows what you do, he cares what you do.”
Faine says the ABC is flying high: “Whether you measure us by ratings, agenda-setting, impact on debate, mentions by other media or mentions by parliamentarians, state or federal — by every possible measure, the ABC is doing extraordinarily well compared with any time I can remember in the 20 years I have been a participant. You would be the biggest suck to attribute all of that to the managing director, and I don’t, but obviously there’s a role management has to play and he’s playing it very, very well.”
Scott’s current dexterity on the media trapeze has startled some of his former colleagues at Fairfax; there, he was not so known for taking up big ideas, and a couple of senior appointments he presided over were perceived by his troops as misguided. At the ABC, however, he has received nothing but praise for his selection of lieutenants, particularly Kate Dundas as director of radio and Kate Torney, who is seen as able and dynamic, as head of television news and current affairs. Torney is believed to be the source of many of the initiatives he has taken up.
He is on the record as being committed to being open to the ideas of others and has talked about the need “to seek and be excited about finding and working with people who might turn your organisation upside down. To sit in meetings with people half your age. And listen. And act.” Scott is also known for being genuinely interested in the new technologies that are driving change and sees that the media future is digital.
But for the commercial mass media, the digital era has meant unparalleled “challenges”, as they like to say in MBA-land. With the coming of the internet, advertising markets are “fragmenting”; the advertiser’s choice used to be limited to “old media” such as billboards, papers, radio or TV, but now there is a blizzard of niche websites attracting readers and viewers and breaking up the advertising dollar. The result is declining revenue for “old-empire” media. In response, they have cut staff.
This is happening at the same time that the internet and other technologies demand that journalists, for example, work across and file stories to different “platforms”— newspapers, television, radio, online, and Twitter. Media companies must work out how to engage with readers’ desire for material on devices such as mobile phones and iPads. Revenue and staff are decreasing but the work is intensifying and the need for innovation has never been so great.
While the commercial proprietors are wrestling with these lions, into the arena strides Mark Scott, shielded by the gleaming armour of $800 million in government funding, plus a $150 million increase granted by the Rudd government last year. Says Mark Hollands, chief executive of the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers’ Association, “God knows, it’s hard enough to make a quid out there as it is, and we don’t need the ABC and taxpayers’ money making it harder.”
But if the ABC does not take advertising, where is the threat?
Hollands says: “It’s the potential to take readers or users [whose numbers draw advertisers]. It’s a virtuous circle, but it clearly requires the readers first.”
He says the broadcasting regulator in Britain now insists that the BBC does media impact studies before expanding its operations: “If you launch a website, are you going to tip over a local publishing company, and what loss and impact will that have?” And he warns that a monolithic ABC presence would discourage newcomers here: “I know for a fact that the national broadband network will pull out all sorts of entrepreneurs in towns like Bendigo and Ballarat and Kalgoorlie. People will be using high-speed internet access to challenge the incumbents. It’s happened in the US and Britain. But if you have the ABC entrenched in, say, Bega, you are effectively dissuading new players from competing.”
Hollands believes the roll-out of the broadband network is also a factor in Scott’s thinking: “He’s getting there first and claiming the high ground.”
Says Gawenda: “Most commercial media companies are desperately searching for a way to make their sites and their digital journalism pay, and they are running up against the roadblock of the free ABC sites. If you made people pay for[au], it would lose 95 per cent of its audience. They would go elsewhere, where it’s free.”
But part of Scott’s job is to ensure that taxpayers get value for their money. Even some of his competitors concede that he is doing that. Greg Baxter, corporate affairs spokesman for News Ltd in Australia, says, “I think he’s doing a terrific job and I think as taxpayers we are getting better value than ever.”
He says News has no problem with the ABC’s existence: “I can’t remember us ever arguing about [ABC] funding. They have been part of the landscape for 70 years . . . But when Mark comes out and makes the comments he did last year in the end-of-empire speech, then we feel compelled to respond because he’s got $800 million a year from taxpayers.”
