Kim Williams wonders what could have been if he’d stayed at ABC, criticises drama and doco output and labels print ‘doomed’

kim williams rules engagementKim Williams still wonders what might have been if he had stayed at the ABC where he could have become the boss, the media executive has revealed in his new book.

Williams – who was ousted as CEO of News Corp just over a year ago – spent three years at the national broadcaster in the early 1990s before leaving to join News Corp’s Twentieth Century Fox to create Fox Studios in Sydney. He has also slammed the ABC for not performing better in its drama and documentary output.

Stating that his time at the ABC was unhappy, he wrote: “The ABC was confronting for me as it has a strong ‘antibody’ culture to new and unwelcome intruders. However for aspiring leaders a period of being an outlier teaches you to think before you speak.”

Williams revealed: “When I declared my departure from the ABC to new Managing Director Brian Johns in March 1995, he offered me the role as his deputy and potential successor. I declined and have occasionally wondered what might have happened if I had taken him up on that offer, which was made generously and enthusiastically.”

In 1999 Johns was instead succeeded by Jonathan Shier, whose controversial tenure was cut short in 2002. Russell Balding then spent four years at the helm before being replaced by current boss Mark Scott in 2006, who is now more than half way through his second five year term as MD.

Elsewhere in his book Rules of Engagement, which was published this week, Williams describes his move to the ABC in 1992 as a “major career mistake”, describing  an”interior, focussed, disconnected culture”.

Williams had been brought in to create an independently financed subscription TV service.

He said: “At that time the ABC was an enormously harsh and difficult place at which to work. It was almost incapable of considering its audience as it was so mired in internal factions, divisions and industrial rigidities of the most arcane kind.”

Williams added: “Much of that has changed over the ensuing years.

“In many areas the ABC does a good job. The ABC’s performance in doing regular news bulletins, although mostly sourced from others, is still an invaluable primary national news service.”

But Williams is more critical of the ABC’s drama output. He wrote: “Its record with TV drama production has produced some great programming but it is qualified by it providing the consistently smallest Australian output of any mainstream broadcaster – all those outcomes being reflections of deliberate budgets and management priorities made not by others but by the ABC itself. The ABC refuses to acknowledge just how slight its comparative output against other TV media has become in quantity, as low as eight hours of original drama over a decade ago. Its television work in documentary and the arts is uneven and frankly quite slight, and both are areas which are almost exclusively the responsibility of ABC TV and it needs to nurture and care about that territory more than others.”

He added: “Much of its TV documentary has become relatively cheap and basic populist fare and is often like a discount copy of many commercial reality programs. ABC TV has long since ceased to be the central source that reflects a diversity of views about our society through documentary from a wide range of creators. It is anything other than satisfactory.”

Williams suggested that temporary “curators” could be brought into the ABC to deliver “periodic renewal”.

The ABC’s planned launch of the subscription news and TV service collapsed after Williams left. He later went on to run subscription TV service Foxtel, which is now jointly owned by News Corp and Telstra.

The ABC declined to comment on Williams’ criticisms regarding drama and documentary output.

In the book, Williams says little about last year’s firing from News Corp, although he reveals he has written an account which will be published later.

But he does write: “Newspapers are an excellent reflection of a very old-style approach to management. That manifests in a variety of ways but none more so than in the way they are frequently unreasonable and disconnected from accepting public accountability in public policy engagement and discourse. They often pompously, even preposterously, wish to own the debate and not to inform it and travel with it. And at times they reflect a ‘bugger-the-evidence’ style of approach in their campaigning zeal.”

Last month News Corp’s The Australian was chastised by the Press Council over its coverage of climate change. The newspaper has since begun a campaign against the APC.

Williams said: “It can be very nasty stuff.” He added: “To observe this in management sense is a fearsome phenomenon and one that challenges your convictions as to freedom of speech, although I hasten to add that is fleeting.”

Elsewhere in the book, he added: “It has always fascinated me that the media in Australia is so brutal in delivering judgement and yet so singularly sensitive in receiving any criticism. Australian media is staggeringly punitive. It smashes people up and would appear to frequently enjoy doing so.”

During Williams’ time, the decline of News Corp’s print revenues accelerated. He wrote: “It is surprising, when their audience has substantially migrated, that some print media executives still defend the sanctity of print as a technology and preferred delivery method.

“On any objective dispassionate appraisal print in the long term is clearly unsustainable with its high fixed cost structures.

“Print… has forgotten how to respond to changed consumption landscape.

Saying that most print is “doomed”, Williams said: “Holding something back for a front-page print splash is simply irrelevant in today’s world.

“Long term mass, mainstream print-media-based journalism has no commercially sustainable future or viability.”

Williams also singled out for criticism a journalist from Fairfax’s Australian Financial review, Joe Aston, the editor of the newspaper’s Rear Window column.

Williams wrote: “Aston has written or broadcast well over thirty vile pieces about me, regularly comparing me with the former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and his son Kim Jong-un.

“His ‘wit’ seems to amuse some – odd fellow, hopefully his articles will be condemned to the rubbish heap where empty headed, cruel and vicious gossip invariably reposes.”


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.