The overdue removal of Michelle Guthrie as the ABC’s Managing Director will do nothing to arrest the slide in journalistic standards and the collapse of the organisation’s credibility. Rather, it confirms the death-wish of the national broadcaster by consistently appointing chief executives incapable of forcing a disciplined obedience to the standards which the parliament of the people defined.
Since the ABC was transformed from a government commission to a business corporation with a board of directors in 1984 it has had seven managing directors. With the possible exception of David Hill (who became embroiled in a disputatious relationship with the government (the 8 cents a day campaign), none has been able to combat the entrenched power of staff interests. As former chairman Maurice Newman diagnosed, this had led to ‘groupthink’ on every social and political issue. News and Current Affairs flout the Broadcasting Act and its charter, the Code of Practice and Editorial Guidelines. Objectivity and impartiality are replaced with ‘consensus’ interpretations, suppressing or distorting contrary views.
Recently, I wrote in The Australian: “It could well be argued that the ABC board is not fulfilling its duty under Section 8 (1)(c) of the Act, which requires it ‘to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism.’ ” Whether that stung Chairman Justin Milne to action is less likely than that the board could no longer tolerate a serious of outrages, culminating in the Probyn debacles – for which the organisation offered no apologies.
As I and others have observed repeatedly, the integrity of ABC News has been destroyed by its obvious lack of policy on news values . The flagship 7pm bulletin has deteriorated into an incoherent mish-mash of local ambulance chasing, truncated international coverage, and video images for the sake of their dramatic impact. Conflict and repetition instead of complementarity mark that bulletin and the following 7.30.
There has been an obvious attempt to develop the ABC as a competitive international news-gathering agency, spending hugely to send foreign correspondents to every newsworthy event. Yet in most cases the ABC fails to explain what one of its expensively maintained correspondents contributes to stories such as the recent hurricane in the Carolinas, or a mass shooting in Istanbul. There was no Australian angle in either story; there was no analysis or interpretation; the video overlay was usually from the agencies and could have been voiced-over in Sydney.
Twelve years ago, when Mark Scott was appointed, he gave brief hope for change in his first speech with a candid admission of “…a sense that the organisation has issues with balance and fairness – particularly through its news and current affairs content, although some critics would suggest, across its entire content.” He went on to foreshadow a completely new set of editorial policies, and promised that “Across the range of ABC content, audiences must not be able to reasonably conclude that the ABC has taken an editorial stand on matters of contention and public debate.” Proclaiming himself editor-in-chief (as Talbot Duckmanton had done before him), he spoke warmly of the virtues of fairness, accuracy, balance, objectivity, impartiality.
Fine words, yet over the next ten years we learned Scott was powerless to implement his precepts – even if he believed in them. The Science Show, presented by National Living Treasure Robyn Williams, banned any debate of anthropomorphic climate change. Increasingly, as opinion intruded, ABC broadcasting became a moral profession.
Keith Windschuttle, Quadrant editor, who was an ABC board member, exposed the broadcaster’s capitulation to the clique of leftists whose ascendancy in a subsequent essay he dated to the Marxist Allan Ashbolt in the 1960s. Yet it’s what happened since incorporation in 1983 that matters most. I had a window on the first, critical mistake – the appointment of Geoffrey Whitehead as initial managing director. In 1977, I had left the ABC after 26 years and completing my MBA degree. Six years later Spencer Stuart, the executive search firm I had joined, was awarded the job of finding the first MD for the ABC.
Melbourne philanthropist Ken Myer was then chairman with Duckmanton, who had retired as general manager, advising him. Together, they made it clear that they didn’t want me involved in the assignment – they thought, I assume, that I knew too much about the organisation. From the sidelines I watched an incompetent search. The consultant involved knew nobody in broadcasting or journalism, and had no way of reaching out to international candidates. The CV from Geoffrey Whitehead, an executive in a minor New Zealand TV station was pathetically juvenile. It was the first time I had seen an application enlivened with personal photographs!
If Whitehead was out of his depth from Day One, David Hill who followed was the opposite. Appointed originally as chairman, he resigned within the year to get his hands on the levers of power. His strong leadership was however dogged by politics. Mick Young had led a powerful Labor group pushing for Brian Johns, and Hill found himself defending Four Corners when it did a hatchet job on businessman Peter Abeles, Bob Hawke’s best friend. Finally, Hill antagonized Paul Keating by successfully mobilising public opinion against budget cuts with his ’8 cents a day’ campaign.
Brian Johns got his chance in 1995, and his avowed ALP affiliation did nothing to slow the accelerating downward drift of journalistic standards. Five years later the board appointed an Australian businessman with broadcasting experience in the UK and Europe, Jonathan Shier. It was widely seen as politically encouraged if not engineered by the Howard government to pull the ABC back into line. All hell broke loose.
Any worthwhile reforms were overshadowed by Shier’s obsessively brutal retrenchments and inflexible management ideas. Some 390 redundancies cost nearly $40 million, but when Shier tried to move against what he termed “the journalists’ fiefdom” he was met with a revolt that spread to senior management and caused chairman Donald McDonald to require his resignation.
Consternation led to a default appointment – finance director Russell Balding – as a safe pair of hands. But while staff insurrection subsided, nothing was done during his four years at the helm to enforce discipline and conformity with the charter’s requirements. Ten years under Mark Scott saw an abject repudiation of the principles he had espoused, while he oversaw the development of the ABC’s digital platform. Under Guthrie, digital became the predominant policy in fear of the clickbait journalism of Google and Facebook.
Until we know more about why the board terminated Guthrie, and the reaction of the staff, it is impossible to tell what the prospects for reform of the ABC are likely to be. Chairman Milne was unflinchingly honest: “The Board had resolved it was not in the best interests of the ABC [for Guthrie] to continue to lead the organization.” Sally Neighbour, executive producer of Four Corners tweeted: “Excellent decision”, a comment that seems churlish in view of that programme’s increasing freedom to run unbalanced stories for their sensationalism. Provocative radio host Jon Faine gave Guthrie an “astonishing fail” mark.
So the recruitment merry-go-round cranks into gear again. The staff’s criteria for Guthrie’s replacement have already been outlined by newsreader Juanita Phillips: “Whoever the next MD is, they need a deep understanding of the history, purpose and importance of an in dependent public broadcaster, and be ready to fight bare-knuckled to protect it.”
On the other hand, there is every likelihood that the incumbent will have a bare-knuckle fight to get ABC broadcasters to adhere to their charter. And nothing will change.