Michelle Guthrie’s controversial tenure as ABC managing director has been summarily ended by the board this morning, with the former Google and Murdoch executive sacked because “it was not in the best interests of the ABC for Ms Guthrie to continue to lead the organisation,” according to an ABC board statement. Guthrie began in May 2016 and was barely half-way through her five-year term. Guthrie is the first MD to fail to complete her term since Jonathan Shier resigned in 2001. ABC veteran David Anderson will act as interim managing director while a search is undertaken for a replacement.
Guthrie, who had limited experience in broadcasting and none in journalism, was criticised for being out of her depth in the top job at the national broadcaster, an impression not helped by claims she spent much of her time between Singapore, where her family is based, and Sydney. Her decisions around the allocation of resourcing also drew fire, with the August launch of ABC Life, a commercial media-style lifestyle news project, seeming to confirm a campaign being run by commercial rivals and the Liberal Party that the ABC was unfairly competing with for-profit media companies. Guthrie was also criticised for focusing on managerialist bunk rather than delivering better content.
Guthrie’s tenure was marked by a dramatic ramp-up in Liberal Party attacks on the ABC, with a stream of vexatious complaints directed by the government at journalists, a funding cut of over $80 million in the 2018 budget and the Liberals adopting a policy to privatise the ABC. Guthrie attempted to push back against the government campaign, but seemed to lack support from Justin Milne, board chairman (Milne’s predecessor, Jim Spigelman, had appointed Guthrie) and friend of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
The government has asked another former Murdoch executive Peter Tonagh to lead an efficiency review of the ABC, which has just employed Melbourne-based accounts and administrations firm KordaMentha to help. A member of the ABC board is Peter Lewis, the former chief financial officer of Seven West Media, who conducted another efficiency review of the ABC back in 2014.
In Guthrie’s frequent absences, many staff had the impression chief financial and strategy officer Louise Higgins, who has a long history in media in finance roles, exercised greater authority and leadership than her MD.