No one expected Mark Scott to become the ABC’s managing director in 2006. And when the news was announced, few thought it a good choice. In The Australian, P.P. McGuinness said the former Sydney Morning Herald education editor had “risen without a trace”. At his former paper, Scott drew fire for “refusing to state his position on whether there should be advertising on the ABC”.
“The main reaction from staff today has been: Mark who?” said another piece, quoting an unnamed “ABC executive”. In The Daily Telegraph, Michael Bodey wrote the ABC board was “underwhelmed” with the quality of candidates for the position. Perhaps the kindest thing one could find in the papers upon Scott’s appointment was the sentiment that surely anyone would be better than Jonathan Shier, whose controversial 19 months in the top job ended five years before Scott’s appointment.
Ten years later, the sentiment greeting Scott’s retirement (he leaves the building today) could not be more different. Scott’s been hailed a visionary who set the ABC up for the 21st century. His success in taking the ABC digital is acknowledged by critics and supporters of the public broadcaster. The only disagreement seems to be about whether the ABC’s direction under Scott is a good thing.
Speaking to Crikey earlier this month, Scott said he never expected he would serve two terms when he was appointed.
“For the first six or seven years, there was a sense of getting strategic direction around digital. There was opportunity for expansion — things we needed to fix …
“What then happened was we ran into headwinds. There was a prospect of significant funding cuts. And I felt that, having driven a lot of the expansion, it was my responsibility to stay around and see the ABC through that funding transition.”
The last three years, Scott says, have been some of his hardest. Good people who see public broadcasting as their vocation have been let go. Still, Scott says he has no regrets about leaving now: “It’s the right time — I’ve given it the best shot.”
Scott today presides over an ABC more dynamic, more digital and more competitive with commercial rivals than the one he inherited. His legacy has benefited, says former ABC board member and presenter Quentin Dempster, by the election of a Labor government in 2007.
“It’s much easier to manage up than to manage down. He brokered funds into additional content and helped secure the ABC’s transition to digital.”
“[Former managing directors] David Hill, Brian Johns, Jonathan Shier, Russell Balding, all had to manage the joint with no guarantee of improving resources.”
Julianne Schultz, who served a term with Scott on the ABC’s board, and earlier was an ABC executive, agrees. She says with the shift to Labor in 2007, “the attitude to the ABC relaxed quite a bit”. “He was very fortunate there was a government prepared to give them money.”
Still, the funds were far from guaranteed, says Labor Senator Stephen Conroy. He was communications minister for over half of Scott’s term (and shadow communications minister when Scott was appointed). He says in 2006, the ABC suffered from a lack of supporters in Canberra.
“To his credit, Mark and [former ABC chairman] Maurice Newman spent years tromping through the corridors of Parliament, talking to everybody and building up a constituency inside the building.”
“They did a great job. They were very clever and targeted in how they did that,” said Conroy.
In a sense, the ABC’s true enemy in Canberra isn’t those who thrive on culture wars, but the bean-counters at the Department of Finance. There’s a heavy reluctance within Finance to give any money at all to the ABC. Any managing director who intends to overcome this has to make allies of those on the Expenditure Review Committee, who are willing to fight for the broadcaster.
Scott was very effective at this, Conroy says.
“Mark worked incredibly hard behind the scenes. He articulately and persuasively argued his case for funding. He was able to put meat on the bone. He had really specific ideas.
“I had a couple of meetings with [then-prime minister] Kevin Rudd, Mark and advisers. Mark pitched a whole bunch of ideas about digital transformation. He came up with a phrase about ‘digital town squares’ that captured Kevin’s imagination, and as a result the prime minister became an advocate in the expenditure review committee.”
Scott saw ways to marry his own ideas of where the ABC needed to go to the priorities of the government. The result was more funding, and the ABC’s continuing relevance in the media consumption of Australians.
Sometimes, this hasn’t worked out so smoothly. In 2012, the ABC was given $20 million in tied funding to go into regional and specialised news production. It employed more than 100 journalists, but now, that funding is running out. One could argue a willingness to ask for ABC funding for specific things, rather than arguing for a broad rise in ABC funding, gets the ABC into these kinds of difficulties.
On the expiring news grant, Scott says the ABC only found out it was a four-year grant on budget night; he thinks the ABC was a victim of the need for a surplus a few years out. But he defends the concept of tied funding. “Some argued early on we should never ask the government to do anything, just ask for more money for ABC. I always thought a very difficult rule. We tried to frame budget requests in terms of it being beneficial for ABC audiences, for the public broadcaster, but also that met some broader need as well.”
