ABC chair designate Ita Buttrose shakes hands with Communications Minister Mitch Fifield. (Image: AAP/Dan Himbrechts)

Who knows how serious speculation is about the appointment of Ita Buttrose as ABC chair. On one level — a political level — such an appointment would make sense. Everyone knows and loves Ita. She’s that overused word, an icon, one of the few Australians we all know by just one name.

She has an unparalleled media CV and would offend no one. And the government, unusually, is not keen on offending anyone over the ABC currently. The need to replace Justin Milne and the focus on who will be appointed to replace Michelle Guthrie is a distraction an ailing government doesn’t want.

Both appointments — even though the board appoints the MD, not the government — will be closely scrutinised through the prism of the Liberals’ culture war on the ABC, at a time when it is struggling to hold onto parts of its base who wants the party to come into the 21st century, or at least the late 20th century, on issues like climate change and female representation. Another perceived stacking of the ABC would reinforce the message to the voters of seats like Wentworth, Warringah, Higgins, and Flinders that they’re right to be leaving the Liberals.

Moreover, the Liberals have got exactly what they want on the ABC at the moment. The place is utterly cowed, with management terrified of upsetting the government and determined to push back against journalists whose reporting might prompt an angry phone call from a Coalition MP. There’s no need to continue a war when you’ve already won. 

As for actually doing the job that needs to be done as chair, it’s unclear what exactly Buttrose would bring. She hasn’t been active in media management or high-profile chair roles for years; her experience running or editing large outlets is decades in the past, and confined to print journalism — the only medium the ABC isn’t involved in.

She has no hands-on experience in meeting the challenges of digital media, Google and Facebook, streaming services or producing quality Australian content. She may be a formidable advocate for more ABC funding in Canberra, which is another key challenge facing the broadcaster, and could be a highly effective public face for an organisation that remains one of Australia’s most trusted institutions (much like she herself is) but which has been deeply troubled ever since the departure of Mark Scott.

But her capacity to provide internal strategic leadership given her lack of experience in addressing the key challenges the broadcaster faces must be seriously questioned, as must her capacity to restore to the ABC a news management that is willing to stand up for its journalists. Given her lack of broadcasting experience, it’s more likely she’ll instead allow existing ABC management to maintain the status quo. Which might be exactly what the Liberals would like.

Do you think Ita is up to the job? Send us your comments to [email protected].

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey