Can Kim Williams fix turmoil at the ABC?

Jan 31, 2024
Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland, newly appointed ABC chair Kim Williams and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, January 24, 2024. Former News Corp chief executive Kim Williams has been announced to replace Ita Buttrose at the ABC. Image: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

With the announcement last week of Kim Williams as the new ABC Chair, it’s timely to consider not only what needs to be done to address recent controversies but, more broadly, what we as a society want from our major public media institution and what is needed for it to thrive.

There will always be ideological differences between those who value public broadcasting and its opponents. But one thing both sides agree on right now is that all is not well at the ABC.

Most recently, the removal of freelance radio presenter Antoinette Lattouf from the final two days of a five-day fill-in gig on ABC Sydney radio in December has been a catalyst for a brewing cauldron of discontent to boil over.

Lattouf had not contravened ABC editorial policies in her broadcasts. At issue was her reposting on Instagram of a single Human Rights Watch report claiming Israel was using hunger as a weapon of war, which ABC News had covered and broadcast and which remains on its online platform together with a TV interview with a HRW spokesperson. Hardly a hanging offence. But Lattouf was pulled off air, and she subsequently lodged an unfair termination complaint with the Fair Work Commission. 

In mid-January the dispute escalated when a series of leaked WhatsApp messages from the previous month revealed that ABC Chair Ita Buttrose and Managing Director David Anderson (who was on leave at the time) had been targeted by the Lawyers for Israel lobby group, campaigning for Lattouf to be removed from her on-air role. That drew into question if the ABC Chair and management had buckled to external pressure in dismissing her.

It also triggered staff action in support of Lattouf and claims of a chronic failure of the ABC to protect its journalists and presenters from such attacks. At a ‘crisis meeting’, 125 of 128 staff attending passed a vote of no confidence in the Managing Director over the matter (though not a call for him to be sacked). ABC’s Global Affairs Editor John Lyons – who has reported and written widely about the region, and has had his own clashes with Australia’s Israel lobby – was particularly vocal, with a scathing assessment of the ABC’s handling of the complaints about Lattouf.

Whatever the circumstances, the hastiness of Lattouf’s dismissal raises questions and it would have been prudent to allow her to complete the remaining two days of her contract. Some have also questioned why, with ABC’s strict impartiality rules, Lattouf had been appointed to the position in the first place given that she was a well-known political activist critical of Israel (a vexed side issue in itself).

An even more alarming aspect arising off the back of this case are questions about the level of management’s commitment to uphold the ABC’s independence in reporting. Staff concerns had been simmering for some months about editorial policy restrictions on coverage of the Israel-Gaza conflict which, to at least some extent, has been perceived as a pro-Israel bias by the relevant reporting staff.

So deep is the discontent that respected political reporter Nour Haydar resigned from the ABC in early January, citing both this issue and dissatisfaction over the treatment of culturally diverse staff. Of Lebanese descent, the issue is close to home for Haydar. Her grandmother was killed by an Israeli air strike on a civilian convoy in southern Lebanon in 2006.

Haydar’s exit followed the resignation last August of the ABC’s most prominent Indigenous staffer, the eminent reporter, presenter and commentator Stan Grant. A formidable expert on both international and Indigenous affairs he cited, as key reasons for his departure, a lack of management support for him when under external racist attack and disillusionment in the level of management support generally for diverse staff.

Then there are serious editorial blunders, some of which have involved court action and compensation payouts. The Heston Russell case, for example, was essentially a fact-checking failure in that it was ‘drover’s dog’ obvious that the ABC did not have sufficient substantiation – legally or editorially – to justify publishing two online reports alleging war crimes, regardless of the accused not being named in the initial story. Another was a distorted radio report in January last year alleging white supremacy at an Alice Springs town meeting. Somehow it slipped through without the normal factual checks and balances, and was ultimately found to have breached ABC standards of impartiality and accuracy.

Of course, all media organisations make errors and experience times of controversy, but we don’t expect them in such frequency as we have seen in recent years from the national broadcaster.

It’s against this background – and existential challenges of a changing media landscape and falling audience numbers – that the appointment of Kim Williams as the next ABC Chair has been enthusiastically welcomed.

