As staff revolt against programming changes, ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie struggles to describe her vision for the broadcaster. By Mike Seccombe.

Senior ABC staff say Michelle Guthrie ‘out of her depth’

Michelle Guthrie, ABC managing director.
Michelle Guthrie, ABC managing director.
Credit: AAP Image / PAUL MILLER

There are many reasons the ABC comes up in survey after survey as the country’s most trusted institution. Robyn Williams, it is fair to say, is one of them.

The list of honours and achievements he has collected over more than 40 years with the national broadcaster’s science unit is impressive. He has 10 books to his name, multiple honorary doctorates, holds various positions with several universities here and overseas, was the first journalist to be made a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, and was voted a national living treasure by the National Trust of Australia (NSW). And that list barely scratches the surface.

On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his Radio National program, The Science Show, last year, there were testimonials from Australia’s chief scientist, Ian Chubb, theoretical physicist Professor Paul Davies, Nature editor-in-chief Philip Campbell, former British chief science adviser Lord May and David Attenborough.

On Wednesday this week, Williams decided to speak out about the ABC’s decision to axe its flagship science television program, Catalyst. This is some of what he said in a prepared statement, which he arranged to have distributed by one of the broadcaster’s main staff unions: 

“This week up to 17 Catalyst staff will leave the building, one of the top teams in the world dedicated to science communication, with not a farewell, a handshake or a stale biscuit – like felons out onto the street.

“This effectively halves the number of science journalists working in Australia.”

Williams was unsparing of those who decided to can the show, saying the “ABC TV; its bosses responsible for this travesty are morally and spiritually bankrupt…”

He did not name the “bosses” concerned. The ABC’s director of television is Richard Finlayson, but ultimately the buck stops with the broadcaster’s new managing director, Michelle Guthrie.

Her tenure, which began in May, has been fraught. It has been marked by clumsy public pronouncements, precipitate retractions and clarifications, and rapidly growing discontent in the ranks of staff.

Only last week a meeting of staff at the broadcaster’s most serious station, Radio National, passed a unanimous motion expressing lack of confidence in senior management, citing the “continuing erosion” of specialist programming, a failure to consult with staff, the “unnecessary introduction of inefficient and additional layers of senior radio management” and “the erosion of the editorial and managerial responsibilities of executive producers and content directors”.

1 . Staff angst

It needs to be said that the ABC is a fractious beast. There is a substantial history of staff at the public broadcaster publicly airing their views when management displeases them. And history does not always justify their concerns. The previous managing director, Mark Scott, for example, endured a fair measure of controversy during his 10-year tenure, yet is now looked upon fondly by most. On the other hand, staff disquiet about another predecessor, Jonathan Shier, quickly spread to the ABC board and he was pushed out after 15 tumultuous months.

No one suggests Guthrie ranks anywhere near Shier, a John Howard-appointed ideological warrior; staff do not see her as malicious, only as incapable. Suffice to say, though, there is a level of angst among the ABC’s near 4200 employees that has not been felt for more than a decade. It’s not just her actions that are causing it, but the inability to discern the rationale for them.

As one veteran of many decades in the organisation told The Saturday Paper: “If you find out what she thinks she’s doing, please tell me.”

It worries another veteran, who has worked in a number of the ABC’s various and competing silos.

“If the ABC starts to career around without a clear sense of what it’s doing and why, you get various groups turning on each other. You get cabals forming. The ABC needs strong management, with a sense of where it’s going,” they say.

“I think grasping the complexity of a public institution is not something she’s had experience in. I don’t think she’s up to it. I think she’s out of her depth. It’s a major problem and I have no idea how it’s to be solved.”

Mark Scott was a master explainer. Even when staff disapproved of what he was doing, they at least had a clear understanding of why he was doing it.

That’s not the case with Guthrie. Take, for example, her appearance at a conference organised by the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism in late October. During the question-and-answer session following Guthrie’s speech, the centre’s director, Margaret Simons, pressed her on the future of the Lateline program.

Guthrie did not give a straight answer. She waffled about the need to have the dexterity to deliver content across “different platforms, frankly across some that have not been invented yet and to audiences wherever they are, whoever they are”.

She said: “The way I think about it is getting away from individual programs and individual output and thinking of ourselves as, ‘What is our mission?’ ”

Guthrie did not mention Lateline, but chose the example of another big ABC program, Foreign Correspondent. Simons brought her back to the point of the question: would Lateline be part of next year’s programming line up?

“I’ve given you the answer,” Guthrie said. She hadn’t. Worse, the implication of her evasion was taken to be that both programs were for the chop.

Guardian Australia’s well-connected media reporter Amanda Meade described what followed: “As the news travelled on Twitter, ABC staff were desperately trying to confirm if their shows had been axed, only to be told it was all a mistake and the MD had muddled her answer.”

