September 2016


Is Michelle Guthrie tuned in to the ABC?

By Margaret Simons
Image of Michelle Guthrie

Michelle Guthrie. Photograph by Harold David / Network Agency

The new managing director’s vision isn’t clear

In the early weeks of her tenure as managing director of the ABC, Michelle Guthrie took her executive team “off site”, away from the public broadcasting palace in Sydney’s Ultimo, to think big about the future of Australia’s most important cultural institution.

She asked her team to put aside strategic planning documentation and instead consider what the media landscape might look like in five or ten years, and what the role of the ABC might be.

The trends were identified. A dramatic reduction in “appointment television” and an increase in content on-demand. A complete lack of concern among young people about where content originated or how it was delivered, so long as they could access it when they wanted and on whatever device they wished. Young people no longer went to a media outlet. Instead, that outlet’s content came to them, through their social media feeds. In the future, that could include streaming to driverless cars or wearable devices or even, perhaps, devices implanted in the body.

And what, Guthrie asked, defined the ABC? What was it all about? The conventional answer came back: “The ABC is the home of Australian conversations and stories.”

Guthrie then asked another question: “Are we the home of Australian stories or the source of Australian stories?”

It was a significant question, and one that could define her term in one of the most important jobs in the country.

Guthrie took up the job in May this year. It is early days, and far too soon to judge whether she will be good or bad for the national broadcaster. Everyone likes her. She is, it is unanimously agreed, smart, personable and even charismatic. But she has some people worried.

In years past, pronouncements by senior management about the future of the ABC were made with careful thought. They were strategic incursions in the public debate. Guthrie has yet to build a public profile, but she seems to speak with less care. It would be wrong to describe the things she says as thought bubbles. She is pursuing similar messages in her so far limited public appearances and within the organisation. She is consistent, and clearly means what she says.

Yet some of these messages seem more “vibe” than careful strategy.

Having asked her home-or-source question, Guthrie threw out more. She asked why the ABC wouldn’t provide content to News Corp or Fairfax, if they wanted it. After all, ABC content already appeared on Facebook and Twitter. If you were watching Presto or Foxtel, you’d find the ABC already there. What was the difference?

Shortly after that executive meeting, a new document quietly appeared in the more impenetrable recesses of the ABC’s corporate website. Titled ‘Note on the ABC on Third Party Sites’, the document was largely a statement of existing practice, but it was drafted at Guthrie’s request.

It stated that the ABC was looking for ways to “extend the life of its content, repackaging it and making it available in new ways to find new audiences and deliver new revenue”. Some of the platforms the ABC partnered with were supported by advertising and subscriptions. “These are not platforms the ABC owns or controls.”

All this was to the good, the document said. The new platforms provided the ABC with an opportunity to reach new audiences and maintain relevance. They also saved costs, and brought in revenue that could be used to make more content.

The document concluded with a re-statement of the organisation’s “primary commitment”: “No matter how far we expand into new ways of engaging with audiences in new places and forms, our taxpayer-funded content will continue to be delivered free on our own platforms to the people who pay for us.”

Guthrie understands the new media imperative. Content is not the only thing that matters. Distribution is almost equally important. Already, the ABC is more porous than it was 15 years ago: commissioning more of its content from outside providers, and available in more places. Now, Guthrie seems to be saying, the ABC must become less a solid than a gas. Pervasive.

The worry is that gases tend to dissipate.

The ABC has probably never been more important. Ask how it is doing as the top job changes hands and you’ll find some points of consensus. Television is under-performing. Quality content is just so expensive to commission. One insider jokes that you have to be a comedian to get a new show up on the ABC these days. There is a handful of flagship dramas, and a lot of buy-ins from overseas, but gone is the sustained, internally generated documentary examination of Australian life and society that was once possible on ABC TV.

