ABC’s Mark Scott defends against “groupthink” attacks by The Oz

ABC Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief Mark Scott has hit back at The Australian over its attacks on the ABC’s alleged…

ABC Managing Director Mark Scott: “I think there are still marvellous journeys to be had down the road of journalism.”

ABC Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief Mark Scott has hit back at The Australian over its attacks on the ABC’s alleged “groupthink”.

In a speech delivered at Melbourne University’s Centre for Advanced Journalism tonight, Mr Scott has defended the editorial independence of the ABC, saying The Australian has “a fundamental misunderstanding … of the way an organisation like the ABC must operate”.

Mr Scott made the comments as he launched the book, Australian Journalism Today, by Canberra University Professor Matthew Ricketson.

Mr Scott also said he had been surprised “at the speed and intensity of the decline in the newspaper sector here in recent months”.

“People who work inside and have full insight into the performance of the mastheads speak with a genuine shock and fear about what the numbers are now telling them about the precarious print business model,” Mr Scott said.

We welcome comments.

Full text below:

“Since I accepted Matthew Ricketson’s kind invitation to launch this book on this date, three things have happened. That’s not to say I wouldn’t have accepted the invitation had I anticipated these things Matthew, but perhaps I would have asked for danger money.

“Firstly, it appears that virtually every author of a chapter in this book has been attacked in one way or another in recent weeks by The Australian.

“Secondly, the ABC itself has suffered a further tickle up from Rupert Murdoch’s broadsheet, accused of being an epicentre of groupthink.

“And finally, we are in the midst of unprecedented speculation about the nature of job cuts and restructuring set to descend on both News Limited and Fairfax, our largest and most significant newspaper organisations.

“Now, before making any comments on any of these matters, in the interests of full and open disclosure, I would like to make the following declarations:

  • I have spoken to Margaret Simons on occasion in the past.

  • I declare I have read her writings on the media.

  • I further declare I have not read nor followed her writings on gardening, as the state of my backyard attests.

  • Furthermore, I declare that Matthew Ricketson is taller than me.

“I want to talk about the current state of the industry, its impact on the nature and future of journalism craft in this country and the audience for this new book, Australian Journalism Today.

“But firstly, let me deal with at least one of many misunderstandings about the ABC that exist at The Australian. It recently gave me and other leaders at the ABC several thousand words of free advice on the subject of groupthink. Now, free advice is often worth what you pay for it, but nevertheless I paid attention to The Australian, if only because I have always been happy to listen to experts speaking authoritatively in their field.

“I must say it is a little difficult to know where to go with this, being lectured by The Australian about a certain narrowness in editorial perspective and a singularity in worldview. I was reminded of the wonderful American satirical singer and MIT maths professor, Tom Lehrer, who retired from recording in the early 70s. He remarked at the time that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete.

“I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding at The Australian of the way an organisation like the ABC must operate. I am Editor-in-Chief of the ABC and am finally responsible for all the content that goes online, all that goes to air across five television networks and six radio networks, including 60 local radio stations across the country. And at times, I will talk with our leading content directors about the stories and issues of significance, how we are covering them, angles we might be missing. And we will discuss our performance and the quality of our work.

“At The Australian, they seem to think I should operate in the same way as their own Editor-in-Chief. I have no doubt that at The Australian, the senior editorial team run a tight news conference, with a clear editorial line emerging about the stories they will be pursuing, the people they are supporting, the agendas they are setting, the philosophy they are advancing. The paper executes accordingly, making Mitchell, without doubt and for a long period of time, the most personally dominant editorial executive working in the country.

“The ABC is not like that. We are not a single masthead like The Australian. In fact I think the ABC is more like a large chain of newspapers or separate editorial products, though not seeking to deliver for profit or shareholder return, but for the public good. We have clear policies and guidelines, clear expectations about standards and levels of performance, but finally we entrust our journalistic teams to execute. We do not have a point of view or take an editorial stance. More than ever, I think we can demonstrate a wide range of perspectives, forums for vigorous debate and a culture that can deliver for our audiences – from the fastest, most accurate tweet, to the finest and most vigorous investigative reporting.

“Not long after I started at the ABC in 2006, in a speech to the Sydney Institute, I set out the direction the ABC would be taking editorially. How, in all our content, we’d deliver balance, diversity and impartiality, the full range of voices and perspectives as set out in our new Editorial Policies.

