kirstin ferguson

The Australian has, predictably, been comprehensive in its coverage of turmoil at the ABC over the past week. The ABC is one of the Oz’s all-time favourite subjects, and it has had at least one front-page story or pointer every day about the public broadcaster since Michelle Guthrie was sacked as managing director last week.

Among the coverage, there are rumblings of another of the national broadsheet’s infamous Holy Wars — the vicious and personal campaigns it runs against individuals it sees as its enemies. The target this time is the acting chair Kirstin Ferguson.

The first warning that confirmed the Oz isn’t likely to let up on its attacks on the ABC came from Saturday’s edition of The Weekend Australian. Media diarist Stephen Brook wrote about the appointment, saying: “Dr Ferguson can expect a short honeymoon”. He quoted anonymous ABC sources referring to her as a “career non-executive”, and another insider reportedly said she only got the job because “more experienced” board members weren’t interested.

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The same edition included the “explosive leak” of a text message Ferguson sent to Emma Alberici, congratulating her on the much-criticised company tax articles published, then removed, and then republished to the ABC’s website earlier this year.

Ferguson was also the subject of an entire Cut and Paste section, the business column Margin Call, and another news story about her background. Yesterday, an entire page of the media section was dedicated to commentary about the debacle including one from former managing director Jonathan Shier, remembered as the architect of the most traumatic years in the broadcaster’s history.

As Crikey wrote last year, a key component of an Australian Holy War is the sheer volume of words dedicated to a subject. Another is how it brings in its best-known writers to campaign.

That’s where Janet Albrechtsen’s column today comes in. The extraordinary piece details Ferguson’s selection for the ABC board, when Albrechtsen was on the ABC and SBS nomination panel. Albrechtsen writes: 

In 2015 I played a part in recommending Ferguson for the ABC board, something that I came to regret very quickly.

Albrechtsen describes the selection process, calling Ferguson’s referees, and Albrechtsen’s decision to call then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull to recommend Ferguson.

If the Holy War against Ferguson is to continue, as we expect it will, stories about Ferguson’s ability as a director and acting chair will continue to dominate the Oz — in the news pages, editorials and opinion pages. Reporters will be trying to dig up dirt on her success and failures in previous roles, with any new development to be slapped with an “exclusive” tag.

She will be given an epithet — so far the focus has been on her “girl power gush”, and her “inexperience”. And we can likely expect more deeply personal and negative opinion pieces from the likes of Albrechtsen and her colleagues Chris Kenny, Greg Sheridan and Gerard Henderson.

If Ferguson or the ABC higher-ups think the Oz will be backing off any time soon, they should probably think again.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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