Online is growing, and digital media is the future. ABC iview is the most successful catch-up television service in the country. Radio National’s podcasts have passionate followings. Yet amid all this change, it is still the case that the vast majority of the audience are watching their televisions and listening to their radios in the old-fashioned way. The audience skews older – but the ABC can’t afford to wait until they move to new platforms. It must be there waiting for them.

One of the big challenges is to continue to satisfy traditional audiences while also moving with the times. And to do this in a climate of constrained funding. If you commission another series of The Doctor Blake Mysteries to brighten weekday evenings for the over-50s, you give up the opportunity to do something else. Radio and children’s television – almost never the subject of political controversy – are the types of content that attract the most rusted-on, passionate following. Any managing director fiddles with them at their peril.

Meanwhile, the ABC’s journalism is increasingly important – some would say the most important thing about it – as collapsing business models gut the newsrooms of our major newspapers and broadcasters. The ABC is now the biggest single employer of journalists in the country – not because it has grown, but because the other big newsrooms have shrunk. The ABC represents a guarantee that Australians will continue to have access to at least a basic professional news service. It is also riding high at the moment due to its investigations, including important work on youth detention in the Northern Territory and allegations against Cardinal George Pell. But the news service tends to be the thing that politicians focus on most, and the thing most likely to lose the organisation political support.

The ABC, founded 84 years ago in an act of nation building, is now vast. It is hard to imagine the country without it. There is no aspect of Australian life that it doesn’t touch. And now it has a new boss who is largely an unknown quantity, saying some worrying things and, so far, resistant to questioning and explanation.

Guthrie has changed the way executive meetings at the ABC work. Her predecessor, Mark Scott, used to preside as chair – Delphic and sometimes frustrating in his managerialism and his tightening and slackening of the rein. Increasingly, people say, he disliked criticism.

It is a big team. Not including the boss there are 14 people, moulded gradually during Scott’s ten-year term, all of them with talents and egos and agendas and the peculiar passion that characterises public broadcasting.

Guthrie now circulates the chair among the executive members and instead sits with the troops and fires questions. One of her favourite comments is “Tell me why.”

Among the executive members, opinions are divided as to whether the new style is refreshing and constructive or signalling an impending chaos.

“It reminds us that she is a lawyer by training,” says one.

In her first weeks, Guthrie took away senior staff’s individually reserved car spaces. She has since announced that she will be moving down from the expansive eyrie at Ultimo to a smaller office in the heart of the building. It is all very democratic and “Googly”, an adjective heard frequently these days when people talk about the background of the ABC’s new boss. It is a reference to her corporate experience, most recently as a senior executive for Google in the Asia Pacific.

One member of the ABC board observes that the removal of car spaces can be read as pleasingly democratic but also as a message to the senior staff: “I can make or break you.” The executive is understandably nervous about the new boss, knowing that the cosmetic changes will not be the only ones. There is, the board member observes, a lot of sucking up going on.

In her one substantial media interview since taking up the top job at the beginning of May, Guthrie claimed to be “more a listener than a talker”. She said her role was to unleash the creativity of the organisation, rather than to be a heavy-handed boss. Those who have dealt with her agree that she is exceptionally easy to like: chatty, empathetic and charismatic. She speaks rapidly, waving her hands around.

Is she really a good listener? One former board member says, “She responds so fast after you have finished speaking that you aren’t sure she has heard what you said.” Some say it is a measure of how bright she is that she takes everything in instantly and is ready to move on. Others fear that she hasn’t heard at all. Again, it is too soon to say. Her team is trying to make her out.

There is, one senior staffer remarks, a long history behind why things are done at the ABC – a lot of “very, very long ABC stories”. Guthrie betrays little patience for hearing them. Instead, she wants to forge ahead, to work out what they should do. She encourages them to be bold, to aim for the top. To just do.

The question some are asking is, does she understand the job, and the complexity of the organisation now under her stewardship?

It would be wrong to say Michelle Guthrie has risen without trace. She is well known and universally liked at the top end of town, in legal circles and in the big media corporations, but she has had almost no public profile.

