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Oh what a surprise – the Coalition picks for the ABC board don’t know what they are doing

It was inevitable that there would be problems at the ABC when the Coalition chose to ignore advice from the independent nominations panel about board appointments based on merit to, instead, give jobs to people for all the wrong reasons.

The following is an unedited article I wrote in April last year titled Informed citizens or contented consumers.

There is great value in maintaining a national broadcaster that is publicly owned and funded, politically independent and fully accountable. Public ownership brings a distinct difference to the broadcasting system, with national broadcasters required and able to provide comprehensive, innovative programs not influenced by commercial imperatives.

But it seems the government’s appointees to the board of the ABC have a ‘new direction’. As Richard Ackland put it, they want to turn what was once “a bright shining jewel in an ocean of mediocrity” into “mainstream sludge.”

In October 2014, the government appointed Peter Lewis to the board of the ABC. This was a highly inappropriate appointment as Mr Lewis, who has a background in commercial media finance with Channel 7, was the author of a controversial, and secret, review of the ABC that was still under consideration by the board.

“Mr Lewis’s appointment appears to be a reward for him having devised a blueprint for how the ABC should be cut. It also looks to be an attempt by the Government to impose an agenda of commercialisation on the ABC.

Peter Lewis should never have been appointed to conduct a review of the ABC due to his recent employment in senior roles with media companies that are competitors of the ABC. It is even worse that someone with such a clear potential for conflict of interest has been appointed to the broadcaster’s governing board.”

A month later, Matt Peacock, 7:30 reporter and ABC staff-elected director, was told he faced redundancy after management placed him in pool of candidates to assess on ‘skills matrix’. At the time, he was one of the board members who had to decide where to make the $254m cuts from the broadcaster. One can only wonder how a threat like that would affect his ability to represent the staff on the board.

In November 2015, the government completely ignored the independent nominations panel who makes recommendations about ABC board appointments to appoint Donny Walford whose only qualification appears to be being a South Australian woman who owns a private company that helps women get on boards.

They also appointed Kirstin Ferguson, a Queensland woman whose background is mostly in the resources industry. Neither woman has experience in the media. They appear to have been chosen specifically for their gender and location to even things up.

In December 2015, it was announced that Michelle Guthrie, a former executive at Google and News Corp, would take over as Managing Director.

Under her watch, the ABC has announced a series of controversial changes starting with the abolition of the ABC Fact Check Unit. Then the closure of The Drum opinion and analysis website. In November the ABC announced it would make cuts to TV science program Catalyst that included redundancies for up to 9 staff, a decision that infuriated the scientific community. It then revealed significant programming changes to Radio National, including the removal of almost all music programs from the station.

Guthrie told the ace reporters, researchers and producers who put together Australia’s premier investigative current affairs TV show Four Corners that she would like to see in the lineup more stories about successful business people.

When it came to the program about children on Nauru speaking about their dire existence as captives of Australia’s offshore refugee policy, the managing director thought Four Corners should have found some happy children to interview.

Phillip Adams, who has presented Late Night Live on Radio National since 1991, says: “On the Richter scale of dread this is the most intense I’ve ever seen – and I lived through the Jonathan Shier years.”

Of Guthrie, Adams says: “She seems to talk to fellow bureaucrats, not program makers.”

In February this year, the government appointed Georgie Somerset to the board. She is a beef cattle farmer and member of lobby group AgForce Queensland which is “a peak organisation representing Queensland’s rural producers.”

AgForce lists as a policy success its continued “fight to ensure that the significant international scrutiny that the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area is attracting is informed by credible science and practical targets rather than emotion and politics.” They want “voluntary methods” rather than “mindless regulation.”

“I believe that agriculture is a cornerstone for the Australian economy and ensuring that the agricultural community has a voice in important decision making and policy setting forums is essential,” she said.

The government once again ignored the nominations panel to also appoint Vanessa Guthrie, chair of the Minerals Council, one of the most powerful lobby groups in the land. She has more than 30 years of experience in the mining and resources industries, holding a variety of senior executive roles at Alcoa, Woodside Energy and Goldfields Limited. Until last year, Guthrie was the managing director and chief executive officer of Toro Energy.

Simon Mordant*, who was hired using the Gillard government’s merit-based appointment process and whose tenure runs out in November, said he was a “passionate believer in arts and current affairs, and a strong believer in the role of an independent public broadcaster. I was interested in the role in the context of public service. I also feel I can not only contribute to, but also learn a great deal from, an industry going through dramatic change.”

