Michelle Guthrie ABC

It’s hard to remember a less auspicious debut for an ABC managing director than that managed by Michelle Guthrie at a News Corp event yesterday.

The first speech or public outing by the new MD of Australia’s most important and most trusted institutions — not to mention the recipient of $1 billion a year in taxpayer funding even after Malcolm Turnbull slashed its budget — is usually a major event pored over by ABC staff, media rivals, supporters of the ABC and the wider public for indications of where the new leader wants to take one of the core components of Australian civic life. Look no further than the impact of this week’s Four Corners to see that the ABC is fundamental to how Australia conducts public policy.

Guthrie chose not to do that in her address to yesterday’s “Creative Country” event, put on by The Australian. “Many of you would like me to use my first speech since becoming managing director of the ABC to lay out a masterplan for change, I will resist the temptation,” she said. Well, that’s fair enough — perhaps the ritual of the MD dramatically emerging from “purdah”, as Jonathan Shier put it after his 100 days of initial silence in 2000, is overdone.

Instead, Guthrie offered a series of observations so anodyne as to seem like an inspirational calendar fell into a corporate-speak generator. “Without great acts of innovation and the wonderful, creative sparks that ignite them, the world we inhabit would be a quite different,” she told her unfortunate audience. One of the differences would be “there would be no Sydney Opera House.” “My job is to unleash and channel our creativity.” “You must continually re-examine your strategies and your assumptions”. “The ABC must focus on what it does best”, which included “empowering an energised and diverse workplace”.

The speech also had Friends of the ABC types carefully parsing it for hints of commercialisation, and Guthrie appeared to be guilty of thoughtcrime on that front, talking about partnering with the private sector, which “offers potential new revenue streams to fund new content investment”. She was quick to offer reassurance on that, however, noting “the ABC’s strategies in relation to revenue and partnering will be done fully in accordance with the ABC’s legislative obligations and in line with community expectations”.

But Guthrie’s speech stuck more closely to one of the traditions of the ABC — trying to appeal to the government of the day. At a time when the Howard government was trying to demonstrate greater interest in regional Australia to combat One Nation, Shier cannily emphasised the ABC’s strong local radio network and its capacity to expand local programming in regional communities, and secured nearly $20 million a year in additional funding in 2001, just a few years after the Coalition had savagely slashed the ABC’s budget.

Mark Scott tried a similar approach. Noting Kevin Rudd’s diplomatic ambitions, Scott portrayed the ABC as a crucial tool of Australia’s “soft power” diplomacy and called for more funding for international broadcasting in 2009, getting accused along the way of trying to appeal to Rudd’s vanity. Ironically, Shier had not wanted the ABC to return to international broadcasting, and had to be strongly encouraged by the Howard government when it re-established Australia’s international TV service in 2000; even more ironically, Rudd later led a process as foreign minister to strip the ABC of the international broadcasting contract in favour of Sky.

Now Guthrie has chosen for her first speech a forum notable in two ways. In what looks to have been an effort to curb the incessant News Corp campaign against the ABC, Guthrie chose an event hosted by The Australian for her first speech, and gave a junior journalist at that outlet a copy of her speech ahead of it. If Guthrie thinks that playing nice with the Murdoch press is going to elicit a similar response, she’s in for a rude shock. News Corp’s beef with the ABC is nothing to do with ideology (hard data shows the ABC is far more balanced and far more trusted than any Murdoch outlet) and everything to do with the fact that the ABC beats the Murdoch family’s outlets in virtually every area where they compete head to head. News, literally, wants to destroy the ABC because it’s a competitor, a competitor offering free content and a competitor that regularly beats them.

The alternative explanation is that, as a former News Corp executive herself, Guthrie simply instinctively gravitated to it, or that she wants to be personally insulated from News Corp’s war with the ABC in a way that Mark Scott never was. Good luck there.

More significant is the News Corp forum Guthrie chose: Creative Country: the business of innovation. Let’s leave aside a loss-making, heavily subsidised dinosaur outlet run by tax dodgers talking about innovation. Guthrie is doing exactly what Shier and Scott did — trying to appeal to the perceived interests of the government of the day. Guthrie spent most of the speech talking about innovation and disruption, so much so you almost expected her to declare there had never been a more exciting time to be a broadcaster.

It’s a half-smart strategy: appealing to the interests of the government can be a useful way of securing additional funding or perhaps simply curbing political hostility. And to this day there are additional ABC Local Radio services in the bush that wouldn’t be there except for Shier’s smarts (and the support he got from then-communications minister Richard Alston). But it gives the government of the day a subtle influence over the strategic direction of the ABC that politicians shouldn’t have.

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today and get your first 12 weeks for $12.

Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey