Just when the most important thing going on in our fair land was preparation for football finals, our national broadcaster puts on a reality TV spectacular, except it is real. First the ABC’s board sacks the managing director Michelle Guthrie, now the chairman of the board Justin Milne sacks himself. Or more accurately dug his own grave as this David Rowe cartoon suggests:
That was from an article by Philip Coorey, who says the whole board, including the ABC staff representative should go.
Before we go any further I’d like to mention two perspectives. The first comes from Essential’s poll on Trust in Institutions of Tuesday this week, which would have been conducted just before the ABC became the biggest story in town. Here we have it:
The ABC is fourth on 54%, after Federal Police, State Police and the High Court. Federal parliament is on 28%, below state parliaments (31%) and your local council (42%).
Also Roy Morgan found in June that the ABC is by far the nation’s most trusted media organisation.
Half of all Australians (47 per cent) distrust social media, compared to only 9 per cent who distrust the ABC.
- After the ABC, SBS is Australia’s second most trusted media brand. Fairfax comes in third as the only other media brand with a positive NTS [net trust score].
“Australians told us that their trust of the ABC is driven by its lack of bias and impartiality, quality journalism and ethics. While their distrust of Facebook and Social Media is driven by fake news, manipulated truth, false statistics and fake audience measurement.”
Second, Roy Morgan’s Image of Professions survey last year gave us this:
There you will find state and federal politicians on 16%, ahead of radio talk-back announcers on 14%, but behind TV reporters and union leaders on 17%, newspaper reporters on 20%. All of those are a far cry from nurses (97%) followed by doctors and pharmacists, then teachers (81%) pipping engineers (80%). High court judges are on 74%, behind dentists and police.
Returning to the ABC ructions, it seems Milne did not write in an email to Guthrie demanding that Emma Alberici, chief economics correspondent for the ABC, be sacked because the government “hated” her or that Andrew Probyn be “shot”. It always beggared belief that Milne would be stupid enough to write an email like that and then sack the recipient.
However, seems he did say such things in person. When Guthrie was defending herself on threat of sacking, she put some of the record of the discussions in an email she sent to all ABC Board directors.
The government claims that they didn’t call for any sackings. The real problem was that they didn’t have to. Milne was put there to interfere with the management of the ABC on their behalf. Guthrie resisted, and the other board members should have also, but didn’t. That is why many argue they should all go.
Possibly the most egregious thing Milne actually did that we know about, according to Matt Peacock, was to visit Triple J offices in Ultimo and tell staff that the Hottest 100 should not be moved from January 26 “or Malcolm would go ballistic”. The change was not an arbitrary fad, it was based on audience research. It is to Michelle Guthrie’s credit that the Board approved the change.
I would think that such a change may be noted by the Board for information, but Guthrie as MD is also editor-in-chief, so the buck should stop with her. To intervene directly, as he has on more than one occasion according to Peacock, shows that he didn’t understand the boundaries of his role.
The Coorey article linked above shows what Turnbull going ballistic meant.
Turnbull was furious about Labor’s use of the ‘Mediscare’ campaign in the 2016 election. Coorey says the campaign stemmed from a front page story in The West Australian newspaper from February that year written by the paper’s then political editor, Andrew Probyn. The story detailed how the government had advanced plans to privatise the back-office operations of Medicare and other health agencies.
It clearly bugged Turnbull, but he never complained to Probyn directly.
However, he was furious when Probyn, now working for the ABC, reported that the government had a role in the decision to hold the super Saturday byelections on July 28 and torpedo Labor’s triennial national conference.
Coorey says he personally wrote the same thing three times. The government always had an input in such matters, he said, while the Speaker had the final call. Yet:
- It was this report that prompted Turnbull and his communications minister Mitch Fifield to meet then ABC chairman Justin Milne on June 15 to complain about Probyn running “Labor lies”. As we now know, Milne then rang Michelle Guthrie to demand Probyn’s head.
“In that phone call that lasted for approximately half an hour, Mr Milne berated me about Andrew Probyn saying that the then-prime minster hates him and ‘you have to shoot him’,” said a record of the conversation made by Guthrie.
Coorey says that when he personally made the same comment about the election date on the ABC’s Insiders program Fifield complained to the ABC.
- Most politicians, however, ring the journalist to complain and sort it out. It’s the pissants who go straight to the editor or management.
Justin Milne was engaged in active self censorship, which cannot provide an atmosphere that is conducive to fearless reporting. Milne also saw himself as a conduit for specific concerns, and then on the ABC side part of working out the solution.
