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The ABC’s new managing director has taken the reins with a focus on substance and a return to international broadcasting. By Jim Middleton.

Michelle Guthrie begins managing direction at the ABC

The axe dropped quickly. Michelle Guthrie’s first executive action at the ABC was to scrap designated parking spots for senior executives at the national broadcaster’s Ultimo citadel in Sydney.

When Mark Scott departed after a decade at the helm, his victory lap concluded with a function at which the Yirrkala dancers were flown from Arnhem Land to Sydney to fete him. The cost? Good question.

As part of her initiation, Guthrie had dinner with a number of female corporate high-flyers in Melbourne. The attendees picked up the tab – $80 a pop.

Symbolic, perhaps, but as the Nine Network is discovering as it wrestles with the fallout from its ill-fated Beirut child-snatching escapade, symbolism can be as important in broadcasting as substance.

Substance is there, too, notably in transforming the ABC to address the disruptive challenges of a media world where content rather than platform is king. That is, the focus is on what is produced, not whether it is carried on radio, television or online.

There is also the question of a merger with SBS, regarded by senior ABC executives as a “live issue”. Not at the instigation of the ABC, they insist, but clearly in Malcolm Turnbull’s mind, especially in light of strategic reappointments and terminations on the SBS board just before he called the election.

Guthrie’s assault on executive privilege may also provide the clearest sign of her intentions as she embarks on a five-year term as the ABC’s managing director.

No “big bang” as some alarmist staff fear. Nor does it seem she is another Jonathan Shier, the managing director appointed at the beginning of the Howard years, whose reign was marked by the notorious “Night of the White Envelopes”, when many of the ABC’s senior executives were given their marching orders.

Chaos ensued, the board revolted, up to and including the chairman, Donald McDonald, John Howard’s close friend. Shier left before his term was up, but it took many years to repair the damage.

To say that the 4000-plus staff were apprehensive about Guthrie’s arrival after a decade of Mark Scott is an understatement. But then, ABC staff are always apprehensive; it is an enduringly neurotic institution.

Guthrie takes over at a moment where the immediate challenges are profound. There are the staff and program cuts that are inevitable in the wake of the cuts announced in the budget days after she took over.

There is also the need for speedy action to either endorse or stop restructuring plans under way that may or may not meet her own agenda for the organisation’s future.

Especially ill thought out is the reorganisation of Radio National, involving more managers at a time of budget constraint. It is still proceeding even as Guthrie finds her feet. Whether she nips it in the bud or not will be a clear sign of whether she – rather than her managers – will be in charge of the broadcaster.

Guthrie has used her early days at the ABC to press the flesh with rank-and-file members of staff at informal gatherings around the country. Those who have met her say she listened to them carefully, writing down observations in a notebook.

Everywhere she goes, Guthrie emphasises the importance of content and quality, implicitly questioning the corporation’s Scott-era emphasis on chasing ratings.

A return to international broadcasting, eviscerated by the Abbott government in 2014, is clearly a priority, according to those who have met her. She is aghast that Radio Australia no longer broadcasts in Mandarin and that the ABC’s Australia Plus Chinese portal has been caught censoring material that may have offended Beijing.

She remarked to one ABC worker that she was surprised how “people pick up on every word I say”. She noted how her early statement about the broadcaster needing “more diversity” in its staff had been parsed and picked apart ever since. 

“I hope that did not offend you,” she said to the white middle-aged male.

The week before last, Guthrie had an “offsite” with the ABC’s divisional chiefs – the people who run TV, radio, digital, news, HR and finance among them.

These executive gatherings outside ABC premises normally occur a couple of times a year, a chance for candour and reflection. Sometimes they have taken place at fancy hideaways. Not this time. The venue was an antiseptic meeting room at the University of Technology Sydney, the tertiary institution across the road from the ABC headquarters.

Participants deny any sign from Guthrie that she intended to fling herself headlong into shaking up the joint before she had got the measure of the place. “She is no ‘Good Shier’ ”, says one very senior executive.

One manager present at the “offsite” said she had come in with a “really lovely energy”, projecting a sense that she thought the ABC an exciting and enriching place to be.