There is only a thin clippings file from her career, which began in corporate law. She then moved on to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, including stints at Foxtel and the Asian-based Star TV. By all accounts, when she left News Corp in 2007 there was a distinct coolness between her and the Murdochs. She became the managing director of private equity firm Providence Equity Partners in Hong Kong, and in 2011 joined Google in Singapore. The only media interviews she gave were brief, bland and driven by media releases – the kind of interviews corporate executives do when they want to reassure or spruik to the market.

Close friends and former mentors, including Seven Network commercial director Bruce McWilliam, declined to be interviewed for this profile. So too did many of Guthrie’s former colleagues at Google, though whether this was out of loyalty to a loved colleague or because they had nothing good to say was not clear.

When those who would speak were asked to name her achievements, the things she had done that she could call her own, they had trouble responding. She was with Rupert Murdoch when he made his unsuccessful pitch for a share of the Chinese market, but she did not drive the initiative. Rather, she acted as a sane head and a brake on the excesses of that attempt. As a private equity lawyer, she helped with the plans to privatise Consolidated Media Holdings, but the deals surrounding this were driven by James Packer, Lachlan Murdoch and Kerry Stokes, and did not go ahead. She has served her masters with agility, good sense and vigour, but did not conceive their plans.

A typical remark came from a former boss. “She was a great team member, but not a leader of the team.”

To be fair to Guthrie, similar things could have been said about Mark Scott when he took over as managing director ten years ago, and he is acknowledged as mostly successful – arguably the best to have held that job at the ABC. He too had risen within Fairfax Media without much trace on the public record, seen as a disciple of the profoundly unlamented CEO Fred Hilmer.

It was only at the ABC that Scott came into his own, deftly handling media interviews and grillings by Senate Estimates and, as the years went by, building a witty social media presence.

One of Guthrie’s challenges is to step out of Scott’s shadow. There is a generation of people for whom Scott is the only memorable model of a competent ABC managing director. When Scott was appointed in 2006, there were no smartphones. Broadband was slower, and fewer people had faster connections at home. Twitter and Facebook were start-ups. Most Australians sat down at defined times to watch television to a schedule determined by the media organisations. ABC2 had only just launched, and there was no ABC3 or ABC News 24. There was a serious internal debate about whether programs should have web pages. The culture within the ABC was poisonous, rife with allegations of bullying. Meanwhile, in the words of broadcaster Michael Duffy, the organisation was behaving “like a whipped dog”, timid after years of political attacks and funding cuts.

Scott drove the organisation uncompromisingly into the digital era, establishing two new channels – the children’s ABC3 and ABC News 24 – and the iview catch-up service. One of his earliest public speeches, the AN Smith Lecture in Journalism in 2009, was titled ‘The Fall of Rome: Media after Empire’. It was a clear statement that, in media, everything was changing.

Scott’s predecessor, Russell Balding, was a bean counter promoted internally to steady the ship after the brief reign of Jonathan Shier, who was the last person who tried to rapidly break and remake the ABC culture. Shier’s 19 months at the helm in 2000–01 were among the most traumatic in the broadcaster’s history. Given that Balding was invisible and Shier was a disaster, one has to go back to the late 1990s, and the era of the now deceased Brian Johns, to find a managing director who had a positive presence in the public eye and the preparedness to talk about a vision for the ABC.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the senior people in the organisation are taking some time to get the measure of the new woman at the top. “She will not be like Scott,” says one. “And that should be OK.”

And, like most female leaders, Guthrie faces some barriers that are to do with gender. One observer, after noting how likeable and smart she is, questioned whether she would have the gravitas to carry her staff and stakeholders with her in the long term. Gravitas, of course, is a concept more usually applied to, and recognised in, men in suits.

There are conspiracy theories around Guthrie’s appointment. Observers, including some of those who went for the top job and didn’t get it, note her history as a Murdoch executive and the fact that her mentor, Bruce McWilliam, is a close friend of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. “She is Turnbull’s pick,” one observer told me. “The most political appointment ever made to that job.”