News Ltd also argues that Scott’s 24/7 news station won’t be able to do anything Sky News does not already do, and that “to argue that it won’t cost any more money when you are recruiting journalists and building a studio in [Sydney] is nonsense”.
News also takes issue with Scott’s suggestion, at Senate estimates hearings, that the contract for the Australia Network should go to the ABC without being put to tender. Baxter says: “Clearly, we have an interest in Sky . . . and we can’t see any reason why there shouldn’t be an open, transparent and competitive tender for that service.”
Scott declined to be interviewed for this story, so it is not possible to ask him the reasons for his transformation into the most creative, expansionist and “out there” managing director the ABC has seen. Whatever his ambitions for himself, it seems his ambition for the broadcaster is to ensure the digital era does not leave it stranded, like a cuttlefish on the beach, in the ranks of “legacy media”. He has money; he has the support of his staff below and his board above; and he has the backing of the government.
At the ABC, Scott is freed from the straitjacket of the business plan. He is not required to defend his ideas with promises of short-term profit. His plans stand or fall by other criteria: whether they will fill a market gap, or offer a public good. He must provide a benefit to the citizen who is a viewer, listener or reader, rather than a dividend for shareholders. He acknowledged this advantage in his end-of-empire speech: “Being willing to innovate and take risks so that we can produce a social benefit through the ABC is a responsibility that comes with not having to produce a financial profit. ”
For commercial media proprietors, Scott’s freedom is maddening. “The ABC is transforming into a taxpayer-fuelled broadcasting gorilla with a huge appetite for territory, more public money and a control over public policy,” fumed Sky News managing director Angelos Frangopoulos in an article in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph in January. He was angered by the announcement that the ABC would set up a 24/7 news channel to rival Sky’s subscription-TV news channel, which is connected to almost 40 per cent of homes.
THE new ABC news service, Frangopoulos pointed out acidly, would be on the high-definition spectrum and so would itself only be available to the 40 per cent of homes that can receive HD. But Gawenda, now director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at Melbourne University, says: “I absolutely accept Mark Scott’s argument that the ABC had to have a 24-hour news service. It fills that gap in the market; there is no free-to-air 24-hour news service. You have to get cable TV, and 70 per cent of people are cut off from that.” An ABC staffer says it is “a bit rich” for Frangopoulos to complain given that Foxtel and SkyNews have had 10 years to recoup their investment in cable news.
But, in another salvo, last month Fairfax chief executive Brian McCarthy accused the ABC of threatening Fairfax’s rural publishing arm with its plan for online regional hubs. McCarthy said the ABC Open project, designed to allow regional people to share their ideas and tell their own stories online, might undermine Fairfax by stealing its rural audience: “I do not believe it is the role of the ABC to disrupt the commercial landscape by building empires with public funds.”
Faine and others at the ABC dismiss such protests as vested interests fighting to retain them. But the proprietors’ stance received unexpected reinforcement last week when The Times of London reported that the BBC would close two radio stations, halve the size of its website, sell some of its magazines and slash spending on imported programs to give its commercial rivals more room to operate.
The Times claimed: “It will be seen as an attempt to show the Tories that the BBC understands the effect the advertising recession has had on commercial rivals and that it does not need outside intervention to get its house in order.” The Times had earlier reported the Beeb was considering cuts to ward off Conservative proposals to cut the television licence fee that funds it, because the party was concerned that the BBC’s expansion online threatened to destroy commercial competitors.
The Guardian described the cuts as “a tentative peace treaty, not a surrender . . . Mark Thompson [BBC director-general] is getting strategic because he was making only enemies as corporate expansion blithely continued”.
In other words, the contraction is due to fear that the change of government expected in Britain later this year could lead to a Tory hatchet job on the BBC; it is a concession to political might, not a sincere admission of philosophical defeat.
Defenders of the ABC and the BBC, including Scott, point out that commercial media in the United States are also falling over — 142 daily and weekly newspapers closed in 2009 — even though America has no major public broadcaster offering competing news. “How reckless would it be for Australia to stop funding a credible, independent news service to somehow prop up business models that may continue to struggle in any event?” wrote Scott on the ABC website last week. He was responding to a call by News Ltd columnist Mark Day for Australia’s government to consider getting out of media altogether.
