The unexpected sacking of ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie has raised one big question, among the many.
Was there any political interference in her removal halfway through her statutory five-year contract?
ABC chairman Justin Milne told ABC News it was entirely a board decision after “several months” of discussions, which resulted in the board’s concluded view “that it was not in the best interests of the ABC for Ms Guthrie to continue to lead the organisation”.
The chairman offered only that it was her “leadership style” which was at issue. Under questioning from presenter, Joe O’Brien, he also remarked that relations with the government could have been better but that she was good at the ABC’s digital platform transformation, an ABC board-approved strategy that would not change.
Significantly, the ABC chairman then declined all further media requests for explanatory interviews.
But Ms Guthrie was not going quietly, complaining in a public statement that her sacking was unjustified, even though she acknowledged there was a clause in her contract that the ABC could dispense with her services “without cause and with immediate effect”.
“At no point have any issues been raised with me about the transformation being undertaken, the investing in audiences strategy and my effectiveness in delivering against that strategy,” she said.
Ms Guthrie is understood to have declined a departure by mutual agreement and taken the more reputationally damaging course of termination.
Some ABC watchers have been briefed negatively about Ms Guthrie’s alleged absences overseas, alleged problems with ABC annual financial accounts and possible cost over-runs.
Countering that by her public statement, Ms Guthrie is implying there may be a hidden agenda behind her “unjustified” dismissal.
Ms Guthrie said she was considering her legal options and if she takes a wrongful dismissal action, even given the apparent unfettered right of the ABC board to apply the “without cause” provision, she would have to lay out any evidence she may have of malice aforethought by the ABC board and its chair.
While many ABC staff were delighted that Ms Guthrie was moving on, former ABC staff-elected director Matt Peacock, a member of the James Spigelman board that appointed her in 2015, commented on ABC’s The Drum: “Be careful with what you wish for”.
The ABC board has appointed David Anderson, long-standing senior executive, former head of TV and corporate strategy and planning, as acting MD while an international headhunt is under way. Mr Anderson was a short-listed applicant for the MD’s job at the time of Ms Guthrie’s appointment.
While staff have complained that Ms Guthrie seemed unfamiliar with or indifferent to all the ABC’s radio and TV output and had performed embarrassingly at Senate estimates interrogations, her scripted speeches indicated a determination to fight for the ABC’s independence in the face of unprecedented defunding and rhetorical attacks from the Coalition government.
She is also said to have resisted pressure emanating from the chairman to sack journalists Emma Alberici and Andrew Probyn following enraged complaints about their reporting from the Communications Minister Senator Mitch Fifield and former PM Malcolm Turnbull.
And she has resisted pressure from the ABC’s commercial media rivals, in particular from News Corp and Fairfax.
Ms Guthrie has defended the ABC’s right to pay more than $1 million for Google ad enhancements to drive traffic to ABC online news websites. The strategy has helped to place the ABC as second only to News.com.au in Australian online news sites, but has angered the ABC’s competitors already suffering massive ad revenue losses through aggressive tactics by digital platforms.
At this stage it is not known whether the ABC will pay out the remaining two-and-a-half years on her employment contract or apply a lesser severance payment. It is believed her contract provides for a severance of about a year’s salary but by taking legal action, Ms Guthrie may be trying to leverage a higher quantum with an implied threat of washing all inter-personal and corporate dirty linen in the courts.
At a salary of $1 million a year, the quantum of the payout will at least indicate the price the ABC board is prepared to put on such a destabilising decision at a time of continuing hostility with the current federal government.
The next action to indicate the board’s motivations will be: Who’s next?
The current ABC chief financial officer and corporate strategist Louise Higgins is expected to apply for the Guthrie vacancy.
Just who externally would want to take up the challenge of managing the ABC at a time of funding deprivation with the ABC board’s now-exposed hair trigger contract power, remains problematic.
Significantly for the first time the Bill Shorten-led Labor Party has decided to make the survival of the ABC a major federal election issue. Depending of the quality of her replacement, the sacking of Michelle Guthrie could further inflame public concern about Coalition malice towards the ABC.
Under pressure to stand up for the ABC, the board has authorised a feel-good TV and radio marketing campaign featuring prominent actors and pop stars attesting emotionally to the ABC’s iconic status in Australia’s national life.
Will these defensive and politically impactful testimonials continue to be broadcast up to and during the next federal election?
Over to you Mr Chairman.
Quentin Dempster is a Walkley Award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster with decades of experience. He is a veteran of the ABC newsroom and has worked with a number of print titles including the Sydney Morning Herald. He was awarded an Order of Australia in 1992 for services to journalism.