Few defend the selection process – it was messy and clumsy and left some unsuccessful applicants furious and bitter – but those involved claim Guthrie was clearly the best candidate. “We got the right person by the wrong process,” says one. It is not true that she was Turnbull’s pick, but they acknowledge that Guthrie would likely be acceptable to the prime minister. She comes from the same corporate culture in which he earned his fortune.

Scott, meanwhile, had “lost” the ear and the patience of government by the end of his term. This was largely because of his support for the ABC news-gathering team during controversies such as the story that alleged navy personnel had deliberately burned asylum seekers’ hands. The ABC eventually acknowledged that it did not have the evidence to support the claim, but too late and in too mealy mouthed a fashion to appease the critics.

It was time for Scott to move on, and time for a fresh start.

Guthrie is in many ways more representative of modern Australia than the generations of suited white males who have preceded her. Her Chinese mother and Australian father met at the bank where they both worked, and she was brought up in the eastern Sydney suburbs in a bilingual – Cantonese and English – household.

She studied law at the University of Sydney and went on to work at Allen Allen & Hemsley, specialising in media and technology. She then moved to London where she worked for Murdoch’s BSkyB, before coming back to Australia to work in legal and business development at Foxtel. She moved to Hong Kong to take over from James Murdoch as head of the pay-TV business Star. It is this job that gives her the greatest claim to understanding large and complex media and political organisations. She cut deals across the Asia Pacific, and dealt with international politics. Nobody who saw her in action doubts her toughness. When she left the communications-focused Providence Equity Partners to join Google in 2011, she stepped back from politics and media, performing essentially senior marketing roles.

Her husband is Australian chef Darren Farr, who remains based in Singapore to run a restaurant. They have two daughters, one studying at New York University’s Shanghai campus and another at boarding school in Sydney. The women of the family are fluent in Mandarin.

So why did she get the job?

As early as the middle of last year, the word emanating from the board was that there was a strong preference for a female candidate to replace Scott. The board sent the headhunters back to do more work when the first longlist included only a handful of women among 40 names. The next list approached an even split.

According to recently departed board member Fiona Stanley, the board was also looking for leadership qualities, broadcast experience, and a strong understanding of digital media and its implications. Guthrie, says Stanley, impressed because of the breadth of her experience and because she was “absolutely passionate about the ABC Charter” and “hot to trot on the digital world”. Stanley herself was particularly concerned that the new managing director should be good at handling staff. Guthrie impressed her and continues to do so.

In December 2015, shortly after her appointment was announced, Guthrie gave a quick and ill-considered interview to ABC News 24. In retrospect, it is widely acknowledged to have been “awful” and part of a pattern that suggests she is ill-prepared for the public-facing and political nature of the job. She failed to rule out advertising on the ABC (which she has since done). “It is important on an overall basis in budget-constrained times to really look at all options around monetisation,” she said.

Guthrie, when she speaks, has tended to say things in a hurry, apparently without full awareness of the implications, or the likely response from the ABC’s passionate stakeholders. Her comment on advertising was the first example. It was also an entirely unnecessary fuss.

It is extremely unlikely that advertising will ever be accepted on the ABC. Only some of this is to do with the public outcry that would follow. There is a limited number of advertising dollars to be spent in Australia, and the commercial networks are already scrapping over that amount. The last thing Kerry Stokes, News Corp and Fairfax want is another competitor for those dollars, particularly one with the reach and respect of the ABC. Any government that allowed the ABC to carry advertising would likely face the kind of campaign across all outlets that, even in these days of reduced mainstream media influence, changes governments.

Those who love the ABC and wish to defend it tend to focus on the advertising question with manic intensity. They would be better advised to spend their energy elsewhere. And they should be listening to what Guthrie says, and demanding some explanations.

Guthrie has said that the ABC should aspire to reach 100% of Australians. It sounds great. Who would disagree with the vibe? But it is this last part of the nascent Guthrie agenda that has people most worried.

