Media

Sacking of the ABC chief: Dangerous times

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Former ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie (Screenshot via YouTube)

The ABC says Michelle Guthrie was sacked as she was a bad fit for broadcasting and new media, especially in the current times of change. Media editor Dr Lee Duffield says the move could end up making democratic life more precarious.

MICHELLE GUTHRIE, a media and technology lawyer and earlier, an executive from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, appointed in the time of former PM Malcolm Turnbull, came across from the beginning as being out of place.

That is a view being reiterated at the moment throughout the ABC.

CORPORATE TYPE

Watching her at two audience appearances generated the feeling, for me, that this was a corporate type who might be highly effective, but might get things wrong, tread on the professionals’ toes and make blunders.

Having seen all sorts of clerks, crawlers and sub-professional fakes giving media organisations or universities a corporate make-over, and kicking to death their collegiate ways, it was too easy to be cynical.

You had to accept that there was competence as well as good intentions. And you had to hope that, if given a fair go, the corporate-mindedness of this new appointee could be turned into a good thing for a modernising ABC. 

“OBSESSED” WITH THE STRUCTURES

The broadcaster who came to criticise her more than most, Jon Faine, on his radio show on Monday, 24 September, hit on the “corporatisation” theme.

“She was obsessed with platforms, structures, flowcharts”, he said, and without background either in the organisation or the broadcast professions, including “no interest in journalism”.

He revived his other main complaint, also consistent with the senior corporate identity: reluctance to get out on the public stage and advocate.

WHO KNEW?

Informed comments from the ABC – past and present, inside and outside the organisation – were focusing on why it happened and what comes next.

For example, from Nick Franklin, formerly a senior producer with Radio National and one of its Walkley Award laureates, who told IA:

It is like the Liberal Party sacking Malcolm Turnbull — no proper reason is given.

Years ago, the politician Neville Wran told one appointee to the job he’d have rocks in his head to be managing director of the ABC: difficult staff, hostile government especially under Liberals, but sometimes Labor also, and they have to deal with the general public, in a fast-changing media landscape.

All governments are very interested in top-level appointments at the ABC and it would be a break with past history if the chairman did not speak with the government of the day about the managing director position.

HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT

Matt Peacock, the last staff elected member of the ABC Board, told ABC radio that Michelle Guthrie had stood up against overt interference by the Government and defended staff, in a “very hostile political environment”.

He said:

She was staunch in defending staff and resisting pressure to have people sacked just because people in the Government did not like them … She had a passion for ABC staff … she got the blame for changes that were already being made [when she joined]. 

Be careful what you wish for; the next one could be worse.

He also saw the ABC chairman, Justin Milne, who enacted the dismissal of his CEO half-way through her five-year contract, being confronted with the familiar problem that comes with running the national broadcaster:

“There are reservations whether he can maintain the ABC’s independence and integrity, at the same time as getting money the ABC is going to need to go digital.”

TROUBLE ON THE TOP FLOOR

Tensions between the chairman and managing director had built up over differences of vision, turning into differences over priorities.

The MD was culling management positions, cost-cutting, sometimes at great community cost – like the canning of shortwave services to remote parts attacked as a blunder – bringing on an official inquiry and in general (for a bit more jargon and corporate-speak) putting through “transformational” change.

Milne was touting the “Jetstream” project, to put all of the ABC, plus many other public informational or archiving services on a massive digital platform.

He’d been lobbying directly on this and no doubt other issues with the chap who appointed him, erstwhile Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, for which efforts have not yet brought in the money.

Still not telling just why Ms Guthrie was removed, he said on television on Monday night, her lack of push in the promotion and lobbying department was “possibly an area that could have been better”.

Stephen Brook, a commentator at Ms Guthrie’s old home, News Corp, enterprisingly filed a story for Monday’s The Australian, focused on the frosty relations being generated by the ABC Chairman’s lobbying efforts, which often enough excluded the MD:

“The pair have clashed over a number of key proposals and how to deal with a hostile Coalition Government as the ABC prepares its case for its next round of three-year funding of its triennial budget.”

The ABC had been kicking against the Government-imposed budget freeze, costing $84-million over three years, from its annual billion dollar budget.

MONEY AND DANGER

That brings in the danger part.

While leading Liberal and National Party figures have railed against the ABC for generations, the Coalition has not, since the 1930s, had such a strongly reactionary right-wing demanding its sale or disbandment.

Known reasons are:

  • its non-committal editorial policy un-nerves ultra-conservative politicians by giving the left and centre a hearing; 
  • privatisation fits the financial ideology of the right-wing and would provide the usual windfalls for buyers;
  • similarly, the ABC as well as being a corporation is a public institution for holding together a society, not a private business for an atomised world of bitching individuals; and
  • its removal would provide business protection for commercial broadcasters and publishers — some of whom kick over all journalistic bounds to cheer on Coalition sides.

That pattern of thought produced a call by the Liberal Party’s National Council last June, voting two to one, to sell off the ABC; Malcolm Turnbull, a possible voice of moderation, is gone — and time is tight.

The right-wing parties are in office, probably at least into the early part of next year, though you never know.

After public splits and policy paralysis, they have every reason to get jittery and want to get in some heavy hits very quickly, in case the voters decide the jig is up.

They have declared war on the broadcaster, a spectacular target and scalp, at their policy council and now it will also be asked what personal cultural and intellectual competencies such Liberal people might have if they want to kill off the ABC.

They can push in on the appointment of a new managing director, maybe one willing to oversee more crippling budget-slashing, disparagement of the broadcaster, undermining and, even, the end.

It is a scenario bound to cause massive uproar and division in Australia, which is perhaps an actual appetising prospect to a revolutionary Right, with heavily lopsided outcomes at best — meaning problems for freedom of media and democracy in general.

RETIRING HURT

In the meantime, Michelle Guthrie has said her removal was a shock — a devastating, unjustified act for which she might yet seek legal redress.

A main failing seems to have been her managerial style: much talk on efficiency, or defeating “internal barriers to progress” and about “investing in audience strategies” for “delivering against those strategies”. Talk not much liked by actual broadcasters, versus claimed achievements in funding investigative journalism, “culture, conversations and stories” — a bit more of that might have gone down well. 

Another main failing also looks to have been the senior executive habit of pushing things through without deigning to sell them and the discomfit at doing advocacy for the ABC in the public domain, just when it needed that visible strong hand.

Sad but probably true, a person on a $900,000 per annum contract that says the board can sack you on the way through, who has attracted critics across the board, and has fallen out with the board, gets little sympathy and might be quickly forgotten — or not.

Once an all-purpose corporate chief, things can work out well. We may see this one sooner or later running Optus, or the Gann Railway, Bundy Rum, a state gallery of the arts, Dreamworld — anything at all.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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