He will also probably become a victim of the Coalition’s reckless need to purge all things Gillard.

Last month, the Prime Minister appointed his long-time friend Justin Milne to be the chair of the ABC board.

Milne and Turnbull worked together at internet service provider Ozemail in the 1990s and Turnbull appointed Milne to the NBN board in 2013. He also sits on the board of Tabcorp Holdings.

Outgoing Chairman James Spigelman was disappointed to not have his term extended but his parting words show he was fighting a losing battle against the ‘new direction’.

“The ABC has a great future. I tried when I was first appointed to give a framework to what I thought was important to the role of the ABC, that the ABC has to treat its audiences as citizens not as consumers.

It’s a big difference. Treating them as citizens means not only treating them with respect but treating them as people with rights and duties, not as people with wants and needs.”

Unfortunately, it is doubtful this current board even understood what he meant.

*UPDATE: Simon Mordant was replaced by Joseph Gersh in May 2018 who is a Director at Gerard Henderson’s Sydney Institute. He is currently the founder and Executive Chairman of Gersh Investment Partners Ltd, a specialist real estate investment bank.

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  1. New England Cocky



    Now that I have got that off my chest ….

  2. Matters Not

    So Milne’s gone. A left-over from the Turnbull era now in the historical dustbin. Morrison will be pleased – an opportunity to both further himself from his predecessor and his decisions and to appoint one of his own – perhaps with the right ideological (religious) orientation. How easy was that. Not even a flesh wound.

    Morrison would now realise (more than ever) that support for the ABC is across the political spectrum and messing about with same has consequences. Suspect that further Budget cuts will now be at the lower end of the spectrum. Shorten should promise to restore same at first opportunity

  3. Kaye Lee


    The independent nominations panel still exists. Would Morrison be game to choose someone not on their list as Abbott and Turnbull both did? Will the panel choose a shortlist they think he might like? Will be interesting. Really they all should go and start again with actual merit based appointments with actual experience and relevant knowledge but that is unlikely to happen.

    This handing out of directorships of public entities must not be in the hands of politicians. It is the ultimate club/gravy train for inadequate mates.

  4. helvityni

    MN, similar thought crossed my mind, ‘maybe another happy clapper’, no naughty words allowed, Shaun Micallef first to go, lots of heart-warming stories on 7.30…

  5. Matters Not

    KL, it’s early days for Morrison but I was somewhat surprised when he put his religious affiliation (via the medium of school choice) on the political anvil so early in his reign. His handling of boat ‘turn backs’ suggest he has a strong streak of crash or crash through in his personality. Certainly he wants to be seen as decisive but his backdown re an additional holiday for indigenous Australians shows he can over-reach.

    I suspect that the current acting boss of the ABC had his chances improved in recent days – if they want a steady ship.

  6. Kaye Lee

    Hmmmm….not sure about Anderson. Before Milne bit the dust, he was a supporter.

    “Mr Anderson suggested that he was behind Mr Milne’s pet initiative “Project Jetstream”, which is to build a giant platform of ABC content that will eventually replace traditional television. That project, which will take years and require additional funding from the government, was a key source of tension between Mr Milne and Ms Guthrie.”

  7. Kronomex

    Bets anyone on which toadies the LNP hires to fill those two positions?
    (Listens to sounds of crickets in empty hallways.)
    Hello, anyone…anyone?

  8. David Stakes

    This is the equivalent of branch stacking. To get the outcome you desire.

  9. Kaye Lee

    I would like to nominate Gillian Triggs.

    ProMo and P Duddy would have a heart attack.

    Sadly, I am expecting someone from Sky News or 2GB.

  10. paul walter

    David Atakes nails it so succinctly.

    Mordant looks the only passable one.

    The rest are stooges for vested corporate or ideological interests.

    Why on earth would a responsible government aiming for community representation ever include people like Lewis, Peacock (nice name) Vanessa Guthrie and Georgie Somerset.

    The lowest and most obviously politicised appointment appears to be Gersch though. Fancy replacing someone like Simon Mordant with likely, a Lobby mouthpiece.

    It is a detestable biased board.

    Were these people appointed by the likes of Janet Albrechtsen?

    Looking at the list is a cause for deep disgust.

