“He’s vanilla.” That seems to be the predominant opinion of Mark
Scott, who has just been appointed the new Managing Director of the ABC, surely
one of the most political and challenging jobs in Australian media. It’s not an appointment that will frighten
the horses. Mark Scott is not known for throwing bombs. In fact, in political terms, this is a victory
for those of the wettish Liberal predisposition, including ABC chairman Donald
McDonald and Communications Minister Senator Helen Coonan.

Mark Scott is not Jonathan Shier, not even
a David Hill or a Brian Johns. He is not
as political as his curriculum vitae, which includes a stint as a Liberaal party
adviser to controversial New South Wales Eduction Minister Mark Metherell, might
suggest. He started life as a
schoolteacher and came to Metherell’s office via that route. After that he was an academic for a brief
period then a solid, but undistinguished education reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald before quickly
going into management. His big breaks
careerwise were due to Fred Hilmer, who found Scott one of a few people he
could deal with on the editorial floor.
At Fairfax he had responsibility for human resources, and while he was clearly
a managemeHnt man, most say that he was prepared to work with the union. “He’s not really a political animal, nor
an egomaniac,” one source said.
Scott is said to be a passionate reader of management manuals. He is a churchgoing Christian, and his family
are friends with the Brogdens.

So this is an appointment in the tradition
of Russell Balding with the gloss of editorial experience. Don’t expect
big changes of direction. Is he the man to take the ABC into the
future? Nobody is describing him as a
charismatic leader. Nobody is describing
him as a fighter. He is indeed somebody
known for always seeking a middle course. Despite his meteoric rise at
Fairfax there is not
a great deal to show for his presence, and some of the appointments
during his
tenure have been questionable indeed.

Smart but bland is the majority view, but
not a universal one. Scott has bitter enemies and firm friends. One former Fairfax insider
writes as follows:

“When
I arrived at Fairfax in 2001 the most
dysfunctional department there was HR which he ran as head of organisational
development. It was also, courtesy of Hilmer, the most powerful department in
the company. They couldn’t get anything right. Forms would be lost. They
wouldn’t act on warnings that staff were about to start and needed computer
access, log-ins, security badges. The process for getting staff approved was
horrendous – although they were very keen on leadership seminars, I remember –
and presiding over all this chaos was Scott, a Hilmer favourite.”

But another current Fairfax insider
describes him as the best boss they have ever had – a decent man and fair.

In terms of the future of the ABC, perhaps
one of the most important questions is his attitude to new media.
Fairfax has been a leader in the field, and while Scott has not been
the
one primarily responsible he is understood to be both interested and
supportive. He is seen as one of those
behind the cultural change at Fairfax as management struggles to get
journalists to accept the new
digital world. A similar mission awaits
him in sections of the ABC.

The NewsCaff Department at the ABC is likely
to be a winner from this appointment. Scott is well-known as a man interested in
journalism. During Hilmer’s reign he was one of the few management types
regularly seen on the editorial floor, and indeed his main role was to explain
the word journalism to the CEO.

So what about drama? And what about the bullies at Senate
estimates? How will Scott go with them?

Being smart never hurts. There is no reason to think Scott can’t learn
the skills he needs. From the point of
view of the ABC, the appointment could certainly be a lot worse.

Perhaps most significantly, he is not an ideologue.
Together with the qualified success of the ABC in the budget, this might
suggest the worst excesses of government hostility towards the national
broadcaster are behind us. That might
change if Peter Costello becomes Prime Minister.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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