“There was no sense of her putting her foot down,” said the divisional head, adding that she signalled “her job was to support and enable rather than tell us what to do”.

By comparison with Scott’s demeanour at “offsites”, Guthrie had been “more organic and conversational” in approaching the agenda, whereas “Mark was quite structured”.

Within the organisation, Scott’s 10 years is overwhelmingly regarded as a major success. Painful initiatives, notably the arrival of News 24, are regarded as having saved the ABC from a slow decline into irrelevance.

He was not without his failures and his inability to recognise the seriousness and quality of the Sky News challenge to the Australia Network contract for overseas broadcasting was one of them.

If there is any serious criticism of his tenure, though, it is that he was too wedded to platforms and a little slow to recognise that the future is all about content.

Tyler Brûlé, the highly successful publisher of Monocle and, formerly, Wallpaper, once told Scott that the ABC had the resources and expertise to own radio in Asia. It has not happened.

It is not the type of opportunity to be missed by Guthrie, but a return to international broadcasting at scale would not come cheap. The funding would almost certainly have to come from internal efficiencies, as did the money to set up News 24.

The agenda for her first meeting with the board apparently includes telltales that she plans to act decisively but not impetuously. Division chiefs are on notice and at least one senior executive has told the new MD she should have the team she wants. Whether others will try to dig in and cling on is another matter. 

The ABC is a vast bureaucracy with a culture of managing up rather than down. There are far too many managers to tell bright sparks why they cannot do what they have in mind rather than finding a way to bring innovative ideas to fruition.

Turnbull has been careful in stating what he thinks of an ABC–SBS merger, less so his communications minister, Mitch Fifield.

Scott mooted the idea as he started his long walk out of the ABC. Fifield denied a merger was on the agenda, but has stated that the two broadcasters should “work more closely together”.

Senior ABC executives were interested to observe what they describe as a “muted” reaction from the multicultural lobby when Scott talked of the desirability of a merger, thinking it signalled it was no longer “wedded” to SBS.

They also believe the infinite access afforded in these digital days renders a discrete ethnic service “irrelevant”.

The same higher-ups have also paid close attention to the fact that immediately before the government went into caretaker mode for the election, just one of three retiring SBS board members was reappointed, while the terms of two ABC board members will run out just days before the election without replacements being named.

How much easier to effect a merger.

Turnbull’s words and actions demonstrate that he thinks the public broadcasters have fat to burn, cutting another $20 million in funding in the May budget.

The prime minister, should he be re-elected, could argue that the efficiencies resulting from a merger could mean even more diversity and greater content leading to a net benefit for the consumers of public broadcasting.

In these lean financial times, Turnbull could make a virtue of returning the savings to consolidate revenue, at the same time arguing the promiscuity of the digital world means consumers will lose nothing and have plenty to gain.

Guthrie has spoken glowingly of her Google experience where “we talked a lot about 10x, that idea of not incremental but huge ambitious leaps”.

Veteran – and respected – ABC program makers speak with some amazement, describing the audiences for their content online as “extraordinary”. One producer was astonished to discover that the video of one of his programs had been downloaded 800,000 times – and counting.

The argument is that this requires the entrepreneurial culture of a start-up with a bit of “play money” spread about rather than new layers of management that add not one byte of data.

Nevertheless, physical real estate is still a pointer, even in this increasingly virtual media world.

Earlier this year, ABC Radio chief Michael Mason told workers in radio that within five years the corporation would be vacating the newer 13-floor tower block at Ultimo. All of radio – RN, Local Radio, Triple J, NewsRadio, Classic FM and the rest – would be hot-desking, eight desks for every 10 employees, on one floor of the original building.

Plenty of room for SBS and for whatever else the new managing director has in mind, possibly leasing it out to fund a new burst of experimentation and innovation.

One senior staff member says Guthrie “will make her mark fairly fast”. The new managing director had her first formal meeting with the ABC board at its Brisbane headquarters on Thursday.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 11, 2016 as "Managing direction". Subscribe here.

Jim Middleton
is a Sky News correspondent and vice-chancellor’s fellow at Melbourne University.