ABC crisis at the top: Will the Board members please tell?

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New ABC Acting Chair Dr Kirstin Ferguson (Image screenshot abc.net.au)

Demands for a change in top-level decision-making at the ABC include the idea of replacing the governing Board — calling for better public scrutiny of that generally off-the-record body. Media editor Lee Duffield says asking the Board what it knew about machinations between the now departed Chairman and Managing Director is a logical follow-up to crisis in the organisation.

THE FIVE women and two men of the present, residual ABC Board have been under a cloud because of the system of direct nomination of directors by the government.

The former Chairman Justin Milne resigned over his ideas of what the government wanted, so his Board colleagues are being asked if they had any involvement in his actions.

Who’s who

Short histories of the Board members are available on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation site, where you can meet: Acting Chair Dr Kirstin Ferguson, staff elected member Jane Connors, Joseph Gersh, Vanessa Guthrie, Peter Lewis, Georgie Somerset and Donny Walford.

One point about this Board is the very small size of it — more like a company board, not the national broadcaster where you could expect a better spread of interests. Some effort has been made to shoe-horn a range of experience into the positions available, but clearly not a full range of possibilities and that kind of enrichment anyway is not the goal.

The present group includes people from rural industry (Georgie Somerset) and mining (Vanessa Guthrie), some who are proponents of career aspirations for women, or associated with arts organisations (Kirstin Ferguson, Donny Walford), plus the two with actual practitioner experience of media (Peter Lewis and Jane Connors).

Mostly the common denominator is background in business, no doubt handy in important moments when the accounts are discussed – probably at every meeting –but it’s just one world.

Boardroom regulars

A key to the life of regulars on company boards is being conscientious, keeping your mouth shut, and being party to governance where decisions are made in private and then pushed through in the corporation.

The culture is not one where you explain yourself — definitely not out in public.

It’s elitist, where the not-so-bright can drift into affected disdain for outsiders, or in more sensible incarnations just fumble out of inexperience when the call comes to take a position.

Introducing new head of the Board

Kirstin Ferguson’s biography pictures an asset to organisations, with background of hard work, ideas and capacity for intelligent dealing with the briefing papers. She is listed by the ABC as an independent company director from several companies and former CEO of a consulting company in the resources industry. Starting as an Air Force officer, she obtained an Honours Law degree and in 2015 completed a PhD (on companies’ governance of safety). Public spirited work included offering a lawyers-eye-view on the boards of the Queensland Rugby Union and Queensland Theatre Company, and running #CelebratingWomen, a social media campaign promoting advancement of women.

Quickly appointed by the government and Governor General, she gave interviews last week, including an encounter with journalist Kath Robinson on ABC Radio (Friday, 28 September).

The reporter was asking how much the ABC Board had known about the exchanges between former Chairman Justin Milne and the dismissed Managing Director Michelle Guthrie, and about the Chairman’s idea of punishing certain staff to appease the government.

My notes from the interview: 

Not telling. Somebody else will do that — it will come out at the government’s inquiry. Notes on the speaking card say, appointments to the Board are government business; replacement of the present Board would not be a solution (no explanation proffered); keep saying the Board supports staff, and all its efforts are devoted to supporting the ABC’s interests (as Justin Milne kept saying). Maybe some military influence, like the habit of senior officers of giving decisions, not necessarily orders, with no explanation. Um, answer the questions?


The following is a part-transcript of the edited interview which is available to play back online.

Presenter Kathryn Robinson: The new Acting Chair of the ABC is refusing to reveal, how the public broadcaster’s board responded when it first became aware that the chair had ordered the dismissal of two senior journalist who’d been criticised by the federal government… Kath Robinson from the ABC News Channel asked Dr Ferguson when she was made aware of the allegations that then Chairman Justin Milne had been urging the now former Managing Director Michelle Guthrie to  sack two senior journalists.

Acting Chair Kirstin Ferguson: Look, I think this is something which will all come out in the departmental inquiry which has been announced. It is difficult for me to go through that in detail which I hope you can appreciate, because what we want is a fulsome um assistance under the Act, however we can help with that inquiry.

KR: Don’t Australian voters and taxpayers deserve a little more detail from you in that asking that very simple question, when did you know what about the Chairman?

KF: I think that what we need to remember and have a look at some of the facts, is that we have wonderful journalists who we totally support and my encouragement to them is ask the hard questions continue to do what you are doing every day shining light on the issues that need to be uncovered. This is something that your board is fully in support of.

KR: OK Let me read this to you and I want to ask you this. Did you receive documents at a board meeting where excerpts of communications between the former Chairman and Managing Director were shared. It read “they hate her, we are tarred with her brush, I just think it’s simple, get rid of her. My view is we need to stay the corporation not ever. There is no guarantee they will lose the next election” … Did you receive those documents at a board meeting?

KF: Look, again that will all be part of a departmental inquiry, so I am not able to go into detail as to when we saw those, but the bottom line is that Justin has resigned, he resigned yesterday and were very grateful for that decision.

KR: OK if you can’t answer specifically to the dates of the timeline can you tell me when if at all any alarm bells were raised at the actions of the Chairman?

KF: Look, I think any time you’ve got a board of diverse views, we all have independence of thought and that’s always encouraged, and I can assure you in all the deliberations we’ve ever had while I’ve been on this Board there’s been diverse views ….  Ah and we’ve expressed our independence of thought ...

The Board job by law is safeguarding the independence and integrity of the ABC, important to the whole county, so the pressure stays on to get out the whole story.

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

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