PAUL COLLINS. The Sacking of Michelle Guthrie

Commentating on the sacking, former MD David Hill says that “no reasonable explanation” has been given as to why. While there’s some truth to that, I think we can begin to sort out why board chairman Justin Milne acted. And here its important to say that it probably largely was Milne, who was the dominant player; the rest of the board seem quite detached. Milne, however, did say that “leadership style” and “relations with government” were important factors in the decision.

The ABC is no stranger to managing director sackings. The position of MD came into existence in mid-1983 when the old Australian Broadcasting Commission became the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The distinguished international broadcaster Geoffrey Whitehead was appointed the first MD in January 1984, but left with two years to run on his contract in December 1986. Whether he was sacked, surrendered to pressure, or simply gave-up is unknown, but he was succeeded by the then board chair, David Hill.

Hill, an aggressive MD who chalked-up many successes for the Corporation, resigned in late-1994 under pressure from the then chairman Mark Armstrong, with Paul Keating’s Labor government in power in the background. Ken Inglis comments in his Whose ABC? that MDs “would be wise to recognize the power latent in the [board] chair” (p 331). Obviously, Michelle Guthrie has not taken Inglis’ advice.

The third MD to be pressured to resign was Jonathan Shier whose term was—to put it mildly—extremely controversial. This occurred in December 2001 and the board chair was Donald McDonald, a Liberal appointee, whom many consider to have saved the ABC. All three previous resignations occurred late in the year, clearly a dangerous time for ABC MDs. Michelle Guthrie, the first MD to be unequivocally sacked, went on 24 September.

Regarding “leadership style”: it is significant that there is clearly considerable jubilation among many senior ABC staff that Guthrie is gone. Jon Faine on ABC Radio Melbourne has been particularly outspoken and his views certainly represent those of others: “Quite clearly the ex-managing director,” he said on air, “had no appreciation of output, very little interest in it, showed no interest in content, showed no interest in journalism, showed no interest in the actual nuts and bolts of this organization…She was obsessed with platforms, structures, flow charts.”

Others who were openly happy were Sally Neighbour, EP of Four Corners and Phillip Adams, host of Late Night Live, who said: “She didn’t walk the corridors. She just wasn’t around the place…The only time we ever saw her is if there was a command performance. We gathered in darkness while she read from an autocue and read the latest epistle from on high.” There was one famous occasion when after an on-high speech to staff she said she had to leave immediately because she was off to the Venice Biennale!

It was clear to staff that she was uninterested in the nuts and bolts of serious journalism and broadcasting. She claimed she was focused on content, but that is hard to believe given the way Radio National, the home of high-level, specialist material, was asset stripped. Although this was not entirely Guthrie’s fault; at least one other senior executive made no secret of his disdain for and disinterest in specialist broadcasting.

My own brief encounter with her left me with the feeling that she neither understood nor had any interest in public broadcasting. She certainly didn’t seem focused on news and current affairs, a key ABC product. When staff had done an excellent job covering the recent turmoil in the Liberal Party there were no public congratulations, no blowing of the ABC’s trumpet to let everyone know that the ABC is one of the world’s premier broadcasters. More and more the focus is on ‘soft core’ life style programs designed to attract the 25 to 54 year-olds through on-line content and mobile devices. Here content goes nowhere except down-market.

Her relationship with government was another reason Justin Milne gave for sacking her.Guthrie just didn’t seem to be able to enter into the cut and thrust of Senate estimates, nor did she seem to foster relationship with government. Sure, the Coalition under both Abbott and Turnbull has been particularly toxic for the ABC particularly with budget cuts, but this means that the MD has to be out there strongly arguing the case for the Corporation. Who can forget the stoushes between Gareth Evans and David Hill and the eight cents a day campaign? The ALP is right to make the treatment of the ABC by the present government an election issue.

But it would be wrong to blame Michelle Guthrie for all the ABC’s woes. The Corporation has been under extraordinary pressure lately from a belligerent government, jumped-up hacks in the Murdoch media and on after dark Sky News, and the usual suspects like Pauline Hanson. In this hothouse atmosphere editors look over their shoulders and journalists pull their punches. Then there are the silly searches for “right wing” Phillip Adams equivalents. Another issue is the excessive Sydney-centricity and to a lesser extent Melbourne-centricity of the ABC.

I recently spent two hours in the spacious public ground-floor area of the ABC in Ultimo watching staff come and go. The number of young-looking people is striking. An enormous number of experienced on-air and technical staff have departed with a gargantuan hit to corporate memory and experienced mentors. It may save money, but does nothing for quality.

The other striking thing is the number of managers who have never been broadcasters and who simply don’t have a clue about how content is made, let alone put to air. As I’ve said before on Pearls and Irritations a large part of the ABC’s problems lies with senior management and the board, including Justin Milne, which is dominated by business “types” with little or no understanding of public broadcasting and the role of the ABC in public culture.

We can only hope Michelle Guthrie’s successor has some appreciation of these issues.

A former religion editor for the ABC, Paul Collins still regularly appears on the ABC.



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5 Responses to PAUL COLLINS. The Sacking of Michelle Guthrie

  1. Brian Coyne says:

    And the one sure fire winner out of all that’s been happening at the ABC in the last while?

    Rupert Murdoch, and the troglodyte neo-liberals in the parliaments, and in the media, who believe everything should be done by “free enterprise”. This is another of the many tragedies happening in society at the moment.

  2. Ken Oliver says:

    Of course now we know exactly what Milne meant when he cited Guthrie’s failed “relations with government” as a reason for sacking her. It is now evident that it is not only the MD who was an inappropriate appointment. The entire board, but especially its chair, seem to have no understanding of their responsibilities under the ABC Charter.

  3. Dr John CARMODY says:

    The revelation that, as a friend of the former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, Justin Milme (Chairman of the ABC Board) “instructed” the Managing Director (Michelle Guthrie)to dismiss a senior staff member who criticised the Government’s economic policy makes his seem utterly unaware of the appropriate exercise of his power (and its proper limits) — as well as ruthless and brutal. Such a Chairman, of course, needs (like a University Chancellor) to “advise and consent”, but making executive decisions about staff and specific programming are NOT his functions.

    Even worse, for him to seek to effect such a dismissal because it’s the “wish” of the Government or because the Government has been riled by the journalist’s work (irrespective of whether it had been excellent or careless), represents an assault on the law — and tradition — pertaining to the ABC. It is an assault on our public life and its integrity. Neither action should be tolerated from a Chair of the ABC. If Milne is not called to account — the only possible way would be for him to resign — it would mean that the position of any presenter at the ABC depends on the Prime Minister’s pleasure and that would be intolerable.

    But, as the story has unfolded, it has become clear that Mt Milne is not the only villain. Mr Turnbull has used his friend for his own nefarious purposes and has, therefore, also behaved deplorably,. He, too, should be called to account and should suffer some significant penalty.

  4. Eric Hodgens says:

    Thanks, Paul. This explains the anxiety I have had about the ABC since Michelle Guthrie’s appointment.

  5. Kim Wingerei says:

    Thanks for the insights Paul. Guthrie was always a curious appointment, which Milne must have supported. She has made many strange decisions, in particular the investment in lifestyle programming to attract a younger audience already over serviced by lightweight content. Both her andJustin Milne have been conspicuously absent in the public defence of the ABC, and if today’s story about Milne asking Guthrie to sack Emma Albericci is true, he is clearly not up to the task, either.

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