How is Mark Scott doing four months into his job as managing director of the ABC? When the veteran ABC broadcaster Maxine McKew announced her pending retirement last week, she said she thought he was “on the right track if anything”.

Quite a few of my ABC sources are saying this kind of thing. “He seems to get it,” said one source. This is despite the fact that many of them don’t like the thinking behind the new Editorial Policies, which I have criticised elsewhere. But these were not of Scott’s making. The process was well underway before he came on board.

It is too soon to mark Scott’s report card. He has yet to put his stamp on the job. He continues to be “vanilla” – a man of no discernable passions.

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“He seems to be deliberately hard to read,” says one source. Some are reassured that he has ruled out advertising on the ABC websites. Others worry that he has commented on how the most popular stories on the Fairfax websites were the celebrity gossip. “This is what people really want,” he seems to be saying. “Does he want us to do more of that?” one source said.

So what can we read from the straws in the wind? Perhaps the most significant thing is that he is emphasising his role as editor-in-chief of the organisation, showing a willingness, in contrast to his predecessor Russell Balding, to not only to manage but lead.

Whether or not this is a good thing depends on the direction of his leadership.

The constant backbiting you hear in ABC canteens – why local radio hates newscaff, why newscaff hates television, blah blah blah – is the national broadcaster at its weakest. It is also in part the legacy of a failure of leadership. Scott seems to be taking all this in hand, talking, in what might be a throwback, of one ABC.

There are other things going on behind the scenes. Some training responsibilities, including the training in the new editorial guidelines, have been taken from Human Resources and given to Corporate. There are reviews going on of both Human Resources and the legal department.

But perhaps most significant, Scott seems to be giving due weight to the biggest challenge facing the ABC, and the main threat to its survival – the role of public broadcasting in the new media age.

There was even a clue in his generally intellectually impoverished speech about the editorial policies.

Scott said he wanted the ABC to be the “town square” for all Australians. This kind of language resonates with that of the public journalism movement in the United States, founded by New York journalism academic Jay Rosen among others, which has now developed into projects like

A public broadcaster is, or should be, the natural place for what Rosen calls “the people formerly known as the audience” and the program makers to come together, free of the commercial imperative. Indeed, in the future this may be the chief justification for public broadcasting drawing on the taxpayer’s purse.

One source within the ABC claims to have been “tremendously impressed” with Scott’s grasp of these issues, and his commitment to overcoming impediments to realising the opportunities.

Let’s hope so. This is the issue that will count, long after the laceration about perceptions of bias has passed.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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