Guthrie declined an invitation to be interviewed by The Saturday Paper for this piece.

2 . “Unique and distinctive” programming

Michelle Guthrie is a lawyer by training, with a 20-year history in media, most of it outside Australia and most of it within the Murdoch empire. Most recently she worked for Google, but always on the business side, not the creative, content side.

A friendly interview with The Australian Financial Review this week was mostly devoted to a discussion about the technology and the business, about the need to get ABC content out on the widest possible range of platforms, and to implement a flatter structure across the ABC’s 17 divisions to get greater integration. She spoke about the need for more co-operation with other media, particularly SBS, and the outsourcing of some functions.

Guthrie complained about the difficulty of finding content on the broadcaster’s many silos and “cul-de-sacs”.

All of which was fair enough. But as to actual content, there was not much.

She told the newspaper she and her executive team were assessing every program for being “unique and distinctive”.

“If you covered up the ABC logo or didn’t know what station you were watching, would you know it’s us? Having that sense of integrity, purpose, distinctiveness and indispensability is really important,” she said.

Which brings us back to Catalyst, and Guthrie’s “unique and distinctive” test.

As we’ve noted, Robyn Williams certainly thinks it fits the bill, and he is far from alone in having strong objections to the Catalyst decision, which has been vigorously and widely protested. Earlier this week one of the sacked Catalyst reporters, Mark Horstman, took to social media to pronounce himself “gutted” by the axing.

“Today the ABC sacked its entire specialist science TV team,” he wrote on Monday, “the only one of its kind in Australia.”

The ABC has said it will commission 17 one-hour science documentaries next year to fill this space – a promise many say is infeasible, and does not replace the loss of expertise.

Quentin Dempster, a former staff-elected ABC board member with decades of experience in making television, said: “Unless you’ve got unlimited resources, making 17 hours of specialist documentary is extremely hard to do without going the Reader’s Digest route.”

3 . Fiona Stanley questions Catalyst axing

Dozens of eminent scientists also lined up to share their unhappiness, notable among them former Australian of the Year Professor Fiona Stanley, more pertinently, a former ABC board member whose five-year term ended in June.

“By all means have the big in-depth stuff, the Panoramas, but we need the short magazine-style pithy stuff,” Stanley said. “Catalyst was getting good ratings and I wonder what the rationale is behind this massive change.”

As a board member, Stanley would be intimately aware of the travails at Catalyst. These relate to two segments from one reporter, Maryanne Demasi – a 2013 story questioning the benefit of statin drugs, and one this year suggesting wireless devices might cause brain cancer. Both reports were condemned by experts, and ultimately found by internal inquiries to have breached editorial standards.

The big question asked by Media Watch in its response to the scandals was “why did those failures … not just see Dr Demasi dismissed and editorial controls strengthened?”

As Stanley told the program last month: “You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

She told The Saturday Paper this week that the evidence from the science review she conducted for the ABC showed people overwhelmingly wanted “shorter, sharper magazine-style science programming – exactly what Catalyst was”.

She finds the decision inexplicable.

Many other decisions are equally inexplicable, given Guthrie’s own yardsticks that content should be available on multiple platforms and should be unique and distinctive.

4 . Radio National cuts

Why then would the axe be so heavily wielded at Radio National? As the annual report notes: “ABC RN continued to dominate the Australian podcast landscape with 71.3 million downloads or streams in 2015-16. RN produced 12 of the ABC’s top 20 podcasts in 2015-16.”

That’s twice as many as all of ABC Local Radio.

So many of the things at RN that have been cut are unique, such as the religion report and the music programming, which has resulted in another major campaign of protest from notable Australian musicians. 

On Wednesday’s PM program, host Mark Colvin conducted a devastating interview with the ABCs head of music for ABC Radio, Chris Scaddan, who nonetheless offered no hope of a change on music policy.

The list of odd decisions goes on and on. The ABC’s Fact Check unit has been scrapped, despite the fact that no one else provides a similar service.

The mood inside the ABC is “funereal” in the words of one senior broadcaster, and “paranoid” in the words of another.

In the absence of any other explanation, people are increasingly wondering whether Guthrie is really in charge, or whether in the absence of a firm hand, senior managers are making decisions to the benefit of their personal fiefdoms.

The Catalyst decision in particular fuels that belief. One very senior person with deep knowledge of it reckoned there were forces gunning for the show before Guthrie came on board, just waiting for the departure of Scott and, particularly, Stanley.

Stanley, the woman who would know best, won’t comment about that.

She does, however, offer general advice to the new managing director:

“The people who know most about content and the audience they serve are not being sufficiently consulted. The ABC has a fabulous, passionate, intelligent, wonderful staff with deep knowledge in their fields. Engage more with them.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 3, 2016 as "Woolly Guthrie".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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