Despite ructions, we still need the ABC

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There are several things to be detangled from the ABC board's dismissal of Michelle Guthrie as managing director, and the subsequent resignation of the chair Justin Milne.

ABC buildingFirst, Michelle Guthrie is not the ABC. The role of managing director is a role among many within the organisation, albeit one distinctly loaded with expectation and responsibility. It is the prerogative of the board to make decisions on executive appointments. Under certain circumstances, a decision to terminate can be read as protective of the institution rather than diminution of it.

Second, it cannot pass notice that internal dissatisfaction over the way Guthrie handled her role had become significant. Grievances reportedly include her Silicon Valley-style management, received as demoralising within public broadcasting culture; her trips to Singapore, which raised questions about commitment; persistent uncertainty over budget priorities, which was affecting staffing and production; and her failure to shield the ABC from political/ideological agendas.

These are reasonable concerns, falling beyond differences of personality or the whim of the board. Australians can treasure and defend the ABC while also demanding that the MD lead effectively, even if it means that those who have been attacking the broadcaster for years find opportunity in the tumult. With Guthrie engaging lawyers, the nature of her termination is now also a legal matter.

Other matters are less prosaic. In the lead-up to Milne's resignation, certain things came to light suggesting that he had exerted pressure to sack journalists, with the view of placating the then Turnbull government or avoiding its attention.

Fairfax reported that Milne had sent an email to Guthrie last May about firing economics journalist Emma Alberici after a series of complaints from the government. He allegedly also told her to fire political editor Andrew Probyn. The revelations raise questions about other interventions — ones that might have been made and not yet revealed, as well as those that could be made in the future.

Milne's own words bear noting: 'You can't go around irritating the person who's going to give you funding again and again if it's over matters about accuracy and impartiality.' The ABC has lost $254 million in funding under the Coalition since 2014, compounded in this year's federal budget by a three-year indexation freeze, as well as $43 million cut from news and current affairs.

 

"It does not take bad people to erode the things upon which democracies rest. It was enough that the ABC chair came to understand what the prime minister does not like."

 

The question of who must now lead the ABC cannot be separated from the circumstances which have vacated these two roles.

The managing director contends with a unique set of hostilities that can be so perverse and relentless that it must also be met with unusual mettle and finesse. There is a sense in Guthrie's case that things came to a head. Her dismissal was met with approval from ABC veterans Sally Neighbour and Jon Faine.

The bald truth is that change can be the hardest thing to pull off successfully in an organisation. It does not sound like she was able to bring enough people along with her.

As for Milne, his actions expose not just his own poor understanding of what constitutes media independence, but also how fragile that independence can be. It does not take bad people to erode the things upon which democracies rest. It was enough that the ABC chair came to understand what the prime minister does not like.

Most Australians expect something to be audible and intentional to count as corruption; like someone giving an order. But corruption is also the behaviours that have been made to make way for it without prompting. In the dark years of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, journalists came to know what coverage was allowed long after the calls from Malacañan Palace stopped. It was not even about whether something was true or even debatable, but whether it made government look bad.

Turnbull is of course no longer prime minister, and it would not make sense to say that he ruled like a totalitarian, given the many concessions he made to the right wing of his party. The point is that it would be a mistake to drop our vigilance about the character of our democracy, especially as the Australian media landscape becomes lunar: barren, cratered and losing any sense of gravity.

The events surrounding the ABC cannot be scrutinised in a vacuum. Fairfax and Nine might still merge, after the ACCC delivers its review in November. Sky News has made a deal with WIN to broadcast across its regional, free-to-air networks. It is obvious that Australians will need a robust national and public broadcaster long into the future, if they are to have an alternative to entertainment that poses as news, propaganda that poses as analysis, and advertising that poses as fact.

This will require some serious, honest imagining of what our politics and culture would be like if we let the ABC fall away. Perhaps after the ructions of the past week, some space can be made to figure out how to fight more effectively for it, including structuring funds in a way that better secures its independence from thin-skinned governments.

 

 

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, ABC, Michelle Guthrie, Justin Milne, Fairfax, Sky News

 

 

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Existing comments

These are indeed tumultuous times for the ABC. I am left wondering just how much serious work was given to Guthrie's suitability for the role of MD before her appointment. Presumably, she had a particular style of management before joining the ABC and this is only now being seen as not suitable. The Chairman of the Board has now resigned after some revelations coming to light. The ABC (formerly known as Aunty) is rightly revered as our public broadcaster and significant change is always challenging for such an institution. I agree that it is important for the ABC to retain journalistic integrity. Governments come and go, however the ABC should endure.
Pam | 28 September 2018