As a result of such funding requests, the ABC under Scott got funding (announced by the Howard government but delivered under Rudd) for a children’s channel, for increased drama production, and for the aforementioned news-gathering grant. But many of the ABC’s best digital innovations — ABC iview, ABC News 24 — were funded through internally sourced savings from existing production budgets. When Scott couldn’t get the money for the ABC’s digital future specifically, he squeezed other parts of the budget to find it.
This is a tricky proposition to manage, and has, at various times, led to resentment within the ABC’s staff. Were it not for Scott, it’s not clear the ABC would have driven as hard and heavily into online as it did. It’s online presence might also look very different, says Dempster.
The ABC Act‘s prohibition against advertising only prohibits advertising in traditional broadcast media. There was nothing stopping the ABC from putting advertising online, as it does to today on ABC websites catering to those outside Australia.
“His real test was his decision to prohibit advertising on ABC online,” Dempster said. “He resisted pressure from ABC directors who wanted to exploit commercially the success of ABC online. He gets a big tick from me on that.”
It’s telling praise of Scott, but the man himself hoses down the suggestion, saying it was “not a way we seriously investigated going. And I think that was the right thing.”
Asked to nominate what were, for him, highlights, Scott points to the ABC’s transition to a digital broadcaster. “There were people who were sceptical [the ABC could do it],” he said. “There was a feeling that it was a conservative organisation, one whose staff were averse to change. I think we proved that was not the case.”
“I’m proud of the efforts of ABC staff to save money and reinvest without any government funding. News 24 and iview had no extra funding, and are services used by millions of Australians each week.”
Though the ABC has expanded, Scott says quality has not suffered. “Some of the drama that we’ve done — The Slap, Redfern Now, Secret River — hold up amongst the best drama the ABC’s ever produced. Programs like Four Corners are in a golden era. We’re breaking more news than ever before …
“If we’d just done new tech, but not kept quality, it wouldn’t be a competing proposition. If you created News 24 without the best news service in the country to power it, it wouldn’t be as compelling.”
Schultz says while there’s no doubt Scott’s main focus has been in digital transformation, it’s worth considering the softer aspects of his tenure, particularly his dealings with staff.
Between 1994 to 2006, 10 of 50 women working at an ABC site in the inner-Brisbane suburb of Toowong were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer — a rate six times that of the general population in Brisbane. According to a 2007 Medical Journal of Australia paper, no causal factor for the highly elevated rate of breast cancer was discovered. But Scott, then early in his tenure, made the decision to close the site down and build a new one in Brisbane, allaying the concerns of its staff.
“He moved very quickly to shut down the Brisbane office and look after the people who’d been affected,” Schultz said. “That sent a really good signal to the staff: that he was focused on the reality of working there. I think that set the tone early on.”
It was “tough and demanding,” Scott says about the cluster. “Our staff were heroic in responding to challenge.”
Of course, there are critics of Scott. And not all have come from News Corp. The ABC’s expanded role remains an open question, even within some parts of the organisation. When the ABC launched The Drum in 2010, part of its push into analysis and opinion online, it was accused by Eric Beecher (the owner of Crikey) of having pulled its tanks up on our lawn. One can look at this as a beltway issue, of more interest to media owners than the public, who are well-served by a more robust ABC. But if there is a benefit to a diverse, vibrant commercial media, the fact that the ABC makes it harder for commercial outlets to monetise their content, through either subscriptions or advertising, could, in the long run, prove bad for democracy.
Asked on Media Watch recently about the ABC’s push into online, and its effect on commercial operators, Scott said the ABC doesn’t compete with commercial outlets for advertising. It inarguably does compete for readership by providing a free alternative — which matters for those trying to convince readers to take out subscriptions.
Scott has argued the ABC’s move into analysis online and through other mediums is an important diversity measure. But this is another area of common ABC criticism.
Shortly after becoming MD, Scott made the highly unusual decision of using the Sydney Institute as the site of his first major public appearance, which he used to announce beefed-up editorial policies with a focus on balance. The Sydney Institute is led by executive director Gerard Henderson, who has built a side career in criticism of the media and in particular the ABC (his Media Watch Dog column runs in The Australian).
Many people who loved the ABC, Scott said in 2006, nonetheless felt it has “issues with balance and fairness”.
