The most powerful message to emerge from Four Corners’ sad story about the tumult at the top of the ABC is that neither the former chairman Justin Milne nor the former managing director Michelle Guthrie appeared to be friends of the public broadcaster.
In the wake of the breakdown of their toxic working relationship, both seem to have given top priority to winning the battle – first before the board, then in the court of public opinion and now headed for the courts.
The idea of self-sacrifice because of their high public duty doesn’t appear to have occurred to either one of them. Did either say a word about the future of the ABC in last night’s program? No. It was all he-said she-said scrapping.
Both were pretty flaky with the truth. Guthrie’s claim that there had been no conversations about sacking the economics editor, Emma Alberici, clearly flew in the face of the evidence. Her claim that what had been discussed were “external development opportunities” for Alberici will surely go down in media history as one of the great euphemisms. As in, “I haven’t been boned. I’ve been offered external development opportunities.”
Milne, on the other hand, completely failed in his attempt to explain his emails away as not meaning what they clearly said.
We can conclude that neither Milne nor Guthrie was suitable to lead and care for our most important cultural institution. This, together with unprecedented pressure from the government, is the explanation for why the leadership of the ABC imploded this year.
When Guthrie was appointed in December 2015, a former colleague of hers told me that she was “a good team member in a well-led team, but never the leader of that team”. Time has proved him right.
Guthrie has many strengths, but she was given the most difficult job in Australian media, and one of the most difficult in public life.
She didn’t have either the skills or the self-knowledge to grow into the job and succeed. Milne, meanwhile, seems to have completely misunderstood his role and been prepared – even eager – to compromise the ABC’s independence.
Meanwhile the board, stacked by the government with too many political appointees, was incapable or unwilling to manage the growing conflagration.
Insiders tell me they are astonished at the naivety of some members of the board who, having accepted appointment despite knowing they were not recommended by the arm’s-length appointment process, are now horrified to find themselves in reputation-damaging dust-up.
Despair would be easy, were it not for the fact that the Four Corners program itself – the ABC telling its own story – demonstrated the organisation’s greatest strength. While board members, politicians and senior management behave badly, the journalists and other content makers keep doing their jobs.
The program gave us plenty to worry about. The ABC has been weakened systemically through poor appointments, constant attacks and budget cuts.
Last night we learned that the minister for communications, Mitch Fifield, was frequently on the phone, first to Guthrie and then, allegedly, to Milne, to discuss “issues”. Guthrie had been miffed that once Milne was appointed she no longer got the calls.
Neither Milne nor Guthrie seemed to have seen a problem with this apparent frequency of informal personal contact. For an independent public broadcaster, it’s not healthy.
The other big revelation was that Guthrie accused Milne of touching her inappropriately. She stopped short of describing this as sexual harassment or assault.
What are we to make of this? There is enough on the public record to show that Milne was behind the times in his understanding of how to behave with female colleagues.
He has admitted to referring to women as “chicks”, as he said “to try and relax people”. It has been claimed that he called Guthrie “the missus”.
We can see from his emails that he used the kind of aggressive, hyper-masculine language that appears to show both a lack of maturity and a lack of consideration for his colleagues.
Milne has strongly denied ever behaving inappropriately towards Guthrie. He also specifically denied an allegation that he had rubbed her back at a board dinner at Billy Kwong’s restaurant in Sydney in November 2017.
“I’ve had no physical relationship with Michelle at all,” he said. “I never, ever acted inappropriately with Michelle, or indeed with any other woman in the workforce, or any other woman at all.”
This kind of thing polarises. Most women who have worked in the media will find it easy to believe Guthrie’s claims and sympathise with her for having to deal with this all-too-common form of sexist undermining behaviour.
But the program presented plenty of evidence that her management and leadership were also lacking.
What about the future of the ABC?
There has never been a stronger argument for ABC funding to be guaranteed. Milne’s shameless suggestion that the government had to be appeased because of its role as the organisation’s “banker” makes the case better than any true friend of the ABC could do.
Guthrie as managing director was pushing hard for the organisation to make an inevitable transformation towards digital media. She wasn’t wrong.
For years now, including under the reign of the former managing director Mark Scott, there has been consensus about that broad direction. The difficult questions have all been about how, and how fast, and how to retain an audience at a time of fragmenting media.
Guthrie wasn’t wrong about the direction but she never managed to convince her staff or her executive team that she understood public broadcasting or had a clear and cogent plan to bring about its necessary evolution.
Milne was pushing Project Jetstream – which at one level is also about digital transition, but flies in the face of the approach taken by every other major media organisation.
Meanwhile, the politicians have been negligent. The great majority of Australians –almost 70% of us each week – use the ABC. Most believe it is doing a good job. The ABC represents one of our best chances of political cohesion and a shared sense of nationhood. No other organisation has equivalent reach or greater respect.
Yet the organisation is almost never sensibly discussed. Instead ideologues on all sides of politics foam over non-issues and little time is spent in public discussion or serious strategic thinking about the organisation’s present and future.
For that we should blame the politicians, their thin skins, their neglect and their short-term opportunism.
We need the ABC’s funding and stability to be guaranteed and fostered. We need politicians with maturity and policy nous. We need a good managing director and an impeccable chair.
We need some grown-ups in charge.