Australian politics, society & culture


Second life

Mark Scott embarks on another five-year term

B1 and B2 with Mark Scott at Parliament House, 2009. © Mark Graham. Image courtesy of the ABC.
B1 and B2 with Mark Scott at Parliament House, 2009. © Mark Graham. Image courtesy of the ABC.
Cover: July 2011July 2011Medium length read

There is an island in Second Life called ABC. If you go there and wander the shores, you may find a deckchair on which sits the avatar of Mark Scott, managing director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Shortly after his appointment to the top job in mid 2006, it seemed as though the 3-D virtual world Second Life was the new thing – a place where Australians might spend large amounts of their time. No field is changing faster than media, and Scott believes that where the audience goes the ABC should follow. So Scott created an avatar and went to try it out. History does not record, and he does not say, what modifications he made to his avatar. Did he make himself younger, more handsome, less grey and managerial? Did he strengthen his chin, the better to take knocks?

At the time people described Scott as “vanilla” – a man of no discernible passions. Previously at Fairfax, he was seen as a creation of the unlamented former CEO Fred Hilmer. He was said to be someone who chose the middle course and did not make waves. Nobody says those kinds of things about him now. This month marks the fifth anniversary of Scott’s time as head of our most important cultural institution; he has signed on for another five years. Under his leadership, the ABC has moved from being a defensive, embattled organisation to one frequently accused of unfairly threatening its commercial competitors.

Scott has seen a change of government, and an almost complete turnover of the board – from it being heavily stacked with Howard government–appointed cultural warriors to the present situation, in which it is dominated by people appointed under an arm’s length process. On his watch, the ABC has established two new digital television channels – the children’s channel ABC3 and, most recently, the 24-hour current events service ABC News 24. Another channel, ABC2, which was established shortly before Scott’s time, has come into its own. Mark Scott has become one of the most influential people in Australian media, arguably the most influential.

Whatever enhancements he made to himself in Second Life they did not last. He recalls: “I went there two or three times. I found a lovely deckchair overlooking the ocean, sat down and logged off and I have never been back.” Second Life was not the big new thing, and today the Mark Scott avatar is an empty shell. He has since moved on to Twitter, where [email protected] puts out a mixture of ABC promotions, personal reflections and jokes. He recently posted a link to a pair of Giggle and Hoot pyjamas advertised by the ABC Shop, and suggested he would wear them to the St Vincent de Paul CEO Sleepout fundraiser, in which bosses try a night of faux homelessness.

Once, in 2009, he tweeted at 5.42 am: “What triggers the frisson of excitement in the pre-dawn light? Senate Estimates day! To Canberra!” Later that day, before fronting the committee, he tweeted the single word “Showtime” with a link to the live online broadcast. And it was showtime. The senators sniggered their way through a series of questions about ABC children’s programs.

Senator Birmingham: I have visions of you, Mr Scott, there in Ultimo during the filming of Play School.

Mark Scott: You are all welcome. Let us know when you are in town.

Senator Birmingham: I do not know whether you are on the chair, or the bear or what you may be.

Senator Conroy: We have finally discovered your avatar – B1!

Mark Scott: Let us move on.

Senate Estimates has become a double act, with the minister for communications, Stephen Conroy, acting like Snowy to Scott’s Tintin – a snappy and loyal terrier.

Scott has proved himself an adept politician. Getting funding is the most crucial measure of success for the leader of a public broadcaster, and in this he has succeeded. In the year of those pre-Estimates tweets, the ABC gained an increase in triennial funding, largely to raise the production of Australian drama from woefully low levels.

Scott’s strategy has been to align what the ABC wants with wider government policy objectives. Scott will never, as previous managing directors have done, take on government. Rather, he cultivates his critics, lunching journalists, moving smoothly through the Canberra corridors. Under both Howard and Rudd/Gillard, he has been accused of being too close to government. “It is only a problem,” Scott says, “if the ABC ends up doing things that we don’t want to do. And that doesn’t happen. But making it clear how our objectives match with national priorities – I see no problem with that.”

