The Curious Case of the Missing Managing Director

ABC chair Ita Buttrose has been a stalwart defender of ABC independence, so it’s hard to fathom why she and her directors plan to create a complaints system with an Ombudsman who answers direct to the Board, not to the Managing Director. This structure, if it goes ahead, would be unique among comparable media organisations in the democratic world, and is not without potential perils.

By Jonathan Holmes / 19 May 2022

What, precisely, are the Chair of the ABC Board, Ita Buttrose, and her fellow Directors, up to?

She fought with almost unprecedented ferocity for the Board’s right to conduct its own review of the ABC’s complaints system, and successfully rebuffed the attempt by Senator Andrew Bragg to gazump the process.  Good on her.  

The complaints review, we understand, was Ita Buttrose’s idea, not ABC management’s.  The Board clearly felt that some complaints about ABC programs that should have been upheld, had not been.  In particular, it seems, Ms Buttrose thought that allegations that former NSW Premier Neville Wran may have been complicit in the Luna Park Ghost Train fire and its aftermath should not have gone to air, or not in the way that they did. 

So the Board commissioned an expert review of the series Exposed, which came broadly to the same conclusion.

Then Buttrose and the Board commissioned a review of the complaints system itself. That review has recommended a new system.  And the Board directors have decided to break with all precedent, and manage that system themselves.

The review was conducted by a couple of experienced panellists – John McMillan, former Commonwealth Ombudsman, and Jim Carroll, former head of news at SBS, Seven and Ten.

Their report was published on Tuesday.  Its salient finding is that the ABC’s complaints system needs to be improved, not razed.  

They reject the bizarre idea that unlike any comparable news organisation in Australia or worldwide, the ABC’s complaints should be handled by an external body, outside the Board’s control.

On the whole, they say, the Audience and Consumer Affairs unit does a good job.  But it is seen by complainants not to be “sufficiently independent of ABC editorial culture”.  Among their solutions: a complaints unit headed by an Ombudsman, appointed by the Board, who would “report directly to the Managing Director and the ABC Board”.

All eleven of the report’s recommendations have been accepted, we were told on Tuesday morning.  But then Ita Buttrose came on the radio, with what she called an “amendment”.

“The review reckoned that the Ombudsman should … report to the Board and to the MD,” she told Radio National’s Patricia Karvelas. “But the directors believe that would simply be continuing the system we already have and we wanted a different and more independent approach so the Ombudsman will report direct to the Board and the process will be separate from editorial management.”

This may seem a minor matter, but it’s not.  I’m not aware of a single media organisation in the democratic world whose complaints process is kept “separate from editorial management”.  Ombudsmen at SBS, or the CBC in Canada, or the BBC, report to the Board through the chief executive.

The new ABC complaints system would be, essentially, unique.  

It is true, of course, as Ms Buttrose pointed out in that interview, that it is the Board, not ABC management, that is charged by the ABC Act with ensuring that its news and information is accurate and impartial.

But that has been true since 1983.  The Board has done its job through the Managing Director, whom it appoints, and whom it can fire.  Yet MD David Anderson, it seems, can no longer be trusted to manage the system for dealing with editorial complaints.  Manage a billion-dollar budget, yes.  Be editor-in-chief, yes. Oversee the complaints Ombudsman, no.

Instead, a collection of part-time directors, some with journalistic or media experience, some with none; some appointed by a transparent, merits-based appointment system, some the personal picks of the minister or the Prime Minister; will preside directly over how ABC complaints are dealt with, and by whom.

Yet many of the most contentious complaints the ABC has to deal with concern the conduct of government ministers, or allegations of political bias, or the exercise of political favouritism.  Until the Board is seen to be selected on merit, from a list of people with recognized qualifications for the job, recommended by a non-partisan nomination panel, as the ABC Act requires, this step will be seen as perilous.

Ms Buttrose herself is a captain’s pick – but unlike her predecessor, she’s been a stalwart defender of the ABC’s independence.  And no one could question her qualifications: for most of her celebrated career, she was an editor-in-chief.  

But now, she’s a Chairperson.  One wonders if she really appreciates the difference.

Jonathan Holmes is a former host of ‘Media Watch’ and chair of ABC Alumni. 

This article appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 2022.

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