The ABC’s incoming chair, Ita Buttrose, has vowed to fight for the national broadcaster’s independence – and more funding – while pledging to deliver stable management after months of executive soap opera.
Describing the ABC as the most “important cultural and information organisation in our country”, Ms Buttrose said she was honoured to be asked to lead it.
“It is a voice of the Australian people, I think it reflects our identity, tells our stories, it tells our stories not just here in Australia but to the rest of the world, and I have grown up with the ABC,’’ she said at a media conference with Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday.
“I’m a devoted listener to the ABC. I start my day with ABC news radio, yes, I don’t leave home without it. When my father retired he was assistant general manager. I do know the culture at the ABC.”
Ms Buttrose said her first task was to “restore stability to the management of the organisation”.
“To reassure the staff that life will go on as usual and to reassure the board, who have also been through a period of unrest that, you know, it’s time to get … the ABC functioning again with proper stable management and good frank discussion between the chair and whoever is the managing director,’’ she said.
Asked to name her favourite programs, Ms Buttrose gave a tick of approval to several news programs for “breaking news”.
“I’m a big fan of Leigh Sales and the 7.30 report, it consistently breaks news. Four Corners is, without doubt, the leading investigative program in Australia,” she said.
“ABC News Radio consistently breaks stories. ABC News Breakfast, the morning show, it is a good little show and making great ground and breaking stories and, again, stories we wouldn’t get on commercial networks.”
A household name and brand in Australia on a par with Vegemite and Weetbix, Ms Buttrose, 77, once had a Cold Chisel song written about her. Ita, by Don Watson, suggests she is “a dose of integrity”.
“When you ask someone to take on the role as chair on the ABC, it needs to be someone you know to be trusted with that important institution,’’ Mr Morrison said.
“In asking Ms Buttrose to take on this role, that’s exactly what I believe we have been able to find. Ita … has the strength, the integrity and the fearless independence that she is known for to take stewardship of this important Australian institution.
“The other thing that I think really sets Ita apart is this: The reason she has been so successful in publishing, in broadcasting, is she has always put her viewers, her listeners and her readers first. And you know what? That’s what the ABC needs to do too.”
It was revealed in Senate estimates hearings last week that recruitment processes for the ABC and SBS have cost taxpayers $160,000. Candidates included former News Corp CEO Kim Williams and former Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood – but not Ms Buttrose.
Mr Morrison was asked why that money was spent only for the shortlist to be ignored.
“Labor put in place a process when they were in government which was this independent process of the secretary of the department of Prime Minister and cabinet appointing a panel. That panel undertakes that process in complete arm’s length from the government,’’ he said.
“I have no involvement in it, the Minister has no involvement in it. They appoint the recruiters who are involved and provide the terms of those recruiters … but where I don’t believe that process actually meets the requirements, then the government of the day has the ability to make the right appointment and that’s what I have done today.”
Ms Buttrose said she had no qualms about dealing with complaints from high-profile politicians about the ABC and would “listen”. She said she had dealt with many complaints about political coverage as editor of News Corp publications.
“I’m just amused. Eighty per cent of Australians say they trust our news more than any trust any other kind of information. So we must be doing something right,” she said.
She said she would ask for a funding boost if required.
“I haven’t been through the accounts yet. I haven’t discussed anything with the acting managing director or with the acting chair,’’ she said.
“I need to look at those figures and see what’s what. I’m aware what the current funding is but, let me assure you, if I think there is a need for more funding, I won’t be frightened to ask for it.”
Ms Buttrose was also asked whether she had the digital nous to run the ABC.
“I think anyone working in the media knows the impact that digital has had on all our operations, in whatever line of media work we’re in,” she said.
“I actually think it’s improved, opened so many new doors for all of us, things we can now do that we couldn’t do before … The fact that we can have instant communication is something that’s really excited me.”