michelle guthrie abc
Former ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie

By any measure, 2018 has been exceptionally bad for the ABC. And that’s even without the extraordinary sacking of Michelle Guthrie, Justin Milne quitting and the subsequent public tit-for-tat. Some of the ABC’s misfortune has been forced upon it — the budget cuts, the political attacks — but the broadcaster has not made it easy for itself, with its own share of self-inflicted wounds to deal with.

General internal messes

The big one, of course, was the sacking of managing director Michelle Guthrie in September. It was just the first bombshell in a series of revelations and allegations about Guthrie and ABC chair Justin Milne. Guthrie has since announced she’s suing the ABC for unfair dismissal, the Senate launched an inquiry into allegations of political interference, and each were interviewed in an unedifying display for the ABC’s Four Corners.

Guthrie’s sacking followed an already-tumultuous year for staff. A staff engagement survey conducted last year was released, showing staff were increasingly unhappy with management. Attempts to offset this with staff awards for displaying ABC values, featuring the character “Larry”, were ridiculed.

External pressure

The ABC has been under increasing political pressure this year — an exceptional number of complaints were lodged by the government about editorial matters, and attacks in and out of parliament by politicians have continued. Inquiries into the broadcaster have also continued — a (recently released) competitive neutrality inquiry by the ACCC found the ABC and SBS were abiding by their charters, an efficiency review will be run by ex-News Corp executive Peter Tonagh, and the Senate is looking into political bias and the Guthrie-Milne events.

The efficiency review was announced in the May budget along with surprise cuts of $84 million.

Program cuts

The most high-profile cuts to the ABC’s programming schedule this year were in television. Comedy program Tonightly, promoted as the headline act of the digital comedy channel, was axed after two short seasons to make way for “something fresh”, according to the press release. That decision in October came months after the decision not to commission another season of The Checkout (“it’s not axed, it’s just on hiatus!” ABC spinners insisted).

More quietly, radio programmers halved the airtime for two of the ABC’s current affairs programs at the end of last year: The World Today and PM. This year, the programs have been running for 30 minutes each — a new format that will continue into the next year.

Redundancies and restructures

As part of the broadcaster’s “digital transformation”, 20 senior editorial jobs were cut to make way for new roles just before the budget was announced. Even earlier in the year, redundancies in sound libraries and other technology divisions were quietly occurring across the country as archives were digitised.

Cock-ups

2018 also saw an exceptional number of plain old errors of judgement at the ABC, both real and confected, despite increased efforts by the communications department to spin positive stories and defend the organisation.

Economics correspondent Emma Alberici is a constant presence in criticism of the ABC’s “bias”, after her company tax articles were published (and removed) in February. That controversy followed the “cabinet files” debacle, where filing cabinets with secret documents were handed back to the government, and the broadcaster was forced to apologise to former prime minister Kevin Rudd about one of the resulting stories. That debacle alone was described to Crikey at the time as, “The worst couple of weeks in the ABC’s modern era”.

There was one win and one loss for the ABC with the regulator — ACMA cleared the ABC of breaching language standards with Tonightly’s Batman sketch which used the word “cunt”, but found a breach of impartiality rules by political editor Andrew Probyn in describing former prime minister Tony Abbott as the most destructive politician of his generation.

The ABC was widely criticised for inviting barrister Charles Waterstreet — then accused of inappropriate behaviour by an intern — as a panellist on a special Q&A about the Me Too movement, and separately of having nationalist and former Trump strategist Steve Bannon as a guest both on Four Corners and then again in news stories just weeks later.

Technology failures mired beloved Melbourne newsreader Ian Henderson’s last broadcast, while Melbourne radio broadcaster Jon Faine continued to cover himself in glory with insensitive comments when interviewing disability advocate and author Carly Findlay and was found to have breached ABC standards with racial comments about NBN technicians.

Meanwhile, senior journalist Peter Lloyd is still on leave after outtakes from an interview from PM with Malcolm Turnbull’s son Alex were leaked to the Australian Financial Review (which Lloyd denies doing).

Here at Crikey, we hope the ABC can put its annus horribilis behind it for a 2019 where the stories the ABC tells get more attention than what is going on behind the scenes.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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