Journalists are in contact with politicians all the time, and as Coorey says, many concerns can be sorted on the personal level. The Minister for Communications and the Prime Minister are in a special position, however.
Geraldine Doogue on Saturday Extra hosted an excellent discussion with Simon Longstaff, Executive Director of the St James Ethics Centre, Simon McKeon AO, Chancellor of Monash University and Wendy McCarthy AO, Non Executive Director of Goodstart Early Learning, IMF Bentham Limited and the Chair of Circus Oz. McCarthy had chalked up 34 board positions, including at the ABC.
The bottom line is that as a board member you have to avoid sensitive issues being brought informally. Famously Donald McDonald and his mate of John Howard agreed never to discuss the ABC except in a formal meeting with others present.
If a concern is logged with the Chairman, he/she should note it then communicate with the ABC. However, the matter should then be dealt with internally by the ABC according to established procedures, which may involve coming back to the Board if there are policy or strategy implications. Justin Milne, as Matt Peacock says, simply didn’t “get it” in relation to his role.
Emma Griffiths on local radio here hosted an excellent session with four experts including Janine Walker, whose recent stellar bio is here. Walker began life as a Labor Party operative, then spent a number of years as host on the local ABC Morning program on ABC radio. Later she was an ABC Board member for six years.
She and the panel agreed with the separation of roles I’ve outlined above. Walker made the strong point that you need a board with a variety of skills and perspectives. However, essential for the ABC is knowledge of broadcast program-making and a knowledge of how politics in government works. The current board, check them out here, are almost entirely bereft in these areas. The matter was not helped by the fact that Guthrie came from Google, and knew zip about either.
Even the ABC staff representative on the Board, Jane Connors, has experience that is hardly mainstream. She has been executive producer in the Social History unit, has a PhD in Australian history and is the author of Royal Visits to Australia.
One of the important issues to come out of this crisis is the method of appointing ABC Board members. . The Rudd government when elected in 2007 adopted a method of appointment derived from the UK and I think Canada. Scroll down here to ABC and SBS board appointments:
Current regulation requires that a merit-based selection process is used to appoint non-executive directors to the boards of the ABC and SBS, including the Chairs.
An independent Nomination Panel (the Panel) advertises vacancies and assesses applications against merit-based selection criteria. The Panel provides the government with a report nominating at least three people for each vacancy. The government then makes a recommendation to the Governor-General who is responsible for appointing non-executive directors to the ABC and SBS Boards (other than the Managing Directors and the ABC staff-elected director).
As of April 2018, members of the panel were former Treasury Secretary and Westpac Chair, Ted Evans AC (Chair); company director and lawyer, Dr Sally Pitkin; public relations media director and former broadcaster, Anne Fulwood; and former Australian Public Service Commissioner and departmental secretary, Helen Williams.
I understand the panel provides three names with their recommendation. It’s worth listening to Terry Moran interviewed by Linda Mottram. Moran was Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet from March 2008 to September 2011, and implemented the Rudd government changes. He says the process has been overridden for five of the six current directors, who are straight political appointments. I understand the rot set in the minute Tony Abbott arrived.
Seems the panel was selected by Moran himself.
No doubt the Senate inquiry will look at this aspect along with the whole selection process. Scott Morrison would be well advised to defuse the issue before the election, which is going to take more than returning to the regulated method of appointing board members.
There has been plenty of commentary in the past week about the long history of politicians attacking the ABC. But this tends to downplay the fact that the past five years has seen an unprecedented institutional assault on the organisation.
All media organisations have been facing savage cuts in funding so the ABC is hardly unique in that regard.
But other organisations have not been subjected to that plus at least two inquiries further aimed at constraining their activities — a competitive neutrality review and an efficiency review — and a relentless political assault on its journalism.
The virulence of anti-ABC feeling in some parts of the Coalition sometimes defies logic. Since joining the ABC in May, I’ve been criticised by ministers over pieces that have actually appeared in the Financial Review, not on an ABC platform, because they displayed my “ABC ethic”.
And all this has played out against the backdrop of an unrelenting assault on the ABC by News Corp papers which assign compliant journalists — or those not in a position to say no — to pursue controversies about the broadcaster which are often so ludicrous as to be laughable.
In addition the Liberal Party organisation has voted to privatise the ABC, and Turnbull did a deal with Pauline Hanson who won major measures to increase scrutiny of the ABC and potentially clip its wings, in exchange for backing the government’s media deregulation measures:
The government has undertaken to hold an inquiry into whether the national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, are operating on a “level playing field” with their commercial competitors, and to introduce legislation this year to insert the words “fair” and “balanced” in the requirements for the ABC’s news and information.
