When the announcement was made that Michelle Guthrie had been sacked as Managing Director of the ABC, there was a distinct air of ‘hey ho the wicked witch is dead’ from many ABC staff. That was foolish.
There is a big problem still in the building, and it threatens the longer-term future of the ABC.
In a nutshell—how likely is it that any future managing director will be able to do a good job if the Chairman, Justin Milne, continues to try and engage in hands-on management?
Particularly when that management includes strategic background briefing and leaking against his own team?
In the last 48 hours I have spoken to two people who are considering applying for Michelle Guthrie’s job. Both would be strong applicants.
And both have said their main reservation is the idea of working with Milne as chairman. He is notoriously interventionist. ‘He just can’t help himself,’ says a former colleague.
It is not a surprise to ABC watchers that Guthrie went early. The manner of her going is a disaster for her personally but more importantly for the ABC as an organisation.
Today’s news is that Milne is accused of trying to get senior reporter Emma Alberici sacked. Even those who are critics of the ABC—commentators such as Andrew Bolt—are saying that if this is true, Milne should resign.
Meanwhile, Milne has put out what amounts to a non-statement in response, and I hear that Michelle Guthrie has sent or is sending the ABC board a letter that will include threats of defamation action. What an awful mess.
So is the Alberici attempted sacking allegation true?
Milne has not denied it. Others tell me that it is easy to believe. Chairman Milne is well known, apparently, for vigorously expressing his views on ABC editorial staff.
But I am puzzled by the fact that a few people whom one would expect to have been aware of the Alberici threat have told me this morning that they don’t know whether it is true or not.
The actual emails that supposedly contain the threat have not been made public.
I am also told that Guthrie, too, was dark on Alberici. The sacking idea was deflected through a series of conversations that included the director of news, Gaven Morris—’the only straight shooter’, as one observer puts it.
Meanwhile, insiders tell me that Andrew Maiden of Advocacy Policy Communications is in the ABC Ultimo headquarters and making his presence very much felt.
In theory he is acting for the board—a role normally filled by senior ABC staffers. Effectively he is working for Milne. It would be interesting to know who is paying his fee.
Guthrie, in the meantime, has hired Andrew Butcher of Bespoke Approach to do her spin.
It’s a brave journalist who starts calling out other journalists’ sources. We all try to persuade people to talk to us. We all listen up when powerful people call. That’s part of the job.
But in this case it is worth trying to connect the dots between recent media leaks, because the future of Australia’s most important cultural institution is being kicked around by two sides, both of whom are seemingly more focussed on their personal position than the well-being of the ABC.
First, we have Milne, whose agenda in getting rid of Guthrie has been well served by leaks to The Australian. That newspaper is claiming that its questions to the ABC on Sunday precipitated Guthrie’s sacking.
That, I am told, is a considerable exaggeration. Nevertheless, the trickle of leaks in the direction of The Australian has the aura of media being used to create an air of crisis which is then used to bring that crisis about.
In this context it would be reasonable to assume that it is the Michelle Guthrie camp who are behind the allegation published by Fairfax Media today that Milne sought the sacking of Emma Alberici.
We can’t be sure, but I don’t believe any present member of the board is responsible for that leak. And not many people would know other than board members and Guthrie herself.
There is a longer-term problem. It is called Project Jetstream—which Milne has nominated as the main reason Guthrie had to go.
So what is Project Jetstream and why is it so important? Milne is now under enormous pressure to spell it out and bring it about. If Project Jetstream doesn’t happen, he will look very awkward indeed.
Yet so far very senior people in the ABC don’t seem to know what it is, have not seen any documentation concerning it and are pretty sure there is no funding plan in place.
Project Jetstream was first floated publicly by Milne in an interview with The Australian earlier this year.
Milne described it as ‘a big database into which we will pour audio video assets, complete shows, rushes, news footage, news segments and archival footage. Audio-visual pieces of content will live in that database.’
So it is a digital content system. That is an important requirement for any up to date media organisation.
And the ABC certainly needs to invest in infrastructure. The back end of ABC iView is more or less bound together with sticky tape, meaning lots of steps and extra work to keep the content loaded and flowing.
But none of the commercial broadcasters are rushing to spend millions and years building extra big digital content systems. And by saying that it would take millions and not be ready for years, Milne risks looking like he doesn’t understand technology.
Those in the know are quick to point out that it you take years and spend millions in this area, you are almost by definition building something that will be outdated by the time it is complete. The trick is to be incremental and nimble—not big and cumbersome.
The other worry, given that Project Jetstream would take big investment from government, is that Milne and the board may sacrifice any hope of more funding for ABC content in order to build the Chairman’s pet project.
So what about the chairman and the board?
While most of the board were persuaded that Guthrie had to go, and her intransigence about resigning was the immediate reason for her ignominious sacking, it would be a mistake to think the board as a whole either likes or backs Milne.
Do any of them have what it takes to stand between chairman and staff, or indeed tap the chairman on the shoulder and tell him to pull his head in, or even that it is time to go?
Guthrie might have been the wrong person for the ABC Managing Director job. The ABC has certainly, under her reign, become a worse place to work, with her delegates being heavy handed and sometimes bullying in the way they dealt with staff.
In the last weeks of her reign, the executive were dealing more and more with Milne because of frustrations with Guthrie. But now Milne is rampant.
There are also issues to do with financial management, about which I am still trying to find out more. Cost overruns, a spending down of cash reserves—chatter on this is rife but specifics are few.
The board should be seeking to bring this awful episode to a close as quickly as possible. That probably, of necessity, means confirming acting managing director David Anderson in the job.
An organisation in this kind of trouble does not have the luxury of conducting a lengthy search with months before the new boss can take up the reigns.
It is interesting that in his all-staff email on Monday after being appointed to act as managing director, David Anderson referenced not new media, but the values that existed when the ABC was founded in the 1930s.
‘We will remain strong by focusing on the values that have been at the heart of the ABC since 1932—outstanding journalism, hosting conversations that matter to the Australian public, and delivering compelling content of wide appeal and specialist interest that is distinctive, high-quality and Australian,’ he said.
We have yet to hear from Anderson on how he plans to deliver on those motherhood statements in the age of Netflix, new media disruption, government hostility, an interventionist chairman of the board and constrained funding.
But at least it sounds as though he knows the location of the rudder and the steering wheel and can see the direction of the wind. Which is more than can be said for the former managing director and the Chairman of the board.
Both Guthrie and Milne would have us believe that they care about the ABC and have its best interests at heart. Their actions say otherwise.
Margaret Simons is Associate Professor of Journalism at Monash University.