The ABC’s claim on the public purse is a delicate balance of reach and quality. If the ABC fails to reach large audiences, why should taxpayers pay for it? On the other hand, if it is only pursuing numbers, how is it different from a commercial organisation, and why should it get public funding?

Unlike the BBC, the ABC is not funded by radio and television licence fees from the public, but rather from direct public funding. The Whitlam government abolished licence fees in 1973. The advantage of licence fees is that they create a reliable stream of revenue, insulated from political considerations. But they also create the pressure and expectation that the broadcaster will provide content liked by all those who own a television or radio. Instead, the ABC is a public good as much as a public service. This is a subtle but important difference.

According to its most recent annual report, ABC content across all platforms – television, radio and online – reaches about 71% of the Australian population each week. This is a figure that has held reasonably steady. What would it require to lift this to 100%? The BBC provides the model. It would mean popular sport, big-audience reality television, clickbait online and a Top 40 format on radio.

The opportunity cost of trying for 100% reach would be enormous. Services like ABC Classic FM and Radio National, core to the public-good nature of the broadcaster but small in audience, would risk losing the blessing of the boss or the funding needed to sustain them. Meanwhile, the stretch to reach 100% would inflame the ABC’s commercial rivals, already on a hair trigger, ready to claim the ABC is stealing their lunch.

Another internal Guthrie message has been that she wants to see 80% of the ABC’s budget spent on content and only 20% on administration. This is the lean, mean model behind SBS – and insiders say that Turnbull would like to see the ABC more closely resemble that model. Again, it sounds superficially great. Almost everyone who works there thinks the ABC is over-managed. Who could disagree with the vibe?

But what exactly does it mean? What about the cost of transmission, which currently swallows about $200 million a year? Is that content or administration? Questions sent by the Monthly to Guthrie’s minders asking for clarification on this point went unanswered.

And what about all the “admin” that includes editorial standards, strategic thinking and general institutional heft – the very things that make the ABC substantial, that enable it to manoeuvre, maintain quality and defend against attack?

Those who have watched Guthrie question whether she understands all this. Guthrie comes from a business background, and the ABC is not only business. It is probably the most frustrating and complex media organisation in Australia.

Is she prepared, they ask, to deal with the inevitable backlash that will come if, for example, ABC Classic FM or Radio National were attacked or even trimmed? Does she understand the passion of the audiences, their keen sense of ownership? Does she understand that, despite the blustering of the right wing, there is little appetite in Canberra for root-and-branch reform of the ABC? Nobody in government wants to deal with stakeholder fury.

Successive communications ministers and even ABC boards have failed to think strategically about the long-term future of the broadcaster, what it represents to the nation and to intellectual and cultural life, and what it might need to become.

Politicians (and journalists) focus on news and current events, and only when it affects their interests. Meanwhile, the arms-length process for appointing the ABC board, introduced by Labor in 2010 to end the long tradition of political stacking, has instead resulted in a kind of politically androgynous corporate culture stack. The members of the board who were most likely to push back on populist moves designed to maintain or increase reach, members such as Steven Skala and Fiona Stanley, have left. The chairman, former judge Jim Spigelman, will finish early next year, leaving a board dominated by smart corporates, most of whom have little understanding of media or what it takes to generate and maintain standards in content.

The leadership and the vision will have to come from the ABC management, and from Guthrie. It is early days, but so far she has apparently not felt much need to be known, or to explain herself, to the people she serves.

The Monthly first approached the ABC for an interview with Guthrie in February this year. We were told to wait until she had her feet under the desk. Then, come May, we were told that she wanted to do lighter interviews first of all, with the weekend colour magazines. The Monthly, expected to ask harder and more detailed questions, would follow once she had familiarised herself with the issues.

