Michelle Guthrie

Michelle Guthrie took on the unthankful task of modernising the ABC’s organisational structure to focus on audiences, rather than the medium. She got little support from its journo groups and her ouster reveals the scale of the challenge faced by the broadcaster.

We have seen this episode before. The ABC and its diaspora is one of the great power blocks of Australian life. Running it is not for the faint-hearted and the now deposed managing director, Michelle Guthrie, must have known she was signing up for a tough gig.

The robust industrial culture that drives so much that is the ABC does not suffer fools, and twice in recent memory the ABC has ousted MDs who did not come up to scratch. In the mid ’80s, English broadcaster Geoffrey Whitehead fell under pressure from his successor, David Hill. Hill himself had come from politics, a staffer to then NSW Labor premier Neville Wran.

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Fifteen years later, another overseas media drop-in, Jonathan Shier, lasted less than two years. Each were mercilessly torn down, with the powerful Newscaff division of the ABC leading the charge. Newscaff was the news and current affairs group, the journos, and to this day it is the journo group that drives much of the culture of the national media group that is the ABC.

Previous ABC MD and former Fairfax managing editor, Mark Scott, came from this world and understood its brother and sisterhood. These days, Scott is enjoying the quiet life as NSW Education Secretary.

Scott brought in a gaggle of Fairfax executive and media talent to the ABC, Annabel Crabb and Julia Baird probably being the best known. Many of the senior recruits were veterans of the hard-fought Packer and Fairfax battles of the ’90s, and were known in the Sydney media world as the “Jesuits”.

Scott knew this talent pool, and as digitisation saw Fairfax and News Corp dismantle their news rounds, the ABC became the recipient of many of both newspaper groups’ best editors and reporters. To name but two, The Australian’s former Middle East reporter John Lyons, who was a former editor of the SMH and now leads the ABC’s investigative unit, and London-based Linton Besser, who came from Fairfax’s formidable investigative unit.  

It has taken a few years for the writers to get comfortable with the camera. But in recent times it is the Jesuits that have been absorbed into the already-steely ABC editorial culture that created the likes of Kerry O’Brien, Marian Wilkinson, Mark Colvin and the evergreen Barry Cassidy.

The impact has been demonstrable. TV is about pictures, and television reporting is often just that. Whereas newspaper journalism is more analytical and inquiring, and breaks more exclusives — and is why the newspaper brands still drive the daily news cycle. This large-scale integration of media talent has really lifted the ABC’s firepower and, on any objective measure, the journalistic edge and investigative sharpness of ABC news and current affairs has improved, with some absolutely standout programming over the last 12 months or so.

The recent Four Corners investigation into aged care is just the latest of what has become a pipeline of high-quality news exclusives and investigations. The ABC’s coverage of the story of our times, the Trump presidency, has also been extraordinary. Continuous, deep, thoughtful, nuanced, the ABC has been narrator in-chief for the nation of a story no one could have scripted. This has played across multiple platforms, TV, radio, online, in numerous device formats, served 24/7.

Playing on a higher tightrope means better controls and the lack of solid editorial review has been on show in several cases, as bad journalistic calls saw the ABC on the defensive and rightfully apologetic. Good editors save reporters from their worst mistakes and the rush to be first has caught all of us at some stage or another. 

There will always be debate and argument about programming and the ABC has strong editorial quality policies, honed over many years of practice and complaint. But locking in a much sharper culture of accuracy around its exclusives, together with finding a news voice that fits the ABC’s emerging middle Australia brand, will be critical if the ABC is to maintain the trust of its pan-Australian audience.

This is an excerpt of an article which originally appeared on Crikey’s sister site, The Mandarin. Read the full piece here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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