THERE is a wide perception that ABC managing director Mark Scott is a nice kind of guy. Which raises the question: what’s a nice guy like Scott running a conservative-free zone joint like the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster?
Soon after his appointment in May 2006, Scott asked me if he could give his first major speech as ABC managing director at the Sydney Institute. I readily agreed and the talk took place on October 16, 2006. In his important address, Scott declared his intention to fulfil both his designated roles at the ABC. Namely, to be managing director and editor-in-chief. He has performed the task of management with ability but flunked as an editor-in-chief.
As a result, the ABC is not run the way a newspaper or a commercial broadcaster is managed. Rather, its television, radio and online outlets are controlled by cliques and seem to operate independently of the editor-in-chief.
Take Scott’s role in the Chaser Boys’ (average age 38½) use of pornography againstThe Australian’s Chris Kenny. In The Hamster Decides program on ABC 1, which aired last September 11, the Chaser Boys depicted Kenny having sex with a dog under the heading “dog f. ker”.
This was clearly an attempt to close down debate, by the use of porno-politics, since Kenny was ridiculed for proposing that the incoming Coalition government led by Tony Abbott should cut ABC funding. As Scott acknowledged this week, the attack on Kenny “was triggered by his criticism of the ABC”.
The ABC culture is one of reluctance to accept criticism and of applied denial. So it came as no surprise that Jennifer Collins, ABC TV’s head of entertainment, immediately defended the attack by Chaser Boys Andrew Hansen and Chas Licciardello on Kenny. She described the skit as “consistent with the humour from the Chaser team and in line with the target audience”.
However, Scott soon realised the ABC had a problem. On October 3, he described the skit as “tasteless and undergraduate”. It was then that the managing director, in his capacity as editor-in-chief, could have resolved the issue. All that was required involved the issuing of a public apology and a decision to pay Kenny’s (then small) legal expenses.
But Scott lacked the resolve to take on the Chaser Boys — one of the many cliques which feed off the public broadcaster, either as employees or contractors. So he procrastinated about the nature of the satire and the boundaries of free speech and so on. And so on.
The day after Scott expressed his criticism of the sketch, the ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs department in Canberra delivered its findings on the matter. This is a device that makes it possible for Scott to bypass his responsibility to act as the public broadcaster’s editor-in-chief by shunting off editorial assessments to bureaucrats.
On October 4, Denise Musto, acting head of Audience and Consumer Affairs, found the skit was “in keeping with the ABC’s editorial standards”. ABC spokesman Michael Millett defended it as “strong satire related to Mr Kenny’s criticism of the ABC”.
Clearly, Scott was in a predicament. Due to his failure to act decisively to resolve the issue immediately, he found himself caught by the assessment of Collins and Musto that depicting someone having sex with a dog was consistent with the ABC’s best practice for satire.
But the issue did not go away. A complaint was made to the Australian Communications and Media Authority which is expected to report its findings shortly.
As with most publicly funded organisations, time travels slowly. Months passed until last Monday when Scott phoned Kenny to apologise. It may be that, some seven months since the offence was caused, Scott thought it would be a good idea to issue a formal apology. Or it may be that the ABC managing director wanted to take a position before the ACMA report is released.
Scott’s phone call to Kenny was followed by a letter of apology to which was attached a statement. Finally, Scott acknowledged that “notwithstanding any AMCA finding” he had come to the view that “the ABC should not have put the skit to air”.
Scott said he now believed “a mistake” had been made and expressed “regret” for “the delay in making this apology”.
In other words, it took the ABC’s managing director and editor-in-chief seven months to recognise the mistake and issue an apology. Scott said nothing about the current standing of ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs’ ruling that the skit was consistent with ABC editorial standards. Does this finding still apply, or has it been overridden by the ABC’s managing director? Who knows?
Nor did Scott say the ABC would move quickly to resolve Kenny’s defamation action. Perhaps this is yet another case where the managing director cannot control the public broadcaster’s various cliques. In this case, possibly the ABC’s in-house legal department, or maybe resistance from Julian Morrow and the other Chaser Boys.
Scott’s formal apology had only just been released when Morrow responded. He sent out a tweet depicting, you’ve guessed it, Scott having sex with a hamster. Funny, eh? Morrow’s caption read: “We respectfully disagree with the ABC managing director’s decision and statement today”.
In short, Morrow repeated the skit which Scott had described as tasteless and undergraduate last October and apologised for last Monday. In a commercial business, such unprofessional defiance would not be tolerated — especially if it was capable of damaging the defence of a defamation writ.
Which raises the question, does anyone run the ABC? The chairman Jim Spigelman does not, nor could he. The board does not, nor can it, since it meets about every two months. And the managing director is not able even to issue an apology without being deliberately undermined and ridiculed by Morrow, whose company sells programs to the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster.
The inconvenient truth is that many ABC employees could not gain employment and/or match their current salary in the commercial media. The public broadcaster has a niche market in the Australian community due to its appeal to tertiary-educated professionals. The ABC can find enough talent to fill its quota of news, current affairs and comedy presenters without employing or entering into contracts with individuals who mock its managing director and editor-in-chief.
In short, the Chaser Boys need the ABC more than the ABC needs the Chaser Boys, and the undergraduate humour they still deploy as they approach their 40s.
The appropriate role of the ABC board is to ensure the managing director does the job for which he is well paid. It’s not a big ask.
In the commercial media, the offensive Kenny skit could have been resolved in a week. With the public broadcaster, the issue is still running after seven months, despite the managing director’s apology and his acknowledgment that a mistake was made in airing the sketch.
Scott is a nice guy — but this is not what the ABC needs for an editor-in-chief. If you can’t manage the Chaser Boys, you can’t manage the ABC.