“I am committed to addressing this issue because I think the organisation has been, at times, too defensive in the face of such criticism,” he said. It’s easy to take comfort in things like Newspoll rankings that show most Australians trust the ABC, but reflexive dismissal is “unwise” and not in the broadcaster’s “best interests”. He announced a new position, that of director of editorial policies, who would report directly to him and “will be able to provide independent advice”. While the speech was a characteristic defence of the ABC’s role in society, it did also leave room for, and give validity to, much of the criticism of those like Henderson.
Today, Henderson believes Scott has failed in what he set for himself and the ABC during that address. The test, Henderson told Crikey, was the type of person he’d choose to appoint to the key position of director of editorial policy. The person chosen was Paul Chadwick, a distinguished lawyer and journalist who, at one time, worked at The Age.
Henderson says he has nothing against Chadwick, but believes the former Victorian privacy commissioner came from a similar mould to those who went to work for the ABC already. “The minute [Chadwick’s appointment] happened, I realised it was all over,” Henderson said.
The problem, Henderson says, is that Scott never got himself directly involved in important or controversial editorial appointments. Given this, Henderson cannot understand how Scott could call himself “editor-in-chief”.
“My criticism is he’s never run the place. It’s run by various little groups who run their own thing. The editor-in-chief doesn’t really get into anything. And they promote their own and move their own, and Scott never got involved in those crucial decisions.”
(Dempster, who shares little in common with Henderson, also has a concern about the ABC’s editorial choices under Scott. “I was distressed by the ABC’s treatment of Nick Ross,” he said, referring to the ABC’s former technology editor who claims he was sidelined and prevented from writing about the NBN after Turnbull raised objections about his analysis. “The ABC’s dodged accountability on that,” Dempster said, adding that he doesn’t think we’ve gotten to the bottom of the issue.)
Scott grows clearly impatient when Crikey puts Henderson’s criticism to him; it seems one he’s heard often before.
“We have taken advantage of digital media to put more voices to air, host more debates, to have a detailed discussion of a broader range of perspectives than ABC ever did. We have worked assiduously to review and make sure we cover a broad range of issues that are important to Australians everywhere, and that we’re not narrow in our content. We remain very vigilant.”
But are the ABC’s leading voices too often inner-city liberals who do not reflect the breadth of Australian political perspectives? Some, like Fairfax columnist (and former Media Watch host) Jonathan Holmes, have made that argument. “The evidence doesn’t back that up,” Scott said, pointing to the fact that the ABC puts people like Eoin Cameron to air. (The recently retired Perth host was a Liberal party politician.)
“Some critics, frankly, their schtick is attacking the ABC. They do it in a predictable way. I never see evidence of great legwork. Some aren’t particularly fair.”
On the issue of reflecting the diverse concerns of the Australian public, the ABC under Scott and the current ABC chair, former judge Jim Spigelman, the ABC has introduced accountability measures above and beyond mandated under the ABC Act. Since 2013, for example, it’s been paying for outsiders to take turns reviewing a particular aspect of its coverage. The process has been controversial. The ABC does not always accept the criticisms of the reviews, while in the situations where it does, individual journalists can feel like they’ve been hung out to dry. And the reviews cost tens of thousands of dollars a pop; consultants to the ABC are never cheap. The ABC views the reviews as a useful exercise in gaining broad feedback on its programming from those outside the fold.
The end of Scott’s tenure has included three years of Coalition government, which has meant, in recent years, he’s been leading an ABC even more under attack. Several controversies over coverage erupted, like the ABC’s reporting with The Guardian on Australia’s border protection regime, and Q&A‘s five-week Zaky Mallah ordeal.
And did Scott handle the controversies well? Those Crikey spoke to had many different opinions on this, but many made the point that by so strongly advocating for the ABC, Scott gave it a base from which it could be easily defended.
“Mark was an articulate public advocate for public broadcasting, and he championed it in the face of significant criticism from both sides of politics and the ongoing daily attacks from News Limited publications,” said Conroy. “His demeanour, his calmness and his rigour allowed him to have a well-articulated defence.
“That’s not to say there weren’t mistakes made by individual journalists and individual shows. But he had a rigour that allowed the ABC to defend itself even when mistakes were made.”
In the UK, the BBC has also had to deal with a conservative government. But it has been cut far more savagely and in a far more structural way than has happened to the ABC. Perhaps Scott’s tireless public advocacy made it unpalatable for the Australian government to cut deeper.