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.