Mark Scott’s year of living dangerously

Woolly Days’ Australian media personality for 2009 is the CEO of the ABC, Mark Scott. Scott has led the ABC for five years but only in the last 12 months has he established himself as a major figure in the Australian media landscape, and a formidable opponent to older players.

Scott is a former Liberal Party staffer who was appointed ABC boss in 2005 aged 42. He resigned a role as editorial director at Fairfax to take the ABC job. At the time Scott denied he was a creature of the Howard government saying “I have a cordial, nodding relationship I suppose with the Prime Minister and the minister, but no more than that.”

Scott effortlessly survived the transition to Labor Government in 2007 and now seems to have an important ally in Communications minister Stephen Conroy.

The media landscape now looks very different to how it appeared when Scott took over the ABC. Kerry Packer is dead and his beloved Channel Nine is now owned by anonymous private equity. The alliance with Conroy has seen significant increase in funding and an end to government distrust of the ABC. The gradual ubiquity of broadband is seeing ABC take a lead in the rollout of digital services.

Scott put in place a structure underneath him he could trust. His two lieutenants were Kate Dundas and Kate Torney. Dundas was appointed head of radio while Torney was the new head of news. Torney’s role would be to carry out Scott’s vision for ABC News as “the seeds of a 24 hour news channel”. Dundas’s job would not only mean looking after the five stations (Radio National, NewsRadio, JJJ, Classic FM and local radio) but also making sure their content was available as a media-rich service together with podcasting, user-generated content and other integration with the internet. Dundas also picked up digital radio which went online on 1 July. Scott said in April: “No other media organisation is doing more with user‐generated content or using the web more to encourage robust local content.”

The most important action of the year was the renewal of ABC’s triennial funding. The 2009 federal budget gave an additional $185m to the two non-commercial stations, the lion’s share to the ABC. It included $15 million to set up 50 regional broadband websites linked to local radio stations to create “virtual town squares for communities”.

Digital television is a crucial piece of the jigsaw. ABC has set the pace with ABC2 around since 2005. This year finally saw the challenge of the other operators with One, SBS2, Go and SevenTwo all debuting. ABC hit back in December launching ABC3 as the nation’s first children’s channel.

Also at the end of the year, Scott consolidated ABC online opinion into a new site called The Drum (a symbol also used in marketing by JJJ). He headhunted Crikey.com.au editor Jonathan Green to run it and populated it with articles from ABC’s stable of political journalists. The jewel in the crown was Annabel Crabb whom Scott poached from the Sydney Morning Herald. Scott had long cherished the wry and shrewd sketchwork of Crabb as part of his vision to make the ABC a quality destination for digital journalism.

Scott made many notable public speeches this year but two stand out. In April he gave a remarkable Annual Media Studies Lecture at La Trobe University in Melbourne in which he showed how the global economy, the shattering structure underpinning the business model, and business blunders were forever changing the nature of media in Australia. The second, near the end of the year was the “end of empire” speech. It was a direct challenge to News Ltd from a powerful man at the top of his game, in response to James Murdoch’s MacTaggart lecture in August complaining about the growing power of the BBC, and Rupert Murdoch’s China speech about the end of the age of the Internet free ride being over. Scott’s view was that News “empire” no longer has the power to dictate terms over the cost of the ride.

Scott was proving a tough negotiator as well as having a silver tongue. He reneged on a pay agreement with the CPSU citing the GFC and he took ABC into a cost-cutting partnership with WIN to build a shared TV presentation and control centre in Western Sydney. He also went to China in September to lobby the government allow the ABC to be carried on Chinese pay TV. Though there has been criticism about the lack of investigative journalism in his vision, Mark Scott is proving to be a top media performer who is mapping out a useful and exciting future for “your ABC”.

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