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Crisis at ABC Australia

Mchelle Guthrie wanted to make one thing clear. “I love my job,” she said when we met one winter morning at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s inner-Sydney head office. Granted, being managing director and editor-in-chief of the ABC at one of the most turbulent times in its history was a big responsibility. But the perks! “Had a conversation the other night with Laura Tingle,” she said, referring to the chief political correspondent for the ABC TV current affairs program, 7.30. “I mean, who gets to do that?” Guthrie laughed, and I looked at her closely, wondering for a moment whether she was sending herself up.

I had asked her how she was coping with the stress. Even then, long before she was sacked by ABC board chairman Justin Milne, who then made his own dramatic exit, it seemed a reasonable question. In the more than two years Guthrie had been running the ABC, the national broadcaster had reeled from crisis to crisis – its budget slashed, its journalism slammed, its value to the Australian people questioned. But she dismissed any suggestion that she allowed this stuff to get to her, insisting that despite the ride’s bumpiness, she was having fun. She gave another example of an exhilarating encounter: a couple of days earlier, she had been leaving the office to catch a plane to Canberra when she spotted Dylan Alcott, champion wheelchair athlete and ABC Radio Triple J presenter. She introduced herself and chatted to Alcott for a few minutes before climbing into her cab. “I get energy from amazing people like Dylan,” she said, adding that she had a spring in her step for the rest of her journey. “I sort of skipped through the airport. It was fantastic.”

Guthrie’s words now seem almost poignant. At the time, her exuberance just struck me as odd. It was as if the small and personable woman beaming across the ABC’s boardroom table was speaking to me from some other plane – one that was slightly out of kilter with reality. In May, the federal Liberal-National Coalition government had announced a three-year indexation freeze on ABC funding – in effect an $84 million cut to the broadcaster’s budget. This followed a $254 million funding cut imposed in 2014 under the then Coalition prime minister, Tony Abbott. More than 1000 ABC jobs had been scrapped over four years, along with many fine programs.

I knew the mood of the remaining 4000 employees was considerably less upbeat than Guthrie’s. “People have never been more demoralised,” said journalist Matt Peacock, who left the broadcaster in 2017 after a long career. Gaven Morris, the ABC’s director of news, analysis and investigations, told me of the impact of the ongoing threat of redundancy: “People will say to you, ‘I love this place. I love what we do here. I think the ABC is crucial. But will I be here next year?’”

Of course, none of us know for sure where we’ll be next year, or whether we will be here at all. I was reminded of that when I saw Guthrie at a memorial service in August for the brilliant ABC journalist, Liz Jackson. As Jackson’s friends and colleagues watched highlights from her two decades of award-winning reporting for the ABC’s flagship TV current affairs program, Four Corners, the sense of loss in the darkened auditorium was keen. If there was also despair in the air, it may have been because Jackson’s death in June at the age of 67 came less than a fortnight after the Liberal Party’s federal council voted in favour of privatising the ABC. Jackson, with her clear-eyed intelligence and courage, seemed the embodiment of all that was admirable about the ABC. Suddenly she was gone, and to some who had gathered to pay tribute to her, the existence of the ABC itself felt threatened.

Jane Connors, the staff representative on the ABC board, told me a few days later that she got together with retrenched colleagues after the service, and found herself overcome by a wave of melancholy – “a sad feeling that we’d been mourning not only for Liz but for another time, when the ABC was more confident about its raison d’être and its place in the world”. Guthrie scoffed good-naturedly when I referred to low staff morale. “You’re not getting out and about enough, clearly,” she said, pointing to the creation of 80 new jobs in the ABC’s 40-something country offices. She had been visiting the regions, she said, and in Lismore and Kalgoorlie, for instance, employees had made plain to her that they couldn’t be happier. “I don’t think we have a morale problem,” she told me in a bright, firm voice.

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