In December last year, ABC investigative journalist Sarah Ferguson used her Walkley speech to launch a devastating broadside against ABC management’s prioritisation of online over traditional reporting. ABC news director Kate Torney, the woman responsible for these editorial and resourcing decisions, says the ensuing controversy was very helpful for the ABC’s direction.
Torney told Crikey the debate helped show her the ABC needed to do more work. Not just to put its content online, but to show the most high-quality, in-depth journalism the ABC does can exist online as well as it does on television. She says there was a stigma that ABC online was a lesser, cheaper alternative to something like Four Corners.
“I thought the debate surrounding the Walkleys, and the digital and current affairs teams, was really, really good,” she said. “Sarah [Ferguson] identified the need to ensure we are hanging onto the kind of journalism that has been so critical to the ABC, and globally, that investigative journalism, that depth and breadth of coverage that we’ve done so well and developed a culture of. That for me was a moment of realising we really need to do more work.
“No one has conquered long-form journalism on digital yet. We need to. We need to understand what Four Corners will look like in five or 10 years’ time. Sure, there’s still strong audiences for it on TV. But we need to make sure that in five, 10, 15 years, that brand is as important as it is now and as it always has been.”
“Sarah and I have talked about this a lot. I have a 17-year-old who doesn’t watch Four Corners, but who really engages with the ABC’s digital offering. The challenge, and enormous opportunity, around current affairs is to access and reach audiences who might never have otherwise come to our content.”
Talk of the future seems inescapable with Torney. The first female director of news at the ABC, she occupies a powerful position, which she has used to constantly hammer home the imperative for the ABC to change with the times. Torney will leave the ABC at the end of this week after two decades with the organisation, and six years as the director of news. And there have certainly been a lot of change in her tenure.
ABC News Breakfast, the ABC’s first foray into rolling live news, launched just before Torney became news director in 2008. A few months later in 2010, News 24 launched, taking the live news concept to its ultimate conclusion. The Drum, which moved the ABC into online opinion and analysis writing, launched a few months after that. The national reporting team, the ABC’s dedicated cross-platform investigative unit, launched in 2013. The changes, Torney says, began under her predecessor John Cameron, but she says she’s she’s proud that in her time, the ABC has continued to deliver new innovations while also maintaining high-class, top-of-field productions like the recent documentary The Killing Season, which focused on the tumult of the Rudd-Gillard years.
Much of this change has been painful, and Torney’s direction has its critics within the organisation, some of whom say she and other members of the management team have pushed through an agenda with insufficient regard for how it would affect the ABC’s staff. Torney has also presided over several redundancy rounds, during which the ABC’s digital teams actually added staff while other parts of the news team shed them. Before becoming news director, Torney used to head up the Asia Pacific News Center in Melbourne, and before that, the Australia Network. But under her tenure, the Asia Pacific News Centre has been gutted, and the Australia Network is no more, courtesy of budget cuts and a decision by DFAT to axe the Australia Network’s contract.
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“It’s always difficult,” Torney said, when asked about what it was like to cut into teams she used to (directly) lead. “You would prefer to never have to do that. But we’re also an accountable organisation. We’re very focused on ensuring that we spend the budget we are allocated wisely.
“Last year was a very, very difficult year. We saw the loss of extraordinary specialist talent at the Asia Pacific News Centre. People who’d worked in covering that region for a long, long time. It wasn’t just a loss to us, but a great loss to Australian journalism. But we need to make sure we’re operating within budget.”
The ABC, she adds, is a resilient organisation, staffed by a “very resilient group of people”.
That resilience has surely been tested over the past two years, courtesy of the government’s frequent attacks on the public broadcaster. But Torney won’t be drawn on that, saying only that as a public broadcaster, it’s important for the ABC to be accountable. Asked whether, as former prime minister Julia Gillard claimed in a new chapter to her autobiography, the Abbott government’s attacks on the ABC have resulted in the organisation “pulling its punches” with its coverage, Torney says she has seen no evidence of that. “You can’t underestimate our commitment to independence,” she said. “There’s a pretty healthy culture at the ABC of reporting without fear or favour. I certainly haven’t felt that over the period of time I’ve been here — 20 years of governments of different colours.”
Next week, Torney will take on a new role as CEO of the State Library of Victoria. Although she was seen by many, including Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, as a potential successor to managing director Mark Scott when his term expires next year, Torney says she isn’t interested in the role.
“The State Library is absolutely outside my comfort zone,” she said. “[But] there are so many similar challenges to what was the case at the ABC. So many opportunities to redefine what a library is in a modern environment, to see what services will ensure libraries remain really valuable in the future.”
The decision to step outside the ABC, she says, was made early this year. “I really felt like the sense of change, and of embracing change, was in place,” she said. “We’d developed a good culture, [where] people were looking for opportunities to embrace what was next.”
Torney thought she should do the same.