  11. Peter F

    Great suggestion, Kaye

  12. David Bruce

    The bankers fund the media, public and private, so the politicians have to do their bidding. With Murdoch, Cheney and Lord Jacob in partnership over oil in the Golan Heights, is it any wonder we see the fallout here in Australia? How long before Australia becomes the target? China wants Australia as their food bowl; US wants Australia as their giant aircraft carrier in the Indo-Pacific region. The only winners will be the bankers, as they always fund both sides in a conflict. Without an independent ABC, how will Australian citizens ever hold our so-called leaders accountable?

  13. Matters Not

    Just finished with The Drum where ABC accountability was couched in terms of the taxpayer (one exception being the female from Per Capita who appreciated the importance of citizenship.). That Murdoch and NEWS are taxpayers – but not citizens entitled to vote – seems to escape their understanding. Taxpaying is not a prerequisite for participating in a democracy. Citizenship is however.

    Where is the critical consciousness? I blame the education system. LOL.

  14. paul walter

    It was a fairly cautious panel, but they wouldn’t budge under hectoring from Sloane.

    Baird did a fair job tonight.

    Critical consciousness is of course what they fear most and have been trying to eliminate since Howard. We sometimes call it dumbing down, something also rampant, through all levels of education.

    What a diamond jubilee example the Alberici one has been.

    As for Kaye Lee- snap! I was thinking the same thought reTriggs earlier. The board is supposed to be and used to be more so, a representation of the wider community, not just one tiny elite subsection of it.

  15. New England Cocky

    @KL: Triggs would be excellent although the Liarbrals have problems with persons known to have commonsense community based principles. They much prefer easily manipulated, spineless, self-serving, unthinking puppets who will dance to whatever tune the paymaster is playing at that moment.

    Then the obvious choice would be Phillip Adams, if he could be dragged screaming back into full public life, due to medical matters. HIs professional experience and world wide network of professional colleagues could balance the self-serving ambitions of Muloch & Stokes to destroy the ABC at almost any cost to the Australian public and voters.

    Sir Keith Murdoch did so much for Australian troops at ANZAC Cove by exposing the incompetence and lies of the English High Command, resulting in the withdrawal of the ANZACS watched quietly by bemused Turks. How did he manage to screw up his off-spring??

    @MN: you have hit the nail on the head here. The MSM have swayed public thought into “marketspeak” and away from democratic principles.

    However, I believe that you are unfair when you “blame the education system” for ideological policies of funding second and third rate child minding services masquerading as education facilities rather than academically orientated state schools.

    I mean, over 50 years of government funding to bring RC parochial schools up to the academic standard of state schools has merely resulted in the growth of a huge duplicate bureaucracy and more funds exported to Rome for no good purpose.

  16. totaram

    “.. How did he manage to screw up his off-spring??.”

    Easy answer. He also founded the IPA, didn’t he?

  17. John Lord

    The answer is a group of prominent citizens to oversee all government appointments to independent bodies.

  18. Kaye Lee

    Just because you are born to wealth and/or power doesn’t mean you have the attributes to handle it well. The examples are endless.

    Donald Trump, James Packer, Gina Rinehart, Prince Charles, Lachlan Murdoch, Georgina Downer…

    I note Scott Morrison has “nominated” Kirsten Ferguson to act as both Chair and MD

    “The Prime Minister made the announcement in Sydney, and confirmed he would take his pick to the Governor-General today.”

    As noted, Kirstin Ferguson is from Queensland, has no media experience, and whose background is mostly in the resources industry.

    Woman – tick. Queensland – tick. Ideology – tick. Experience – ummmm, none other than having been part of the totally inept board for a few years, the very board that allowed this to happen..

  19. Kaye Lee

    “Kirstin Ferguson is an independent company director on ASX100, ASX200, private company, and government Boards. Her current Board appointments include: SCA Property Group Ltd; EML Payments Ltd; and Hyne & Son Pty Ltd. Kirstin was previously a non-executive director of CIMIC Ltd, Queensland Theatre Company, SunWater Ltd, Queensland Rugby Union, and Dart Energy Ltd, and is a former CEO of a global consulting company operating in the mining and resources services sector. She began her career as an Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force.

    Kirstin is an Adjunct Professor at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Business School and a member of Chief Executive Women and Women Corporate Directors. She is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Kirstin is the creator of the global social media campaign #CelebratingWomen and is the author of Women Kind: Unlocking the power of women supporting women.”

    Scott is trying very hard to make us think he actually chooses women of calibre – forget what the independent nominations panel might think or the investigations disclose about the board’s actions.

