Acting ABC Managing Director David Anderson performed well in his first Senate committee hearing last week in Canberra.
Answering a range of questions about the turmoil of the last couple of months, Anderson was forthcoming about issues facing the national broadcaster as he answered the questions from Senators.
In an opening statement he said:
Accountability is part and parcel of being a national broadcaster. So too is independence. I have already stressed in my early conversations with employees that the great faith and trust that the community invests in the ABC is built on the foundation of independence. The ABC is funded by government, and it is ultimately answerable to the people of Australia. They are the ones who expect us to report without fear or favour and to live up to standards of quality and excellence, to shun commercial and other agendas, to hold the national conversations and to reflect the nation back to itself.
The other absolute I have, as a long-term content manager within the corporation, is the primacy of content. Across the ABC’s history we have been adept at using technology to improve the ways we bring our programs and services to our audiences. Even in my time at the national broadcaster, the distribution platforms and channels we use have changed dramatically. They will need to change even more over the next decade as we seek relevance and reach in a challenging digital media landscape. It is the content we carry on those platforms that ultimately matters: vibrant new kids programs that delight and educate our children; agenda-setting journalism that shines a light into dark corners and holds regulators and lawmakers to account; the rich, direct and often lifesaving conversations we have with our regional and rural audiences; the insightful work of Radio National…It is the distinctive content that makes the ABC unique and a priceless national asset.
While recent weeks have been testing, I’m very proud of the passion and energy shown by our 4,000 employees. They have not been distracted…
I note there has been a lot of talk recently about ABC budgets and future demands. I’d like to bring these facts to the table. Twenty per cent of the ABC’s budget is actually fixed costs for transmission, the infrastructure that delivers our programs to audiences across the nation. The $84 million efficiency cut over three years comes on top of the 2014 decision to cut the ABC budget by $250 million over five years. The cumulative impact of these measures is a significant reduction in our operating budget, at a time when we are facing rising costs of production and the need to increase our investment in digital products. We have been given no certainty about the future of funding for our program that directly employs 81 journalists, including specialist reporters in outer-suburban bureaus such as Geelong, Parramatta and Ipswich.
As a long-serving content manager and leader, I can personally attest to the financial pressures affecting the corporation. I can vouch for the efforts of management to maximise every dollar to be spent on audiences and to play our efficiency savings into content.
He was questioned about the departure of Michelle Guthrie and Justin Milne first:
Mr Anderson : I think the ABC staff are concentrating on what they do best. I think they were surprised by the termination of the former managing director, but I think that, ultimately, the staff will continue to do the great job that they do around the country…
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Were you surprised to hear of the emails sent by the former chair, Mr Milne, to Michelle Guthrie in relation to Emma Alberici?
Mr Anderson : Yes, I was surprised. I was aware of discussions that had happened beforehand. I was not aware of emails that had been sent…
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Had [Ms Alberici’s reporting] been raised with you by anybody within the ABC board?
Mr Anderson : No.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What about the allegations in relation to Andrew Probyn? Were they ever raised with you?
Mr Anderson : No, they were not…
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Was there discussion amongst the senior management team about Michelle Guthrie’s performance as general manager?
Mr Anderson : No. Of course, as a leadership team, you deal with the matters at hand and you are always looking at what the ABC is doing at the time, working together. Michelle, as former managing director, was the leader of that team. We had an effective working relationship.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Were you surprised that she was sacked?
Mr Anderson : To be honest, it was extraordinary, and, yes, I was surprised…
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What plans do you have to restore staff confidence; that, when they report, they will have the backing of management and the board?
Mr Anderson : It’s an important question, and something that we’ve already been reassuring our staff over; that our editorial independence is paramount and uncompromising. I don’t believe that our editorial independence, notwithstanding what reports have been there between the former chair and the former managing director—the fact that Emma Alberici and Andrew Probyn are still in the jobs they’re in, I think our editorial independence is intact. We continue to operate that way. We’ve been providing reassurances to staff and, over time, we will continue to provide those reassurances. I think the way we operate and the editorial policies and standards we have in place, and the checks and measures we have that sit around them, demonstrate every day that we still maintain editorial independence.
