And so, at last, it appears that the national broadcaster will finally get a chairman with not just media experience, but with decades of digital media experience in the shape of former Telstra and OzEmail executive and NBN board member Justin Milne. He’s not perfect, and he arguably lacks core “content creating” experience, but he spent years inking media deals — and on the Foxtel board — so it’s refreshing, albeit determinedly un-Australian.

And at last it seems, too, that James Spigelman’s replacement at the ABC, will finally get the media company he has been, often quite publicly, aching to run for almost 20 years.

Yes, Milne goes way, way back to the halcyon days of OzEmail, the little internet service provider that could — and which was the foundation stone of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s fortune (he pulled in about $60 million) when it was sold to the long-defunct WorldCom for $520 million in 1998. Milne was one of the crew at the time and took over the running of the thing when Sean Howard danced off with his millions (about double the PM’s windfall).

Milne’s experience leaves him, on any sane reckoning, streets ahead of two corporate lawyers that had been variously mooted for the job: Danny Gilbert, of long-time media luvvie law firm Gilbert and Tobin, and smooth-talking David Gonski, the corporate world’s answer to Eddie McGuire. A reasonably phlegmatic character, with quite a bit less bullshit about him than he easily could have, given where he has been, Milne’s pretty much seen it all on the way up. From famine, to feast, and back again.

The bald truth is that Milne has far more operational experience than his chief executive Michelle Guthrie — and despite what critics will doubtless line up to say, he certainly understands the nuts and bolts of the business; he makes his “deep diving” CEO look like a digital neophyte and, importantly, he’s had his share of failures with his successes.

Guthrie will find him a vastly different proposition to the hands-off, hardly-there Spigelman. Indeed, it’s hard to see given his history how he won’t be more hands on than any chairman, potentially, in ABC history. Given Guthrie’s thin CV operationally, this might not necessarily be a bad thing, but is it a sign that people are already worried? 

Milne’s first bid to be a media maven of the digital variety — back in the days when there was still a distinction — came when he was still at OzEmail. It was by way of a slightly bizarre press conference held, with more than a whiff of desperation, in the foyer of the Sydney Stock Exchange (as it was then) in Sydney’s Bridge Street in 2000. 

Barely a year after the WorldCom deal was finalized, OzEmail was on the block again as the dotcom bubble started to deflate. It was at the ASX that Milne announced that now-forgotten dotcom minnow Eisa would buy OzEmail for $300 million in a deal that would create Australia’s premier multimedia company. Into the mix went a whole pile of content partners including Yahoo, and it was all predicated on broadband availability. The deal would collapse in ignominy two years later in the dot bomb wash-up, as OzEmail finally unveiled its first broadband service. But Milne had a taste and not long after he would jump ship to his hated rival Telstra, and be on his way, on his long voyage to Ultimo. Having spat and howled about Telstra up until the day of his defection (as it was very much seen at the time), no one, then, should have doubted his ambition.

Milne had earned his stripes at OzEmail running its “data casting” business, which he later described (in a revealing interview with Beverley Head at Fairfax) as “one of the last brave Sean Howard and Malcolm Turnbull (founder and chairman, respectively) experiments”. Having missed out on the big payday, he valiantly searched for one of his own — until Telstra, desperate to differentiate its vanilla internet division, BigPond, came calling.

Armed with Telstra’s marketing millions and with the space to make mistakes, Milne was one of two standout successes in former Telstra chief executive Ziggy Switkowski’s decidedly mixed bag of appointments to his senior team. But Milne’s yearning to run more than just an ISP eventually meant his position at BigPond morphed into the grander Telstra Media division that also looked after the company’s 50% share in Foxtel. During that time there were what now look like prescient deals for AFL online rights, internet horse racing and the wildly expensive experiment of BigPond Movies, a stab at the first phase of Netflix —  all cruelled by the Foxtel partnership, in the end.

Throughout it all, there was Milne — on a hiding to nothing, but by dint of Telstra’s extraordinary reach and BigPond’s generally above-average marketing (and above-average budget), unable to ever really lose, or, in the sense of creating a real media company, win.

While the frustrations must have been many, then Telstra boss Sol Trujillo quietly doubled the pay of his often-sidelined Australian executives, to help salve many wounds and Milne found himself a highly paid minister without much portfolio, as BigPond proper was handed to an amigo.

Since leaving Telstra, Milne has made the most of it, chairing one of Australia’s standout software companies MYOB and collecting various board seats but clearly, the big media gig remained front and centre.

We will never know if he was a (strong) Telstra second choice when Thodey was unwilling to give up his CSIRO chair after only 18 months (Thodey did express interest in the ABC job publicly but confirmed to this writer in February he was no longer “a candidate”) — but that’s probably unfair to Milne. Thodey’s experience is more suited to the national laboratory than broadcaster and for what it’s worth, the two are friends.

Still, there’s some irony, or something, in the fact that the government’s broadband (NBN chair Switkowski), technology and media tsars are all Telstra alumni. Not such a big pond, after all.

Peter Fray

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