ABC managing director

The ABC’s news director has publicly thrown his support behind a candidate for the public broadcaster’s managing director position, which is yet to be filled. In an interview on Thursday with Sydney community radio station 2SER with UTS Professor Peter Fray, Gaven Morris — a senior executive who reports to the managing director — said he hoped the current acting managing director, David Anderson, would be appointed permanently.

“I think we’ve got a fine candidate in David Anderson who hopefully, as we go through this process, will be confirmed in that role,” he said.

Anderson has also publicly said he wants the job; he applied for the position last time it was vacant — when Michelle Guthrie beat him to it.

The application process (which closed on March 1) culminates in the ABC’s board appointing the managing director based on merit. Recruitment firm Spencer Stuart was appointed for the global search. As well as Anderson, candidates who’ve been suggested include: former ABC news director (and current CEO of the State Library of Victoria Kate Torney), former Fairfax Media CEO Greg Hywood, and Sky News Arabia CEO Angelos Frangopoulos (who only recently moved to that role from Sky News Australia). 

Morris’ comments come as the public broadcaster recovers from its truly terrible 2018. Morris also talked about where the ABC’s news coverage needed to improve, including being more representative of the Australian audience it serves. He cited last year’s marriage equality debate — after which about 70% of Australians voted to legalise same-sex marriage — as an example of the ABC not presenting diverse views in its coverage. “It is broadly an issue to which there was clearly a lot of consensus around,” he said.

Yet let’s assume there’s 30% of Australians, [who] may be church-going people out in the suburbs, they might attend a mosque. If their religious leader is saying to them, marriage is between a man and a woman, and they really trust their religious leader, I don’t think that makes them a bigot if they’re struggling with the idea of marriage equality. Now did we represent those points of view in the marriage equality debate as well as we could’ve proportionally? … I think we could’ve done better on something like that.

In the lead-up to the postal vote, the ABC was criticised for not covering “both sides” of the debate. This prompted an email to staff reminding them “the ABC does not have a position on the issue”, that about 40% of the population opposed the change, and that the ABC shouldn’t “censor” debate. The email prompted a series of responses from staff criticising the guidance.

Morris said that the marriage equality debate was an example of the ABC not giving enough weight to perspectives from outside the cities:

I often think the ABC doesn’t do a good enough job in reflecting the interests and perspectives of suburban Australia … We’re increasingly doing a better job of reflecting regional and rural Australia, but when it comes to things like cultural diversity, and the suburbs, and socioeconomic divides in Australia, can we work harder to ensure those people feel like their taxes are as valuable as going to the ABC as someone who might live, for instance, in Newtown or on the lower north shore of Sydney?

Also in Morris’ sights is the ABC’s gender diversity. He said an internal survey had found that up to 80% of some radio and television bulletins were featuring men. “We can’t be reflecting the broader perspectives of Australia if we can’t even get the gender balance right,” he said.

In recent months, the broadcaster has been holding gender diversity workshops for staff and called for female experts to nominate themselves as potential talent for news stories — either as sources, commentators or to provide analysis or opinion.

In the wide-ranging interview, Morris also said he thought the ABC needed to focus on its core functions, and not see itself as a competitor of commercial media outlets:

For a while, the ABC thought of itself as a competitor in the media market a little too much, where what we should be focused on is: are we providing the public with a good service for what they’ve paid for with their taxes? Do we give them a good service that’s complementary to things they’re able to get elsewhere?

He said the ABC should be more generous, too, with sharing its content with community groups and community and local news outlets:

It’s not a view that’s equally shared by everyone in the ABC. But it goes to the idea of us stepping back from being a competitor in the media market and … [saying] are we providing a fundamental service that everybody has access to?

What do you think of Gaven Morris’ suggestions for the ABC? Send your comments to [email protected].