David Anderson and Alan Sunderland were also questioned about whether there had been any complaints about content in the four weeks he has been MD. He said no. The discussion then moved on to what seems like raw audio of an interview leaked to the Financial Review. While an edited interview was aired on ABC Radio, the Financial Review appears to have had access to the unedited interview.
Mr Anderson : No, it doesn’t, sorry.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Mr Sutherland, do you have any recollection of this?
Mr Sunderland : I think I’m aware of the interview you were talking about. I’m not saying that there haven’t been, but I’m not aware that any formal complaints have been received about that interview… I am aware that there was an issue in relation to the Australian Financial Review report a couple of days later. It appeared that they had obtained access to an unedited form of the interview. That’s all I’m aware of; I’m not aware of any complaints associated with that.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Is there some type of review or investigation either in relation to the ABC Radio broadcast or in relation to the potential leaking of the recording to the AFR?
Mr Sunderland : The only inquiries I would have any information about would be into editorial complaints, matters around content. As I said, I’m not aware of anything of that nature. As for anything else, I couldn’t say.
Senator Eric Abetz turned his forensic questioning to the rumour that David Anderson had sought a redundancy from then MD Michelle Guthrie, and that various senior managers were unhappy with her leadership and wanted to get out.
Mr Anderson : I had discussions with my former managing director a number of times over the course of the year about my career. Redundancy did come up in the conversation a few months back, yes.
Senator ABETZ: But your position would still be maintained, would it not? So how would you have been entitled to a redundancy?
Mr Anderson : It was a broad-ranging discussion. I agree with you—a true redundancy would mean that a position would need to be substantially changed or abolished.
Senator ABETZ: Yes. And that was never on the cards?
Mr Anderson : It was part of a wide-ranging discussion that I had with my former managing director.
Senator ABETZ: How long ago was that?
Mr Anderson : A few months ago.
Senator ABETZ: Six months?
Mr Anderson : Possibly. It was this year.
Senator ABETZ: So not all that long ago. Did the secretary of the department, Mr Mrdak, ask you for the dossier from Ms Guthrie in his meeting with you?
Mr Anderson : I don’t recall the dossier being specifically mentioned. I’ve had a number of correspondence and discussions with Mr Mrdak with regard to the department inquiry that was initiated by the minister. Correspondence started off fairly broad, seeking all documents with regard to the matters raised within the media at that particular point in time. I could refer to the exact wording. I responded with correspondence that was looking to narrow the scope given what I believe we were looking for was any indication that section 8 of the act had been breached by the former chairman to the former managing director. I confirmed that we were looking for emails on subject matters relating to Emma Alberici and Andrew Probyn. I got correspondence back that expanded that brief to include the Hottest 100 Weekend and the Tonightly with Tom Ballard. I then sought information with regard to that, and, with the assistance of general counsel, we then provided information back to the department with a cover note to say exactly what we’d done. I did not receive any correspondence back thereafter.
David Anderson refused to table the confidential board ‘dossier’ on Justin Milne during the proceedings.
Mr Anderson : It was something that I took advice on. Again, as per my earlier statement, I thought it was a confidential document between the former managing director and the board, and I wanted to respect that confidentiality. There was the possibility of legal action being taken against the ABC, and a complaint has now been filed with Fair Work to that regard; that document will be, I think, part of those legal proceedings. At the time, the department didn’t have the legal powers to compel me to write any documents for that matter. I did wish to cooperate, because it pertained to the independence of the ABC under section 8 of the act, to that end. As such, the information that was not being provided was not being provided under privilege, and I was exercising our independence by not providing that document, respecting the confidentiality of the former MD to the board and treating it as a board document.
Mr Mrdak : Can I just add to that. As I referenced in my report, I believed I did receive a high degree of cooperation from the ABC, and I fully understood the reasons the managing director did not provide that document to me.
On the question of a new Chair for the ABC, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield and David Anderson were both questioned about the process that will take place to choose the new Chair.
