Michelle Guthrie has been badly treated – not by being sacked, but by being hired in the first place. As a former Head of ABC TV News and Current Affairs, I met Guthrie several times at functions in the ABC, and once at a social dinner party. We discussed the state of ABC News and other editorial matters. She was well aware she was on a steep learning curve.
Dubbed early in the gossip mill as Rupert Murdoch’s and Malcolm Turnbull’s candidate for the job, I found her intentions good and her background at Google a major plus for leading the ABC in a digital era.
If there were worries, they were two: her lack of political smarts in the complicated and potentially volcanic relationship with the federal government; and her lack of experience in journalism, radio or television production, and the myriad other forms of content creation that ABC employees specialise in.
If she was Malcolm Turnbull’s preferred candidate…it hasn’t helped her in the Budget…Her failure to hold the line on ABC funding will not go down well.
Job cuts followed.
It is one of the top KPI’s for a managing director of the ABC: hold and build the budget.
I think it’s true to say that most ABC staff hoped this was a minor blip and would be corrected in coming years. There was a determination to embrace the old Aussie “give her a go” mindset, and staff were willing to listen to what Guthrie proposed as her signature policies.
But what they heard in a series of staff meetings was nothing new: that the new digital era required changes in demographics, skills and programming; that the organisation need to be downsized; that new executive reporting lines would be created and simplified; and that the ABC had to ignore its very young and very old rusted-on viewers and concentrate on the 15-30 and 30-50 year-olds, who had left it in droves.
They had heard all this from the previous managing director, Mark Scott, for many years. In fact, the drive to enter the digital world had begun under the leadership of Brian Johns in the early 1990s. He appointed me to head up a multimedia unit in 1994. The task: put the ABC on the internet. Quickly, the ABC’s new home site - www.abc.net.au - became the top media site in Australia and remains one of the top sites today. But it was Scott who made digitisation his defining contribution.
For all the talk of “content”, it became clear that comparisons between Guthrie and Scott inside the ABC found her wanting. Scott, the former editorial director of Fairfax’s newspaper and magazine division, might have lacked radio and television skills, but he knew a good story when he heard one. He made a good fist of claiming the title of editor-in-chief.
Guthrie, a lawyer by trade, spoke about content and platforms, but was all at sea about how to bring these two concepts together. It was a major hole in her armoury. (Even in News Limited, many admire Rupert Murdoch’s intimate knowledge of the trade of journalism. It runs in the family. It used to be the same with the Packer empire at Channel Nine until Jamie Packer fell in love with casinos and gambling as sources of wealth. The Fairfax barons also enjoyed newspaper production.)
Very soon Guthrie lost the staff she was leading. In a time of constant change, morale fell and the honeymoon ended. The rolling series of federal Budget cuts under the Abbott and then Turnbull governments ensured series after series of expensive payouts to highly-skilled program-makers who were supposedly there to produce the “content” for the new platforms Guthrie envisaged.
Many meetings were called to save various sections of the ABC and keep their identities. I attended one, a group of former general managers of ABC Radio National appealing to chairman Justin Milne and Guthrie to not incorporate the station and its staff into various “content streams”, thereby ensuring the end of what was called (the old) “appointment radio”.
The meeting was run by Milne, politely listening to each person and then assuring them it would all be alright. Guthrie was left to comment at the end:
Changes will need to go through me. Trust me, I’m a fan of RN.
The changes proceeded apace.
The casualisation of the new working arrangements has now left many staff not just demoralised but angry. Working crews have left on big packages only to return as freelancers on insecure tenure.
The anger has manifested itself in the “Proud to be Public” campaign by the formerly dominant union at the ABC, the Community and Public Sector Union. This group is more militant than the old Friends of the ABC lobby group, which is full of Liberal voters who care passionately about cuts to the ABC. And finally, the anger of staff is shown in another new group, Alumni Ltd. - former ABC staff willing to join the struggle to save the ABC from Liberals who want to destroy it.
In my view, Guthrie came at the wrong moment to be the “change agent” for the ABC. Mark Scott had already been that figure, and had all the necessary qualities to connect with staff and carry them through the digital revolution.
Guthrie’s performances in Canberra (especially before Senate Estimates) were too amateur and insecure. Her own credibility as a content-maker was not up to scratch in a highly critical creative environment like the ABC. Finally, her seeming inability to bring her senior managers and staff with her proved crucial - especially in an environment where a hostile government half-captured by the ideological right, not to mention News Limited, was snapping at her heels on a constant basis.
The choice of Guthrie was wrong from the start. It did no service to her, nor to the ABC. The then Board did her no service in throwing her in the deep end of the ABC at a time of great change.