SUBJECTS: Departure of ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie, appointment of Guthrie’s replacement

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Back to our main story now, and the Federal Opposition is asking for a ‘Please Explain’ over the sudden sacking of ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie. In the ABC Board’s statement on the decision it thanked the former Managing Director and named David Anderson, the ABC’s Entertainment and Specialist Director, as Acting Managing Director from today. As is widely known, the board stated it wasn’t in the best interests of the ABC for Michelle Guthrie to stay on, but that doesn’t sit right with our next guest: Shadow Regional Communications Minister Stephen Jones. Stephen Jones, welcome.

STEPHEN JONES, SHADOW MINISTER FOR REGIONAL COMMUNICATIONS: Good morning… Good afternoon! Good to be with you Patricia.
KARVELAS: I know, I feel like my day has just begun too. How do you describe the way this has been handled?
JONES: Well I think it has been very poorly handled. It raises real questions about the way that the board has dealt with it and I think they’ve got to look at it themselves. You’ve got the biggest and most influential media organisation in Australia, it sacks its Managing Director, it gives no explanation why and it doesn’t have a media strategy. Anywhere else you’d call that incompetent, I think a lot more needs to be explained to the Australian people about why this has happened. This is not a suburban tuck shop we’re talking about here, it’s the ABC, a national icon. It has happened in the midst of a debate around women in leadership positions, we’re in the shadow of a federal election and yet the board has thought it is so important that this has to happen now. I think it deserves a lot more explanation.
KARVELAS: Okay, you say it hasn’t been explained, but, playing devil’s advocate, we’ve heard Justin Milne  - he’s the ABC chairman – explain it today, he said it was about the style of management. Is that not adequate?
JONES: Well no I don’t think it is adequate. I understand there’s probably privacy issues, I understand that there might be legal constraints on the Chairman about what he can and can’t say but frankly how has it got to this? How have we got to a situation where, without any notice, the Managing Director exits the building on the request of the board and we don’t know why. It is not unusual for senior executives in large organisations to leave the building but there is generally an explanation. There is generally a reason why, sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a good one. But there’s no explanation, no explanation apart from the fact that we want a different style. Well, what was so wrong with the existing style, what was the problem? Surely we can do a little bit better than what we’ve been given today.
KARVELAS: Is the collective Labor nose just out of joint here though? Because Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland only found out about the decision via media reports this morning and her Government counterpart Mitch Fifield got a heads up last night and told the PM. Is it about that at all?
JONES: No it absolutely is not. I just want to be frank, my dealings with Michelle Guthrie were mostly good. I was angry about the decision that the ABC made collectively about cutting out, or closing down the shortwave radio service which services large parts or regional and remote Australia. I was angry about that but I was very happy about the increase, the $20 Million boost to regional newsgathering that happened on her watch. This is not about taking sides and it is not about whether I am pro or against Michelle Guthrie. I am pro-the ABC and I think it tarnishes the reputation of this organisation, the board and the management of the organisation when something like this happens. Halfway through a tenure, out of the blue, somebody is marched out of the building, frankly that’s not good enough and it doesn’t reflect well on the organisation that I cherish so much.
KARVELAS: Here’s the chairman of the ABC board Justin Milne today:

“Well boards are charged with a sort of, with an overarching duty on behalf of the corporation to do what they believe is in the best interests of the corporation. They’ve got a fiduciary duty to do that. And one of the principal things that any board does is to hire and fire the CEO and we, after very careful consideration, felt that this organisation would do better under different leadership.
The organisation, and you say the organisation you love would do better under different leadership, you don’t accept that?
JONES: Well there’s no information before me or any other member of the public to make any judgement about whether that is right or not. We do know, Patricia, that the ABC has been under enormous financial and political pressure over the last couple of years. With your previous speaker you spoke about the $83.5 million budget cuts, we know that they are having an income on the ability of the organisation to fill its mandate. We know that having the ABC treated as a political football between the left and the right is not good for the morale, the operations or the standing of the organisation. We know all of that. This does not help, and having it seem like the organisation is in chaos at the very, very top does not help. I think it behoves the board, it behoves senior management to get their heads together over the next 24 hours and have something a bit more substantial to say to the Australian people because I’m deeply concerned that the ABC will suffer unless that happens.
KARVELAS: And just finally, obviously the ABC will now be in the hunt for a permanent Managing Director, we have an acting Managing Director, but a permanent Managing Director. Do you think that should happen after the next election? Does it matter if it happens by the end of the year?
JONES: Well I think the timing of this is most unfortunate, let’s be clear, as a result of some changes that Labor made when Stephen Conroy was the Communications Minister, appointments to the Board were done at arm’s length from the Government. It was made quite clear that it is the Board’s role to appoint the Managing Director. All of that happens at arm’s length. Clearly the Government including the Prime Minister and the Minister of the day are consulted but they don’t make the decision. But I am concerned, given the way that political debates around the role of the ABC have gone over the last three or four years, that this is inevitably going to be seen through a political lens because an appointment is going to occur in the run up to a Federal Election, and I think that is very unfortunate indeed.
KARVELAS: So you’d prefer it after the next Federal Election?
JONES: I’d prefer it if this whole thing hadn’t happened. Yes, it would be best if a permanent appointment wasn’t being made in the glare of a Federal Election campaign because that inevitably means it is going to be politicised.

KARVELAS: Stephen Jones thank you so much for coming on.

JONES: Good to be with you