The case for funding ABC3 and ABC News 24, for example, was couched in terms of the need for Australia to move from analog to digital broadcasting. For governments, it is hard to imagine any more nightmarish a scenario than swinging voters turning on their televisions to find they have blank screens. This problem has haunted the terms of communications ministers of both political colours. Scott has cast himself as their best friend. ABC2, ABC3 and ABC News 24, he has told them, will help drive people to make the switch to digital television technology in time. Scott describes the switch from analog to digital as the biggest change to public policy affecting everyday life since Australia switched from pounds, shillings and pence to decimal currency in the 1960s. It is a significant comparison, and telling when it comes to what motivates Scott. The change to decimalisation was overseen by Mark Scott’s grandfather, Sir Walter Scott, who in 1938 founded Australia’s first management consultancy and was one of the founders of the Australian Institute of Management. Walter Scott was an adviser to ten different government commissions and boards of review, serving governments of all stripes. He was appointed as head of the Decimal Currency Board, and Mark Scott’s earliest memories include being coaxed out of bed to see his grandfather on television, sitting with huge coins behind him, heading up a vital public education campaign. This is the family legacy and the family mythology: public service and management not in the grey and narrow sense but as instruments of change.

As a young man, Mark Scott worked for the then NSW Liberal Education Minister Terry Metherell. He considered running for parliament, as a Liberal, before being taken on as a journalist by the Sydney Morning Herald. There, after a relatively brief time as a frontline reporter and newsdesk executive, he rose under Fred Hilmer to become editor-in-chief of the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun Herald.

He had both fans and critics at Fairfax. In Melbourne there are those who still curse him for being behind the appointment of the unpopular Andrew Jaspan as editor of the Age. While there were also people who praised his abilities at Fairfax, nobody predicted his impact and success as managing director of the ABC. There, he has become one of the thought leaders of the media industry. Or that is what his fans say. His critics talk of arrogance, and of a tendency to overreach that could yet see the ABC crash at the very time when we most need a national broadcaster.

Not all of the ABC’s resurgence is thanks to Mark Scott. Even if he had been a do-nothing manager, the public broadcaster would be looking stronger because the times suit public broadcasting, while challenging commercial media. For example, the ABC is now the biggest single employer of journalists in Australia, not because it has been on a hiring spree but because other news organisations have been getting rid of reporters.

At a time when commercial media business models are strained or broken, the ABC is no longer only a broadcaster. Only a non-commercial media organisation can embrace the fact that audiences now rarely mass in one place at one time. The trend started under Scott’s predecessor, Russell Balding, who backed ABC’s online expansion despite a lack of government funding. But Scott has urged the ABC on further and further, spreading its content over an increasing number of channels and platforms. Scott’s strength has been in understanding and embracing the nature of media change. That and his talent as a communicator. He has taken the ABC onto the front foot.

ABC content is made freely available for use on other websites. There is a widget you can download that will put an ABC newsfeed on any web page. In the first five months of this year, 3.8 million visitors to ABC Online arrived via Facebook – a five-fold increase on the same period last year. Nearly 1 million arrived via Twitter, which more than doubled the figures of the previous year. And many people absorb ABC content on Facebook and Twitter without ever actually getting to the ABC-owned platforms at all.

Scott says: “If they don’t come to the ABC-owned platforms it doesn’t matter. If you are at Channel Nine your audiences have different commercial value depending on where they are but, to a public broadcaster, we just want our content out there. If someone watches Four Corners [on ABC TV] at 8.30 on Monday night, or on YouTube, Facebook, wherever – I don’t care at all really. Anytime, any place, anywhere. Get our content out there, and total audience experience grows, and that is a good thing.”

An early indication of the direction in which Scott would lead the ABC was his adoption of language drawn from Professor Jay Rosen of New York University. Rosen founded the public journalism movement in the ’80s and ’90s, under which media organisations reconceived their roles as enablers of democracy. Newspapers organised public forums at which community problems were aired, and solutions proposed.

In a speech last year, Scott described the ABC’s determination to be “great partners with our audience and hosts of a national conversation”. He envisaged the ABC as “a town hall, a commons, a place for connecting not just with content but connecting with each other … A town hall that excludes no one. A town hall which is not … locked behind the pay TV wall. No citizen in a nation should have to buy a ticket to participate in democratic life.”

With this kind of talk, Scott has made himself the chief antagonist of every commercial media outlet that sees a future in charging for content – and that’s most of them, including News Limited and Fairfax, both of which have plans to charge for accessing content online.

Scott’s name provokes almost Pavlovian response in News Limited executives. How dare he criticise paywalls when the ABC is already paid for, they argue; not voluntarily by audiences who use it, but compulsorily through taxes.

All of this is a local version of international debates. James Murdoch has attacked the BBC for making it harder for commercial media, and Scott has adopted the defence that was first posed by BBC boss Mark Thompson: just because there are commercial art galleries does not mean you don’t have a national museum; just because there are commercial fun parks does not mean you don’t have a government park. National broadcasters represent a space that is neither commercial nor private but a “third space” that is public, and free to enter.

