SUBJECTS: Departure of ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie; the Liberals’ attacks on the ABC.
GREG JENNETT: At this point we do have Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland joining us from Sydney. And Michelle welcome. Earlier today you issued a statement simply, quote, "acknowledging" the decision of the ABC Board to terminate Michelle Guthrie's employment. Have you got anything more to add than just the acknowledgement?
MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Well, we also note that this is an independent decision of the ABC Board. Clearly in the statement that has been made by the ABC they offer a number of what you could call reasons, however they are not required to give actual reasons for taking this course of action. But I think it is clear from some of the responses on social media and also within the ABC itself that this has a variety of reactions. So my observations are that this is an independent decision of the Board. Michelle Guthrie is an experienced person who has been involved in the sector for some time and Labor wishes her well in future. And we note that there will be deliberations about this matter for some time to come as you rightly alluded to.
JENNETT: Yes, so have you sought or will you seek some sort of explanation yourself? I assume you're entitled to some sort of briefing in the position that you hold from someone in authority at the ABC.
ROWLAND: Well, I did receive a call from the Chairman after the event and he merely described to me the circumstances in which it had happened in very broad terms. That is, the Board had made a decision and really added nothing more to the statement that was provided publicly by the ABC, which I accept. And Labor will, as I think people would expect, be pursuing this at Senate Estimates. We are talking about taxpayers' money here and I think that people want to know what has gone on in this circumstance. And judging by the number of people who have called and emailed my office in the last couple of hours, there is certainly a desire from the Australian public to know what is going on. The ABC is a very trusted institution and at this time it does need stability.
JENNETT: Sure. Now, Michelle Guthrie wouldn't be a stranger to you. If we can just step through your understanding of her performance from where you sat. So their "reasons", inverted commas, that have been stated as shortcomings in her performance go to communication, we're told, and relationship with government, however defined. Have you any observations about Michelle Guthrie's performance on those two fronts at least, as a communicator and as one who engaged with the ways of Canberra?
ROWLAND: My relationship with Michelle Guthrie has always been very professional. She made herself available on several occasions to provide briefings on important issues that the ABC was taking. And I always found engagement with her to be good. Although we did not agree on a number of policy issues, for example the cuts to transcription services and also the closure of shortwave radio, I found Michelle Guthrie to be receptive to concerns. She was ready to respond to individual MPs. But again I point out this was not in any capacity obviously as an ABC employee, but as the Shadow Minister for Communications and they're the observations that I always made.
JENNETT: And from that vantage point, Michelle Rowland, had you ever picked up on any disquiet within the ABC, either at the very senior levels, or you can really talk about whatever level you like, had you picked up on any disquiet about the then Managing Director’s performance?
ROWLAND: I certainly had not personally detected anything and I was very surprised by the announcement this morning which I learnt through the media, as I understand the majority of Australia did. However, I do note that in some articles and in some reports that there had been issues apparently that had been around for a while. I was not privy to any of those, I did not observe any of the descriptions that were there. But I do respect and I do acknowledge that at this time of great transformation, not only external to the ABC but within it and politically, there is a need that staff morale is kept at a very high level in people's minds, in policy-makers' minds but also obviously in the ABC management’s minds. So I acknowledge that it has been quite a testing time in the last couple of years as that transformation has been taking place and I respect that there would be different views within the ABC organisation and employees about this matter.
JENNETT: Yeah, I suppose that is understandable. And from where you stand, do you have a clear understanding about the strategic direction that the ABC is wanting to pursue in what you say is a difficult media environment at present? How confident are you about that strategic direction they're adopting?
ROWLAND: Well in a broad sense of course, the ABC, and this is no secret, has made it clear that their future is in digital. They have always prided themselves on being innovative; everything from iView to them being very early adopters of things like podcasts. So I think that needs to be recognised, that they have been undergoing great change for some time. But I take my take my hat off to Michelle Guthrie in this sense that she made it very clear that the last $83.7 million cut by Scott Morrison in the last Budget was the thin end of the wedge. So she understood the financial pressures that were being imposed by those budget cuts and the reality that they would inevitably start interfering with the ability of the ABC to fulfil its Charter obligations. So when I talk about stability I don't only mean at a management level, I mean politically: we have seen financial and ideological attacks by what has been in many cases a clearly hostile government towards the ABC in that political sense.
JENNETT: Yes, now in her statement today, just picking up on some of your points there Michelle Rowland, Michelle Guthrie spoke about the importance of content. Yes it is a difficult time in the budget environment I suppose, but she puts content, she says, "very much ahead of technology" and it does appear to be, as we consume and try to interpret the reasons behind this decision, something of a disconnect there over this Project Jetstream that the Chairman is publicly advocating. What do you understand, or how sympathetic are you towards advancing this Project Jetstream? Was it a factor do you think?
ROWLAND: Well, I'm not privy to the details of Project Jetstream other than to make the observation, as has come out with my discussions with the ABC over the last couple of years, that they recognise that in a converging communications environment content will always be king. And I think Michelle Guthrie made that very clear in some of the decisions that she advocated in terms of ensuring regional content had great prominence, putting greater funding specifically towards things like regional content which I think would only be a good thing for the ABC. But as I say, I'm not privy to the details of that particular project and how it was being executed. But in all this content, certainly, regardless of the platform, is the basis of everything that the public broadcaster does. It's why it's valued so much. It's why it has such great trust from the Australian community when it comes to things like news reporting for example. And I put it out there that I don't see how that would actually change, irrespective of who her replacement is. Content will always be undeniably important, however I don't have the details...
ROWLAND: ...of how the technology interaction was being prosecuted within the organisation.
JENNETT: Okay, two other things to pursue with you. Trust, the word you just mentioned; is there anything about the events today that, in your view, would damage or in any way undermine public trust in the ABC just as a cultural institution?
ROWLAND: I would hope not, because the vast majority of Australians rely on the ABC in an age when there is such distrust from different platforms, but also in different institutions around Australia. Everything from banks to politics itself. One would hope that trust in the ABC is maintained and whatever happens after today, I think everyone in senior positions in the ABC and surely everyone who works at the ABC and loves the ABC would want that trust to be nurtured and to continue.
JENNETT: Okay and the final one is budget. Again, you've raised it. I want to ask about financial exposure though. This is a well-remunerated position. $900,000 dollars a year at least and there will have to be, I imagine, some sort of termination payment and arrangement locked down. Are you anxious to discover what the net cost of this decision could be?
ROWLAND: I think the public has a right to know what that is but I think we should also remember that not only is the remuneration of the managing director disclosed, but the ABC also discloses such termination payments in the normal course of events. That is my understanding but these are matters that can be pursued at Estimates as well.
JENNETT: Yep, I'm sure it will be. And I think you're flagging that it will be Michelle Rowland?
ROWLAND: Well certainly I think the public funds the ABC as a public broadcaster and they have a right to know where their money is going and how it is being spent. And these are matters that go directly to that.
JENNETT: Yep. Well, a bit to be absorbed but for your early thoughts on this decision, Michelle Rowland, we'll thank you and say farewell at this point.