Not surprisingly, the appointment of Australian-born, Singapore-based Google executive Michelle Guthrie as the new ABC managing director and editor-in-chief created considerable media interest. Guthrie is the first woman to head the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster and her $900,000 annual salary means she is one of the most highly paid public officials in the land.
For all that, if precedent is any guide, it does not matter much who succeeds the current managing director Mark Scott. The truth is that no one really runs the ABC. Not chairman James Spigelman and his board, which meets just once a month. And, judging by the performance of Scott and his predecessor Russell Balding, not the managing director.
Rather, for decades the ABC has been controlled by various cliques that dominate areas such as television news and current affairs, metropolitan radio, Radio National and, in contemporary times, online publications such as The Drum.
Key national news and current affairs programs such as 7.30, Lateline, Q&A, Media Watch, The Drum (the TV production), RN Breakfast and Late Night Live are run by cabals that essentially re-employ or appoint like-minded people.
As Ken Inglis acknowledged in his sympathetic history This is the ABC, the leftist takeover of the public broadcaster began in the late 1960s when self-proclaimed Marxist Allan Ashbolt began stacking the organisation with young leftists. This coterie was affectionately labelled “Ashbolt’s kindergarten”.
It is this culture that has led to the reality that the ABC is a conservative-free zone without a conservative presenter, producer or editor for any of its prominent TV, radio or online products.
This is a sensitive point at the public broadcaster.
Michael Mason, director of ABC radio, wrote to The Australian last November denying that there was “a lack of conservative voices heard on RN” and referred to “programs presented by Amanda Vanstone and Tom Switzer, both of whom identify as conservative”.
There were a couple of problems with Mason’s rationalisation. Vanstone’sCounterpoint goes to air at 4pm on Mondays and Switzer’s Between the Lines is broadcast at 7.30pm on Thursdays. Neither presenter enjoys a prominent timeslot.
Moreover, Vanstone claims she is not a conservative, while Switzer is a long-time critic of the foreign policy agenda of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard.
No other ABC manager named any names. For his part, Scott has adopted a postmodernist position that leads him to argue that a person’s political, social or economic views are unrelated to what they say as presenters on TV or radio, or how they edit a publication such as The Drum.
Interviewed by Chris Kenny on the Sky News Viewpoint program on September 27 last year, newly appointed Communications Minister Mitch Fifield was asked to name “a mainstream host or presenter” on the ABC. He initially mentioned Vanstone.
When Kenny pointed out she was “an ex-politician tucked away on Radio National”, Fifield added: “Gerard Henderson on the panel on Insiders”.
Kenny responded: “We spend $1 billion a year to give Gerard Henderson half an hour a month and Amanda Vanstone half an hour a week?” Whereupon Fifield added: “Look, I’m not here to defend the ABC; I’m just making the point that there is a little more variety than there was perhaps five years ago.”
Malcolm Turnbull is likely to be less confrontational on this issue than his predecessor. I understand the Prime Minister’s position is that, with respect to news and current affairs, the ABC is a left-wing organisation and nothing much can be done about it. However, he believes the ABC can spend its taxpayer funds more efficiently than it currently does. Hence it is unlikely Turnbull will reverse the cuts to ABC spending announced in the Abbott government’s first budget.
The point is not that key ABC news and current affairs programs support Labor over the Coalition but that both parties tend to be criticised from a leftist perspective. This explains why the prime minister most critical of the public broadcaster was neither Tony Abbott nor Howard but Labor’s Bob Hawke.
Soon after taking up his current appointment in 2006, Scott declared he would bring greater plurality to the ABC. Yet he soon became an ineffective editor-in-chief, lacking the intellectual courage to take on the leftist cliques. Two examples illustrate the point.
When in late 2013 the leftist 40-something “boys” of The Chaser depicted The Australian’s Kenny having sex with a dog, Scott was weak and indecisive. The matter dragged on for ages until it was settled by a defamation payout.
Scott acknowledged to The Australian Financial Review Magazine last December that he should have acted quickly but the matter got bound up in process. A highly paid executive should be able to do better than that.
At the Senate estimates in November, Scott was quizzed by Liberal Party senator Eric Abetz concerning the appointment of Sophie McNeill (a self-proclaimed admirer of leftist activist John Pilger) as the ABC’s Middle East correspondent.
Scott’s initial response was to declare: “I was not involved in Ms McNeill’s appoint (sic) directly.” He added that “she was … interviewed by an experienced panel of journalists”. But if the ABC’s editor-in-chief is not involved directly in such key overseas postings, what’s the point of the position?
In his final months in the job, Scott has become a prolific tweeter and re-tweeter of ABC praise along with much lightweight opinion and the occasional sneer. Meanwhile, he has a record of being “out to lunch” when key editorial decisions are made, or not made.
Apparently, the ABC board has rejected Turnbull’s sensible suggestion that the roles of managing director and editor-in-chief should be split. Meanwhile, last month Spigelman proudly released a report that he commissioned on Q&A by left-of-centre journalists Ray Martin and Shaun Brown. Believe it or not, the essential criticism by Martin and Brown of Q&A is that it does not give the green-Left a fair go. Really.
Even if Guthrie possesses the doggedness of a Winston Churchill and the conviction of a Margaret Thatcher she is unlikely to be able to overturn the ABC’s culture any time soon. The ghost of the Marxist Ashbolt still has an impact at the ABC’s headquarters in inner-city Sydney.