Meanwhile, just days into the job, Guthrie appeared at her first Senate Estimates hearing. She failed to impress by complaining that the committee running late was causing her to miss her flight. One senator remarked, “It seemed like she didn’t understand where she was and what her job entails. Understandable, perhaps. She only just got there. But didn’t they brief her? Or is it that she wouldn’t be briefed?”

The anticipated piece appeared in the Weekend Australian Magazine at the end of May. It was soft and personal and not too probing. The feeling coming out of the ABC corporate offices was one of relief that no damage had been done, rather than one of pleasure at an opportunity fully used.

Then, after weeks of to and fro, in July the Monthly was told that no interview would be taking place for this article. There was no explanation as to why.

Meanwhile, Guthrie gave her first major public speech at the Australian’s Creative Country conference in late July. The combination of the profile piece appearing in the Australian’s magazine and the choice of a News Corp event for her first public speech fed the usual Murdoch conspiracy theories, plus a perception that Guthrie (or her minders) was trying to blunt the venom of the ABC’s leading critics. In the early days of her appointment, Guthrie surprised some by asking “a bit wide-eyed”, according to one source, why the relationship between News Corp and the ABC had to be so bad.

Ahead of Creative Country, those who were with her noticed if not nervousness then certainly surging adrenaline, and the keen awareness of public scrutiny. “She knows they will go her eventually,” said one observer. “In the words of the Taylor Swift song, haters gonna hate hate hate hate.”

Her speech contained plenty of interest, but it was not stirring. Scott’s speeches were at their best lyrical, partly because he had the assistance of speechwriters who shared his love of poetry. Guthrie’s speech, by comparison, was wooden. There were clunky sentences, mixed metaphors and corporate jargon, such as “deep data dives”. But the core messages were the same as those she has been delivering internally.

First, she emphasised her commitment to making the ABC more diverse, and ending the impression one might get from the screen that Australia is still a nation of blond, blue-eyed Anglos. This, at least, is one agenda nobody can argue with. Scott has acknowledged that he regrets his own failure to introduce diversity. The “deep data dives” Guthrie has spoken about include, sources say, seeking information that the ABC did not have readily to hand, such as detailed pictures on who and how the organisation hires, who leaves and who stays and why. She wants to understand the talent.

Another issue Guthrie highlighted in her speech was that of ABC content appearing on other services. The ABC, she said, would be increasingly partnering with new platforms. Finally, she reiterated her target of 100% reach.

As this article was being written, Guthrie gave a speech at the Lowy Institute. It was better written and predictably, given the venue, proclaimed the importance of the ABC’s international reach. She said her goal was to use “the best of our apps, our catch-up service iview, and our main online site” to create an international service that could be tailored to individual needs. It was an ambitious vision, but short on specifics.

She also made an interesting observation about clickbait-driven new media presences. She said she doubted their long-term prospects. “They offer quick ‘hits’ for their target audiences, via short, attention-seeking news items and clips, or listicles that generally lack substance. It could be argued that their content is as shallow as their revenues.” She asserted there was an emerging “flight to quality” in reaction.

There have been two substantial decisions about content on Guthrie’s watch. Both had roots in the period before her appointment. One is the closure of the ABC’s opinion site, The Drum, and the other is the closure of the ABC Fact Check unit. It is far from clear that either of these is indicative of her own considered view.

The Drum has always been controversial internally. Scott believed the ABC should reflect the range of opinion of its audiences, and that this was a legitimate function. He backed The Drum with his own discretionary fund. Others in the executive thought that in an era where opinion is cheap and readily available, this was not the best use of scarce resources or an appropriate thing for the publicly funded broadcaster to do. When Scott left, it was clear that The Drum would be vulnerable. The decision to kill it was not mainly to do with Guthrie.

ABC Fact Check was another thing entirely. The work of this unit, checking the statements of politicians and others in the public eye, was both popular (except with those who were called out for inaccuracy) and significant. Fact Check was established in 2013 after Labor gave the ABC $60 million in funding to improve its news reporting. The money also funded regional bureaus and state-based digital teams.

