Wednesday, October 10, 2018

What we need in a new ABC managing director

Behind all the talk about the independence of the ABC lies a separate but gnawing concern that populism is increasingly trumping depth in the making of its programs.

Michelle Guthrie was a late convert to quality reporting (staff still wince recalling her early advice to makers of Four Corners, that they should try doing some positive profiles of successful business leaders). But under her, and under budget pressure, senior management have been hacking away at serious programs in order to make way for topical and lighter fare.

It has narrowed the range of topics focused on by those programs and limited their depth.

Guthrie presided over a downsizing of the ABC’s flagship current affairs programs The World Today and PM, cutting both from one hour to half an hour.

The "ideas network", Radio National, was thinned as management began earnestly shifting the network into a podcast-making machine that can one day be moved off the broadcast airwaves altogether.

Management may deny that specialist programs on RN will soon be online only, but everybody knows the general direction. Last year the then director of radio, Michael Mason, closed RN’s much-loved specialist music unit.

Here in Canberra, audiences have been appalled that senior people have been nudged out of the building as they approach 50 years of age. Veterans are less valued.

Broadcasters with experience and corporate knowledge have been encouraged to look elsewhere.

In that respect the Liberal Party Federal Council’s astounding call for the privatisation of the ABC (without any dissenting voices) might be seen to have been a good thing, because it energised the ABC into fighting back and mounting the case that it exists in order to provide a quality product.

Management's tragedy is that it has failed to acknowledge that in the search for new audiences it runs the risk of neglecting knowledge and established audiences.

A Canberra-based scholar in religion was aghast to hear a very senior presenter interview an archbishop recently without knowing the language of the New Testament.

Meanwhile several academics in Canberra have complained to me that when they approach the national ABC with details of their work about climate change they are told it won't be reported because it is either too complex, or too hard to find someone from "the other side".

One of the only quality programs that appears to be truly protected is Four Corners. But even inside Four Corners there is unreported self-censorship as producers try to second guess potential government complaints.

The ABC is at its best when it informs us, when its staff attack a subject with expertise as well as difficult questions for people in power.

A showcase is Q&A. But at times it is so staged-managed as to be an abomination. When it pitted leading scientist Brian Cox against discredited senator Malcolm Roberts in an attempt to create drama, former senator Christine Milne was disgusted.

“You can have someone who has spent their lives studying global warming and someone who plainly knows nothing,” she told a forum in Canberra. “But they are set up together. What an insult to Brian Cox. The show does it time and time again.”

In many ways the ABC is like the Department of Home Affairs.

When it is doing its job well, we don’t notice it much. If it stuffs up (in its case, stuffing up its mission of creating a safe space for the exchange of ideas and information) we notice a lot.

In taking up the fight for independence the new boss should be open about the importance of depth.

She or he should acknowledge mistakes. That means allowing former staff to speak openly. At least one former broadcaster I know has been muzzled by the terms of his departure agreement.

Meanwhile, a new group being launched to help make the case is ABC Alumni, a forum in which former staff can share information and raise concerns.

The group has called for an urgent bi-partisan inquiry into the national broadcaster and it wants the ABC Act amended to prevent politically partisan appointments to the board.

The ABC needs leaders who will resist pressure when that pressure is inappropriate, ensure its journalism is accurate, impartial and sophisticated, and that management hangs onto internal expertise.

First published in The Canberra Times, October 8, 2018