If Ita Buttrose, AO OBE is appointed ABC Chair of the Board in the next few days it will represent yet another opportunity for her to show her extraordinary talents at confronting difficult media challenges and coming out a winner.
At age 77 she will be taking on one hell of a job.
The ABC is not in a good state and, despite endless promises from the Liberals (think: Tony Abbott), the savage cuts to its budget have left it poor in programming options, thinly spread in remaining staff, leaderless following the Chair and MD resigning, and under attack by both Liberals and Labor for alleged “bias”.
None of this has stopped the ABC being hailed in endless surveys as one of Australia’s most trusted and devoted institutions.
For the first time, Liberal Party policy calls for “the full privatisation of the Australian broadcasting corporation” with the caveat that services to rural and regional areas might be spared if they are not “commercially viable”.
The motion at the Party’s last federal council meeting in June 2018 was passed by 39 votes to 10. It followed a similar motion being passed by the Young Liberals at their earlier meeting. In moving the motion at the federal council, Mitchell Collier (from the Young Liberals) said:
“There are several ways we could privatise the ABC – we could obviously sell it to a media mogul, or organization, the government could sell it on the stock market.”
No delegates stood from the floor of the Council meeting to speak against the motion.
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, an executive member rather than a delegate, did add: “It is not the position of the Government to alter the ownership arrangements of the public broadcasters.” Then Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, later vowed to keep the ABC in public hands.
But who is to say Scott Morrison, a member of the Right faction unlike Turnbull, does not have the sale of the ABC on his agenda for his next term of government if elected?
Crucially, in this climate, we do not know where Ita Buttrose stands.
Buttrose has not come through the process legislated by the ABC Act where she is picked up by a global search agency, put before a Nomination Panel of three appointed by the government, chosen for a short list, interviewed for the position and then recommended to the Prime Minister for appointment.
Instead, Buttrose has leapt over the formal process and seemingly is a “captain’s pick” of Morrison.
Hence we know nothing of Buttrose’s views on a whole host of issues raised by the recent resignation of the previous Chair, Justine Milne, and the previous Managing Director’s allegations that Milne pressured her to sack some ABC journalists the Turnbull government did not like. The Senate Standing Committees on the Environment and Communications is only half-way through its hearings, having cross-examined Milne and Guthrie late last year. Its final report is sure to have much to say on the same issues. The government is not waiting.
There is no doubting Buttrose’s talents as a journalist and editor. In fact, she was the subject of an ABC drama series, “Paper Tigers”, in which she heroically defended her women’s magazines from interference from the dreaded Consolidated Press male management (read: her mate Kerry Packer). She was “Cleo” with all its adventurism, and then “The Weekly”.
But her achievements were deep inside the very commercial Packer “my way or the highway” culture. In Sydney’s Park Street, where the presses pumped out “the Weekly”, and at the Nine Network – the two arms of the Packer empire – Ita was a leader in popular content and making a profit.
Neither of those gifts will help her run the public broadcaster. It is a different beast entirely. Her whole life from practising journo to management guru is predicated on the belief that you can make excellent programs and feast on advertising dollars.
So the first question to ask this Morrison “captain’s pick” is whether she sees advertising as playing any future role in the ABC?
The second is whether, as the Liberal Party now insists, the ABC should be privatised?
The third is whether she will protect the ABC from the kind of political interference that has been made apparent in current hearings of the Senate by the previous Chair and previous MD?
The fourth is how she envisages her relations with the Managing Director of the ABC? Since the appointment of a Managing Director is probably the most important job of a Board Chair, how does she delineate the difference in roles?
The fifth is her commitment to the digital future of the ABC along with its online presence in the broadcasting market – despite pressure from social media multinationals and Australian media to restrict the ABC’s services.
There are many other questions along these lines which Ita Buttrose AO will face if appointed in coming days.
There have been many Chairs and Managing Directors of the ABC who have been predicted to stick to a government line expected of them but upon appointment have disappointed their political friends and found the ethics and role of public broadcasting too important to transgress.
In a period where some of the greatest attacks on the ABC have occurred under the last three Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments, it would be a pleasure to see the undoubted strength of Buttrose put to good use on behalf of the ABC’s independence and future, serving its remit under the ABC Act and the 80 percent of Australians who support it.
PETER MANNING, PhD is an Adjunct Professor of Communications at UTS and a former head of ABC TV News and Current Affairs.