Much like the sudden death of a troubled celebrity, the news that ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie had been sacked was a shock that may come to seem inevitable. Her reign over the ABC was almost relentlessly troubled. Crikey has kept a close eye on Guthrie’s doings, from the foundational anxieties about her track record and close ties to the Murdoch family, to her controversial restructures, to her eventual downfall.
Even in the bright Spring of her initial appointment, the “impressive” and “very bright” Guthrie was damned with faint praise. In Michael Sainsbury and Myriam Robin’s 2015 profile, insiders would go no further than saying she had a “reasonably good reputation” and was better at managing relationships with her superiors than at an operational level.
If handed the job … her appointment will raise two key questions: will the ABC now separate the jobs of managing director and editor-in-chief as recommended by Malcolm Turnbull last year? And, perhaps more importantly, is the appointment of a person who has spent the past four years looking after relationships with advertisers at Google a prelude to at least a partial commercialisation of the assets of the ABC?
In her early interviews, Guthrie did little to assuage those immediate concerns around the extent to which she would commercialise the ABC — as Myriam Robin reported:
Guthrie gave her first interview since her appointment to the ABC’s News 24 this morning. She wasn’t asked and didn’t speak directly about her time at News Corp, but she did address questions about a partial commercialisation of the ABC, which we and others have speculated could be on the cards given her commercial experience.
Asked about ABC websites carrying online advertising, something sure to infuriate the ABC’s competitors, Guthrie said it was too early to make pronouncements. ‘[But] my sense is … it is important on an overall basis, in budget-constrained times, to look at all options around monetisation.’
The second defining feature of Guthrie’s reign made itself clear soon after: the pervading sense that it seemed Guthrie either did not understand or much care about the fundamental role the ABC plays in Australian civic life and in forming public policy. As Bernard Keane wrote in April 2016, most new ABC MDs will acknowledge that in their first speech, and give a sense of what the influence will look like under their guidance.
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 …
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 … ‘The ABC must focus on what it does best’, which included ’empowering an energised and diverse workplace’.
The direction of the ABC, the withering of its trusted status, and its purchasing of “prosperity porn” like Silvia’s Italian Table was a source of pain and the first of two “hints of disaster” spied by Helen Razer in December 2016: the second being “the end of Catalyst as we know it”.
Philosophy. Art. Science. These are the historic practices of which we should be most proud, of which we are most proud even if we don’t concede it, and if our institutions fail to honour them, or take a dump on them, then we lose our trust in these institutions. Keane is right when he says that the ABC remains among our most trusted institutions. But we need to ask, for how much longer?
Speaking to Emily Watkins in early 2017, ABC staff saw dark portents in Guthrie’s “radical reshaping of the national broadcaster”.
… the CPSU’s ABC section secretary Sinddy Ealy said the union expected many more than the announced 150-200 job cuts from the ABC as part of the restructure. ‘There are definitely more cuts planned,’ Ealy said. ‘And these cuts are taking place in the bigger context of budget cuts delivered in 2014. There is already an environment where people are doing more with less across the board.’
Perhaps the fundamental criticism of Guthrie during her time in charge was that she simply wasn’t a strong enough advocate for the ABC, its independence and its journalists. Given the attacks on its content, a gratuitous funding freeze, the needless addition of the ABC as a target in the prosecution of Witness K, many felt Guthrie’s passivity was unbecoming. At the Melbourne Press Club in June, Guthrie finally announced that the ABC was not a “political punching bag”.
The speech was mainly notable as the first substantial defence Guthrie has given of the broadcaster since the federal budget was handed down, with a funding freeze that will amount to $83 million less funding over three years.
Guthrie responded to recent calls to privatise the ABC, and cited a preliminary report from Deloitte she commissioned, which she said found the ABC contributed $1 billion to the economy and indirectly created 2500 jobs.
Sadly, it would prove too late to save her and too little to change her legacy.