Meanwhile Lisa Murray in the Weekend AFR tells how the sacked MD managed to take her chairman down. Last week the Board thought Guthrie would go quietly. However, last Friday, Guthrie handed ABC directors a 12-page document addressing the concerns that had been raised regarding her leadership style. This should have been a warning.
Last Wednesday as information of the exchanges came to light Guthrie was photographed having a relaxed lunch in Sydney:
lawyered up, employing the services of high-powered Sydney barrister Kate Eastman. She also hired media manager Andrew Butcher, a former spokesman for Rupert Murdoch and old friend from her days at News Corporation.
- “She’s a tough operator and she has to get her reputation back,” says a Guthrie supporter, who prefers to stay anonymous.
“It’s her name. She still has a career ahead of her.”
Quentin Dempster, a former staff-elected director of the ABC board, said “it has become obvious that Justin Milne and his directors … have misjudged Michelle Guthrie.”
She “is a street fighter,” he said. “And now there’s blood everywhere.”
Guthrie had poor communication skills in public advocacy, which is one reason why what support she initially had on the Board dissolved. However, she had improved diversity no end at the broadcaster, had reorganised the place, knocking down the walls of the internal silos so that staff worked across platforms and content areas, and had strengthened regional broadcasting. In the end a lot of her irreconcilable difference with Milne was over his pet project Jetstream.
So what was Jetstream?
Sandy Plunkett went looking and came up grasping air.
After Guthrie was sacked Milne urged ABC staff to “embrace Jetstream wholeheartedly and move forward with that”. However:
According to ABC insiders, there is no physical manifestation of the project, no clue as to how the grand ambition of digitising all ABC archival footage and content was going to be achieved.
There has been no planning, scoping or funding document; no white paper. No wire-frame architectural representation – a type of skeletal framework that is generally one of the first steps in a major digital project – has been glimpsed, let alone circulated.
Milne had been spruiking the project in breathy, vague and occasionally contradictory terms since July, describing it variously as a device, a big database; a big infrastructure project, and a modernisation process. He said it was “relatively simple”; “not rocket science” and yet akin to “flying a 747 and changing engines at the same time”.
He also compared it “to the moment when the government decided it would fund the ABC’s entry into television”.
This idea had a price tag – it was half a billion dollars. Guthrie was not convinced. She had no problem with the idea, but thought that the focus should be on lifting the budget freeze that had been put in place to ensure the ABC continued to produce distinctive content. In parting on Monday:
“It is the content produced by the ABC that is of primary importance to Australians, with the technology used to deliver that content a distant second,” she said.
Finally, I think it is instructive to look at the life history of Justin Milne.
Milne and Turnbull got to know each other when Milne worked at Ozemail. When Ozemail was taken over by WorldCom. two things happened. Milne who was head of datacasting was made CEO of the Sydney-based company. Turnbull’s initial investment of $500,000 of hard-earned cash delivered him a cool $57 million.
Milne had previously been CEO at start-up Globe Media from 1992 which designed some of Australia’s first commercial websites. In 1995, he was hired by Microsoft as managing director of MSN.
Then in 2002 Ziggy Switkowski asked Milne if he would like to run Telstra’s broadband and media businesses. By undercutting rivals Milne and drove BigPond’s share of the market to 40 per cent from 20 per cent.
Milne spent eight years at Telstra, during which its number of internet customers rose to 2.5 million from 200,000. Friends dubbed him the father of high speed broadband in Australia.
In 2010 he retired from active duty to spread his wisdom as a director on various boards. That included the NBN after Turnbull became minister for communications in 2013. Then the ABC gig in early 2017.
But decades working in the industry does not necessarily make Milne a digital transformation master. His comments that JetStream would take years to produce anything concrete rang alarm bells for industry veterans. In a rapidly changing technology environment, this seems a bizarre approach to a large-scale tech strategy.
She then reminds us of NBN and Centrelink “robodebt” difficulties.
According to Joe Aston’s Rear Window column, there is one issue Guthrie may or may not put into play:
What Guthrie also tendered at that meeting [last Friday] was a request for Milne’s personal behaviour to be confidentially investigated. As reported by The Age on Thursday, she had previously complained about the chairman referring to her at events as “the missus”.
What was not extrapolated, but about which Guthrie has complained to multiple directors, is that at an ABC board dinner in November last year at Sydney restaurant Billy Kwong, Milne inappropriately touched her on the back. Milne vehemently denied this.
You wouldn’t read about it, except you just did.