Science broadcaster Robyn Williams has trod the corridors of the ABC for half a century. Best known for his long-running and internationally renowned The Science Show, he combines a fine mix of in-depth and often quirky reporting that attracts old and young alike. We asked this self-described ABC ‘Methuselah’ for his inside assessment of the public broadcaster today, his views of some of the criticisms and what he’d like to see change.
Rejuvenating the ABC? And who is Fella Nullius? – Methuselah Replies …
By Robyn Williams / 27 November 2022
For myself and Phillip Adams all ABC staff are young. So, it’s hard, at first, to discern a problem. But there are a few issues that continue to erupt over Aunty – and age is one of them. I remember when Ellen Fanning was first appointed as the presenter of PM (was it really last century?) and the frowning-bejowled knockers howled in protest. “She was too bloody young!” I defended her. She thrived.
No, the real problem is having a broadcaster that’s been starved, mangled and restructured to near extinction to appease the right-wing onslaught, and damaged over the decades in ways that make everyone forget what a public institution is for.
Robyn Williams joined the ABC in 1972 and three years later began The Science Show, which has become an ABC ‘institution’.
Back in the 1960s and 70s, when I was at university in London and, at the same time, cavorting every week in TV shows from Monty Python and Z Cars to standing in for Tom Jones, there was a character from Australia we got to know only too well: Fella Nullius. He appeared in Private Eye Magazine in a series by Barry Humphries as Bazza McKenzie. Big jaw, small brain, uncouth in every way, this was the Australian lumpen bloke as depicted by a posh fellow from Melbourne! Was it true? Or a national insult?
It is the common smear: we (ABC types etc) are the ‘elite’ (the word is now, interesting paradox, an insult), and the odd present combo of working class and the preposterously wealthy are the decent, worthy Australians. In fact, the workers have been partially bought off by this conjuring trick and fed the pabulum of retail politics instead of a real sense of future. And the same applies in broadcasting. Trying to retain quality in our programs when working with insultingly tiny resources simply sets one up to fail. Fella Nullius wouldn’t give a soggy fig.
But I was lucky enough to have grown up with an Australian family (descended from Sir Henry Parkes) which was the opposite of Bazza (Fella): sophisticated, learned and not at all nullius. A stream of smart Aussies visited them and impressive they were. That’s why I decided, age 20, to come to live here. I landed just as THE LUCKY COUNTRY by Donald Horne was published. And that’s when I discovered that the Oz cultural tension constantly pulls between yes, Bazza McKenzie and Barry Jones, from laisser-faire neglect, disguised as a call for FREEDOM à la Mel Gibson, to a sense of future possibilities and how to realise them. From proudly ignorant to formidably wise.
Joining the ABC in 1972 I found an institution amusingly bent on imitating Pom pretentiousness (some of the accents were beyond poncy) and yet impeccable at hiring well-qualified and ambitious talents. From music aficionados (Charlie Buttrose was one!) and drama chiefs, to sporting and rural types who knew their territories – all united by one word: CAREER. The standards were old-fashioned but the aim was for their definition of quality. Then, in the 1970s a revolution happened.
Quality was maintained, but the rebellious innovators: Marius Webb (co-inventor of 2JJ); Malcolm Long (presenter of Lateline, father of LNL*); Dione Gilmour (co-creator of Nature of Australia); Caroline Jones, Terry Lane etc, all combined to bring ideas in a new form to an audience that had been underestimated but now relished the buzz for their brains. And all the while good writing and clear speaking were treasured. All parts of Australia enjoyed the changes.
We were hired, young and old, both as specialists and as potentially multi-skilled. Combined. I had done live telly and lots of showbiz and so was quickly placed with our then immense coverage of moon shots (Apollos 16 & 17) and appearing on shows across the networks and states, training as I went. It was intense all right, but effective.
Later, my partner, Dr Jonica Newby, spent 20 years on the original Catalyst shows and did four jobs at once: reporter, director, producer and (having her own camera) shooting film sequences. One salary for the price of four!
The unstated philosophy was that you would grow into a supremely versatile ABC person (as long as you didn’t become a manager!) who could be lobbed into almost any situation. We even turned up on commercial shows to give our own ABC shows profile and I treasured interactions with Ray Martin, Bert Newton (who loved science) and Kerri-Anne Kennerley. Goodwill between commercial and public media is solid at the performer level!
Of course, it is more expensive to give employees some security of tenure – and I’m not suggesting you keep the stumbling ‘fuckwits’, as Paul Lyneham called them, or the bullying despots, in featherbedded tenure, but it turns out that the multi-skilled, as Jonica demonstrated, save you fortunes.
And this is how Fran Kelly turns out to be so right, as was Ray Martin, to host a TV chat show. Being narky about her supposedly blocking a younger star is plain wrong, just as it was wrong to do the same in reverse about Ellen Fanning and PM way back. Both have the talent to earn the trust, and the experience. But how many like them has the ABC grown in recent times? And how many young staff nowadays just give up quickly when they are left in plodding jobs being glorified gophers? Why do managers not roam corridors or studios anymore, keeping in touch? They are instead ruling remotely via florid emails! The last network boss I was under saw me for a total of 7 minutes in 5 years, and that was by accident! I know AI now allows virtual management, but it’s not virtuous management.
