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Streaming the ABC’s ‘Jesuits’: Michelle Guthrie’s hard lesson for digital leaders

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.

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.

Injection of rival talent

“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.”

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 nineties, 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.

Jihad against the ABC’s left liberalism

“Justin Milne’s so-called ‘jetstream’ strategy is to rebuild the ABC’s core infrastructure for the digital age.”

The ABC’s adventurism has not gone unnoticed. In the oligopolistic world of late 20th century media, it made sense to sit in the middle and appeal to the large group that was baby boomer Australia.

Digitisation has fragmented the media world and the demise of the newspaper business model has seen media brands become cheerleaders for their chosen tribes. Nowhere has this been more obvious than at News Corp’s Holt Street HQ in Sydney.

Holt Street has always been its own special, complicated, febrile case and over the last decade News Corp has taken on the role of critic-in-chief of the ABC, driving a relentless jihad against the ABC’s left liberalism.

The ABC’s critics say this liberalism was again on show when Liberal conservatives led the recent mutiny against the less conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, leaving the ABC to reflexively ask, but why?

Turnbull was toast the night of the Longman by-election, and it is now Turnbull’s notes that everyone seems to be relying on for the recent widespread coverage of whatever role News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch was meant to have played during that mutiny.

And it is worth noting that Turnbull had previously mercilessly used News Corp titles to bolster his own leadership ambushes. He is certainly not the first — nor the last — of many ambitious politicians who have ponied up to a compliant media.

The News Corp crusade against Guthrie was primarily about the ABC’s ambition to be a true digital media platform. This vision has been more correctly the vision of ABC chair Justin Milne.

Milne, of course, is a close business colleague of Turnbull, when they both cashed in on the early dial-up days, in the run up to the dot-com boom of 1999. Milne went on to run media for Telstra and has been an obsessive about streaming, long before Netflix and others arrived. Milne is a very driven man and comes squarely from the my way or the highway school, that is much loved in the world of uber tech. 

His so-called “jetstream” strategy is to rebuild the ABC’s core infrastructure for the digital age, and mirrors what most major broadcasting networks are doing as they pivot to the era of connected TVs and seamless a la carte consumption of media across high-speed broadband to any device, anywhere, any time.

Pain of digital transformation

“It has been to this relentless drumbeat of media noise and complaint that Michelle Guthrie volunteered to lead the ABC.”

The ABC is a linear broadcaster, that crudely put, chops up its programming for later consumption. While parts are digital, digitising the whole process will enable broadcasters to serve from a database of media assets any content across any digital channel.

It will largely automate much of the production management, removing a whole administrative staff layer that currently keeps the system glued together. And in a cloud-enabled world this platform will be totally virtualised, and able to instantly scale to whatever level is required. 

This creates the strategic infrastructure to truly target millennial and other groups who have long deserted traditional TV. The new interim MD David Anderson has been leading inquiries into how the ABC’s powerful delivery platform can be opened up to other national institutions such as the Sydney Opera House.

Unconstrained by silly inner-city media wars, the smaller national media player, SBS, has been quietly playing with personalisation, setting up the next game around Netflix-style recommendations. For the ABC and its rusted on loyal audiences, the combination of personalisation and a virtual platform to serve data-driven programming makes perfect strategic sense, and this is what is driving Holt Street spare.

News Corp has been waging its own crusade against Google and Facebook, whose major sin was inventing a better way to flog stuff than printed newspapers and old school TV. This has seen News Corp mastheads and video outlets relentlessly attack Google, Facebook and the ABC for colonising its commercial markets.

‘ABC expansionism’ has been a familiar complaint by Sydney’s ever prickly commercial media companies, starting since the pre-war days of the network.  This protest and push to frame the ABC as a market failure, pure linear TV play, has dramatically stepped up once all the newspaper and broadcasting commercial media groups began fighting for the same digital audiences. Meanwhile the Communications Department is now undertaking a competitive neutrality review — a fashionable 1990s concept, dragged from the regulator’s toolkit.

Bring back the steam trains, I say, but it has been to this relentless drumbeat of media noise and complaint that Guthrie volunteered to lead the ABC.

Guthrie’s modernisation battle

“Media regulation is stuck in the ark and it will take a courageous government to try and drive a sensible study of the digital media industry structure and the role of the ABC.”

Guthrie took on the unthankful task of modernising the ABC’s organisational structure to focus on audiences, rather than the medium, and to reduce the amount of management overhead.

She took on — but was ultimately defeated by — her failure to be effective in the dysfunctional internal political environment that is the ABC. Her inability to “manage” the highly partisan external environment meant she struggled to have the leadership impact a larger public institution like the ABC needs.   

Newsrooms have the defensive culture of emergency wards and predictably Guthrie got little support from the journo groups, whose leaders yesterday again publicly rejoiced at the demise of another CEO.

Too much platform talk and managerialism, not enough chitchatting to ABC talent in the lifts, and inflexibility seems to have been the sum of her failure, apart from a demonstrable failure to manage her sometimes not-easy-to manage chair, Milne.

News Corp’s primeval competitive instincts aside, the virtualisation of the ABC provides a powerful opportunity to consider the ABC’s place in the Australian media landscape. Australia has lost much of the basic journalistic coverage and oversight of important institutions such as the banks, churches and policing. Much of this has fallen to the ABC or to a few smaller specialist media publishers like The Mandarin.

Various commissions of inquiry are now revealing exactly what goes on when media is not around — and independent regulators are busily embracing red-tape reduction days, rather than focusing on real citizen problems.

The creation of a virtual platform means the ABC can devolve to a highly-distributed digital model, unconstrained by the bricks and mortar of Ultimo. It also suggests an intriguing potential App Store-like strategy, whereby the ABC can be the distributor of lots of different content and brands.

This could be brands the ABC doesn’t necessarily control, working and innovating on top of the network’s powerful a la carte delivery platform. These could be regional areas trying to give voice to their communities, minor sports groups wanting to share their prowess, or comedians practising their jokes.

It is fanciful to even think we could have an adult conversation about the ABC in the current post-fact environment. In any case, media regulation is stuck in the ark and it will take a courageous government to try and drive a sensible study of the digital media industry structure and the role of the ABC.

The last attempt in the Gillard era ended badly, when Holt Street let the dogs of war against then-communications minister Stephen Conroy and a poorly thought-through plan around convergence. Post the federal election could be a window for any party serious about public media, but in the meantime it will be left to the ABC and its new MD to do battle with its ever-present critics and media competitors.



Author Bio

Tom Burton

Tom Burton is publisher of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has served in various public administration roles, specialising in the media and communications sector. He was a Walkley Award-winning journalist and executive editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He worked as Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review and as managing editor of smh.com.au. He most recently worked at the Australian Communications and Media Authority.