Whoever replaces Michelle Guthrie as ABC managing director and editor-in-chief should be capable of acting, and should be willing to act, in both roles. Without this, the ABC will remain — as it has been for decades — an organisation essentially run by staff collectives.
The essential problem with the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster is that nobody runs it, unlike successful commercial media companies. One-time ABC chairman James Spigelman, a consistent defender of the ABC, acknowledged this reality when interviewed by Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National’s RN Breakfast last Wednesday.
Spigelman told Kelly: “The trouble with the ABC is about a quarter of the staff think that they can run the show better than anyone. It’s a very special organisation, the ABC. And it’s got a lot of different units within it — some would say silos — and they look after their own sphere, and it’s very hard to make significant changes.”
Some say silos, others say staff collectives, others still say soviets. But it’s the same problem. The various parts of the ABC run themselves; they decide what programs to make, which staff to hire and so on. And the managing director fails to resolve this by acting as an editor-in-chief, which they are entitled and paid to do.
Shortly after Mark Scott was appointed managing director and editor-in-chief in May 2006, he invited himself to address the Sydney Institute. The offer was warmly accepted, especially since this was to be his first major public speech in this role. During his talk on October 16, 2006, Scott acknowledged that “some of the ABC’s harshest public critics … love the ABC”. However, he conceded that the critics had “a sense that the organisation has issues with balance and fairness, particularly through its news and current affairs content”.
Rather than condemn the critics, Scott recognised that the ABC had been “too defensive in the face of such criticism” and he declared that it needed “to address the criticism carefully and comprehensively”. He made clear that he would act in his dual roles as managing director and editor-in-chief. This proved to be a broken promise. Within a short time, Scott dropped the commitment to act as editor-in-chief. During his decade at the ABC, Scott gave numerous interviews to his employees where he dismissed the ABC’s considered critics and maintained that there was no lack of political balance at the organisation.
When Scott left the ABC in April 2016, it was a conservative-free zone. The ABC did not have one conservative presenter, producer or editor for any of its prominent television, radio or online outlets. This is what Guthrie inherited when she became managing director, and this remained the situation when she was dismissed on Monday.
The tendency of the ABC to be defensive — which Scott conceded in 2006 — remains extant today. In recent times leading ABC presenters such as Julia Baird, Ellen Fanning, Richard Glover and Leigh Sales have denied the ABC is a conservative-free zone. But they have not been able to name one conservative in any prominent news and current affairs role.
Former Fairfax Media journalist and editor Tom Burton is not a conservative. Writing in public sector news website The Mandarin on Tuesday, he recounted how former ABC managing directors Geoffrey Whitehead and Jonathan Shier had been “mercilessly torn down” (in 1986 and 2001 respectively) “with the powerful Newscaff (news and current affairs) division of the ABC leading the charge”.
Burton added that, to this day, it was this “journo group that drives much of the culture of the national media group that is the ABC”. In other words, journalists — not management — run the ABC. And the like-minded appoint similar like-minded to key news and current affairs positions.
As Burton puts it, “previous ABC MD and former Fairfax editor Mark Scott came from this (journo) world and understood its brother and sisterhood”. Which helps explain why Scott soon dropped his intention to act as ABC editor-in-chief in addition to his role as managing director. It was all too hard.
Guthrie did not have the background to act as editor-in-chief. Moreover, as with Shier, she came to the job after many years working outside Australia. In short, Guthrie did not know — or even know of — most of the journo groups that set the organisation’s culture.
Spigelman was appointed by the Gillard Labor government as ABC chairman following his disappointment at not being made High Court chief justice. He was not a very active chairman.
Justin Milne gave his first interview as ABC chairman to The Australian’s Darren Davidson in March last year. Milne is from that subset of the business community that does not exhibit much political or historical knowledge. Milne told Davidson: “I don’t come to the job thinking I need to fix the perceived bias in the ABC because I don’t know that there really is bias.”
Milne ran the familiar Friends of the ABC line that the public broadcaster was criticised by both Labor and Coalition governments. He had in mind the criticism of the ABC by Labor prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating along with Coalition prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott. What Milne overlooked was that all four had a similar complaint: namely they were criticised by the ABC from the Left.
For a while Malcolm Turnbull received favourable coverage by the ABC. However, after the 2016 election he became increasingly critical of the errors and unprofessionalism of some ABC presenters, producers and editors. Initially his attitude was that journalists as a group were on the Left and the public broadcaster reflected this reality. But his criticism of the ABC increased the longer he remained in office.
Guthrie essentially was appointed by Spigelman and Milne was appointed by Turnbull. Now both positions are vacant. This provides a rare opportunity for the board, under its new chairman, to appoint a managing director who has the knowledge and the courage to act as editor-in-chief and knock down the journo silos in the taxpayer-funded conservative-free-zone.