Michelle 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.
[…]Guthrie, 52, had been appointed to the $900,000-a-year ABC post in 2015, after a stint as a Singapore-based Google executive. A lawyer by training, she had spent 14 years in Rupert Murdoch’s global pay-TV empire – working for BSkyB in London and for Foxtel in her home town of Sydney before taking over from Rupert’s younger son, James, as the Hong Kong-based chief executive of Asian network, Star TV. Heading the ABC made her a public figure for the first time in her career. People recognised her everywhere, she told me. “I get a lot of, ‘Thank you for doing your job. You’re doing a great service for Australia.’”
She had fans within the ABC, too. “There are pockets within the organisation who think she is fantastic,” said Sinddy Ealy, secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union’s ABC section. But Ealy was aware of widespread disaffection: “There is just this really strong feeling that the leadership is not very good.” Her regretful tone was echoed by Norman Swan, presenter of Radio National’s Health Report and a recipient of Australian journalism’s highest honour, the Gold Walkley. “I like Michelle,” Swan said. “She’s a nice person.” But as managing director? “To be blunt, I just don’t think she is up to the job.”
The ABC board was moving towards the same conclusion. As its members held meetings behind closed doors, past and present ABC staffers talked frankly to me about Guthrie and the corporate culture over which she presided. Few of those interviewed held the managing director solely responsible for the malaise afflicting the national broadcaster, but most agreed on one thing: in the lead-up to her removal, the ABC was an organisation on the verge of a nervous breakdown.[…]