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.