Later in the week Scott slapped his critics down again using the ABC’s opinion website, The Drum. He said the ABC had not exceeded its charter and that media companies were criticising the ABC because they were “threatened by the pace of change, the inflexibility of their own business models and their reluctance to invest”.
There is some disquiet in federal opposition ranks about the growth of the ABC. Responding by email to an inquiry from The Age, shadow communications minister Helen Coonan wrote: “If the ABC did not innovate, it would be a broadcasting backwater and not value for taxpayers’ money. The critical question, however, is whether it is appropriate to have a publicly funded broadcaster that sees a vastly expanded role for its services, e.g. 24-hour news and soft diplomacy, and whether that will come at the expense of other valued programs (e.g. science and religion). It will be important for Mark Scott and the board to be mindful of the constraints imposed by the ABC charter, which did not have in contemplation the new media landscape at the time it was adopted.
“I would not be surprised if these expanded activities prompted calls for a re-look at the charter given the . . . legitimate concerns of commercial operators that the taxpayer-funded broadcaster may well crowd out the competition. That said, Mark Scott is a talented operator. . .”
The doubters and critics, however, are currently howling into the wind. Scott is believed to have a cordial relationship with the ABC board — although that may have been tested this week with a warning by chairman Maurice Newman that staff had succumbed to “groupthink” in their reporting of climate change. Newman, a Howard government appointment and “climate change agnostic”, told staff they must “re-energise the spirit of enquiry” and cautioned against hubris.
While the ABC had “never been more popular, never stronger,” he said, “I think that now, when the corporation is at its strongest, is an ideal time to take a look at ourselves. Not when the critics choose to.”
However there is believed to be no perception at board level that Scott’s current plans might exceed the ABC’s charter. As for staff, they are relieved that none of his initiatives introduce any reliance on advertising, keeping Aunty pure in that regard.
Scott also has the strong backing of the Rudd government. He won that extra funding last year in the teeth of the global financial crisis. At least two of his grand schemes dovetail with government agendas. His plan for the 24/7 news service will hasten households’ take-up of digital and bring forward the time when the analog system can be switched off, something the government is keen to see happen as it rolls out the national broadband network. And his proposal for an international television service to promote the nation’s “soft diplomacy” efforts overseas fits with a Prime Minister keen for Australia to stride the world stage.
In a speech last year, Scott advocated “a more vigorous approach to international broadcasting in keeping with Australia’s global ambitions”. In a veiled reference to the ABC’s tender for the contract to continue running the Australia Network, he said it should be a public broadcaster, and not a commercial outlet, that is employed to use “soft power” as a strategy that “co-opts people rather than coerces them” by “putting your nation’s culture, values and policies on show”.
Scott argued that the ABC should be funded “to become the dominant regional provider of news, information and English-language learning material” and warned against China, in particular, as a rival for influence in the Asia-Pacific region. (This, as the ABC negotiates with China for “landing rights” for ABC telecasts into the country.)
Specifically, Scott wanted to boost the number of ABC foreign news bureaus in the region to 14, “more than either CNN or the BBC . . . [it would] firmly establish us as the pre-eminent source of news and current affairs about and for the region”. Long term, he wants to roll out ABC TV and radio services to China, India, Africa and the Middle East, then to Latin America and finally to Europe and North America. “Even a doubling of our existing effort adds up to less than half the budget of Baz Luhrmann’s [movie] Australia,” he argues.
Rupert Murdoch used an appearance on Sky News to hit back at Scott, saying the international proposal was folly: “Spending $800 million putting Australian culture and didgeridoos around the world is huge over-reach.”
While the debate to date has been couched in terms of a turf war, there is more than turf at stake here. Scott claims it would be possible to be “diplomatically deft” and further Australia’s global ambitions while not sacrificing key attributes of the ABC’s quality journalism.
