The ABC’s future will now be a front-and-centre election issue
Given that Prime Minister Scott Morrison was advised last night, it is hard to believe ABC boss Michelle Guthrie’s shock dismissal this morning was not politically acceptable to the federal Coalition. If it was not already, the future of the ABC is now front and centre as an election issue. The headless organisation is in more danger than it’s been in decades – including when the hapless Jonathan Shier was briefly in charge. Then, the organisation’s chair was the highbrow arts supremo Donald McDonald, a close friend of the then prime minister, John Howard, and an old-fashioned conservative who understood his statutory obligations and stood up for the organisation. Now, the ABC has been weakened by frequent management turmoil, and is under constant attack from conservative media and the government itself. The current chair, businessman Justin Milne, a one-time business associate of former PM Malcolm Turnbull, is an unlikely bulwark against the troglodytes in the Coalition who would like to sell off the organisation or break it up. The ABC is in peril.
Sadly for her, there will be no love lost for Guthrie inside or outside the ABC. Her appointment, under the then prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has been disastrous for both staff morale and for overall funding. The former News Corp and Google executive had no background in journalism and, what’s more, no feel for it, as was revealed in a calamitous faux pas early on, when she told a Four Corners end-of-year gathering that perhaps they should do more profiles of successful business people. In all seriousness, if she did not understand the Four Corners’ mission – public interest, investigative journalism – what did she get about the ABC? The powerful executive producer of Four Corners, Sally Neighbour, this morning tweeted that Guthrie’s sacking was an “excellent decision”. Melbourne radio host Jon Faine, who publicly rebuked Guthrie months ago over her failure to champion or defend the organisation, this morning described her tenure as an “astonishing fail”.
When Guthrie took over, she told staff in one of her endless management-speak emails that one thing was clear: sticking with the status quo was not an option. Yet Guthrie had taken over the ABC after a decade under Mark Scott, who for many staff was the best MD they’d ever worked for, and who was constantly leaning in to the disruptive headwinds of the digital era. Guthrie treated the ABC as though it was a legacy behemoth that had been asleep for a decade, when in fact the ABC had been a digital pioneer, from podcasting to iView. Worse, she forced endless “transformation”, implemented via waste-of-time surveys, onto staff caught up in the hunger games because she was not doing the main thing they needed her to do: secure the organisation’s funding. Then she capped it off with execrable engagement initiatives like “Larry cards”, dubbed internally the “Wiggles for grown-ups”.
To be fair, Guthrie was right to try and boost diversity at the ABC, and to a lesser extent right to increase regional content. As The Australian’s media columnist Mark Day wrote [$] in an extraordinarily well-timed mid-term review this morning, Guthrie got rid of layers of middle management, and reduced the number of divisions to four. But, as The Guardian’s Amanda Meade laid out in a two-part series earlier this year, decisions like the axing of Lateline, and cutting radio current affairs by an hour a day, while pushing into lifestyle content, stoked fears that Guthrie was “dumbing down” the broadcaster.
In June this year, the Liberal Party’s peak council voted by 2:1 to privatise the ABC, as proposed by the Institute of Public Affairs, whose alumni includes communications minister Mitch Fifield, an arch-plotter who backed Turnbull over Abbott, Dutton over Turnbull and then Morrison over Dutton. Turnbull and Fifield insisted at the time that the ABC would never be sold, but those assurances are surely worthless now. With News Corp on the attack, and the Coalition so bitterly divided, it is hard to see anyone inside the government dying in a ditch over a high-minded defence of the ABC.
The Australian had another extraordinarily well-timed piece this morning [$], in which media diarist Stephen Brook reported a rift between chair and MD, including deep background that Guthrie had been upset at the chair’s push for the quixotic “Project Jetstream” overhaul of the ABC’s digital infrastructure. There was obviously more to that story. Whether or not Guthrie deserved to be sacked so summarily – and she is today reported to be devastated and considering her legal options – the ABC now appears vulnerable, poorly led, and in need of public support more than ever.
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Paddy Manning is a contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly. He is a writer and journalist who has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including Boganaire: The rise and fall of Nathan Tinkler.
Given that Prime Minister Scott Morrison was advised last night, it is hard to believe ABC boss Michelle Guthrie’s shock dismissal this morning was not politically acceptable to the federal Coalition. If it was not already, the future of the ABC is now front and centre as an election issue. The headless organisation is in more danger than it’s been in decades – including when the hapless Jonathan Shier was briefly in charge. Then, the organisation’s chair was the highbrow arts supremo Donald McDonald, a close friend of the then prime minister, John Howard, and an old-fashioned conservative who understood his statutory obligations and stood up for the organisation. Now, the ABC has been weakened by frequent management turmoil, and is under constant attack from conservative media and the government...