Ms Guthrie and her Effing ABC

giggles IIIn what organisation other than the ABC can an employee insult the managing director to the wide world and emerge from it covered in managerial bouquets? This is a wonder arising from Michelle Guthrie’s ballyhooed address (before and after) to the Melbourne Press Club yesterday (June 19).

Last Thursday, Melbourne’s ABC 774 morning shock jock Jon Faine broadcast the following in the course of a rant about the ABC being “done over” by the Coalition government (if only that were true!):

“I’ve been here since 1989 busting my guts for a vision and a set of values and, quite frankly, I’m sick of getting it ripped apart because of the failure of our managers.

“[Guthrie’s] been remarkably quiet and reluctant to engage in what she herself has previously ­described as ‘megaphone campaigning’. She says, ‘No, the best way to protect the ABC is to work quietly behind the scenes’. And that’s ­obviously delivered a terrible outcome in the last budget.”

So, Faine indicates that Guthrie is a leadership failure in general, someone who has stood mute while ABC “values” are trashed  and is now running a mistaken, top-level strategy that has severely damaged the institution.

I was going to ask Guthrie at the Press Club why she hadn’t already sacked this unruly employee[i] but Richard Ferguson of The Australian beat me to it. He asked, “Have you spoken to Jon Faine about his criticism of upper management? If not, do you have a message for him today?”

Jon Faine’s greatest snits, featuring James Delingpole,
Tony Abbott and Gillard/Wilson investigator Mark Baker

To my bewilderment, and perhaps Faine’s,  Guthrie responded with affectionate laughter for the 774 morning host before Flanagan had even finished. She replied with a simper: “Jon is a great broadcaster! What is fantastic about Jon and our other amazing broadcasters is that they are leading the conversations that matter to people. The great thing about the ABC is that we matter. When you see all the attention placed on us it is fantastic to be relevant…”

Thus emboldened, Faine dissed and badgered her some more: “No-one could be more pleased than me to see you do it [make speeches]. We don’t understand why you are so reluctant to do it more. We need a champion, a public champion, not a managing director who hides from the media or public engagement. We have to engage with [the public]. Are you prepared to do more?”

Guthrie began by saying she didn’t agree that she hid from the media. Faine then talked over her and did so loudly, a habit many of his on-air guests have endured. “I can’t get you on my show, nor can my colleagues or rivals.” Faine then allowed Guthrie to resume and she ran a line that “the more you speak, the less you are heard” and that speaking with impact mattered most.

The Guthrie/Faine or Faine/Guthrie power relationship typifies all you need to know about ABC management’s control of staff.

On another ABC note, readers may wonder why I am by-lined atop this report as “Swearing Man”. The soubriquet was bestowed – and not in a friendly way –  by the meeting’s compere and ABC presenter Michael Rowland.

Ms Guthrie’s Press Club performance can be viewed in full here

I wanted to ask Guthrie about the filthy language to be heard on the ABC, especially in its purported “comedy” programs. Loathe as I am to use foul words in public, especially when addressing a woman, I nevertheless forced the ABC-endorsed obscenities to cross my lips. If such language is good enough for the national broadcaster to beam into millions in prime time, the person in overall charge couldn’t complain at hearing them at the press club. My question went as follows:

“Your would-be comedian Greg Larsen  on Tonightly last March called Australian Conservative candidate Kevin Bailey a c**t. In that four-minute segment I’ve counted two ‘f***s’ and eight ‘c***s’. Although the ABC apologised [to Bailey personally], management had checked the segment before it went to air and it complied with ABC editorial  and classification standards. How can you defend such standards?”

Compere  Michael Rowland chipped in nervously, “We’re not going out live to air are we?” His fear was odd, as Tonightly’s “f***s” and “c***s” had certainly gone out, live-to-air, to a vastly larger audience than the Press Club lunchers. (editor’s note: while those vulgarities appear quite acceptable at the ABC, perhaps even in the executive suite, they are not appreciated at Quadrant Online, hence the coy asterisking. Those who missed the broadcast, can tolerate a painfully unfunny alleged comedian and endure the aren’t-we-just-so-cute-and-shocking schtick of compere and guest can see what their taxes pay for in the clip below.)

Guthrie, no giggles this time but appearing somewhat flummoxed, replied that the Tonightly episode was being independently investigated and had been referred to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) for review and determination.

“It is important to make sure we reflect community standards and also important to understand the context in which it is done,” she began.