Meanwhile, the ABC grows ever more porous – less of an institution and more of a presence. Under the ABC Open project, launched in February 2010, ABC producers who are based in regional areas help community members to tell their own stories using digital media. Recent content has included a collection of stories by refugees in the Goulburn Valley. The multimedia stories were exhibited as part of the Shepparton Festival, published and played on ABC Online and ABC Radio, and repackaged as a series on ABC News 24.

The audience has been invited into the news process. During the recent floods in Queensland, the ABC used a web-based mapping tool, Ushahidi, to allow users to submit information. The reports appeared online, via SMS and Twitter, and were combined with official information and reports filed by ABC journalists. The result was one of the most comprehensive and reliable sources of information during the course of the disaster. There were more than 210,000 visits to the site.

Only a year before, Victorians died in the Black Saturday bushfires partly because official sources of information were scarce and out of date. Melbourne ABC Radio presenters were left in a quandary about what to broadcast – the reports from listeners that flames were coming over the hill or the official information locating the fire far away. If, God forbid, there is a next time, an ABC-hosted Ushahidi site could conceivably save lives.

But with all this emphasis on forward motion, is the ABC moving beyond its charter?

Scott has been attacked by media bosses as various as Fairfax’s former CEO Brian McCarthy, News Limited’s John Hartigan and Crikey’s Eric Beecher for what they see as an abandonment of the ABC’s core charter responsibilities and an entry to areas already well served by commercial media. Why a 24-hour television news channel when there is Sky News? Why an online opinion site like The Drum, when there is so much opinion and commentary online? Why all this spreading of thin resources?

Before Scott’s tenure, the ABC, feeling attacked on all sides, had turned inwards and, in some areas of the organisation, turned on its own. These days, the complaints of bullying have not entirely gone away, but they are less frequent and there are fewer allegations that the problem stems from institutional culture. Scott acknowledges that, when he arrived, “It had been a pretty rugged place to work. I think it was partly a culture of scarcity … My attitude is that we get a fair whack of public money, and we do a lot with it. We can’t afford to operate with the attitude that we are always too short of resources.”

But within the heart of the ABC, at the desks of hard-pressed reporters, producers and content makers, there are plenty of people who says things are just being pressed too far.

A moment of truth is approaching: the next triennial funding announcement in the budget next year. Will the ABC get the endorsement of a harried government or does the present resurgence precede the fall?

Scott keeps a tidy desk. He describes his management style as collegiate. He has about 14 people reporting directly to him, which, he says, is regarded by the management textbooks as on the upper edge of the manageable. There are frequent meetings. Scott involves himself closely in training, and he doesn’t hesitate to be a presence in the newsroom and offices below his top-floor pad. He has emphasised his role as editor-in-chief of the organisation.

One of his favourite places to be on a Monday night is in the green room for the ABC program Q&A, one of the undoubted hits of his reign. Q&A is the product of lessons learnt from the much duller earlier program Difference of Opinion. The decision was made to make it live, edgy and more interactive. Scott is not above proposing talent. He once suggested to the production team that they needed a leading businessperson on the show. The result was Gail Kelly of Westpac, whose appearance broke news when she had the uncomfortable experience of fielding questions from her own staff about gender pay inequality.

According to News Limited, the problem with the ABC remains left-wing bias, and this allegation is frequently repeated despite a lack of evidence in audience figures, complaints to the broadcaster or broad audience perception. But the real weakness of the ABC, and of its leader, may be found in the same place as the reasons for its success. “The man has an ego,” says one internal critic of Scott’s. “He can’t quite accept that there are limits, that there is only so much this organisation can do without breaking.”

The ABC has become not so much a set of media sites and channels walled around by a clear institutional presence as a generator of content delivered almost everywhere. It is not so much a solid as a gas – all pervasive. But gas spreads thin. “If you want to twist the knife,” says one senior ABC reporter, “it’s ABC News 24. That is the point of weakness. That is the point of overreach, and people have been trying to tell him and he just won’t see it.”

ABC News 24 is very much Scott’s baby. The ABC sought funding to establish it in the last triennial round but was unsuccessful. Scott decided to set it up in any case. He claimed it would cost no extra money but could be funded from savings made elsewhere – including from the automation of studios. At first, in an uncharacteristic outbreak of secretiveness, Scott refused to say how much it was costing. He has since claimed that savings amounted to around $20 million, and that most (but not all) was spent on ABC News 24. 

Other media figures ridicule Scott’s claim, saying a television news channel simply can’t be made for that amount, even given that much of the content is already part of ABC’s fixed costs, including the foreign correspondents and reporters.

