Michelle Grattan has an exclusive in The Age this morning tipping Maurice Newman as a likely candidate as next Chair of the ABC when Donald McDonald retires next month.

Other names that have been mentioned in recent times include David Gonski, current board member Steven Skala and former Minister and Macquarie Bank honcho Warwick Smith, whose resignation last week as non executive director of Macquarie may be suggestive.

None of these would be disastrous appointments, if you accept that in the current climate we are hardly likely to get the most desirable thing: a political cleanskin with an understanding of new media and a good sense of stewardship.

So what about Newman? Grattan details the controversy over his departure from the Board. For more background, we can turn to Ken Inglis’s history of the ABC.

A stockbroker and investment banker, Newman was chairman of the Australian Stock Exchange when he was appointed in 2000. He was a controversial addition to the Board because he was said to be one of John Howard’s closes confidantes, but at that time and since others have insisted that despite the friendship Newman is his own man.

He was one of the directors who supported the sacking of Jonathan Shier, and was quoted as being concerned about that man’s mode of management as “anarchic” and “deeply damaging” to the ABC.

Newman was close to Donald McDonald in this, and in other matters. Newman succeeding to the top job might well signal a continuation of the careful, non-ideological McDonald-type stewardship.

Media commentator Errol Simper has described Newman as possibly the only board member that a Labor Government would be likely to reappoint.

It could certainly be a lot worse. Given the last few appointments, one wouldn’t be entirely surprised if Andrew Bolt or Christopher Pearson or Richard Alston were appointed, ridiculous though that would be.

Newman is likely to continue the ABC tactic of jumping through all the accountability hoops, and even erect some extras in what I suspect is a largely futile attempt to quiet critics.

Does he understand the challenges of new media? This is one of the most important questions, and it is hard to answer it from his curriculum vitae.

But Newman meets the main requirement: an understanding of the importance of the asset that is the ABC. He is unlikely to stand by while it is wrecked in a holy ideological war, as some in Government seem intent on doing.

Peter Fray

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