It’s on. Last week ABC managing director Mark Scott told his staff that after nearly 10 years in the role, he would be going next year. This Monday a job ad appeared for the position, and applications close next month.
Several big names are already being bandied about. Now that leadership change in Canberra means Malcolm Turnbull, rather than Tony Abbott, is in charge, the position just became somewhat more attractive. Forthwith, a guide to the frontrunners — or at least those who have been identified by the febrile media.
David Thodey stepped down in February this year after five very successful years as Telstra CEO. He’s taken a bit on since then — from November he’ll be the chairman of the CSIRO. He’s also chairing a $190 million NSW government job creation fund. As well as the MD role, there are also two board positions up for grabs at the ABC — given his duties to the CSIRO, which will begin well before the managing director search is concluded, maybe it would make more sense for him to take one of those roles rather than the executive position. Still, he’s widely known to be one of Turnbull’s favourite CEOs. At a recent industry dinner, the former comms minister described Thodey as a man of his word, and as one of the nicest guys around. One doesn’t have to look to far to find accolades for Thodey. He doubled Telstra’s share price during his tenure, and he helped the organisation rebuild after the disastrous reign of Sol Trujillo.
The other name persistently bandied about, particularly in The Australian, is that of Sky CEO Angelos Frangopoulos. A hands-on executive (he’s also managing editor) who’s proven adept at cultivating political influence — no doubt partly through Sky’s dogged pursuit of political talent for its chat shows — he runs one of the leanest media operations in Australia that’s nonetheless widely respected for its coverage of politics. He’s certainly taken an interest in the ABC for a long time. In 2010, for example, he wrote an opinion piece for The Daily Telegraph that argued the ABC had become a “taxpayer-fuelled broadcasting gorilla with a huge appetite for territory, more public money and control over public policy”. As the ABC spread itself too thin, he wrote, quality would invariably suffer. “The ABC is taking us down a very different road. It is aping the commercial media and duplicating services already provided by others,” he wrote. “The ABC is losing itself in the pursuit of ratings, populism and influence.”
Frangopoulos hasn’t repeated the strident criticisms he made in 2010 in recent months, but it’s no wonder many Coalition MPs see him as sympathetic to their own concerns about the ABC. He turned up to Mark Scott’s most recent speech in Sydney, as Crikey noted.
At that speech, Frangopoulos sat near former News Corp Australia chief (now Copyright Agency chair) Kim Williams. He used to head up Sky before Frangopoulos, and was similarly well-regarded. Were it not for being fired from News Corp after pursuing a strategy that got that the organisation’s most powerful editors off-side, he’d have the perfect resume. While he’s never been a journalist, he’s done just about everything else in the arts and entertainment industries. His early career was spent in the music industry — both in a management capacity and as a composer. He’s headed up the Australian Film Corporation, run a TV production house, and worked at the ABC as an executive in the early 1990s. He’s still heavily involved in the media — at a speech given yesterday at a lunch organised by Crikey sister site The Mandarin, he mused extensively on the factors behind the decline of journalism. A few digs at newspaper publishers aside, the main point of his speech was the need to establish “digital DNA” in public-sector organisations. Surely that focus would not hurt at the public broadcaster. Fun fact: he was also, as the Power Index revealed in 2011, the Australian Lego champion as a teenager.
This week brought a new name to the fore, through the Oz’s business gossip column. Glyn Davis, the vice-chancellor of Melbourne University, is certainly what the recruiters would describe as a “change agent”. He bedded down the “Melbourne model” at Melbourne University despite some controversy — under the model students are forced to complete general, broad degrees at the undergraduate level, with professional specialisation coming through post-graduate study. Davis wrote his PhD thesis on the political independence of the ABC. Speaking to Crikey earlier this year, he had this to say about the public broadcaster:
“On current trends, the ABC will soon be the only large media newsroom presence in the country. As other media organisations have struggled, the ABC flourishes in a digital age. The ABC is more important in national life than any time since its foundation. This puts a huge responsibility on the ABC board and management, but they are up to the task.”
Davis has some recent media experience — he guest-edited the current edition of Meanjin. As well as his career in academia, he headed up Peter Beattie’s department of premier and cabinet in the late 1990s. At Melbourne University, where he’s been since 2005, insiders expect his tenure to be drawing to a close.
Of course, it could be someone else entirely. Last time the gig was up for grabs, Mark Scott was a little-known former Fairfax executive, who’d served under Fred Hilmer. Scott wasn’t mentioned at all in the media before his appointment. It could also be someone internal, though the most high-profile internal candidate to the role, former News director Kate Torney, stepped down earlier this month, saying she had no desire to take on the role.