Thanks Fatima. You point out that "The ABC has lost $254 million in funding under the Coalition since 2014, compounded in this year's federal budget by a three-year indexation freeze, as well as $43 million cut from news and current affairs." This is one of many reasons the Coalition should be defeated at the next election. Others are their lack of an energy policy, their pro-coal position and their support for opening up the massive Galilee Basin to miners including Adani. Down with Adani! Down with the Coalition! Seriously consider voting Green. If we haven't got a healthy environment, what have we got?
Grant Allen | 28 September 2018


“Milne's own words bear noting: 'You can't go around irritating the person who's going to give you funding again and again if it's over matters about accuracy and impartiality.'” His words do bear noting because, in stipulating a condition, he is correct. Inaccurate and partial reporting is slander. People who are slandered have a right to be irritated, whether or not they are a source of dollars for the reporter. And the reporter (Alberici) was found to have made mistakes.
Roy Chen Yee | 29 September 2018


I grew up with the ABC Radio in the bush. It was our lifeline in times of disaster and essential for the farming community to keep abreast of the mundane, like the weather report at lunchtime or the latest stock and grain prices etc. ABC brought us TV in 1965 , on my birthday! The ABC News was an essential part of our lives. The ABC was essential here in Canberra during the January 18, 2003 bushfire emergency when the commercial stations were still taking programmes from Sydney! Local presenters came in and took over from the national programme, giving us essential warnings. The ABC reporters are professional people, doing a professional job. Like you Fatima I too remember the Marcos years. I was pleased to see the Philippines media broadcasting the protests over the so called 'war on drugs ' in Manila when I was in the Philippines two years ago. Seems the current demagogue has not managed to silence media critics- yet? We need to defend our ABC independence resolutely.
Gavin O'Brien | 02 October 2018


The current crisis in the ABC seems to have been inevitable, and should be used productively to reform and reset. I believe that the ABC should be leaner and focus on its core charter duties; and not try to compete with the "populist" trivia in the other free-to-air stations. News/current affairs has been captured for some time by the trendy inner-city green-left "progressive" agenda, and it urgently needs better editorial balance and control and a cultural shake-out. The lack of accuracy and depth in the Alberici reporting scandal should not be allowed to be repeated or it just won`t be worth paying for ; we in the community and the ABC itself deserve better than that.
Eugene | 02 October 2018


Maybe we could start by having some clarity around selecting Board members. For example, no-one currently on ABC Board appears to have any employment experience which might lead them to understand and value concepts like 'freedom of the Press'. Like Roy Chen Yee, I'd also have questions about a Board that didn't see factual accuracy as important, still less 'Truth'. A free Press is essential for a vital, functioning democracy, but such a Press must have some of the traditional virtues (such as a regard for truth and respect for the rights of its 'consumers' to the actual facts. Some of the headlines on ABC mobile remind me very much of certain women's magazines - click bait, not fact.
Joan Seymour | 02 October 2018


Roy is correct. We have a right to criticize editorial inaccuracy of the ABC. Reasonably, basic reporting errors call into question impartiality. Lets be clear. Emma Alberici's reporting demonstrated flawed logic that caused one to question her basic competency as the senior editor. She has been silent on the matter because her errors were an embarrassment to herself. Given the PM was leveling criticism about accuracy, and the accuracy attacked his policies, his action is entirely reasonable. Further, it is reasonable that he would call the chairperson to discuss the issue. This is standard public to public or public to private governance. If the ABC cannot deliver accurate and impartial news, it does not live up to its stated mission and will need to continue to undergo change until it does. This promises to be a slow and agonizing death because the news cycle and business model has changed. The ABC model has not. My 78 year old mother recently announced she has stopped watching the ABC. A former reference librarian, she does not find it delivers the news content that is relevant in her desire to keep up with the events of the world. I have issues regarding accuracy and therefore impartiality. One being a function of the other. We represented the ABC faithful and looked to it for accuracy, impartiality and relevance. If it fails the test of the first two, then it fails the third.
Patrick | 02 October 2018


In overseeing the firing of Guthrie, Milne must have hoped to look like a strong supporter of the ABC. But in the aftermath of his subsequent resignation it seems he was the attack dog on behalf of political forces associated one way or another with a “thin-skinned” LNP federal government. For him to have put pressure on Guthrie to fire at least one senior and respected journalist as a way for the ABC to avoid yet more punishing funding cuts looks weak and self defeating. I admit here that I was stimulated to offer this comment on seeing that 3 out of 7 previous comments looked like off topic opportunities taken to attack Emma Alberici. I wonder if any of those three would have the first clue of the contents of her original report.
John McKeon | 06 October 2018


The taxpayer is entitled to Factual and Unbiased reporting, and thanks to at least Emma Alberichi, and Andrew Proven we are not getting it.
Adrian Harris | 09 October 2018


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