But isn’t there a tension between the idea of editorial independence, and the offer to allow the ABC to be utilised by government to further its aims overseas?
“People can say, regarding the BBC, for example, that the act of quality journalism and quality coverage is in effect promoting the values of liberal democracy,” says Jason Wilson, a media columnist with and lecturer in digital communications at the University of Wollongong. “Probably most of us wouldn’t have any problem with ‘soft power’ if it means everything from Hollywood movies to CNN programs. But there’s a difference between that and promoting a specific government line on particular issues . . . Australia is having a diplomatic dispute over whaling with Japan; what are you going to broadcast there? Are you promoting your own government line? Who knows?”
Wilson speculates that Scott had been speaking to “multiple audiences” with that speech, “signalling, perhaps, an understanding of the kind of job that perhaps the government would prefer to be done”.
Within the ABC, there are other debates, too. While generally supportive of Scott’s initiatives, staff also wonder how the new 24-hour news station will differentiate itself from what is already available. “We want to see the schedule,” says Quentin Dempster, an ABC broadcaster in NSW and former staff representative on the ABC board.
There are also worries that the ABC is trying to do much with too few. In the digital era, there is a temptation for all the media players racing to keep pace to be reduced to “churnalism” — shallow, continuous coverage of obvious news, rather than in-depth reporting and the hard work of digging to find out something nobody else knows.
Dempster says: “We’re delighted that the ABC is hiring. But there are significant human, quality and creative impacts which are radically changing broadcasting or ‘cybercasting’. There is deep distress among those being displaced, and among the technological survivors, that quality will suffer, that everyone will be stretched too thinly . . . pretty soon the MD will have us broadcasting direct live-to-air by holding up our HD camera-equipped iPhones at news conferences. Foreign correspondents are already doing this. What many of us want to know is this: will ABC journalism in future be more than ambulance-chasing?”
Another insider says foreign correspondents already think of themselves as “satellite monkeys”: arriving in a hot-spot only to find they can’t chase the story because they have to stay on a satellite link or internet connection for 10 hours a day, filing to different programs. “There’s the Midday Report, the 7pm news, Lateline, AM, PM, The World Today, hourly radio news, the News Breakfast show, the News Radio station, the 7.30 Report — and then the local radio stations get your number and you’re stuffed.”
Too often, he says, correspondents are reduced to loading up with web articles before they arrive so they can “rip and read” when they hit the ground, recycling news but not generating it themselves.
Chris Masters is an award-winning investigative journalist who retired from the ABC’s Four Corners program in 2008 and now freelances and works for The Daily Telegraph in Sydney. He says: “If there’s any area where it’s particularly under threat, it’s television. I don’t want a situation where it’s just the gun programs like Four Corners that are seen to be the ones that break news. The ABC doesn’t have a good reputation for breaking news, particularly in TV.
“I know from working in TV, it actually is very hard to be a journalist when you have got all these production responsibilities. There are TV journalists who go through an entire day without making a phone call.”
It is in newspapers, he says, that “the hard work of journalism” is done. “A newspaper reporter will come into the office and make 20 or 30 phone calls in a day. I might be wrong, and I won’t please a lot of my colleagues, but I don’t think too many people at the ABC do that.” So he believes it is important that a balance be maintained between the public broadcaster and the commercial media: “The nation would be so much the lesser if we didn’t have competitors. You don’t want the ABC turning into [former Soviet state mouthpiece]Pravda, and you don’t want Alan Jones taking over either.”
Wilson, too, believes too little investigative journalism is now done in broadcasting, a problem he says pre-dates Mark Scott but which still raises questions about his direction. “It has been decades since we had current-affairs broadcasts at the ABC that really had politicians worried, that surprised them, that break stories and get people off guard on a regular basis. Once upon a time, that was the sort of programming the ABC led with.”
