Digital Futures for Australian Culture: Obituary for Brian Johns AO (1936-2016)

The passing of Brian Johns on January 1, 2015, at the age of 79, has seen much public acknowledgement of his unique contributions to Australian media, culture and public life. Starting his career as a journalist, and becoming the Canberra chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald, he worked in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet under both the Whitlam and Fraser governments. He went to be publishing director at Penguin Books in 1979, before being appointed Managing Director of the Special Broadcasting Service from 1987 to 1992, and the first Chair of the newly established Australian Broadcasting Authority.

In the role that he is best known for, Johns was Managing Director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from 1995 to 2000. After that often-stormy time, he became an Adjunct Professor in the Creative Industries Faculty at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and Chair of University’s cultural precinct. He also served as a director on the board of the Copyright Agency Limited, and was chairman from 2004 to 2009, and was a director of the Board of Melbourne University Publishing.

It was during his time at QUT, in the aftermath of his time as Managing Director of the ABC, that I got to know Brian Johns. Working with Professors Stuart Cunningham and John Hartley, and with staff in the newly created Creative Industries Faculty, Brian took a very active role in advising on how to structure the ambitious new Faculty to best take advantage of the opportunities presented by digital technologies to revitalise arts and culture, as well as professional fields such as Journalism, which he took a particularly active interest in.

Being in the office next to Brian, I got to talk with him about a wide range of issues. Interesting, given the controversies at the time around his replacement at the ABC – the short-lived and ill-fated reign of Jonathon Shier – he was reluctant to provide a running commentary on changes at the ABC. Even though he was often contacted by the media about the ABC, he did not want to comment on his successor’s performance, taking the view that at the time he became the ABC’s Managing Director, the last thing he would have wanted was David Hill, as his predecessor, commenting on his won performance.

What he was particularly keen to talk about was the opportunities presented by digital technologies for Australian arts, media and culture, as well as the potential dangers. For Brian, the biggest risk was not presented by new technologies themselves, but by failing to respond to their radical changes they were bringing to these industries and professions. He brought such a pro-active approach to his time at both the SBS and the ABC. Mark Scott has paid tribute to Brian as the person who clearly grasped the need for the ABC to be at the forefront of adopting the new digital technologies if it was going to remain relevant to Australians, and hence maintain the levels of public support that were the best guarantor of ongoing funding in times of great political turbulence for the national broadcaster.

There were two particularly important lessons that could be taken from time spent with Brian Johns. One was that he retained a strong egalitarian spirit whatever the public standing that his position held. He was genuinely committed to talking to as many people as possible to get ideas about how best to manage change in an organisation. He was intellectually curious and a very good listener. Perhaps a legacy of his time spent in the Catholic Seminary, or his modest upbringing in tropical North Queensland.

Another was Brian’s commitment to a public service ethos. Not providing a running commentary on his successors in leadership roles at the ABC was an element of this. Another was the way in which he could work with both Labor and Liberal governments. While he certainly had strong and clear political views, and they tended broadly to the left, he was of the view that advancing the public good in any role required a capacity to “work across the aisle” and be open to ideas from across the political spectrum. He did enable advertising to commence on SBS under his tenure as Managing Director (then euphemistically termed “sponsorship”), and he was able to work with new ventures in the private sector, such as On Line Opinion, as well as with public sector media and cultural organisations. He also had a good eye for what sorts of content would provide popular with Australian readers and viewers.

His clearest commitments were to the advancement of Australian culture. A recurring theme of his work in broadcasting and publishing was his commitment to promoting new Australian cultural voices, and he was in that sense a cultural nationalist of the sort who came through Australian public life in the 1960s and 1970s.

In his role as Chair of the Copyright Agency Ltd., he initiated the establishment of a Cultural Fund whereby a percentage of CAL’s funds would be committed to grants and fellowships to support Australian authors, artists and cultural creators. The statement on the CAL Cultural Fund web site that “the cultural heritage of any society begins with a spark of imagination and the nurturing of talent” is one that is very much in keeping with the commitment and focus of Brian Johns.

In passing on condolences to his wife Sarah, and to his children, it can be noted that Brian Johns was a very generous and visionary individual. Interested in engaging with people and gauging as many opinions as possible, he combined a strong commitment to national culture and public service with an eye to the opportunities presented by new technologies, and the need to actively embrace the possibilities of the digital future. He saw innovation and creativity as linked, and he saw cultural development and engagement with ordinary Australians in their everyday lives as being integrally linked. It was a pleasure to be able to talk with Brian about issues, and to get his insights. He will be missed.

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About Terry Flew

I am Professor of Media and Communication in the Creative Industries Faculty at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. I am the author of New Media: An Introduction, the fourth edition of which was published by Oxford University Press in 2014. I am also the author of Understanding Global Media, published by Palgrave in 2007, and The Creative Industries, Culture and Policy, published by Sage in 2012.