ABC chairman Justin Milne and the broadcaster’s board were concerned that managing director Michelle Guthrie wasn’t committed to an ambitious and expensive plan to store the nation’s television and radio heritage into a giant, public electronic library.
After being asked to quietly resign at least a week ago, Ms Guthrie was sacked on Monday morning. She then threatened to sue the national broadcaster for the “devastating” termination “despite no claim of wrongdoing on my part”.
“I wanted to continue the transformation of the ABC,” she said in a written statement a few hours later. “I am considering my legal options.”
Sources on both sides said there was a disagreement over the ABC’s approach to funding. Mr Milne and the board wanted to concentrate on Project Jetstream, a plan to centralise the ABC’s historical recordings and video footage that could cost up to $500 million.
Ms Guthrie was “cynical” about the ability to pay for the plan, and was focused on the Coalition’s decision to freeze funding for three years at a cost of $84 million, board sources said.
“You can’t have a three-year pitched battle with the government over a decision that was already decided,” a person familiar with the dispute said.
Tension over the competing priorities was exacerbated by a perception that Ms Guthrie was struggling to win over the government, the public and ABC staff.
One or two weeks ago – two years and four months after being hired for her digital media skills – the board offered Ms Guthrie a termination payment if she would resign and sign a confidentiality agreement.
Ms Guthrie refused to accept a payment because she felt she was doing a reasonable job, according to a person familiar with her thinking.
The low-key broadcasting executive had been willing to adjust her management style, and work with an executive coach, but wasn’t given specific feedback about what she was doing wrong, the source said.
In previously unpublished comments during an interview with The Australian Financial Review at the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters in late July, Ms Guthrie said: “I was very anonymous working in Singapore at Google.”
“I wasn’t in the papers. I was quite anonymous and I quite liked that. I understand the need to represent the ABC and I understand the need to make sure I spend time with stakeholders in government and the community but that’s not my natural habitat.”
“There’s a lot to do,” she said.
Employment lawyer Josh Bornstein of Maurice Blackburn said executive contracts were difficult to challenge and a lawsuit was unlikely to succeed. Ms Guthrie was probably not entitled to a termination payment, although could claim unpaid leave, he said.
Project Jetstream could create a database, similar to those used by broadcasters such as the BBC, that would contain complete TV shows, raw video footage like that shot at car crashes and concerts, and archival footage.
Eventually it could include audio-visual material stored in the National Library, the National Film and Sound Archive and the Australian War Memorial. The content would be made available to the public over the internet.
To pay for the investment, the ABC will need to convince the public and the government the project is worthwhile. Focused on trying to find savings and break down fiefdoms in the ABC, Ms Guthrie agreed with the project’s objective but wasn’t enthusiastic about devoting time to it, board sources said.
Not a comfortable fit
A former executive at Google and Rupert Murdoch’s television networks, Ms Guthrie never seemed at home with the ABC’s public-service culture nor comfortable leading a powerful and much-scrutinised cultural institution.
Senior and junior staff were disenchanted, the sources said, and some executives had recently threatened to resign. Staff complained she was more interested in management minutia than defending the ABC from conservative attacks.
“She would not take on her role as a champion for this organisation,” said ABC’s radio’s flagship Melbourne presenter, Jon Faine, on air. “It’s an astonishing fail on her part.”
An ABC survey showed only 18 per cent of staff respected their top executives, although a source said the figure was not surprising for an organisation being forced to change.
Ms Guthrie’s response to the $84 million loss of federal funding earlier this year was regarded by some ABC staff as weak, even though she complained publicly. They also noted she kept a low profile while economics correspondent Emma Alberici was attacked over error-ridden articles criticising the Coalition’s business tax cuts and didn’t defend political correspondent Andrew Probyn when he was attacked in the Murdoch press over the removal of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
The board was so concerned about Ms Guthrie’s performance she was being required to attend “workshops” to help improve her management skills, a source said. The board had been working for several months on Ms Guthrie’s perceived problems but was “unable to make a difference”, the source said.
An ABC spokeswoman said she wasn’t privy to board discussions and couldn’t confirm the accounts.
The last ABC managing director fired was Jonathan Shier in 2001, after he lost the support of his employees over his brusque management style.
Pleasing the staff
Senior ABC staff didn’t hide their pleasure at the decision to terminate the organisation’s first female managing director. “Excellent decision,” Four Corners executive producer Sally Neighbour wrote on social media.
“No one is really in charge of the ABC,” said former Labor leader Mark Latham.
In her statement, Ms Guthrie said no one had raised concerns about her work restructuring the ABC or developing new content. A source said her overseas travel, which was criticised as excessive, was approved by Mr Milne.
The ABC board informed staff by email on Monday morning it had decided “new leadership would benefit the organisation, its dedicated employees, and the ABC’s audiences.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was informed on Sunday evening that the board had decided to fire Ms Guthrie, a decision it confirmed on Monday morning – after an article appeared stating that Ms Guthrie and Mr Milne weren’t on speaking terms.
“Let’s not forget, they’re an independent board,” Mr Morrison said. “It’s their job. They would need to have gone through all the proper processes to make the decision they have.”
Lacking political skills
Low-key, laid back and friendly, Ms Guthrie suffered from professional comparisons with predecessor Mark Scott, a skilled diplomat who worked hard to keep his staff happy, and her SBS counterpart, Mike Ebeid, who placed a high emphasis on political connections. She complained Australian business was parochial.
The ABC’s head of entertainment & specialist programming, David Anderson, will serve as acting managing director.
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said it would be up to the board to choose a replacement. His Labor counterpart, Michelle Rowland, offered Ms Guthrie modest praise but did not criticise the decision to remove her.
A spokesman for Ms Guthrie said she wasn’t giving interviews. One of her first requests on Monday came from Leigh Sales, the presenter of ABC’s 7.30 program.
With Max Mason, Phillip Coorey and Lisa Murray