Having awarded a massive fail to participants – including a hapless board – in an ABC melodrama whose plot line would have defied the most inventive scriptwriter, let’s consider the consequences of chairman Justin Milne’s resignation.
The first question before we come to what next is: what was the board doing during a period when ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie was forced out of her job?
Indeed, what was the board thinking when it provided a vote of confidence in Milne, as it did earlier this week, after it became clear the chairman’s position was no longer salvageable?
This was the case from the moment his ill-advised email surfaced. In the email he not only called on Guthrie to “get rid’’ of a senior journalist, he also speculated that a Coalition may survive electorally.
Thus, he argued, it was important to keep onside with a government replete with more than its share of ABC critics. This was politicking of a singular naivete.
Attention now turns to the board and acting chair.
Judging by the board’s performance during this sorry affair, not much confidence can be held in its ability to assert its authority over an embattled organisation, now presided over by an acting chair and an acting managing director.
This is an extraordinary outcome that would not have seemed remotely possible as late as the beginning of this week.
What we are left with is, arguably, one of the weakest – and least qualified – boards in the organisation’s history.
On top of that the ABC has every reason to be sceptical of the minister responsible. Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has fostered a negative – even malevolent – environment in which the national broadcaster operates. We’ll return to this lower down.
None of this is to suggest the ABC is perfect – far from it. No reasonable person could argue it should be beyond criticism, or that it is free of error, or that its on-air talent is immune from prejudice.
Clearly, the organisation has been rudderless in what turned out to be a Michelle Guthrie interregnum accompanied by a Justin Milne implosion.
What a shell-shocked board should bear in mind is that at a time when confidence in government is in a slump, when confected news has undermined the integrity of media more generally, and when rank populism tears at a national consensus, the ABC’s sensible “aunty’’ role needs, more than ever, to be protected.
We can argue until the last dog dies whether the national broadcaster has strayed from its charter responsibilities of fairness and objectivity, but what remains the case is that if it was neutered no one’s interests would be served, left or right.
As custodians of this priceless national asset, the ABC board has a special responsibility laid out in section 8 of the ABC Act. Above all, it is charged with maintaining the “independence and integrity’’ of the corporation.
On the evidence it has not done so. Now that Milne has resigned, this ineffectual board should be considering its own position.
What is evident from studying the curricula vitae of board members is that to a man and woman they lack one essential qualification for oversight of the national broadcaster as laid down by the ABC Act.
This requires directors to be “experienced in broadcasting, communications or management’’ – leaving aside the usual guff about board members having expertise in “financial or technical matters’’ – or “have cultural or other interests relevant to the provision of broadcasting services’’, whatever that means.
Apart from the staff representative Jane Connors, not one – not one – has broadcast or communications experience.
It is not as though board members come cheap. They are paid $56,380 annually, plus superannuation, plus generous travelling allowances.
On their watch – all were appointed during conservative governments – the ABC has undergone swingeing budget cuts under both the Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull governments. In the case of the latter, the organisation has endured what can only be described as persistent harassment, even a pogrom, by Fifield.
Fifield has lodged no fewer than six official complaints. He has also instituted a competitive neutrality inquiry to establish whether the ABC as a government business is enjoying a “net competitive advantage’’ by virtue of its public ownership.
We can see where this sop to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and commercial media is heading.
Meanwhile, in New York, Turnbull has denied he told Milne to “get rid’’ of Emma Alberici, the ABC’s economics correspondent whose reporting on the company tax issue had infuriated the government.
That denial may be true, up to a point, but Milne’s characterisation of Turnbull having gone “ballistic’’ over the ABC’s reporting more generally gels with the former prime minister’s reputation for having a volcanic temper.
In the wash-up of all this, including a review of what went wrong in the selection process of an underqualified Michelle Guthrie (she was appointed under a previous chair), a reconstituted board needs to ask itself some tough questions.
Top of the list should be strict criteria for a new ABC boss. He or she should come from outside a crippled organisation and should have well-developed communications skills, management experience and, most important, exposure to the practicalities of broadcast journalism.
Finally, a new board should ensure, as a priority, that whatever legislative changes are required – if any – the ABC’s managing director should not fulfil the dual role of editor-in-chief. Weak editorial oversight lies at the heart of many of the ABC’s problems.