Senator Fifield: There presently is a vacancy for the position of chair. Whether or not there is another vacancy on the board will be determined by whether the person appointed chair is someone who currently serves on the board or is someone from outside the board. If the person who is appointed chair is not currently on the board, it means there won’t be a consequent board vacancy. I have written to the chair of the independent nomination panel, Mr Ted Evans, asking that he initiate the processes for recruiting the substantive chair, or addressing candidates for the position of substantive chair. I think it is important that we move to appoint a substantive chair to the organisation. I think that is in the best interests of the organisation.
Senator STORER: In light of recent events, is it not a mistake to not follow the nominations of the independent nomination panel in choosing appointments to a board, if you have the body?
Senator Fifield: There has been a fair bit of misreporting in the print media in relation to the appointment of the former chair. There have been quite a few newspaper articles that have said that the former chair did not come through the independent nomination panel process and was not on the list of nominees from the independent nomination panel process. That is not correct. The former chair did come through that process and was on the list of recommended names. As is legislated, there was consultation between the former Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition before that appointment was made by the Governor-General.
Senator STORER: I believe that to be as you characterised the situation. Will you give an assurance that the chair will be a nomination that is provided by the independent nomination panel—will be a choice of one of those individuals?
Senator Fifield: What I can do is tell you what occurred last time, which is that the person who was appointed by the Governor-General as chair of the ABC is someone who came through the independent nomination panel process and was on the list of recommended names. I have written to the chair of the independent nomination panel process asking him to commence the work of the panel. I should point out that the position of chair, unlike those of other board members, is, according to the legislation, a nomination for the Prime Minister.
Senator STORER: Yes. I asked if you will give an assurance that that will occur. You are not assuring that the chair nominated by the Prime Minister will come from the independent nomination panel process.
Senator Fifield: What I’m indicating is the practice that we followed last time, that I have initiated the process, and, according to the legislation, this is a nomination by the Prime Minister. So, I have taken it as far as I can.
Senator STORER: I would not think of that as an assurance. You are just giving me the historical basis of what happened last time, and not assuring that even that might occur next time.
Communications Minister Fifield was questioned about various complaints he made to the ABC about a range of matters, including triple j’s Hottest 100 and shortwave transmission.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Did the Prime Minister ask you to influence the decision of the ABC in relation to changing the day of the Hottest 100?
Senator Fifield: I don’t believe so.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Did the Prime Minister ever ask you to raise any concerns with the ABC management or board members or chairperson in relation to reporting of Emma Alberici or Andrew Probyn?
Senator Fifield: No, I don’t believe so.
Budget cuts were also the topic of questioning from Senator Keneally.
Senator KENEALLY: In 2019-20, the ABC will be $14.6 million worse off. That’s the full operating budget of News Radio and Radio Australia combined. How will that cut affect ABC viewers?
Mr Anderson : We’re still working through what the impact of that will be. Obviously, our approach will be to disrupt our services as little as possible. But those sorts of budget reductions aren’t achieved without major disruption.
Senator KENEALLY: I might ask these next two questions combined then. In 2020-21 the ABC will be another $27.8 million worse off. That’s the full operating budget of ABC Classic FM, Heywire, iView and the pre-school and school versions of the ABC KIDS app. In 2021-22, the ABC will be another $41.2 million worse off. That’s the full operating budget of ABC KIDS, ABC Comedy, Triple J, Double J and Unearthed. Gaven Morris, ABC News Director, said on 10 May 2018 that the 2018-19 budget cuts would mean ‘The ABC would need to cut into muscle to absorb them.’ Is that statement accurate?
Mr Anderson : Having been through the efficiency initiatives that we’ve been through over the last several years, looking to maximise whatever we can, I can say that the size of the funding reduction that we’re talking about here isn’t achieved through any opportunity that is considered to be low hanging fruit. I think that across the board, when you look at our services—’back office’ isn’t a good word—the teams that enable our other content teams have been reduced significantly over time. When it comes down to it, you end up looking at what is effectively front line. You would of course look at other areas to reduce this disruption as much as possible to be able to meet our charter requirements as much as we possibly could. We won’t be reckless as we go about this. We will look to minimise what is going to be a negative effect to the Australian public, with regard to ABC services. I worry about the categorisation there of a comparison of budgets of whole services, because I would look to retain as many of those services as possible.