Journalist and former magazine editor a captain’s pick by the Coalition
Ita Buttrose has been confirmed as chair of the ABC five months after the former chair Justin Milne resigned in the wake of allegations of political interference.
The 77-year-old former women’s magazine editor and TV personality was a captain’s pick by the Coalition, emerging as a surprise candidate after the global headhunters’ shortlist of three men was rejected.
In announcing the appointment on Thursday, Scott Morrison said: “Australians trust Ita. I trust Ita and that’s why I have asked her to take on this role.”
The prime minister said the government would now recommend Buttrose’s appointment to the governor general.
Buttrose said: “The ABC is one of the most important cultural and information organisations in Australia and I am honoured to be given the opportunity to lead it.”
The acting ABC managing director, David Anderson, said the veteran journalist would provide valuable strategic leadership at an important time for the national public broadcaster.
“I join with all ABC employees in welcoming Ita Buttrose to this important role,” Anderson said. “Ms Buttrose is an eminent Australian with vast experience as an editor and media executive. Her leadership of the ABC, a highly valued and trusted cultural institution, is welcomed.
“In an era of globalised commercial media, a strong independent ABC is vital. We remain committed to outstanding news and current affairs, hosting conversations that inform the public, and delivering compelling content that is distinctive, high-quality and Australian.”
The broadcaster’s deputy chair, Kirstin Ferguson, said Buttrose was one of the greats of Australian media: “She will bring valuable experience to the ABC board at a time when we will need to make significant strategic and leadership decisions, including the appointment of the new managing director, in coming months.”
On Monday Morrison said he had been disappointed there were no women on the shortlist, and praised Buttrose as a journalist.
“I have [known] Ita for a long time and I think she’s an extraordinary Australian,” he told the ABC. “An Australian of the year. There have been few people more than Ita that I think have lifted the standards of journalism in this country and I think that says a lot about her character and her abilities.”
There were several leaks to newspapers in the lead-up the announcement.
With the new chair in place the ABC board will be able to appoint a new managing director, ending a long period of instability since Michelle Guthrie was sacked in September. Ferguson, who was acting chair, did not apply for the top job, though Anderson is a frontrunner to replace Guthrie.
Buttrose is a veteran of the Australian media scene who in recent years has become a television personality and royal correspondent on Ten’s Studio 10 and Nine Extra.
She made her name working for the late media mogul Kerry Packer as a groundbreaking editor of Cleo and the Australian Women’s Weekly in the 1970s, and had a stint as editor of News Corp’s Daily Telegraph.
A biopic of her life, Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo, in which Asher Keddie played a 30-year-old Buttrose, was a hit for the ABC in 2011.
Not all reactions to Buttrose’s appointment were positive, because she was not on the shortlist of candidates selected by the independent panel charged with finding the best person for the job.
“We object to the appointment of Ita Buttrose as chair of the ABC under these circumstances,” said Quentin Dempster, who represents the ABC Alumni group of former employees. “Nothing against Ita, but she was not an applicant for the job.”
The secretary of the ABC section of the Community and Public Sector Union, Sinddy Ealy, said Buttrose’s media experience was welcome and it was long overdue that the ABC board was led by a woman. “However, ABC staff are finding it hard to believe that prime minister Scott Morrison and his government have made yet another direct appointment to the ABC board,” Ealy said.
“The Coalition is continuing to treat the ABC like a political plaything rather than following an arm’s-length process that ensures appointments are made in the national interest.
“Not only has Mr Morrison disregarded the recommendations of the panel that the government themselves appointed to find a new chair, but he has done an enormous disservice to Ms Buttrose herself by tainting her appointment with the whiff of political interference before it has even begun.”
Labor’s communications spokeswoman, Michelle Rowland, welcomed Buttrose’s appointment but said the recruitment process was tainted by political interference.
“Morrison ignored the merit-based recommendations of the nomination panel and reduced the selection process to a week-long media circus of leaks,” Rowland said.
Guthrie, the ABC’s first female managing director, was sacked halfway through her five-year term, a move she said had left her “devastated”. She is suing the national broadcaster for wrongful dismissal. She received a payout of more than $800,000 after her contract was terminated.
An advertisement for the new ABC chair specified he or she should have a content background, experience running a large complex organisation and an understanding of the unique culture of the ABC.
Guthrie’s sacking was followed by a stream of sensational allegations leaked to the media about the former chair allegedly calling on Guthrie to fire the ABC’s chief economics correspondent, Emma Alberici, and the political editor, Andrew Probyn.
“They [the government] hate her,” Milne wrote in a leaked email in reference to Alberici. “Get rid of her.”