There’s nothing like a good ABC story to send the media into frenzy, but the endless hot takes, chin-stroking and analysis we’ve had over the last 24 hours has added very little to what we knew when the ABC board first announced its sacking of Michelle Guthrie yesterday.
The send-offs that high-profile ABC staff Sally Neighbour and Jon Faine gave the departing Guthrie were about as gracious and as necessary as an Australian cricketer’s abuse of a departing batsman, though they probably spoke to how poorly Guthrie was regarded within ABC staff ranks. Maybe Neighbour and Faine should put their hands up and volunteer to do her job, given they clearly know what it takes?
Short of that, who might replace Guthrie? Talking around the broadcast industry, several names come to mind. There is of course her acting replacement — David Anderson, the ABC’s head of entertainment and specialist programming, which hasn’t had a stellar year in 2018, relying on too many old hits like Rake and a revamped Catalyst (though Hard Quiz, Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell and The Weekly have been solid performers).
Then there’s the ex-SBS boss Michael Ebeid, who is about to start at Telstra as head of enterprise and is said to have ambitions to run the telco one day. Ebeid proved highly responsive to the Liberals when running SBS, sacking a staff member immediately after a complaint from Malcolm Turnbull about Anzac Day tweets. One senior broadcast media source reckons he is a favourite of the government, even though his aggressive buying of content rights sparked the competitive neutrality inquiry that Nine, Fairfax, News, Seven and Ten forced upon the government. You can certainly say Ebeid understands political communications and digital TV.
Then there’s Richard Bean, who is currently conducting an efficiency review of the ABC with former News Corp and Foxtel executive Peter Tonagh. Bean was a member of ACMA for five years and acting chair for two years. Before that, he was general counsel at wireless broadband infrastructure owner and service provider Unwired, following a stint on the legal and business affairs side of Network Ten’s programming activities.
The Liberals would probably also like to see Tonagh get the job, and there a precedent here: the last efficiency review was done in 2014 by former Seven West media chief financial officer Peter Lewis, who was then appointed to the ABC board in late 2014 by then-communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull. But that might look too much like pandering to Murdoch, even for this government.
Looking elsewhere, there’s the soon-to-be-redundant Fairfax Media CEO, Greg Hywood. Having negotiated the terms of the marriage to Nine, Hywood was hard-headed enough to see there’s no room for him and will probably be leaving with millions of dollars later this year. Unlike Guthrie, he at least has media and streaming video experience.
There’s one other internal candidate: Louise Higgins, who by some accounts performed a kind of deputy managing director role during Guthrie’s stints away from the ABC. Higgins, who has an extensive background in radio broadcasting and media finance, replaced veteran chief financial officer Dave Pendleton. Pendleton sought the top job, Russell Balding-style, after Mark Scott left, but was knocked back by the board. But in addition to Pendleton’s CFO role, Higgins also took on the kind of strategic role that other executives had previously separately performed.
ABC staff say Higgins, who led a round of meetings with senior broadcasters in recent weeks, was a far more impressive performer than Guthrie.
One thing the board shouldn’t do is repeat the error that led to the appointment of Jonathan Shier in 2000. Shier has been much demonised and did more good than his critics admit, but one the things that recommended him was the perception that he would be acceptable to the Howard government. Based on how Shier’s directorship ended, it would be unwise to try to pick someone the ABC board thinks will go down well in the Coalition joint party room.