I once tried to give Ita Buttrose advice. I was a very junior editor at what was then Fairfax. She was in charge of the Sun-Herald and I had the blessing of one of the senior managers to do my brash best. Even he was struggling to cut through Buttrose's complete conviction that she was always right and perhaps he thought maybe I could do a better job. I was massively pregnant and massively emotional and although I can't recall much of the detail, I do recall she had a problem with multiculturalism of which I'm a living breathing example. She tossed me out of her office in two minutes but then was herself moved on. She didn't quite get the Fairfax audience.
So I don't know how successful I am going to be nearly 30 years later but here goes.
On Wednesday, the Sydney Morning Herald's Latika Bourke was tipped off to a speech Ita gave to the Australia-United Kingdom Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday where the ABC chair bought into the whole snowflake trope. She said: "It seems to me that today's younger workers, they need much more reassurance and they need to be thanked ... they almost need hugging ... they seem to lack the resilience that I remember from my younger days."
Now I'm pretty sure the speech was delivered under Chatham House Rule or as it is now known, the Chat rule. You know the one. You can talk about what happened or what you heard but not identify the speaker. Haha. Or you can put out a press release which is pretty much how it works these days unless you've got a small number of attendees over whom you have control or who've agreed not to divulge and you have that agreement signed in blood. There's no way Chair Buttrose does not know that. How do I know she wanted her views known? It's not the first time she's patronised her employees. Last year, this time at a panel hosted by some home loan business, she said: "Creative people, the kind of people who work at the ABC, are very sensitive people ... you've got to understand that - that's why they do the sort of things that they do. So they're a little more fragile than some workers. They have to be patted a bit, and reassured that all is well."
Instead of berating staff for needing comfort in tough times, Ita, maybe the best thing you could do is to berate the government.
All of course is not well at the ABC. Just a few weeks ago the managing director David Anderson announced his proposed restructure, forced on the ABC by this government's ever-dwindling resourcing of the national broadcaster. Since the Coalition came to power in 2013, the ABC has lost $783 million in funding despite its lies to the contrary. More jobs will go, some redundancies even more baffling than others. So if Buttrose's staff need reassurance, that's no surprise and I bet it's not just younger workers who need that reassurance. It would be everyone.
Now look, I have skin in the game. I've brought up three Millennials and resent the implication that young people lack resilience. Buttrose is reported to have said: "Whether that's because of bad parenting, I don't know, and I don't want to go down that path and offend young parents but I am an older parent, and we older parents have very set views about resilience and, you know, I think it's something we need to foster in everybody from a very young age."
Resilience is great when it's your parents who teach you to get up after you've fallen over or to have another go on the bike or on the rollerskates. It's less good when your bosses use it to get you to deal with a work environment that is insecure, underfunded, chaotic. Resilience is great when your friends are reminding you that there are other fish in the sea but far less great when you work for an institution that has been badly buggered by governments who do not wish to be critiqued. Resilience is just a word used by management to make you feel as if you can't cope - when it's really that managers are managing badly. Resilience used in a work context is bewildering.
Responding to that working environment with a need for reassurance doesn't show a lack of resilience. It shows a keen interest in the goings on of a much loved public institution which is the most trusted news source in the nation. Buttrose seems puzzled that her staff want transparency and then compared her own experience (working for Sir Frank Packer) when hearing from proprietors was not a good thing. Times have changed, Ita. Staff need to know what the hell is going on. They need to know why you aren't standing up for them. Remember Donald McDonald? Everyone thought he was a John Howard crony but he turned out to be an outspoken defender of the broadcaster's autonomy.
Instead of berating staff for needing comfort in tough times, Ita, maybe the best thing you could do is to berate the government. Instead of sending meek and private letters to the Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher which ask for more data or whatever, make your displeasure public.
Australians fear that you don't actually have the best interest of the ABC at heart. That you were put into the position of chair after the catastrophic Milne/Guthrie mayhem because you could be trusted not to rock the ideological boat of this government, which appears determined to destroy the ABC.
Stop picking on your staff who do some of the best journalism in the country and start telling the government you are mad as hell. This time, you need to take my advice.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.