Spigelman's a fit for your ABC

Given his passionate belief in the public's right to the truth, and his formidable intelligence and experience, Jim Spigelman could easily be the best chairman the ABC has ever had.

The Power Index

Former NSW Chief Justice Jim Spigelman will not only be a good chairman of the ABC, he could easily be the best.

Certainly, he will be no government lackey. And he could be the ideal person to oversee Australia's national broadcaster. That's a remarkable thing to say about a recently-retired judge, given that most of his ilk regard the media as a nuisance or a plague, and that journalists generally hate judges. But Spigelman is a remarkable man.

Former ABC chairman and managing director David Hill thinks Spigelman's the perfect candidate. He told The Power Index: "Jim Spigelman is one of the brightest people I've ever met. He's a great Australian and I think he's a fantastic choice."

Unlike most of his fellow judges, Jim Spigelman values the media and believes it plays a crucial role in Australian society. He also believes passionately in the public's right to know, which is why he instilled the principle of open justice into the NSW Supreme Court during his 13 years in charge.

In a lecture in London in 2005, Spigelman told a conference on media and the law: "The fundamental rule is that judicial proceedings must be conducted in an open court to which the public and the press have access. A court cannot agree to sit in camera, even if that is by the consent of the parties."

Gina Rinehart and her lawyers would do well to have heeded those words of advice before their repeated recent demands for non-publication orders.

In the same speech, Spigelman commented, "It is appropriate to recall the observations of Justice Felix Frankfurter: 'A free press is not to be preferred to an independent judiciary, nor an independent judiciary to a free press. Neither has primacy over the other, both are indispensable to a free society.'"

Just as relevant to Spigelman's new role as ABC chairman is his belief in the importance of searching for truth. A week before he retired last May, the Chief Justice delivered the Sir Maurice Byers Lecture on "Truth and the Law", in which his main theme was, "What matters most are the facts". The Chief Justice assured his audience that the public want a legal system "dedicated to the search for truth".

It's no great leap to suppose that's what the public also want from the ABC, and that it will be what Spigelman will demand.

But Spigelman brings a host of other qualifications to the chairman's job. He has an incredible brain, which got him into Sydney Boys High and won him the Sydney University Medal in his youth. And he has experience in both the media and politics.

Back in the 1970s, he was the youngest-ever head of the Department of Media in Canberra, at the age of 29. Before that, fresh out of law school, he was Gough Whitlam's senior adviser and principal private secretary.

He had already shone in student politics, as President of the SRC at Sydney University, and he had shown a passion for social justice.

In 1965, when Spigelman was 19, he was one of the key organisers of the Freedom Ride, in which Charlie Perkins and a busload of white students attempted to confront Australia's racist attitudes to aborigines. Giving a tribute to Perkins in 2005, Spigelman revealed he was 'king hit' during one angry argument and that they were all subject to "physical violence and abuse". At one point near Walgett in northern NSW, their bus was forced off the road and surrounded.

There were also ugly confrontations when Perkins tried to lead a group of aboriginal war veterans into Moree's RSL and a bunch of aboriginal kids into the whites-only swimming pool.

The result of these protests, as Spigleman cheerfully explained 40 years later, was to "make these issues front page news, day after day, in a manner that had never occurred before".

It will be interesting to see if he presses the ABC to make headlines in this (or any other) area again.

But whether he is proactive or not, he will clearly be sympathetic to campaigning, investigative journalism, and he will be its powerful defender. I can't see Spigelman bowing to political direction from Canberra, as long as journalists at the ABC get their facts right. Nor can I see him defending them to the hilt when they get those facts wrong.

I think he's a great choice.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in The Power Index on March 8. Republished with permission.

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