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What new boss Michelle Guthrie will need to do to refocus the ABC

New ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie has been criticised for having no plan for the organisation, but the public broadcaster seems to have no clear sense of its purpose.

New ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie is entering upon one of the nation's most important and influential jobs as an unknown quantity. So far, she has offered a few motherhood statements about the organisation that she will lead and the innovative technologies on which she plans to focus.

She has been criticised for having no plan. But how can the new MD announce plans for the ABC's future when there is no clear sense of what it exists to do? The public broadcaster desperately needs some profound introspection to prepare it for the decade ahead.

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Google executive, Michelle Guthrie, who has been appointed the new Managing Director of the ABC speaks on her plans for the ABC. Vision courtesy ABC.

ABC's mission

The ABC charter is both vague and surprisingly specific. It is a mixture of objectives and tactics, from "broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity" to providing "digital media services". It promises to take account of "the broadcasting services provided by the commercial and community sectors of the Australian broadcasting system" but does not make clear whether this means avoiding overlap with these services or something else.

ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie in the ABC studios in Ultimo.
ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie in the ABC studios in Ultimo. Photo: Peter Braig

Clarity is important. The ABC, like all businesses and government departments, has a budget within which it must deliver its objectives. It can only do this effectively, and the public can only hold it accountable, once we are all agreed what these objectives are.

As it stands, the managing director and board answer only to themselves. As a result, there is little recourse when ABC management does things which decrease its national reach and representativeness – like closing its studios in Adelaide and axing Radio National's rural-focused Bush Telegraph program – in order to redirect funds to entertainment. Instead we're left arguing over whether we like the entertainment the ABC presents, a side issue at best.

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In defining its purpose, the public and the public broadcaster will have to grapple with the big mission questions. Is the ABC there to step in where services are not economical or profitable for the private sector to provide? To showcase Australian culture? To provide a common cultural reference for all Australians? To entertain? If so, what kind of entertainment should it focus on? Do we want it to compete with private providers?

Setting a purpose and inviting public debate would lead to a clearer understanding of how the public wishes the ABC to deploy the $1.1 billion in taxes it receives annually.

The crowding out effect

Australia's public broadcasters – ABC and SBS – are producing top-notch programming via innovative delivery channels. In the mean time, the commercial media is shrinking. This may or may not be a consequence of the "crowding out" effect where publicly funded services compete with the private sector, effectively making the latter uneconomical.

Journalists made redundant by the major media companies will not be absorbed by the ABC, which is itself laying off journalistic staff as it prioritises entertainment.

There are plenty of anecdotes which support the existence of the crowding out effect in Australia. Crikey's Eric Beecher wrote "operating in the commercial space, we expect vigorous competition from other commercial publishers, but to see the ABC tanks roll up on our lawn was bewildering". Another former Herald editor, Peter Fray, has also experienced the effect. His PolitiFact website was strangled soon after its first big splash when the ABC launched FactCheck and the taxpayer-via-universities-funded website The Conversation launched a similar site. Mumbrella has questioned whether SBS's new LGTBI channel will be "seeking audiences in a relatively small niche", thereby "competing for ad dollars with [the] gay press". 

However there is no hard evidence one way or another. This must change so that the public and the ABC can make informed choices.

End the bias wars

To some people ABC bias is plain as day, others insist it is nothing but conservative paranoia. Reviews and audits have repeatedly pronounced the ABC unbiased to the satisfaction of precisely no one on the conservative side of politics: days after the last review was leaked, Eric Abetz had already called for the brand new MD to "end the lefty love-in".

The boring bias wars need to end. In creating some kind of shared understanding of the purpose of the ABC and establishing its place in the new media landscape, Guthrie would go a long way to addressing the key concerns of the critics. It would also seem an easy fix to bring at few conservative journalists into prime-time broadcasting. There is no reason why they should not be expected to be as professional and balanced as any other journalist, regardless of their political leanings.

With a clear sense of mission, the next five to 10 years could be the most meaningful, productive and "innovative" era the ABC has ever experienced. Without it, the ABC risks embarking on technology for technology's sake; an innovation tangent to irrelevancy.

Guthrie is at a crossroads at the very beginning of her term.

Parnell Palme McGuinness is director of communications agency Thought Broker

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