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Despite ructions, we still need the ABC

  • 27 September 2018


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.

First, 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