Even those who defend it do not claim that ABC News 24 has been an unalloyed success. In the early weeks – it was launched on 22 July 2010 – the station was slow to switch to live press conferences and other events. When Japan was hit by its disastrous earthquake and tsunami this year, ABC News 24 had its worst moment. The Saturday morning after the quake, as the Fukushima nuclear plant began to melt down and it became clear that this was not just a big story but one of the big stories of the decade, the ABC was screening repeats of current events shows.

Tim Blair, the News Limited commentator, was later to describe it as the “most abysmal performance by the Australian public broadcaster in its 82-year history”. As the world was “screaming for news from Japan”, ABC News 24 screened old footage, including on Belgium’s national identity problems.

So what did Scott think that morning at home? He was watching not only the big screen but the little one – keeping track of his Twitter feed, where the messages were taking on an increasingly furious tone.

Scott hit the phone. “I wasn’t pulling my hair out but I was, well, let’s say I was aware of the problem. I am not temperamentally the kind of person who thumps the table or throws the furniture around. I am more temperamentally the kind of person who asks what went wrong, and how do we fix it, and how do we make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

But on this occasion, he couldn’t fix it, or not quickly enough. He asked if the news coverage could please be ramped up. And they tried. But this huge story followed several other big news stories that quarter – the floods in Queensland, the Christchurch earthquake. Scott says: “They were short-staffed and the resources they might have wanted to call in were not available … we learned about resources we need to have on standby. I’m sorry we didn’t do better on that morning.” But he is not apologetic about the coverage overall, saying only, “We had a couple of disappointing hours.”

Audience figures for ABC News 24 show that it reaches – that is, at least five minutes are watched by – 2.1 million people per week, or nearly 14% of the total population of Australia’s five largest capital cities, compared to 6.4% for Sky News, available on pay TV. Scott’s view is the ABC had no choice but to launch a 24-hour news service – that in the modern media world, a news service that is not continuous is hardly a news service at all. “If we hadn’t launched ABC 24, then it would have damaged our whole news brand,” he says.

Yet critics say that the damage is happening anyway, because resources have simply been spread too thin. A few months ago, ABC foreign correspondents received an email instructing that, until the end of the financial year, they were not to travel away from their base cities, unless it was vital they do so. In what has admittedly been a news year unlike most others, the money has run out. But Scott flatly denies that ABC News 24 is robbing resources from elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the ABC is waiting to hear the result of its tender to continue to provide Australia’s international television service, the Australia Network. It faces a challenge from Sky News. If the ABC loses the contract, jobs in the overseas bureaus will have to be cut.

Even in periods of less intensive breaking news, reporters are doing more with less. On radio bulletins and television news broadcasts, there is more ‘he says, she says’ coverage, in which little is done other than reporting entirely predictable remarks by the usual suspects. Morning news bulletins on local radio are rich in reads from police media releases on run-of-the-mill crimes. There are still groundbreaking reports, such as the recent Four Corners program on live cattle export to Indonesia, but even that relied on footage provided by activists. The initiative came from outside the ABC.

Eyes will be turning to the only possible answer to these dilemmas – the 2012 announcement of funding. How will Scott fare? The question preoccupying everyone is whether, in what is expected to be a tough budget, ABC’s current spread of activities can be funded and supported, let alone pushed into new territories. Has Mark Scott overreached the brief of the public broadcaster? Has he left the old-fashioned understanding of the charter too far behind? Does the government share his view of the ABC as the nation’s town square?

Meanwhile, this year is a crucial one for all media due to the Labor government–commissioned Convergence Review, which will reassess all aspects of media regulation. Both the public broadcasters – ABC and SBS – hope to benefit from the likely relaxation of local drama content quotas for commercial broadcasters. In the past, ABC’s local drama output had fallen to truly embarrassing levels. Thanks to the last increase in funding this has been addressed to some extent, with successful dramas such as Rake, Laid and Paper Giants screening on ABC TV.

ABC, Scott says, has always operated as a “market intervention” by government. It should continue to address areas of market failure as more will emerge. Local drama production is likely to be one area; quality news and current events might be another.

Having steered ABC through the last five years, Scott has now started a structured exercise to think through where the public broadcaster might be in a decade. But he says it is hard to know exactly where the organisation is going: “New things will emerge that you hadn’t quite seen but, if you are moving with some momentum, you are subtle enough and flexible enough to change … [to] adjust and take advantage of opportunities.” He shrugs. “You can’t be too precise. You just have to know the future is that way.”

About the author Margaret Simons

Margaret Simons is a journalist and director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of numerous essays and articles and ten books, including The Content Makers.