The unexpected sacking of ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie has raised one big question, among the many.
Was there any political interference in her removal half way through her statutory five year contract?
ABC chairman Justin Milne told ABC News 24 that it was entirely an ABC board decision after “several months” of discussions which resulted in the board’s concluded view “that it was not in the best interests of the ABC for Ms Guthrie to continue to lead the organisation”.
The chairman offered only that it was her “leadership style” which was at issue. Under questioning from presenter, Joe O’Brien, he also remarked that relations with the government could have been better but that she was good at the ABC’s digital platform transformation, an ABC board-approved strategy which would not change.
Significantly the ABC chairman then declined all further media requests for explanatory interviews.
But Michelle Guthrie was not going quietly, complaining in a public statement that her sacking was unjustified, even though she acknowledged there was a clause in her contract that the ABC could dispense with her services “without cause and with immediate effect”.
“At no point have any issues been raised with me about the transformation being undertaken, the investing in audiences strategy and my effectiveness in delivering against that strategy”.
She is understood to have declined a departure by mutual agreement and taken the more reputationally damaging course of termination.
Some ABC watchers have been briefed negatively about Ms Guthrie’s alleged absences overseas, alleged problems with ABC annual financial accounts and possible cost over-runs.
Countering that by her public statement Ms Guthrie is implying there may be a hidden agenda behind her “unjustified” dismissal.
Ms Guthrie said she was considering her legal options and if she takes a wrongful dismissal action, even given the apparent unfettered right of the ABC board to apply that “without cause” provision, she would have to lay out any evidence she may have of malice aforethought by the ABC board and its chairman.
While many ABC staff were delighted that Ms Guthrie was moving on, former ABC staff-elected director Matt Peacock, a member of the James Spigelman board which appointed her in 2015, commented on ABC’s The Drum: “Be careful with what you wish for”.
The ABC Board has appointed Mr David Anderson, long standing senior executive, former head of TV and corporate strategy and planning as acting MD while an international head hunt is underway. Mr Anderson was a short listed applicant for the MD’s job at the time of Ms Guthrie’s appointment.
While staff have complained that Ms Guthrie seemed unfamiliar with or indifferent to all the ABC’s radio and TV output and had performed embarrassingly at Senate estimates interrogations, her scripted speeches indicated a determination to fight for the ABC’s independence in the face of unprecedented defunding and rhetorical attacks from the Coalition government. She is also said to have resisted pressure emanating from the chairman to sack journalists Emma Alberici and Andrew Probyn following enraged complaints about their reporting from the Communications Minister Senator Mitch Fifield and former PM Malcolm Turnbull.
And she has resisted pressure from the ABC’s commercial media rivals, in particular from News Corp and Fairfax. Ms Guthrie has defended the ABC’s right to pay more than $1million for Google ad enhancements to drive traffic to ABC online news websites. The strategy has helped to place the ABC as second only to news.com in Australian online news sites, but has angered the ABC’s competitors already suffering massive ad revenue losses through aggressive tactics by digital platforms.
At this stage it is not known whether the ABC will pay out the remaining two and a half years on her employment contract or apply a lesser severance payment. It is believed her contract provides for a severance of about a year’s salary but by taking legal action, Ms Guthrie may be trying to leverage a higher quantum with an implied threat of washing all inter-personal and corporate dirty linen in the courts.
At a salary of $1m a year, the quantum of the payout will at least indicate the price the ABC board is prepared to put on such a destabilising decision at a time of continuing hostility with the current federal government.
The next action to indicate the board’s motivations will be: who’s next?
The current ABC chief financial officer and corporate strategist Louise Higgins is expected to apply for the Guthrie vacancy. So too is Mr Anderson.
Just who externally would want to take up the challenge of managing the ABC at a time of funding deprivation with the ABC Board’s now exposed hair trigger contract power, remains problematic.
Significantly for the first time the Bill Shorten Labor Party has decided to make the survival of the ABC a major federal election issue. Depending of the quality of her replacement, the sacking of Michelle Guthrie could further inflame public concern about Coalition malice towards the ABC.
Since the 2014 Joe Hockey federal budget the ABC has been substantially de-funded with $254million cut from operational base funding. The 2018 Scott Morrison budget has delivered a further $83.7million reduction in base funding over three years from July 1 next year. This “cut” was considered punitive as it was within the portfolio discretion of Senator Fifield, and not specifically ordered by federal Cabinet’s expenditure review committee.
Some of this money is to be diverted to SBS to make up for the Senate cross-bench’s 2014 rejection of a Malcolm Turnbull Bill to effectively double SBS’s prime time television advertising.
The Turnbull government had ordered yet another efficiency review of ABC finances and a Communications Department “competitive neutrality” inquiry into ABC and SBS multi-channelling and online activities, said to be impinging unfairly on commercial media.
In speeches and presentations Ms Guthrie and ABC executives had made it plain that the defunding imposed by government since 2014 had resulted in the retrenchment of 1000 staff and the termination of programs and management restructures requiring selective redundancies.
The ABC, already considered Sydney-centric because of budget cuts has closed its TV production centres in all but Sydney, and to a lesser extent, Melbourne.
Still resonating politically is the 2013 pubic commitment made by incoming prime minister Tony Abbott that there would be “no cuts to the ABC or SBS”.
Under pressure to stand up for the ABC after the 2018 Scott Morrison budget cuts, the ABC board has authorised a feel good TV and radio marketing campaign featuring prominent actors and pop stars attesting emotionally to the ABC’s iconic status in Australia’s national life.
Will these defensive and politically impactful testimonials continue to be broadcast up to and during the next federal election?
Over to you Mr Chairman.
* Quentin Dempster is contributing editor for The New Daily. An edited version of this article was first published on Monday 24 September 2018.