“And I think it’s pretty clear to the public that those editorial standards, diversity of opinion and impartiality I set out six years ago, are part of the ABC’s editorial DNA today. It was good to see, as both the Finkelstein and Convergence Report noted, that Australians regard the ABC as Australia’s most trusted media organisation for news and information. By a long stretch.

“I think our team is doing very well. Not just our big news and current affairs programs, but our teams working in regional and rural Australia putting together countless programs daily, delivering the very best news and information from and to their local communities, the State, the nation and around the world.

“The model The Australian seems to want the ABC to adopt would be akin to Chris Mitchell being forced to attend a daily news conference, convened by News Limited CEO – and the man finally editorially responsible for all product – Kim Williams, where Kim Williams instructs Chris and all other editors on the News Ltd line to be run across all papers and mastheads the following morning. Where your local team on the ground was not trusted to make editorial judgments and deliver the best product possible to their audiences. I am not sure how Chris would react to this.

“The idea of such a News Limited conference run by Kim is, of course , intriguing - and were it to happen I would be very keen to acquire recording and broadcasting rights for the ABC.

“Let me move on to more serious matters for the industry as a whole.

“I can only imagine how daunting it is for a university student, studying communications, to read the headlines and the speculation about what is about to happen to our major newspaper companies. Announcements about sweeping changes at both Fairfax and News Ltd are imminent. Hundreds of jobs to go; major reorganisations and I suspect centralisation in the management of editorial resources.

“For years we looked at the United States newspaper industry and were thankful that here we had not seen the level of circulation decline, job losses, revenue collapse, and the sweep of closures. But it looks like it might now be our time.

“And I admit that the speed and intensity of the decline in the newspaper sector here in recent months has surprised me. People who work inside and have full insight into the performance of the mastheads speak with a genuine shock and fear about what the numbers are now telling them about the precarious print business model.

“As I remarked when delivering the A N Smith lecture at this university a couple of years ago, these forces unleashed by digital technology, globalised content, empowered consumers and the opening of closed markets were always going to overwhelm even the most powerful proprietor and long-established operator. It was not going to be possible to shape this world. Survival would be more about your capacity and capability to ride out wherever the wave would take you, to nimbly adapt and reform your organisation in the face of forces unleashed.

“I must tell you that the ABC is not immune from these forces. Of course our revenues have not been hit in the same way as those dependent on display or classified advertising in recent times. In a digital media world, we find the ABC audiences clamouring for more content on more platforms.

“This can’t be delivered simply through creative accounting. Real changes and tough decisions have had to be made.

“We’ve been fortunate to receive some additional funding for new projects such as ABC3 and a new slate of drama, but we have funded a lot of our new activity in recent years ourselves, by making those tough decisions and by redirecting existing resources. And while the audiences for ABC iview and ABC News24 have assured us those decisions were right, there’s more work still to be done, more tough decisions ahead of us.

“Over many years, the ABC has wrestled with the challenge of doing more with less. If you take a 20 year snapshot, the ABC had about $100m more in real terms for recurrent expenditure two decades ago and around 1500 extra full time staff – delivering a fraction of the content we are now delivering across more television outlets, more radio networks – and an online and mobile world unimagined in 1991.

“There are some who would have preferred us to remain snap-frozen: to just keep doing what we were always doing, in a very traditional sense, on radio and television. Who would have urged us not to move into a world of round-the-clock news, delivery online and through apps, not going near Twitter and Facebook.

“Instead we have looked to rigorously engage – not simply rely on what we have always done – but what we can uniquely do and how we can service our audiences most effectively in this digital age. We have limited funds and new demands. It would be easier not to cut programs, nor create new ones; easier not to reallocate priorities and re-examine the way we work. But we must to ensure we deliver the very best service we can to audiences today. We must focus on what we do best and what is best for the people who own us, fund us and use us.

“That is why we found the money for News 24; why we are streaming our services to online and mobile; have created industry leading apps; developed iview and new services on digital radio. There was no additional funding for any of these activities. Some, like News 24 and the streaming services, are a very major financial investment for us. The cost of delivering our streaming services continues to ramp up dramatically. It is a storm driven by increased audience demand: educated consumers, with smarter devices, cheaper broadband with much higher caps – and a desire to watch right now. But delivering services this way is exactly what we must do to be relevant and compelling to our audiences.

“In our news division now, there is lots of work underway about how we meet audience expectations. Staff from around the country have been engaging with the challenge of providing the full suite of news services: from the electric immediate to the intense, long form.

