Looks like ABC chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici will outlast them all: the try-too-hard chairman who regarded her as a political liability, the weak managing director who embraced and rejected her socially, and the inside-the-institution manager who judged her A Current Affair-style analysis.
A skilled self promoter in an industry where getting attention is a first-order talent, Alberici personifies the national broadcaster’s recent tragedy: an important and trusted organ damaged by ego, ambition and an absence of subtlety.
Last week she was in Italy playing the innocent bystander. She insisted there was almost nothing wrong with her tax-cut assault that thrilled the Labor Party, enraged the government and helped destroy ABC chairman Justin Milne, even though it led the the national broadcaster to alter its editorial structure to ensure comment could not be dressed up as analysis again, especially that so blatantly partisan.
Alberici’s tough and confident interviewing style made her one of the ABC’s more popular presenters, attracting fiercely loyal supporters who are a formidable force in the alternative, online universe.
The power of personality
While not questioning the power of her personality, which often translates into compelling television, some of Alberici’s professional peers and colleagues suggest economics and tax policy aren’t the best fit for the tabloid television and newspaper graduate.
Alberici doesn’t break many big stories about economics. Nor is she closely followed by professional investors for intelligence about interest rate moves. She is stronger on opinions than reporting.
At a recent background briefing for journalists with a large accounting and consulting firm about the banking royal commission, several people present said her opinions occupied the conversation almost as much as those presenting.
In a way, the question of Alberici’s role is a test of ABC management’s judgment and fortitude. By trying to fire someone impeding his broader strategy, Milne failed the first test so egregiously that his legitimacy as a leader was destroyed.
Day job is lobbying
If the ABC hierarchy had placed Alberici in a role where she excelled after shutting down Lateline, which she co-hosted, it could have avoided huge damage to itself.
Managing director Michelle Guthrie’s firing and Milne’s resignation reinforced the internal sense that the ABC is under attack, and conservatives’ perception they cannot receive a fair hearing from the organisation, which reaches 7 million people a month just online. Both sides feel they are the victims.
It demonstrated the huge challenge changing an organisation that treats lobbying as its day job. A recent example was an interview by the host of ABC radio show PM, Linda Mottram, with Richard Fidler, the host of ABC radio show Conversations.
“His program exemplifies the role of the ABC,” Mottram told her listeners on Friday. “You’re doing that thing that people love about the ABC: telling our stories to ourselves.”
Fidler referred to Russia and Poland, where state broadcasters operate as propaganda arms of the government. “We have come to a point where we do need to think hard about defending the independence of the ABC and not make it the plaything of governments,” he said.
A co-ordinated campaign
Neither mentioned that several of their fellow ABC journalists publicly celebrated the removal of Guthrie, who apparently had upset the ABC chairman by refusing to succumb to political pressure to fire their colleagues.
According to what looks like a co-ordinated public campaign – and Guthrie was represented by former News Corp and Telstra spokesman Andrew Butcher – what the former private equity investor lacks in advocacy skills she makes up for in ethical beliefs.
The removal of Guthrie and Milne will likely make their replacements more cautious. There are political implications too. The inflated perception that the organisation is under attack – Milne’s motivation seemed to be to get $500 million for his pet digital-library project – is likely to benefit the Labor opposition.
Labor didn’t oppose Guthrie’s removal, but has promised to reverse an $84 million funding freeze made in this year’s budget. Perhaps not coincidently, Milne reportedly issued his “dump Emma to save us” email on budget night.
The ABC’s three-year, $3 billion funding agreement is up next year. Given the moral high ground that has been surrendered to the ABC, it is hard to see either side of politics playing hard ball.
Alberici is impregnable
As for Alberici, her position seems impregnable, given the trauma caused by the self-defeating attempt to remove her. The ABC’s editorial director, Alan Sunderland, who oversaw the review of her articles and has the moral and management authority to force corrections, plans to retire in the first half of next year.
She has supporters in high places too. The ABC’s acting chairman, Kirstin Ferguson, praised Alberici in February for her tax cut articles, which suggested the system was structured to allow business to avoid paying taxes. “Great work on the tax story,” Ferguson texted Alberici, according to The Weekend Australian. “Thanks for making company tax digestible and understandable for the average punter watching. X”
Amid the damaged careers and reputations, at least one hypocrisy was demonstrated: politicians demand higher standards of media outlets than themselves.
Labor’s communications spokeswoman, Michelle Rowland, published an opinion article at the weekend lamenting a “trust deficit disorder” caused by political pressure on the ABC. A few days earlier she said “the Liberal Party has a policy to privatise the ABC,” without mentioning the Coalition government has vowed never to implement it.
The Labor Party has similar objectives it doesn’t plan to enact, including the “democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange”.
In a world where unbiased and accurate information is scarce, the ABC is a valuable – and expensive – asset. In return for its necessary independence, it is reasonable for Australians to expect it to be well managed.