As the man in charge of our national broadcaster, ABC boss Mark Scott has tremendous power over one of Australia’s most loved and important national institutions. And we reckon he’s doing a fine job.
Scott’s best quality is that he’s not Jonathan Shier, the erratic managing director who was sacked in 2001 (nine months after sacking this reporter). But he is much more than a disaster avoided.
“He has raised the morale of the place a lot,” says Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes, who has been at the ABC since the early 1980s. “He’s the most intelligent, articulate, competent boss we’ve had for a long time. And he’s very good in Canberra.”
Sure, some still bitch about the ABC and complain it’s biased, but we’d pick it ahead of Channel Nine, Fox News or The Australian any day of the week.
In five years, Scott has modernised an organisation once run by public servants in cardigans, and brought it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. He has squeezed money out of Canberra for new digital channels, launched ABC News 24, transformed the broadcaster’s online presence and established an innovation department that has put the ABC in the vanguard of the digital revolution.
Scott said in 2006, 10 days after starting the job: “I want the ABC to be loved by Australians, I want it to be respected and I want it to be relevant.” And by and large he’s managed it, although ratings have fallen back slightly this year, and the expensive drama Crownies was a flop.
Seventy five per cent of Australians now tune in each week — more than when he started — and he has successes like the Chaser troupe, Summer Heights High, Gruen Transfer, The Slap (“the best thing on Australian TV for years”) and, his favourite show, Q&A to point to.
“Q&A is just like Monday Conference from the 1970s,” he enthuses to The Power Index, “but it’s also so different. You don’t have to be in the studio to ask a question. You can send a text message, or use Twitter. You can see it at 9.30pm around the country, catch it live on News 24 and News Radio, or stream it to your iPad and iPhone. And if you miss all those you can catch up with it on iView.”
Thus has a proud ABC tradition been reinvented.
Few journalists who knew Scott at Fairfax — where he was an unremarkable editor-in-chief — expected such a success. Had they been offered half-a-dozen terms to describe him, they might have picked political, dull, cautious, cost-cutter, Godbotherer and bureaucrat.
But of these only political was right on the money. One of Scott’s great achievements is that he has managed his masters in Canberra with such skill that he has freed the ABC to go about its business again. It has helped, of course, that he now deals with a Labor government which believes in public broadcasting. But he showed his skills with Howard’s team, too.
Five years ago, when the ABC was under constant attack for left-wing bias, Scott told the ABC’s Sunday Profile it wasn’t a journalist’s job to please. “It’s not the nature of news,” he said. “If people want coverage that makes them happy, they should go and buy advertising.”
But he emphasised that processes had to be right. “In the newsroom you’ve got to be able to ask tough questions: Have we been fair? Have we got this story right? Are we accurate? And are we objective in the way we’ve covered this? Because … the only way that you can practise great journalism is if you’re practising good journalism.”
By pushing the ABC to be more objective, toughening up the complaints process, and looking for more right-wing voices, Scott has managed to get ABC bias off the agenda. Journalists who take on the government consequently feel less exposed.
Scott’s take on this is that he has bridged the gap between program makers and the ABC board (which once led the charge of the Right brigade) and explained each to the other.
A franker assessment from a senior ABC journalist is: “He inherited a bitch of a board stuffed full of Howard appointees, whose only qualification was that they hated the ABC, and he has managed them well.” All of those Howard appointees, including Janet Albrechtsen and Keith Windschuttle, have now moved on, while Scott has just been given a second five-year term.
But would the accord be shattered if an Abbott government were voted in? “I’ve said to Tony Abbott as I said to John Howard that I want the ABC to be taken out of politics,” Scott tells The Power Index.