The ABC was naturally keen to maintain this funding in the next triennial round, but late last year Scott was gaining no traction at all with the government. The board intervened, but as late as February the ABC thought it might lose all of the extra funding. Lists were compiled for the government of what would be lost, contingent on various levels of cuts. ABC Fact Check was close to the top of those lists, partly because others, in particular the university-funded site The Conversation, were also getting into fact checking.

As it turned out, the ABC lost a third of the extra funding in the May budget. Guthrie would have had to intervene fast and firm in her first few days in the job had she wished to save Fact Check – and find other savings. She didn’t do so.

Today, Mark Scott is reluctant to comment on his successor, other than wishing her well. But he does recall all too well the burden she carries.

“The thing that kept me awake at night was the pace of change and what it meant,” he says. “I remember sitting on a train in New York and I just wouldn’t see a paper. I wandered around Brooklyn trying to get a copy of the New York Times, and I couldn’t find one. Change is so profound, and the world’s media organisations have all been profoundly threatened.”

As the world’s great media organisations have struggled, tech companies have moved into their space, he says. It is perhaps symbolic that his successor comes from Google.

“Within a year of my starting in the job, the ABC turned 75 and I would think, What would the ABC be like when it was 100? Would it be as important? Would it be relevant? So, yes, that used to worry me. How do you remain relevant and compelling? Because if you fail to do that you will simply be removed one way or another. How do you keep the stakeholder passion when places like the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald or Channel 9 may well disappear?

“So I had that sense of stewardship, protecting and preserving and keeping the organisation, but also strengthening it. And the thing that would keep you awake at night would be the thought, Will it be me who lets it slip? I felt that weight.”

If Guthrie has similar night-time fears, she is yet to confide them to her team.

One member of her executive said, almost certainly too optimistically, that perhaps they were all wrong to be waiting for the big moment when she would reveal all. Perhaps it wouldn’t happen. Perhaps she would just manage them incrementally and make no big changes. He is virtually alone in thinking this. A restructure is almost certain; indeed it is arguably overdue, when much of the internal structure is still based on platforms rather than content. Most observers doubt if the current executive team will be intact in a year’s time.

The home of Australian stories or the source? As Guthrie has said, failing to change is not an option. The ABC cannot remain as it has been. It must reach out, reach further and embrace the new media world.

The fear is that if Guthrie means what she says – if she intends to slash the bureaucracy, strain for 100% reach and partner even more widely with other platforms – that in ten or 20 years’ time it will be easy for a future government to gut the ABC. The ABC might have become less of a broadcasting organisation and more of a commissioning organisation. It might have lost institutional heft. It might be competing directly with commercial media on the same platforms but have lost the capacity to monitor its own news coverage and impose standards. It might have lost the distinctive public purpose that is its reason for being.

Will Michelle Guthrie come to have more patience for those long ABC stories? It is, as everyone around her acknowledges, too soon to tell.

The original version of this essay stated that the ABC had never been funded by licence fees. This was incorrect.

Declaration: In her role as director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, the author deals with the ABC in a number of different ways, including organising the placement of interns, inviting ABC personnel to appear at public functions, and exploring and pursuing potential research and teaching partnerships.

Margaret Simons

Margaret Simons is an author, journalist and journalism academic. She has written numerous books, articles and essays, including the Quarterly Essay Cry Me a River: The Tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin.


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David McBride’s guilty plea and the need for whistleblower reform

The former army lawyer had no choice but to plead guilty, which goes to show how desperately we need better whistleblower protections

Installation view of the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, showing three framed abstract paintings hanging on a wall

Kandinsky at AGNSW

The exhibition of the Russian painter’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW provides a fascinating view of 20th-century art’s leap from representation to abstraction

Image of Margret RoadKnight playing guitar and singing.

The unsung career of Margret RoadKnight

Little-known outside the Melbourne folk scene for decades, singer Margret RoadKnight’s 60 years of music-making is celebrated in a new compilation