Flexible broadcasters can adapt to new technologies and new demands. They can also see how brain farts such as former NSW premier Mike Baird’s plan to move the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta are so very wrong, and very much so when applied to the ABC. Parramatta is still SYDNEY and no, we don’t want to look like an SBC, but an ABC! And you do that by going to the regions, not just connecting virtually. LEAVE THE BUILDING.
“You leave the building!”: Robyn with conservation biologist Deb Bower and wildlife ecologist Eric Nordberg as they search for freshwater long-neck turtles in a New England (NSW) creek. The turtle populations are diminishing due to predators, notably foxes.
I spend half my life in Wollongong, Newcastle, Ballarat, Launceston, Albany, Geelong, Townsville, Adelaide, Fremantle, Nowra, often paying my own way…it’s where there’s broadcasting gold. And, as for youth: we put them on our programs. What about E=MC2 The Musical? Performed by kids at an Indigenous school at Hope Vale north of Cooktown, with the encouragement of Noel Pearson. Yes, it was on The Science Show and as inspiring as it was unexpected. You leave the building!
How to appeal to youth: Budding scientists regularly feature on The Science Show. A favourite story, from October 2021, featured E=mc2 The Musical developed by the Indigenous Hope Vale primary school community on Cape York in far north Queensland (above). Inspired by Albert Einstein’s ground-breaking equation, the show features a Time Machine and introduces children to many of the world’s most significant scientists and their work. It’s since been performed by students at Haberfield Public School (below) – and featured again on The Science Show in June this year. Pictures courtesy of Hope Vale & Haberfield schools, GGSA and CYAAA; photographers (below) Michelle Caruso and, far right, Sachin Wakhare.
There are lots of things to improve in the ABC but they are little to do with left-wing bias or identity patrols. The organisation needs its heart back, as well as its proper funding. It also needs to rediscover how to maintain a spirited, confident set of teams, and not just through lip-service (in fact: email service!).
Our world is shockingly uncertain and we need the media to serve us to make better sense of it. The props of predictable news pegs, obvious chatter and ‘woke’ condescension are no longer enough.
A popular speaker. Robyn spends much of his time travelling in the country regions, visiting schools, universities, festivals, conferences and public events. ABC Alumni’s speakers’ service organised for him to address this ABC Friends meeting last month in Armidale NSW. Picture: Dave Robinson
Two final thoughts, while I’m emoting. First on diversity. Yes, all for it, but it must be done subtly, not as a formula hurled at the audience.
Stan Grant put it this way, in answer to the Q “Which word do you most dislike” …
A: “I dislike the word ‘identity’. To borrow from Kafka, it seems ‘like a cage in search of a bird’. Whatever happened to forgiveness? We live in such a prosecutorial age, with endless grievances pitting us against one another.” (Australian Book Review, June 2021)
And then there is the deluge of data in the disguise of necessary and often arid (and terrifying) bulletins.
Gwyneth Williams, former CEO of BBC Radio 4 wrote:
“Now is the right time to break the rolling news mindset. Sometimes I find listening itself unbearable.”
“At the BBC it became my mission to deepen understanding of the news. The tyranny of the 24-hour news cycle developed while I was running the English World Service and it is now an endless, rolling, meaningless, repetitive drama.
“My aim was to keep programmes intelligent, to give audiences the understanding they need to make good choices. I am convinced that news alone is not enough. We need urgently to draw on other fields of knowledge such as history and philosophy. Science too, as is self-evident now. It is a relief to see the return of expertise and authority in public life.” (New Statesman, May 2020)
We have news channels for both radio and TV and stacks online. If we were to cull some of the many repeats and the refashioned archives + talking heads in lieu of fresh documentaries, and redeployed a few middle managers’ positions as producers for promising broadcasters, we could indeed give lots of Franklies to the up and coming. And the time to let them GROW.
Watch this video tribute to Robyn Williams by the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) – Robyn Williams: Why science matters (November 2022).
*These are the radio programs Lateline (unrelated to the TV program of the same name) and Late Night Live (LNL).
Robyn Williams AO FAA has presented RN’s ‘The Science Show’ since 1975, and appeared on or presented countless other programs including ‘Nature of Australia’, ‘Quantum’, ‘Catalyst’ and ‘World Safari with David Attenborough’. His early career was in the UK, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Hons) but spent as much time acting, with guest appearances in programs such as ‘The Goodies’, ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ and ‘Doctor Who’, and a 4-month stint standing in for Tom Jones on his TV variety program ‘This Is Tom Jones’ – a background evident in the entertaining wit he brings to serious science reporting. Robyn is highly respected in the academic world and in 1993 became the first journalist elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. He has received honorary doctorates from several universities, and served in various capacities in many prominent organisations, including as President of the Australian Museum Trust, Deputy Chair of the Commission For The Future, and President of the ANZAAS Congress. Robyn is also the author of more than 10 books, the most recent being ‘Turmoil: Letters from the Brink’.