ABC staff are also talking about the role of online and, in particular, the site called The Drum, where senior reporters write analysis and commentary. Quentin Dempster says, “There is a debate inside the ABC about the wisdom of asking our news reporters to write pieces for The Drum. Some are bagging it as self-indulgent opinion and self-promotion. Through The Drum, the ABC is morphing into a text publisher. We have to see how the guidelines and examples delineating analysis [generally seen as permissible for those reporting on news] from opinion [seen as undermining a reporter’s objectivity with the readership] evolve.”
Gawenda takes a tougher line: “You have got to wonder how The Drum fits the ABC policy of journalists not being involved in commentary. In my view, it doesn’t fit at all. They’ve tried to mount this ridiculous argument that there’s a difference between commentary and analysis, but they can’t even define where that line is.”
Gawenda warns that Scott must be careful to sniff the political wind in case it should shift direction. “Both the board and the CEO have to understand the political environment in which they are working. If they get it wrong, they will have political problems in terms of their budgets.”
But he also warns against attempts to rein in the broadcaster: “I actually think we are increasingly lucky to have an ABC. The national broadcaster will become increasingly important. That doesn’t mean you want commercial media to die, but the answer for the commercial media is not to knacker the ABC.”
May 22, 2006
Appointed ABC managing director
and immediately comes under
fi re for refusing to state his position
on whether there should be
advertising on the ABC. However,
says he strongly supports the ABC
Enterprises division to try to raise
independent sources of funding.
Believes the ABC’s biggest
challenge is “staying relevant in
a digital world”.
July 16, 2006
In fi rst national interview, says he
would green-light important stories
that might upset powerful people.
December 21, 2006
Following fi ndings of an independent
study, orders immediate
closure of ABC’s Brisbane studios.
Twelve women had been diagnosed
with breast cancer in the
previous 11 years.
July 1, 2007
ABC celebrates its 75th
September 10, 2007
In speech to the National Press
Club, Scott describes Rupert
Murdoch as the last best hope for
quality newspapers
September 12, 2007
Controversial episode showing
Chaser team breaching APEC
security during the forum’s
Sydney summit is watched by
2.24 million viewers nationally.
“I am a great fan,” says Scott. “I
think they work incredibly hard
and I am delighted for them for
the success . . .”
July 23, 2008
Launch of iView, an internet
platform that enables catch-up
viewing of popular programs.
November 3, 2008
The News Breakfast program goes
to air on ABC2 fronted by Barrie
Cassidy and Virginia Trioli.
May 12, 2009
The federal budget allocates
$165 million over three years
to fund a children’s TV channel,
more Australian drama and
regional online content.
June 10, 2009
Head of television comedy
Amanda Duthie removed by ABC’s
director of television, Kim Dalton,
after The Chaser’s controversial
Make a Realistic Wish sketch.
October 20, 2008
Religion Report presenter
Stephen Crittenden suspended
pending an inquiry into comments
he made about the axing of fl agship
programs on Radio National.
October 26, 2009
Scott announces new arts website
intended as a one-stop web
portal for arts practitioners and
December 4, 2009
Kevin Rudd switches on ABC3,
a children’s TV channel.
January 21, 2010
Announcement that ABC will
launch a 24-hour television news
network to be running by second
half of year on its fourth channel.
March 5, 2010
Communications Minister
Stephen Conroy endorses ABC’s
expansion online and Scott,
saying the expansion and new
channels are legitimate activities
for a public broadcaster.

BORN October 9, 1962, in Los Angeles (he
holds both US and Australian citizenship).
EDUCATION Knox Grammar School,
University of Sydney, Harvard University.
FAMILY Married to Briony Edmonds in 1993.
They have three daughters.
CAREER First job was as a teacher at
St Andrew’s Cathedral School in 1985. He
left in 1986 to work as a researcher for
Terry Metherell, a NSW opposition frontbencher.
In 1990 became chief-of-staff to
Virginia Chadwick. Became education editor at
The Sydney Morning Herald, aged 31,
in 1996. At Fairfax he rose through editorial
management, in charge of human resources
and industrial relations, holding titles of
editorial director and editor-in-chief. Managing
Director of the ABC since 2006.