  20. Ross in Gippsland

    The ”market” is awash with an ever growing glut of inept ex CEO/MD’s, board persons and board chairpersons who have been found wanting under the spotlight of intense public and Royal Commission gaze.
    Not that any of these persons will darken the door of CentreLink so the government’s Robo Debt led budget surplus is fairly safe.
    All Australia is on edge to find out who will be next at our ABC, I know I am.

  21. Kaye Lee

    All of these people are on so many boards, I don’t see how they can possibly devote the time necessary to administer each of them well.

    For example, as well as being on the ABC board….

    Vanessa Guthrie is currently Chair of the Minerals Council of Australia, Deputy Chair of the WACA, a Non-Executive Director of Santos Ltd, Adelaide Brighton Ltd, and Vimy Resources, and a Council Member of Curtin University. She is an active member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and Chief Executive Women (CEW), and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE).

  22. Rhonda

    Sounds like a big bloody privileged cashed-up wank fest.

  23. paul walter

    Are they going to try Power Feminism as wedge amongst progressives?

    Last trick left in an empty box.

  24. Kaye Lee

    Kirstin Ferguson was just interviewed on ABC 24.

    Why did they agree that Michelle Guthrie had to go?

    I won’t comment because it might hurt feelings.

    Why, if they saw the “political interference” email/conversation records last week, did they not act until that became public?

    That will all be part of the departmental investigation.

    Don’t you think we have a right to know?

    I encourage you to keep asking questions and shining a light on the things people want to know.

    I predict that this woman will be a Liberal politician very soon.

  25. silkworm

    Is Kirstin Ferguson a climate change denier?

  26. paul walter

    Refuses to release details on Milne and Guthrie sackings.. claims deference to the board, but her loyalties need to be to Australia, not a group of stuffed owls.

    Not good enough.

  27. paul walter

    In the end, you wonder if the board wasn’t stacked with a bunched of fools so out of touch that the ABC would fall through incompetence.

    It was intended to be Stepforded, failing that wiped out and/ or sold off.

    Do others find their contempt for Morrison expanding exponentially when he smirks at the teev cameras and says he finds no evidence of anything wrong?

  28. paul walter

    Silkworm asks, “Is…Ferguson a climate change denier”.

    I don’t know but most of what has turned up seems to indicate “authoritarian” rather than “consensus”.

    Error compounds error with this government and this board.

  29. paul walter

    (Sighs…It looks like Collingwood is going to bake the Westies…Buckley will be insufferable).

  30. paul walter

    This is an amazing piece by Helen Davidson.

    This leak points the finger at some quite substantial dishonesty involving the new Chair, Kirstin Ferguson and I have no problems commending a careful read of it to AIM readers.

    The government and Ferguson cannot be allowed to paper over the truth with “nothing to see here, move on”, lest we miss substantial backgrounding that raises a serious question over the appointment of Ferguson, given her comments on Friday.

    The public had nothing to gain from further exposure, as to explanations concerning the Board including Ferguson herself, she said,
    But this leak reveals the diametric opposite.

    For Ferguson to be caught out on such a basic dishonesty, deserves further consideration.

    Well done, Grauniad

  31. paul walter

    We’ll start with a couple of lines from ” Its Good News Week” a nineteen sixties protest song from Hedg hoppers Anonymous:

    “…Someones found a way to give
    the rotting dead a will to live
    go on and never die”.

    The more one contemplates the ABC Scandal,
    the more you rate it with the Banking scandal and the AWU scandals, especially the raids cover up.

    The parallels involve official lying exposed by whistleblowers, involving documentary evidence standing in diametric opposition to official claims, turned over to public consideration by broadsheet media and press.

    As with Cash and the AWU raid, or bank executives and LNP politicians re the banks in this aggressively neoliberal era, or even some involved in the Centrelink, Nauru and nursing homes and education fiascos, we find the person in authority is actually in collusion with conspiratorial behaviours rather than innocent victims when it comes to conscious obfuscatory and /or defamatory action..

    The Guardian article linked above, involving information from an unknown whistleblower, quite clearly demonstrates why new ABC Chair Ferguson is discredited at the very first hurdle. Far from the events at the ABC ending as Ferguson and a couple of LNP politicians have claimed,, they seem to be just beginning and Ferguson herself is exposed for a fraud not worthy of her appointment.

    Honestly, the lies have got to stop with this government.

  32. paul walter

    I saw him say it on TV and was stunned at the chutzpah.. pot/kettle at best. He needs to look far closer to home when it comes to lazy incompetence.

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