24 September 2018 | Meanjin Quarterly | Margaret Simons | Originally published here
Michelle Guthrie will not be much mourned within the ABC. Hopeless at the communications and political parts of her job, she never managed to convince the staff that she understood and cared about public broadcasting.
But we would be very wrong to think that her departure is a good move for Australia’s most important cultural institution.
Instead, it leaves the ABC vulnerable and destabilised and highlights longer-term issues that seriously weaken the organisation.
For this, Guthrie and the board share responsibility and are both culpable.
The Government also carries its share of blame.
As a result, at a peak in the ever-present culture wars, the ABC does not have a constructive conversation with government, nor with the opposition likely to be the incoming government, nor with Australian people, nor with its own staff.
What a debacle. So, what went wrong?
There are long-term issues and a short-term blow up here.
For more than a year, there have been serious tensions between Chairman, Justin Milne, and Guthrie. These are the main reason for her departure. It reflects badly on both of them that things have been so poorly managed.
The perception regarding Guthrie was that she was too hands-off and not sufficiently engaged in running the business. People speak of her frequent travel, for example.
Meanwhile, Milne increasingly took the front foot. He was the one talking about Project Jetstream—a costly big digital database to carry all ABC content in anticipation of a day when conventional broadcasting disappeared.
I am told there is precious little on paper about exactly what Project Jetstream is—and even less in the way of a funding plan.
Within the ABC, there are still post-traumatic memories of the last big digital infrastructure project, the Web Content Management System, which locked the organisation in an awful stasis for years before delivering something that was out of date before it began to be used.
Guthrie was a Jetstream sceptic, doubting the ability to persuade the government to fund it, and preferring to focus a tightened budget on content.
But the real issue, as the ABC is saying, was her ‘style’, which is code for the perception that Guthrie was not sufficiently present and basically not up to the job.
Last week there was a management off-site meeting at the Opera House where her absence from much of the proceedings was noted.
People observed that it was as though Milne was the managing director, and Guthrie the chair of the board. He was the one dealing with the nitty gritty. Meanwhile, relations between them were increasingly difficult.
Milne, however, did not have the unqualified liking or support of the rest of the board. In fact, some of them dislike him more than they are cool on Guthrie.
In the last few months, that balance changed. This brings us to the short-term issue.
I am told that as the ABC Annual Report was being prepared over the last couple of months, two financial issues came to light. Neither was disastrous, but they came as a surprise to the board and were seen by some as being embarrassing.
Most of all, the board was angry at what they saw as Guthrie’s sanguine approach to the issues. This added to the view that she was insufficiently across the detail of the organisation.
Others remark that the former Chief Financial Officer, David Pendleton, who was much resented when in power because of his iron clad hold over the money, is now missed. Pendleton kept all the money locked up in boxes to which only he had the key. Under Guthrie, this has rapidly changed to what the board saw as far too loose an approach with insufficient grip on the detail. The process of compiling the Annual Report brought this to a head.
Pendleton was one of the internal candidates for Managing Director, but was perceived as not having the necessary breadth. He left after failing to be interviewed for the top job.
So what are the financial issues? I understand there are two, neither of them serious. It is how they were seen and the attitude Guthrie conveyed that is the issue.
First, there is a cost over-run.
Second, there is what has variously been described as a cash flow problem or an accounting issue.
While I am told the Auditor General and KPMG signed off on the accounts without demur, the perception was that there would be an embarrassing line item in the ABC accounts.
At the same time, the accounts will also reveal a big redundancy bill, brought to book from the beginning of Guthrie’s era.
Another part of the background is that Guthrie was not enjoying the job.
Recruited in 2015 from a job managing the Asia Pacific presence of Google, she was a surprise appointment. From earliest days it was clear that she was a poor communicator and at sea in the public facing and political elements of the job—at times even denying that there was a political element.
She told people shortly after arrival that she would serve only one term and hoped for a long term future in Australia as a board director. The ABC was a way of getting back to her home country in the first place, and lifting her profile at the same time.
On any analysis, that has gone badly wrong.
In a statement released today, Guthrie says she is considering her legal options. Any settlement will cost the organisation millions, and no cash will repair her profile.
I understand that negotiations were underway for the last few days at least with a view to easing her out. If that had gone well, there would have been an announcement or her voluntary departure, nice things said all round and tightly spun media management.
But that all fell apart badly in the last 24 hours.
Board members blame Guthrie for this. She dug her heels in, they say, and made it impossible to manage the exit. Guthrie herself did not return calls asking for comment.
The situation became untenable and thus she was sacked.
Both sides are now lawyering up and reaching for the spin doctors. Guthrie has employed Andrew Butcher of Bespoke Approach, formerly personal spokesperson for Rupert Murdoch. ABC Chairman Justin Milne has reached for Andrew Maiden, former head of the pay television lobby and now ‘very much in the building’ according to my sources at the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters.
What happens from here? David Anderson has been made acting managing director. That is no surprise, and the feeling from a few people is that the board should simply appoint him to the job. However, I am told there will be a full appointment process and the job will be advertised.
Anderson was the leading internal candidate when Guthrie was appointed—and in a recruitment process that almost nobody defends, the only person apart from her who was interviewed by the whole board.
He was formerly in charge of television, and in the restructure late last year got the title ‘director entertainment and specialist’ which I said at the time could be described as the ‘everything else’ division after you have eliminated news and current affairs and radio. He was perceived as Guthrie’s most likely successor.
The board turnover since Guthrie was appointed has been near total, but there is a strong feeling among the incumbents that the previous board made the wrong decision, and Anderson would have been a better pick.
Meanwhile, the make-up of the board is part of the longer term problem. Under the Rudd Government, Labor Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy set up an arms’ length selection process to get rid of the worst of the political stacking.
It worked—kind of. Instead we now have a board made up of similar corporate types, none of whom, other than staff-elected director Jane Connors, have experience, and understanding, of content.
Further, the Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield didn’t follow the arm’s length process with the board appointments announced in February 2017.
He appointed Dr Vanessa Guthrie, a West Australian company director with a background in the mining industry, instead of the recommendation of the nomination panel.
So who missed out? Or rather, who did we miss out on?
A Freedom of Information request by me for that information was lodged close on a year ago, and was refused by the government. It is currently on appeal with the Information Commissioner.
Meantime, Justin Milne was appointed Chairman in 2017 with one of his perceived strengths being that he was close to the then Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Not only did that relationship fail to deliver visible benefits, but the calling card has of course now expired.
Under former Managing Director Mark Scott, the ABC Chairman and the Managing Director would tour the Canberra corridors together, singing in tune and from the same song sheet. This has not operated at any time since Guthrie has been in the job.
That is the consequence of a poor recruiting decision in the appointment of Guthrie and a chairman and board apparently not capable of constructively managing the result.