By igniting the commercial debate, new ABC boss Guthrie fails her first leadership test

tim burrowes landscape

The next managing director of the ABC will be Google executive Michelle Guthrie. Her first public appearance was unimpressive, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes

This week, we got our first look at the ABC’s new boss Michelle Guthrie when she sat down for a live interview on News 24.

It was hard to tell who was more nervous – Guthrie, or her future employee Joe O’Brien.

And despite it being a soft interview, she made a hash of it.

As a result, the ABC’s 4,000 or so staff will spend the months until she officially starts, anticipating a plan to bring ads to the public service broadcaster.

While she may be that way inclined, I doubt she’s got any such plan. If she did, she wouldn’t be telegraphing it in advance.

Instead, it looked like a lack of media training. About four minutes into the interview, she was asked about funding.

Rather than playing a straight bat and saying it was too early to discuss and leaving it there, she fulminated on being open to all options, and talked about international areas where the ABC takes ads.

As a result, most of the headlines weren’t about the appointment of a smart, digitally savvy new boss – they were about non-existent ABC plans to take ads.

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It even made it to the ABC’s own airwaves. Yesterday morning saw ABC 702 summer breakfast presenter Dan Ilic spend an hour or so sharing with his listeners a series of spoof ads to give them a sample of what life under Guthrie might be like.

“Shade: Brought to you by non-transparent objects”

“Time: Think about buying a machine that measures it.”

“Have you ever thought about buying stuff? Then why not try shops?”

(It was an imaginative and entirely legitimate way of engaging with listeners on a topical news item of the day in an original way, even if it did happen to be about the ABC. Given the broadcaster’s commitment to independence, I hope Ilic’s ABC career remains as bright as O’Brien’s despite today’s headlines about his activities …)

Guthrie’s problem is that the narrative adds up. Her early career was spent in the Murdoch empire. More recently, she’s been helping Google flog ads to agencies. She’s already going to face a battle to persuade staff that she’ll be on their side.

And now, this will be the defining issue of her first few months.

By the way, even most of the ABC’s enemies don’t really want it to be ad-supported. Its commercial rivals certainly don’t want to be fighting the ABC for ad share – they just wish it was weaker.

But as a result of this clumsy interview, that’s the story.

Mark Scott

Scott: Calm in a crisis

Since the interview, I’ve been thinking about outgoing MD Mark Scott’s decade in charge.

While the broadcaster has its share of crises during his tenure, I can’t think of a time when a problem landed on his desk and he made things worse. Quite the opposite, I think.

And surely the first test of a good boss is whether their involvement makes things better or worse for the organisation they lead. Guthrie has left her comms people with a problem before she’s even started.

She also seems to have telegraphed more than she intended about her dual role as boss of the organisation and also editor-in-chief. Clearly it’s not going to work. Having a person without editorial experience making big journalistic calls is untenable. You only get the necessary judgment through experience that she doesn’t have. They’ll have to split the role.

And Guthrie knows it – hence her answer to the question: “The current position is that I will have ultimate responsibility.”

The current position, huh? So the ABC board will change that then.

In this role, every word Guthrie says will get intense scrutiny. She’d be wise spending the coming months preparing for that.

There’s still time to improve. But it’s not been a great start.

  • Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella

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