Milne and Guthrie: toxic for the ABC

After weeks of reading about the Michelle Guthrie-Justin Milne battle for the soul of the ABC, I finally watched the 12 November Four Corners programme featuring interviews with both former senior ‘knobs’ at the public broadcaster.

And I mean ‘knobs’.  For people in such senior positions they behaved remarkably like spoilt teenagers rather than mature adults capable of shouldering the responsibilities they were well-paid to address and affect positively.

But that isn’t really what I’m here to say.

Before watching the Four Corners programme, I thought of Milne as the villain of the piece, and instigator of a dubious sacking.  After watching the programme I am convinced Guthrie had to be sacked.

Why?  She comes across as uncertain, not capable of clear thought as evidenced by constantly stuttering, and in the ambiguity of replies to straight-forward questions.  There was a definitely petulant, aggressive response to some questions, whereas Milne remained composed and calm even under greater pressure–the sexual harassment complaint allegations, for example.

Watching Guthrie on camera strips away her credibility as someone capable of senior management responsibilities.  The lack of clarity in her responses to questions was so constant it became easy to vividly visualise the reported ABC staff complaints about distance, ambiguity, and absence of leadership.

The chronology of board-to-MD conversations about her management style explained in the Four Corners programme leaves little doubt in my mind that she had ample time to adapt her management style to the context of the ABC, and that she failed in a clear duty to foster better relationships with political operatives and MPs.

I don’t agree with Milne’s assurances he was not a Coalition stooge on the board.  He cannot deny having sent the emails that can be read only to mean that critics of the government in the ABC should face the sack.  You don’t get to be that senior and pretend your words will not be interpreted quite literally, and as instructions rather than suggestions.

However, Guthrie could not really expect to get away with being a senior manager by remote control.  Her inaccessibility to staff, and invisibility in Canberra were failures on her part, not optional extras she should have been allowed to address after being pulled up about them months after her appointment.

My perspective remains that the ABC is well rid of both Guthrie and Milne, and that Guthrie should not be permitted to milk any further remuneration (as compensation) from the ABC.  Nor should she be reinstated.  It is simply unavoidable that neither ABC staff nor the public can now have any kind of confidence in Guthrie to perform competently, let alone outstandingly, in a position that requires at least the former, but quite likely also the latter, in this extremely difficult time for the public broadcaster.  There is no reason to suppose the Morrison government will not persist in the Coalition war on the ABC.

However, my central point is that the on-screen presence of Guthrie and Milne is a game changer in setting opinions about a series of events whose precise nature will never be known.

It comes down to perceptions of credibility.  And I think no matter whether Milne is deceptively practiced (or not), Guthrie lacks credibility in her on-screen performance.  She comes across as not stable or capable.  She must have had time to prepare.  Why didn’t she?  Does she really not know how her stammering and rising tone of voice can be perceived in a highly negative fashion?

I find it hard to sympathise with Guthrie.  Anyone paid to act at that level should be a much more polished public speaker and performer.  And anyone who doesn’t know that shouldn’t be in such a position in the first place.


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