“This work cannot be undertaken unless there is a recognition of changing priorities in the face of new priorities. Your 7pm bulletin will still be vital – but for most of the audience, it is no longer their first exposure to the news that day. The mobile and online investment is vital to remain the authoritative news source – a role once met for us only through radio and television. Your audience wants your very best, up-to- the minute, at any given minute. And you need to have the funds on hand to deploy as the emerging story demands it.

“I have been travelling around the country speaking to ABC staff on this kind of thinking – and frankly my messages are not that different to those you are hearing from other media executives. We need to be content-driven and audience-centric, across all our platforms. We need to work together to deliver on our strategies across our divisions. We need to be willing to make tough decisions on programs and priorities to ensure we continue to be a compelling part of lives of our audience. We need to be respectful of our past but not captive to it. My message to the ABC staff has been clear – the forces being unleashed on media organisations are unprecedented and, in the words of former Intel boss Andy Grove, “only the paranoid will survive”.

“But for all that – despite all the gloom and the prospect of bleak news, I hope that those who will most use this book, the journalism students, can be excited about what still lies ahead for them if they get the opportunity to find and tell Australian stories. In our experience at the ABC, from the smallest town to the biggest city, there is an endless appetite for Australian stories, well told.

“In his marvellous poem on Odysseus, Cavafy writes of the long journey of the war hero back to his home in Ithaca – long delayed and interrupted, at times lost, detained and stalled.

“But the real experience comes not at finally reaching home – the career goal - the big job – the fulfilled ambition.

Instead, a long journey makes you:

“wealthy with all you have gained on the way, not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave you the marvellous journey.”

“I think there are still marvellous journeys to be had down the road of journalism.

“Firstly, there has never been a larger and more accessible audience for news and information. More than ever, people want to be informed and know what is going on. And as you look around the world and across our own country, the stories have never seemed to be bigger or of more significance to our lives.

“And as new forms emerge, new ways of connecting and communicating with audiences, like Twitter – which is a personalised wire service and news agency for everyone – the demand and importance of old forms continue. I think of Four Corners – it’s older than me and most people in this room – and still going strong – breaking news, uncovering hard truths, setting the agenda. Good old-fashioned journalism reaching audiences in old and new ways: on television, on catch-up, online, on Facebook.

“And whilst print is clearly challenged, text is not. People are reading more than ever, in vast numbers. And not just short tweets: detailed analysis, commentary, investigation and reporting. A Quarterly Essay can shake the Prime Ministership.

“Of course, we can ask where the jobs will be – but the reality is that journalism was never the easiest profession to get into. Throughout my career, the number of applicants to traineeships was always about 100 to 1 – much the same as today. Of course, until recently, it was such a closed industry to get into – a handful of papers, a couple of TV and radio licences. Miss the opportunities to work in those places, you had no-where else to go.

“But now of course, with the right energy and ideas, there are so many more platforms where you can tell your stories, reveal your ideas and showcase your talent: where you can try to connect with and grow an audience. No, it may not make you rich and it may not even be how you pay the bills. At times I fear there will be fewer paid jobs in journalism and that many who practice the craft may do it as so many other artists and craftsman operate – as part of a life, but not a singular vocation.

“I do think though that most of the time, the most energetic, the most creative, those who work the hardest will find a way and that journalism will be a marvellous journey.

“And I think this new book, Australian Journalism Today, gives a unique insight into preparing for the world of journalism. Not just the skills you need – I did enjoy Peter Clarke’s analysis of interview techniques – but also the nature of the industry and the values and principles that underpin it.

“I want to thank you Matthew for your leadership of the project and all the authors who contributed to it. I am sure it will find a strong and engaged audience, particularly with this generation of journalism students all around Australia.

“As to the business models that will support and sustain journalism, I am afraid will still don’t know. We still can’t see the sustainable, wide-ranging solutions to that wicked problem anywhere in the world.

“I don’t think we should be afraid to say we don’t know. It mightn’t warm the hearts of the analysts and the investors – but the sheer question gets you closer to the answer than pretending that you do.

“In the lecture she delivered when receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Wislawa Szymborska, said she greatly values the phrase “I don’t know.”

“It’s small, she says, but it flies on mighty wings. “It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself "I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.”

“Perhaps some economist, or business leader, or journalist - someone with a restless, questioning spirit - will win a Nobel Prize by solving the riddle of the business model to fund quality journalism in this digital age. Until then, we just need to get on with practicing the craft as best we can for the audiences we serve today.

“This book will serve well those training for that task. I wish them and the book well.”