PETER MANNING. The Chair the ABC needs

Feb 8, 2019

After a year from hell, the ABC desperately needs stability, leadership, vision and funds.

But it seems the federal Government is determined to ensure the same old games both sides have played with the ABC will continue for at least until 2024. It’s a depressing thought.

The Canberra Press Gallery is abuzz with the expectation that a new Chair of the ABC Board will be appointed in the last months of the current Morrison government – still lagging in the polls.

With less than three months to go before the May election some might have thought it prudent to leave this key cultural appointment to the newly-appointed Prime Minister, whoever that be.

With a new Chair in place in February, there would be time for the Chair and Board of the ABC to appoint a new Managing Director weeks out from the federal election. A string of Board appointments by Communications Minister Mitch Fifield would lock in a Labor government to a thoroughly stacked ABC.

With a stacked ABC don’t expect Labor to resist the opportunity to play the same old games again. Both Kevin Rudd and Bill Shorten have made it clear in the last few months they feel they don’t get a “fair go” from the mighty New Ltd behemoth. Rudd has also accused the ABC of bending towards the right to avoid criticism from Murdoch’s dailies in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide.

Under the ABC Act it is the Prime Minister who appoints the Chair of the ABC Board. He or she does so taking into account three names chosen by a Nomination Panel – though the PM may ignore the names and appoint his own “captain’s pick”.

The Nomination Panel was an attempt by Labor’s Julia Gillard in 2012 to “depoliticise” ABC Board appointments – but it has been a monumental failure, more often being ignored by the Liberal Ministers or the Prime Minister. The current members of the Nomination Panel are:

* Ted Evans (ex-Treasury head and Westpac board member);

* Anne Fulwood (former Ten and Seven news presenter); and

* Sally Pitkin (ex-lawyer at Clayton Utz with doctorate in governance).

In short, none have a background in public broadcasting. The Panel’s task was to pick the top three Chair applicants following a global search for candidates.

It is an open secret that sifting of talent came up with the following three names for Prime Minister Morrison (and his Cabinet) to peruse:

  • Greg Hywood (ex-Fairfax CEO);
  • Danny Gilbert (Gilbert+Tobin law firm CEO and former NAB director); and
  • Michael Rose (ex-Allens law firm CEO).

In short, again, none has a background in public broadcasting, though Hywood is a senior former print journalist. Gilbert is well-known for his public human rights work, especially in the Aboriginal community.

Put this two-tiered system of dealing with top ABC appointments together and you see a preponderance of lawyers, bankers and commercial media high-flyers.

In normal times, having a Chair who understands public broadcasting may not matter. Senior Judge James Spigelman spent five years at the helm and combined well with the Managing Director, Mark Scott (2006-2016). But Scott was a Fairfax product who understood the nuances of journalistic practice. Brian Johns was another senior journalist who became Managing Director under Mark Armstrong and Donald McDonald in the 1990s.

Both Johns and Scott understood the need for the ABC to remain independent.

What we saw in 2018 with the spectacular sacking of Michele Guthrie as Managing Director followed quickly by the resignation of Chair Justin Milne was a complete misunderstanding of their roles. Milne’s job under the ABC Act was to protect the ABC’s independence, Guthrie’s was to lead the staff with purpose and vision to a digital future just as Scott had done before her.

In my time at the ABC (1978-95) you would barely run in to the Chair. With Milne he was visiting program-makers and passing on his view of their work on a regular basis. I went to a meeting of former Radio National managers with Michele Guthrie to object to cuts at the station only to find the meeting hijacked by Milne who arrived and took over as though Guthrie was not present. It was entirely inappropriate.

Milne also made it clear from the beginning that he and Malcolm Turnbull were “very good friends”. He told the Australian Financial Review in July 2017 “our families are friends”. As the ABC Alumni Ltd submission to the current Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications last November told the Senators:

“A ‘very good friendship’ such as existed between Prime Minister Turnbull and Mr Milne should have sounded an alarm at the selection stage. That it apparently did not do so emphasises the importance of strengthening the selection process to avoid such a situation arising again.”

Milne was one of three recommended by the then Nomination Panel to Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister. Turnbull could have sought further names. He didn’t. It would have avoided a clear conflict of interest. It goes further. The Australia Institute has pointed out that between 2015 and 2018 “the majority of Board appointments have been the ‘direct recommendation’ of Communication Minister Mitch Fifield rather than recommended by the Nomination Panel”. Fifield was part of the stack as well.

On the current ABC Board Donny Walford, Dr Vanessa Guthrie and Joseph Gersh were not recommended by the Nomination Panel. This history bodes badly for the ABC if these appointment practices continue.

Finally, the Act is clear that the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, should be consulted before Scott Morrison makes a recommendation to the Governor-General. (There is no record of such a consultation on Milne).

If Morrison were to wish to appoint a person not suggested by the Nomination Panel (as Fifield has done regularly), Section 24X(2) of the ABC Act requires that the Prime Minister must table his reasons for recommending the appointment of this person in each House of Parliament “no later than 15 sitting days after that appointment is made “.

These consensual protocols suggest appointing the Chair of the ABC is a culturally important act. Will the ABC have the last laugh – recalling Parliament just when Morrison is avoiding Canberra?

PETER MANNING, Phd, is Adjunct Professor of Journalism at UTS and a former Head of ABC TV News and Current Affairs.


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