7 Oct 2018

ABC spells Australian broadcasting crisis

From Mediawatch, 9:08 am on 7 October 2018

The chair sacked the chief and then quit himself. No-one seems to want the rest of his board of directors. How did Australia’s public broadcaster end up in such a mess so suddenly? How can the ABC be fixed? ​

abc tickertape job cuts

Photo: AAP

When you’re a weekly media show on a public broadcaster, the sudden sacking of your chief executive hours before airtime requires a bit of a rejig.


So it was for the ABC television’s Media Watch show last week, which was hastily re-written to explain why Michelle Guthrie was suddenly fired as the ABC's managing director earlier in the day. 

Media Watch said there have been tensions all year between her and fellow executives as well as a rift with the chairman Justin Milne. 

Mr Milne was soon on ABC News shows himself citing her "leadership style" as the problem.

Few journalists at ABC seemed to think the demise of the MD was bad news.



A radio presenter for ABC in Victoria  - Jon Faine - unloaded on the air.  


"She was refusing to conduct any interviews on-air. She would not take on her role as a champion for this organisation publicly. She would not advocate for us in the public domain, in the public space, which was an astonishing fail on her part," he told his listeners.


He went on to say she wasn't worth "the million dollars a year she was paid to run the most important cultural institution in the nation."


Never mind million dollar salary to run it - what about the billion dollar budget bankrolled by the Aussie taxpayer?


“They forgot who pays for the ABC – we do,” former Victorian state government minister Mary Delahunty - also a former ABC presenter - wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.


By this point, chair Justin Milne had resigned after revelations about his style

The Sydney Morning Herald revealed emails in which he urged the Michelle Guthrie to "shoot" one ABC journalist and "get rid" of another. And they were senior journalists  - an economics correspondent and a political editor - who had both rubbed the government up the wrong way with their reporting.

Justin Milne also claimed that as the chair of the ABC was a "conduit” to the government “so the left hand knows what the right hand is doing".

Mary Delahunty pointed out he should have seen himself as "a wall" between politicians and ABC editorial independence. In the 1970s and 1980s the directors stood up to political interference from the top, she said.

But is the independence of Australia’s long-established and well-funded public broadcaster really under threat?

Denis Muller, Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne.

Denis Muller, Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne. Photo: supplied


"ABC journalists were censoring themselves out of concern they would get blowback from on high. The weak leadership at the top didn't recognise incursions on the ABC's independence," says Denis Muller, New Zealand-born senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne's Centre for Advancing Journalism.

Denis Muller formerly ran investigative journalism units at Melbourne daily The Age and Sydney Morning Herald as an assistant editor at Fairfax Media. 

He said the ABC's managing director’s job incorporates the role of editor-in-chief and Michelle Guthrie was unable to give the kind of robust editorial leadership that journalists need if they are to report fearlessly and independently.

New leaders at the ABC must also contend with the ABC’s eight-member board.

"Almost all ... were appointed directly by the minister for communications, Mitch Fifield, and some were appointed after being rejected by the merit-based nominations panel," said the Australian arm of the Guardian.

That nominations panel was established five years ago to break the cycle of successive governments stacking the ABC board with sympathisers.


But the Tony Abbot-led government flouted the system when its communications minister went around the side to install strident critics of the ABC.


That minister was Malcolm Turnbull  - who then became the Prime Minister whose government carried on politicising the process.


So today only two of the current crop of eight directors have significant media experience. That’s a problem for an outfit planning to spend a half-a billion Australian dollars on 'Jetstream' - a huge project to digitise ABC content and output.


"That merit appointments panel system introduced by the previous government needs to be enshrined in legislation," Denis Muller said.


"We don't know the extent to which other members of the board have been compromised by what went on under Justin Milne," he said.


"If they didn't stand up for the independence of the ABC's journalism then they are all complicit," he said.


"One of the country's most important institutions (is) labouring under this disruption brought about by stacking the board with their mates," he said.


Good time for satirical reboot

John Clarke as online news director 'Xavier Breth'

John Clarke as online news director 'Xavier Breth' Photo: screenshot

Some of the most intense grilling of the ABC's own people lately has came in awkward interviews on its own news shows such as 7:30 Report in which another New Zealander - the late John Clarke - used to take the mickey in a satirical slot on Fridays.

John Clarke and sidekick Brian Dawe were not afraid of poking the borax at the government or the ABC on the show. It’s likely they would have relished mocking the recent mismanagement.

Coincidentally this was the week 7:30 Report announced a successor who co-opted the show’s staff and studio to promote it to viewers:

It's an interesting time to fill John Clarke's satirical shoes at the ABC. Good luck to Mark Humphries.