In the middle of an intense election campaign, Australia’s public broadcaster has been looking for new leaders itself after a scandal that saw off its top executives last year. A veteran media watcher tells Mediawatch there’s lots to learn from the mess at the ABC and its efforts to address the “death of broadcasting”.
Last year the ABC’s managing director was sacked two years into her five-year term. There were persistent reports the former Google executive Michelle Guthrie was not getting on with ABC senior staff and journalists.
Once she was gone some didn’t hide their feelings.
“She would not take on her role as a champion for this organisation publicly. She would not advocate for us in the public domain which was an astonishing fail on her part,” ABC radio host Jon Faine told his listeners.
He went on to say she wasn’t worth “the million dollars a year she was paid to run the most important cultural institution in the nation”.
After he sacked her, the chair Justin Milne cited her “leadership style” as a problem.
But so was his.
A week later Justin Milne resigned too in the wake of controversy about political interference.
The Sydney Morning Herald had revealed emails in which he urged Michelle Guthrie to“shoot” an economics correspondent and “get rid” of a political editor, both of whom had annoyed the government with their reporting.
After five months without a chair, the ABC finally appointed media veteran Ita Butrose in February and the former magazine editor and broadcaster said she would restore stability
Late last week, the ABC – at long last – appointed a new managing director too.
David Anderson has 30 years’ experience with the ABC and was formerly responsible for all ABC radio, music and broadcast television networks as well as its on-demand stuff.
The ABC’s director of news approved:
Order restored at @ABCAustralia. Ita Buttrose and David Anderson are an assured and formidable partnership to lead the national broadcaster for the next 5 years for all Australians. https://t.co/IDbNlJvdzp
— Gaven Morris (@gavmorris) May 3, 2019
But will the ABC remain a political football that keeps getting kicking when the political time is right?
“Ita Butrose may well prove to be a good choice; we don’t know much about what she’s going to do. She comes very much from the popular media and she hasn’t run anything for about 20 years but she’s extremely well known to the Australian public and politicians,” said Jonathan Holmes, a former host of the ABC TV show Media Watch.
His new book On Aunty lifted the lid on what happened there last year to leave the broadcaster leaderless and he offers some advice for his former employers – and any other public broadcaster making themselves fit for a digital future.
Jonathan Holmes says it’s hard to tell if all the turmoil at the top level affected the ABC’s journalism.
“But for the last year or two of the Turnbull government, Malcolm Turnbull’s office and the minister of communications were putting enormous pressure on the ABC and in particular its political editor for all kinds of alleged sins and trespasses, a lot of which were really trivial,” he said.
“That had a pretty powerful effect on the stress levels of the ABC’s political bureau in Canberra. Anyone’s entitled to complain to the ABC but obviously if the complaint comes from the minister who has the power to turn off the money tap it has a bit more force than if it comes from Joe Blow in the street,” Jonathan Holmes told Mediawatch.
Another move that put pressure on the ABC was an effort to change the law to oblige it to be not .just “accurate and impartial” but also “fair and balanced.”
Jonathan Holmes says a bill was drafted specifically at the request of the One Nation party led by Pauline Hanson, though it has not become law.
“The government was trying to get them to support its media law to give more freedom to commercial media to merge. In response One Nation demanded a review of the ABC – which has happened and found nothing wrong – and this Bill which said the ABC should be fair and balanced. That sounds fair enough but it’s not,” he said
“One Nation was trying to get a handle with which to attack the ABC on things like climate change. If that bill got through (it) would be able to claim the ABC is not balanced every time it publishes climate science without a riposte – or anti-vaxxers would be able to claim the ABC is not balanced every time it publishes a report about the merits of vaccination,” he said.
“This is a very dangerous path to go down,“ he said.
Fit for the digital future?
In his book On Aunty, Jonathan Holmes says the average age of the ABC’s TV viewers is rising rapidly.
“It’s a problem for all media companies everywhere. Everyone was saying a few years ago that print newspapers are going to be dead in 10 years, but I think broadcasting is actually dying quicker,“ he said.
Even the biggest of the Australian commercial TV networks – including Nine which owns Stuff here – are struggling, said Jonathan Holmes.
“The whole business model of live commercial broadcast television is practically dead. There’s only two things people watch live any more: sport and reality TV where people have a second screen for commenting and so on,” he said.
“The ABC doesn’t have the commercial problem but if it doesn’t have anyone watching its broadcast TV or listening to the radio they have to reach people on digital platforms. But the ABC doesn’t control those,” he said.
Jonathan Holmes fears that in future Australia may have only two viable media behemoths: Rupert Murdoch‘s News Corporation and the ABC.
The backdrop to the political interference scandal which led to the former chair Justin Milne quitting was a huge digital transformation project for the ABC called Jetstream.
Mr Milne was hoping to secure a whopping AU$500 million for that and it was one of the reasons he was so keen that the ABC should not upset the government.
“His idea was that everything the ABC produced should be quickly and seamlessly available online . . . and it has to be there forever – including the archives which would have to be digitised. He’s probably right that what you want for the future is an Australian Streaming Corporation not an Australian Broadcasting Corporation,” he said.
But Jonathan Holmes reckons it’s an idea whose time has not come just yet.
“I don’t believe the ABC’s current public are ready yet and I don’t think they’ll be ready for a decade or so at least. But that’s a calculation that we’re going to have to make as we go along,” he said.