Grattan / ABC’s challenge is to ‘keep calm and carry on’

THE spectacular implosion of the top reaches of the ABC has left a battlefield littered with casualties, and one of Australia’s most important and respected institutions damaged and in shock. 

Michelle Grattan

Coincidentally, an Essential poll published this week, asking about trust in 15 institutions, found 54% trusted the ABC, behind only federal and state police and the High Court. This compared with 28% who trusted federal parliament and 15% who trusted political parties.

Whether or by how much this public trust will be hit by the latest events won’t be clear for some time.

What started on Monday with the ABC board’s surprise, and mostly unexplained, firing of managing director Michelle Guthrie, had by Thursday culminated in the chairman, Justin Milne, resigning after disclosure about his interventions.

All the participants in this affair have ended up looking bad, including the board, which still has questions to answer about its own knowledge of Milne’s actions in particular.

This is a story replete with “what ifs”.

What if the board in 2015 had chosen someone other than Michelle Guthrie as managing director? Someone – possibly David Anderson, now acting MD, and in the running for the job back then – better equipped by experience to juggle the various requirements of this complex job?

What if Malcolm Turnbull had not appointed a mate, and former business associate, as chair – but selected a person more at arms length, and less responsive to volatile prime ministerial moods?

What if the Abbott government had not cast the ABC as part of the culture wars, and the Turnbull government had applied the principle of proportionality, rather than a shock-and-awe approach, when it objected to coverage?

What if Turnbull, who used to be seen as a supporter of the ABC, had not become one of its critics-in-chief, under pressure from conservatives and political problems?

Nobody has been willing to accept blame for what has now happened.

Immediately after her sacking, Guthrie was attacked from all sides. Remarkably, even ABC staff members were publicly clapping approval of her dismissal. She was assailed for bad leadership, her failure to defend the organisation effectively, her inability to deal with a hostile government.

But Guthrie believed she had done nothing wrong, and the pro-Guthrie camp unleashed on Milne.

Among the leaks tossed out, two proved devastating. One was a May email in which Milne wrote to Guthrie about chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici: “They [the government] hate her … Get rid of her. We need to save the ABC – not Emma. There is no guarantee they [the Coalition] will lose the next election”.

The other was Guthrie’s claim that Milne told her in a June phone call that he’d just met Turnbull, who hated political editor Andrew Probyn. Milne allegedly said to her, “You have to shoot him”; when she objected, he said the ABC wouldn’t get funding for its big Jetstream digital infrastructure project. (Milne doesn’t recall the “shoot him” comment and says he has great respect for Probyn.)

Despite these reported exchanges – which were in material given to the board last week – Milne says he never “directed ABC management to sack a staff member”.

But even on the most conservative interpretation, Milne suggested action against two of the ABC’s most senior journalists in reaction to Turnbull’s outrage about their work.

Notably, even conservative commentators who routinely bag the ABC argued Milne had overstepped the mark and must go. Almost certainly one reason they climbed into him was his relationship with Turnbull.

Turnbull, for his part, insists he never tried to get anyone fired.

Maybe not, but when a prime minister denounces a journalist in the strongest terms, as was the case especially with Alberici, it’s only a small step short of seeking their removal.

There’s also a fine line between unacceptable political interference in the ABC and the right of politicians to whinge about coverage – as they are totally entitled to do if they spot errors or disagree with interpretations.

The ABC’s chair and managing director are in the unenviable positions of trying to manage the relationship with the government of the day, including protecting the organisation from political meddling and attempted bullying.

In the end, it will come down to the competence, strength and character of the individuals who hold these positions. They need open ears but firm hands to push back against interference. They must be willing to point out to politicians, “it’s not YOUR ABC – it’s THE ABC”, there to serve the public by maintaining its independence and integrity.

Attacks on the ABC are perennial – the Hawke government lashed out, as did the Howard one. But they have been more sustained and intense this time round.

The Liberal federal council this year called for the ABC to be sold. Turnbull was furious. The pie-in-the-sky motion presented an image problem given many Coalition voters love the ABC. Probably this week’s kerfuffle is unhelpful for the Liberals in the Wentworth byelection.

The pressure on the ABC has been reinforced by News Corp’s aggression, driven by ideological and commercial motives. The “media wars” are intense.

Two investigations – one by the communications department and the other a likely Senate inquiry – will rake over the extraordinary events we’ve seen. But now the top two players have gone, for the ABC the attention will be on the future.

Who Scott Morrison puts in as the new permanent chair will be critical – and say something about Morrison himself. The lesson about steering clear of mates is obvious.

As for the managing director – who is chosen by the board – there would be an argument for confirming Anderson. Years ago, after an an immense upheaval that saw then managing director Jonathan Shier removed, he was replaced by an internal appointment in Russell Balding.

Meanwhile Milne had some parting advice for the ABC. It should “keep calm and carry on”, he said. Quite.

Michelle Grattan is a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra. This article was originally published on The Conversation

 

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