From all accounts, Williams is a fiercely intelligent, erudite man. He’s had an impressive executive career heading major Arts, film, media and television organisations – among them, the Australian Film Commission, Southern Star Entertainment, Foxtel, News Limited (now News Corp). He’s chaired the Australian Film Finance Corporation, the Sydney Opera House Trust and the State Library of NSW Foundation, and held directorships of the Copyright Agency and the AFL. Add to this that he studied music at Sydney University and is an accomplished composer and clarinettist, plus was a childhood Lego champion, and it’s an exceptionally well-rounded background for an ABC Chair.

The big question now, is what can he do in his new role to reverse the fortunes of the national broadcaster?

Very likely he will find it immensely frustrating, as Chair, to not have control over the executive day-to-day running/management of the ABC. But there is much he can do within the realm of governance oversight, including the tweaking of overall policy and culture agendas to enhance what he refers to as his ‘uncompromising view’ that the national broadcaster is the ‘campfire of Australia’.

But the priority, in the short-term, will necessarily be to restore calm and confidence within the organisation.

To achieve this, Williams will first need to address some key issues:

Editorial Standards: a case for separating the Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief roles?

When a commercial enterprise encounters controversy over its management and performance, conventional wisdom often dictates a need to change the person at the top. Indeed, there are those in the media already baying for MD David Anderson’s blood.

While such a move might be a quick-fix to give a perception that things are changing, it may not be the best answer in the current situation.

The ABC is a behemoth and a far more complex media operation than its commercial counterparts. Years of severe budget cuts, insecurity about quantum budget figures (at one stage Anderson was juggling three different budget scenarios while waiting for a dilly-dallying Coalition government to commit to a figure) and resultant massive staff losses have taken their toll, as have recent salary and cost increases, expensive back-pay restitution inherited from previous management regimes (dating from as far back as 2012), and myriad institutional requirements including tortuous financial imperatives and the time-consuming obligation of being answerable to Senate Estimates.

Anderson has been astute on the business and technical side of the organisation, steering and keeping the ABC afloat in often exceptionally trying circumstances.

Recognition of his corporate knowledge and his expertise in these areas may well be why current Chair Ita Buttrose (at the time still considering a second term in the role) and the ABC Board decided to renew Anderson’s contract 15 months early, rather than risk losing him. His tenure now runs until mid-2028.

But Anderson is not a journalist, and his dual role as Editor-in-Chief, reliant on advice within the existing structure, is clearly failing. The problem is not so much that he doesn’t understand editorial principles – to a large extent he does – but rather that in recent years both the ABC and the wider media landscape have become so complicated that it would be a challenge for any MD to run the business side of the company and also find time to properly consider the many editorial issues that arise.

As it stands, the ABC has an Editorial Director who works with News and Content directors and others, in setting and interpreting editorial standards, organising training, providing guidance on referred content and conducting editorial reviews. Advice to the MD comes principally from the Editorial, News and Content directors.

But is it time to consider separating the business and editorial management roles and appointing a stand-alone Editor-in-Chief – a highly experienced journalist-editor with editorial management skills, a ‘broadsheet’ understanding of public media principles and objectives, and a hard-headed ability to determine when to take risks and when to say ‘no’? Certainly, the major commercial media operators don’t expect one person to handle both roles. Add to this the rapidly growing ABC online platform which desperately needs considerably stronger editorial guidance and there’s a strong case for such change.

It would seem there is no impediment under the ABC Act to the Managing Director delegating powers of responsibility for the decision-making on editorial matters to an Editor-in-Chief, who would report to the MD (and in turn, as appropriate, to the Board).

It would also be a far less risky option than a wholesale management upheaval, at least until Williams has had time to properly assess the inside workings of the corporation for himself and determine if bringing in a new MD is warranted.

A clear ‘point of difference’

In an overcrowded media and social media environment, we are bombarded with a plethora of information of varying reliability. ‘Information-rich but knowledge-poor’, as some commentators have described it.

Although over-shadowed by some legitimate controversies as well as a sustained sniping attack from right-wing ideologues (especially in the Murdoch media), the ABC continues to publish and broadcast a great deal of quality content. But there is a creeping tendency in some (not all) quarters of the organisation to ape commercial media rather than standing firm on public media values.

There is a place in the ABC for populist content, but dubious merit in overly capitulating to it. Rather, the ABC needs to boldly strengthen its clear and distinguishable points of difference from both commercial media and the abundance of other online offerings. So it’s heartening to hear Kim Williams highlighting and talking, for example, about wanting more innovation and more Arts coverage, and philosophically considering the ABC’s role in reflecting national identity and cultural diversity, and its responsibilities to educate (all consistent with ABC’s latest Five-Year Plan 2023-2028 released last June).

