ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie says she is “devastated” and considering her legal options after being sacked just two-and-a-half years into her five-year term.
ABC chairman Justin Milne made the shock announcement, saying the directors resolved it was not in the best interests of the ABC for Ms Guthrie to continue to lead the organisation.
Ms Guthrie said she felt her termination was not justified, and she was considering her legal options.
“While my contract permits the board to terminate my appointment without cause and with immediate effect, I believe there is no justification for the board to trigger that termination clause,” she said.
“At no point have any issues been raised with me about the transformation being undertaken, the Investing in Audiences strategy and my effectiveness in delivering against that strategy.”
She said it had been an honour to lead the national broadcaster.
“As the first female managing director of the ABC, I felt a tremendous responsibility and unique privilege to lead Australia’s most important cultural institution,” she said.
“At all times I have promoted the ABC’s importance to the community, including having to defend and protect the ABC’s independence.”
Leadership and relations with government a factor, says chairman
Mr Milne said the decision was made in the “long-term interests of our own people and the millions of Australians who engage with ABC content every week”.
Mr Milne was reluctant to explain what led to the decision “out of respect for Michelle”, but when pressed said Ms Guthrie’s “leadership style” was a factor.
“The board felt in the end that her leadership style was not the style that we needed going forward,” he said.
“We needed a different leadership style and that is the decision of the board.”
Mr Milne also said Ms Guthrie’s relationship with the Government “could have been better”.
“That said, I think Michelle tried hard and was involved with government,” he said.
“In an ideal world, I would like to see our relationship — I think the relationship between the ABC and Government is, on the one hand, difficult because of course we need to be independent from government, but it is an important relationship because the government funds us.”
He said political leaders did not pressure the ABC or have any involvement in its decision to sack Ms Guthrie.
The chairman praised Ms Guthrie’s performance in relation to the ABC’s adaptation to the digital environment.
“I personally think Michelle has done a good job, and the board has been very happy with many, many of the things that she does,” he said.
He said the decision to sack the managing director was not a reflection on the selection process when she was appointed as Mark Scott’s successor, given that executive appointments could be a “lottery”.
“It doesn’t always work out, you know. It is one of the most difficult things that you do in business, make selections of employees. It doesn’t always work out,” he said.
“Sometimes it takes a while for it not to work out.
“So in this case the board decided that it wasn’t working out and decided that we should do a reset, and that is what we have decided to do.”
Mr Milne thanked Ms Guthrie for her hard work since taking the position in May 2016.
“The board wishes to thank Michelle for her contribution to the ABC,” Mr Milne said.
“We are very grateful for all her hard work.”
The last time an ABC managing director was forced out because of conflict with the board was in 2001, when Jonathon Shier stepped down.
At the time, Mr Shier said he could not stay if he was no longer at the head of a united corporation.
The conflict between Mr Shier and then-chairman Donald McDonald was common knowledge, but his decision to step down was as much a surprise for commentators as Ms Guthrie’s sacking.
‘They’re an independent board’: Prime Minister
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the Government would not seek a “please explain” from the ABC board.
“I spoke to the Communications Minister last night who advised me about the decision of the board,” he said.
“Let’s not forget, they’re an independent board. It’s their job. They would need to have gone through all the proper processes to make the decision they have.
“I want to see an ABC that’s strong and doing its job and that’s well run. That’s what the board is responsible for.”
But Liberal Senator Eric Abetz said the reason for the sacking should be made public.
“The dismissal of the managing director, seemingly without notice, requires a full and detailed explanation from the ABC board,” Senator Abetz said.
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield thanked Ms Guthrie, and said the Government acknowledged her service in a “challenging and rapidly changing media environment”.
Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland thanked Ms Guthrie for her contribution to the national broadcaster.
“Michelle Guthrie instigated a major transformation of the ABC to adapt to the digital age at the same time the Liberal Government launched an unprecedented attack on ABC independence, both financially and ideologically,” she said.
High-profile broadcasters welcome announcement
During Ms Guthrie’s tenure the ABC was subjected to a number of budget cuts, leading to criticism from some high-profile broadcasters that she was not doing enough to champion the broadcaster and lobby the Federal Government.
ABC Melbourne broadcaster Jon Faine launched a scathing attack on the outgoing ABC managing director.
Speaking on his morning radio program, Faine said in his almost 30 years at the ABC, he had never seen morale as low as it is now.
He said Ms Guthrie showed no interest in journalism or content.
“Quite clearly the ex-managing director had no appreciation of output, very little interest in it, showed no interest in content, showed no interest in journalism, showed no interest in the actual nuts and bolts of this organisation,” he said.
“She was obsessed with platforms, structures, flow charts.
“If you went to meetings with her you would never say anything, you’d look for leadership and inspiration, you’d look for a contribution and you would never get one.”
Faine had previously criticised ABC management for not being vocal enough in its support of the organisation and called on Ms Guthrie to be more of a public champion for the organisation.
Four Corners executive producer Sally Neighbour also welcomed the news.
Sally Neighbour tweet: “Excellent decision”
Staff-elected ABC board member Jane Connors said she had “listened carefully” to her colleagues in the ABC.
“I believe that this decision is in the best interests of the ABC,” Ms Connors said.
She said it was a difficult decision, particularly so early in Ms Guthrie’s term.
Ms Connors was appointed to the board in May this year.
Ms Guthrie wanted the ABC to be ‘meaningful’
A former Singapore-based executive with Google, Ms Guthrie was the ABC’s first female managing director.
She began her career as a media lawyer and has worked with a range of media companies in Australia and abroad, including Foxtel, BSkyB, and the Asian-based Star television network.
Ms Guthrie had previously stated her mission was to ensure the national broadcaster’s longevity for future generations.
“I wanted the ABC to be as meaningful and relevant to my children and their children as it has been to me during my lifetime,” she told the ABC’s first annual public meeting last February.
Throughout her tenure, Ms Guthrie defended her stewardship by pointing to innovations such as the $50 million Great Ideas Grant, the streamlining of the ABC’s structure, and her championing of diversity in the organisation’s hiring practices.
At the same time, she faced robust criticism over the ABC’s news coverage by some members of the Federal Government.
Search for successor to begin ‘immediately’
David Anderson, the ABC’s director of entertainment and specialist, will serve as acting managing director until a formal search process finds Ms Guthrie’s successor.
Mr Anderson has a 30-year career in the media industry and has been responsible for leading the ABC’s broadcast television networks and associated services, radio music networks, podcasts and specialist radio content.
He said it was an honour to lead the corporation.
“I recognise the challenges involved in transitions of this kind, but I am honoured to accept the board’s invitation and look forward to working with our outstanding people to execute our strategy,” he said.
After his appointment, Mr Anderson thanked his predecessor for her contribution to the ABC.
“I would like to thank Michelle for her contribution to the ABC over the past two-and-a-half years and wish her well for the future,” he said.
“I would also like to thank the board for their confidence in appointing me as acting managing director.”
The ABC board has commenced a formal search, both internally and externally, for Ms Guthrie’s replacement.
ABC managing directors are selected by the board, independently of the government and opposition.
Mr Milne said finding Ms Guthrie’s successor was a matter of urgency.
“At this stage of the year in September everybody says ‘we will get this done by Christmas’, and that would be good, but I just don’t know because it depends on the process,” he said.
“We think it is something that will occupy the board immediately. It will take a lot of bandwidth from us.”