“What is appropriate for 7pm News or Play School is very different from appropriateness in a comedy program at 9 or 9.30pm on our comedy channel. It is not one size fits all, it very much depends on the context.”

So in the ABC/Guthrieworld, the words “f***” and “c***” are OK in context. Maybe her colleagues uses the latter, although misogynist, in the  context of ABC board meetings, in a humorous way of course. (‘Pass me the effing salary list, old c***’?’ Surely not!)

I was hurt that compere Rowland dubbed me “Swearing Man”, merely for quoting what his own organisation delivers to the public, when I managed to get in the forum’s last question:

“The BBC’s last annual report discloses the pay of its 20 top news and current affairs presenters. The BBC since 2009 has published the salaries of all its 106 executives on 150,000 pounds plus, and their expense claims and gifts as well. So what’s the problem with disclosing ABC managers and presenters salaries likewise?”

Guthrie replied: “The issue is currently the subject of a proposed Parliamentary bill. I don’t think you are correct to say it is the top 20 presenters. It is actually [equivalent to disclosing] my salary, my friend [chief financial and strategy  officer]  Louise Higgins’ salary, as well as directors and heads of our content teams.

“That disclosure is more than provided by private media organisations or public listed ones.

“On top of that it is more than required by the public service. We have been very clear in saying our highest paid presenter is paid a fraction of the highest paid BBC presenter. We have no gender pay gap at any level.

“Anything more than that [in disclosure] is really going to impact our ability to retain staff and also invades their privacy in ways completely unacceptable.”

Was I wrong? The BBC does not disclose its top 20 presenters’ pay? Where do I start?  The BBC gives them in bands of £50,000 so I’ll take the mid-points. A run  of the mill BBC news and current affairs presenter called  James Naughtie (love that name!) gets 175,000 pounds.  A Martha Kearney, presenter, is on£225,000. An Eddie Mair is top dog presenter on £325,000

On radio, mid-level gal presenter Moira Stuart is on £175,000, whereas top guy Steve Wright is on a handsome £525,000. a Lot of BBC presenters are called “multi-genre” like Mark Chapman on £225,000. And top man is a Chris Evans on a stunning £2,225,000. If Ms Guthrie would like more detail she can contact my secretary.

Little more is to be said. I made my hasty exit, feeling somehow I had made myself unpopular among the 98% ABC fans at the lunch. As I went past the TV cameras, one of the cameramen snarled, “You’re a c***!”

He refused to say who he worked for.

Tony Thomas’ book of essays, That’s Debatable – 60 Years in Print, is available here

[i] Faine suggested last Thursday that he might be in jeopardy: “If it gets me into trouble, then so be it.”


8 thoughts on “Ms Guthrie and her Effing ABC

  • Robinoz says:

    The ABC provides some good shows. Andrew Denton’s “Interview” comes to mind, but is being dragged down by others and needs to be pulled into line along with the SBS which seems to have dozens of radio stations and TV outlets. (How much does that cost?)

    Obscene and indecent language has no place on television and should be excluded. We want realism, but we can have it without the C word and other distasteful language.

  • Ilajd says:

    While Denton has a close connection to that old bag, their dear old Auntie, I believe the current show airs on chanel 7.

    In regard to the staff owned collective better known as the Australian Borg Cooperative, the ALPs pitch to restore or increase funding would surely be a good case for the 6000 or so direct and indirect employees to abstain from voting as they have a direct conflict of interest. Perhaps the same once could be extended more broadly.

  • Salome says:

    Busting his guts for a vision and a set of values? I thought he was ‘busting his guts’ for in excess of $300K per year. Many people in Australia really do bust their guts for less.

  • exuberan says:

    Tonightly has got a 9.30pm time slot, too early in the evening to be airing the profanities. Has to be irresponsible

  • says:

    Thanks Tony – I would have thought that it was completely improper for a journalist at the ABC to discuss any potential sale of the ABC since they are clearly not disinterested parties. An honourable journalist would state the degree of their self interest up front.

  • Lo says:

    “Busting his guts” is a very common thing to say. Not what my father would have expected from an ABC person.

  • en passant says:

    Just get rid of it and save $1.2Bn. Then they can enjoy the freedom to say what they like and make REAL money, instead of the pittance they currently scrape by on.

    Oh, and don’t expect the ‘free enterprise’ ilLiberals to do anything that would serve Oz or their best interests. After all, the ABC let’s them choose the calibre of bullet they will be shot with in the lead up to their last election.

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