Now however, more than ever, the ABC must put a great deal more effort into engaging widely with the public about its great programs and online content, as well as its many other virtues. Forgotten in all the criticism of the ABC are its widely valued and essentially unique services in areas not (or barely) touched by commercial media, such as the International division with its exceptional Asia-Pacific media development unit, the emergency broadcast service, children’s and schools programming, its extensive networks of regional and foreign correspondents, and the specialist audio output in such areas as music, Arts, culture, health, history, social justice and science. These success stories are just as important as the mainstream news, drama and entertainment platforms and Apps, and yet some of them are not universally known.

David Anderson, when his schedule permits, undertakes speaking engagements with a wide range of interest groups and is an effective proponent of the national broadcaster, but he’s not as regular a media spokesperson as the ABC now needs. As an eloquent, knowledgeable and authoritative speaker, Williams (and a new Editor-in-Chief) could do much to help fill this void and rebuild public confidence in the ABC.

Digital and data mania

ABC’s top management tiers have placed great importance on data-gathering and as a result they have a clear grip on the existential reality that significant audience numbers are moving from the so-called ‘legacy’ platforms of radio and television to digital technologies.

Last year’s rebadging as ‘ABC: Digital First’ was designed to expand the overall audience in the belief that more people, and notably younger ones, would be attracted by a new digital approach. The emphasis was essentially on the ‘delivery service’.

So far, it hasn’t worked. Audience numbers are falling alarmingly across all platforms – online/Apps, radio and television. And it may not be entirely due to sky-rocketing competition from streamers and other online options.

While it’s crucial to know and consider data trends, there’s a danger in slavishly following them when it comes to media and entertainment. This is particularly relevant when it comes to ratings: data measures only what is there, not what could be there.

The bottom line is that, regardless of the technology, audiences are attracted to innovative, quality content. There is certainly a perception, in some cases a reality, that the ABC is slipping. Rectification depends on backing creative people with an innate sense of the contemporary zeitgeist, taking risks on innovation, and having the money to do it.

Therein lies the elephant in the room, and the greatest challenge, for the new Chair.

The Litmus Test for Kim Williams – ABC’s budget

Contrary to much media discussion, the ABC’s budget is not large in relation to the many activities required by its Charter (nor is it large by comparable international standards). Moreover, the operating budget is only a little over $900m, the remainder of the oft-cited $1.1b budget taken up by non-discretionary transmission and other fixed costs. Despite some increases under the Labor government, it remains some $80m short of the real level funding it had in 2013 before the Coalition began implementing its brutal budget-cutting agenda.

The fallout has been the loss of hundreds of staff over the last decade, the most recent being 120 redundancies announced last June. Remaining staff are stretched thin and there’s a dearth of experienced hands remaining to help them.

After years of belt-tightening, there’s not much fat left to discard.

A major concern, as former Head of Drama and Director of Television Sandra Levy has pointed out, is that ABC has only $300m per year to spend on all content outside of news and current affairs. This includes drama, comedy, documentary, children’s programming and content across all platforms. With rising production costs, its meant that the ABC was able to afford only 44 hours of home-grown drama, scripted comedy and scripted Indigenous stories in the last financial year, a situation that is unlikely to change without more funding.

Money is also needed to complete the cataloguing of ABC’s priceless Archives and to secure a curated continuous programming future for Radio National (it’s currently under threat of possibly being relegated as a podcast-only ‘product’), and to upgrade aging online and iview technologies to make them more user-friendly.

The options are (a) to do less, and do it better (within the constraints of Charter obligations); or (b) lobby hard to increase the budget so that the whole suite of content offered on all platforms can be rejuvenated and grow.

There is a strong economic argument for more ABC drama, and a national interest in further increasing ABC International’s budget. There’s also no doubt David Anderson and his management team have further solid back-up for lobbying in Canberra.

This is Kim Williams’ litmus test. And if he wants the ABC to be all it could be, he’ll need to get cracking while the pro-ABC Labor government and a receptive Communications Minister in Michelle Rowland are in power. If he doesn’t, the future of the ABC will eventually, in all likelihood, be again thrown into precarious uncertainty.

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