The killing season must end: Why Labor should not change its leader

shorten gillardThe Killing Season on the ABC is brilliant television and should give producer Deb Masters and writer/presenter Sarah Ferguson a double in TV and journalism awards. The three-part series is deservedly taking plaudits for its riveting dissection of the Rudd-Gillard leadership wars. Though the period has been well examined in books, The Killing Season is rich multi-sensory art, from the wintry Poe-theme opening and the music of Schubert’s Piano Trio No 1, the theme of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a flawed hero and adventurer.

The Killing Season offered extended interviews of its own flawed protagonists, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, two of the sharpest minds in Australian politics in the 21st century. Both had the right stuff to become Prime Minister but got in each other’s way. They were personal and political opposites, but made a smart marriage of convenience at the time, as Simon Crean observed. Rudd got the nod as leader, easier to sell as a male Protestant than a female atheist.

Rudd was a consummate actor and phenomenal media performer. He dominated their first election as a team and the defeat of four-time Prime Minister John Howard was put down to “Kevin 07”. The electorate respected Gillard but loved Rudd and his nerdy dad persona. His rock-star status was still rising after the 2008 Stolen Generations apology and his response to the Global Financial Crisis. But his stratospheric ratings could not last forever and quickly fell to earth after the Liberals appointed a hard-nosed leader to replace the hapless Malcolm Turnbull. Saving Australia from financial collapse was an astonishing achievement but too intangible to measure and Rudd’s leadership slowly collapsed amid a series of self-inflicted blows.

Rudd wasn’t the only one making mistakes. Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan made a fatal error to replace him in June 2010, though each step in the process was defensible. Rudd still had a winning lead when he was sacked in 2010, despite his problems. Rudd could not believe what was happening, his horror best expressed in The Killing Season in his shocked, almost whispered comment that trails off, “But the polls….?” His government had 52-48 lead over Abbott at the time, just like Shorten has now. But Labor panicked and he was gone. The people were not consulted and the coup would, as Anthony Albanese predicted, destroy two Labor leaders.

Much of the testimony of that 2010 period is of chaotic moments shared Rashomon-style with differing conclusions depending on the speaker. The Killing Season was, as one deft reviewer called it, classical tragedy “where at each stage all the tragic character can do is tighten the net”. Gillard replaced Rudd but couldn’t remove him. And for the next three years, he white-anted her relentlessly until his revenge was served stone-cold in 2013. Gillard and Rudd’s relationship was not the first poisoned by power and won’t be the last. Neither were “killed”, but they destroyed each other politically and are now both lost to parliament despite still being in their 50s and in their prime.

Worse still, their Labor Party too is now out of power, rudderless as well as ruddless, after looking semi-invincible from 2007 to 2009. Two leaders and two elections later the moral challenges of our generation are in the calamitous hands of Tony Abbott, the great divider. The Killing Season is important history to see how we got to that equation in six short years. The astonishing personal enmity tells us how Labor imploded and is compelling viewing. But a better guide to why it happened comes from the rich first-hand testimony of the large coterie of supporting characters swirming around Gillard and Rudd.

Sarah Ferguson is Australia’s sharpest political interviewer and her forensic approach extracted the drama from every statement and counter-statement. Most Labor ministers were rueful, occasionally bitter, but always honest, whether they supported Beasley, Rudd or Gillard. Minders like Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton were eye-opening in their perceptive day-to-day detail. Their admiration for Rudd’s judgement was shared by Gordon Brown, Hank Paulson and Ken Henry. Only three notables from the Labor first rank did not have their say with Sarah and two of them, Lindsay Tanner and John Faulkner, are retired. The third is current leader Bill Shorten.

Shorten’s minders no doubt believed there was nothing to gain from raking over old coals – particularly coals that Shorten himself stoked, with important roles in the 2010 and 2013 coups. This was a mistake, he should have explained what Labor had learned from the process (arguably nothing if today’s factional announcement from Tasmania is a guide). Shorten was implicated anyway despite his silence, caught out lying to Neil Mitchell about the 2013 challenge that brought Rudd back to power.

Shorten has apologised privately to the Melbourne radio host but should return to Mitchell’s show to talk about why he lied in the first place. It has undermined one of Shorten’s main advantages over Prime Minister Tony Abbott, after the latter was caught out lying spectacularly and repeatedly to the public the night before the election.

The Killing Series came out at a bad time for Shorten. Fairfax have gone on the attack over questions he may have to answer in a politically motivated union inquiry. Others on the left such as Jason Wilson decry Shorten as a do-little union apparatchik constantly moving to the right to avoid being wedged by Tony Abbott. Yet he leads in the polls, and a move to sack him would only suit Abbott, who is trying to get Labor to panic again. Abbott has no intention of going to an early election he wouldn’t win, but more Labor leadership turmoil would change that.

Abbott hailed The Killing Season as an unmasking of Labor’s untrustworthiness. “I don’t normally say thank you to the ABC,” Abbott admitted in parliament, “but I have to say Australia is indebted to you on this instance.” Abbott was spouting rubbish as usual, but he was right on one point – he doesn’t normally say thank you to the ABC. He’s normally lying about its future, stacking the board, slashing its budget and attacking its editorial policies.

Barely days after The Killing Season, he launched into open warfare over the Zaky Mallah exchange on Q&A on Monday. Not for the first time, Abbott used the sporting analogy of “whose side are you on?” when attacking the ABC. Abbott’s crude “team Australia” rhetoric is inadequate when trying to distil a complex argument like why people support Islamic State. It was a point Mallah demolished when he spoke about how young Australian Muslims become disenfranchised. The ABC took no “sides” but offered a platform for dissenting views, a platform urgently needed as the Murdoch press (which sets the media agenda and also has a vested interest in attacking the public broadcaster) becomes increasingly one-sided. The ABC is considered duplicitous despite the public judging twice as trustworthy as the government.

This is not just a problem for the ABC. It is a problem for Labor as an alternative government. Rupert Murdoch is a bulwark for Tony Abbott, his papers running constant interference and setting agendas by attacking Abbott’s enemies while giving him an easy ride. Mallah is considered the enemy but hysterical front page photos like the Courier-Mail’s conflation of the ABC and Islamic State are okay because the Courier-Mail is on “our side”. The effect is to move the Overton Window of acceptable political discourse further to the right.

The Killing Season is classic public broadcasting and a terrific first draft of history. Labor should learn from that history and allow Shorten what it didn’t allow Beasley in 2007, Rudd in 2010 and Gillard in 2013: a chance to survive the killing season and be judged by the voters. They might be shocked to find that behind the screeching of Abbott and Murdoch, there is another Australia out there, and one that does not like to be told what to think.


Whose Australian?

Finding articles to criticise in The Australian is like shooting fish in a barrel, all too easy. It is also usually eminently resistible, like the paper itself. While the so-called national broadsheet and its weekend equivalent continue to outdo each other in paroxysms of confected right-wing rage, they are usually best ignored. However occasionally the paper publishes a particular egregious piece that so obviously serves no purpose other than the publisher’s own ends, it needs to be called out for the hyperbolic sham it is. Such an article appeared in the Weekend Australian this Saturday called “whose ABC?” penned by journalist and former Alexander Downer media adviser Chris Kenny.

The long piece appeared in the Inquirer section giving it a veneer of investigative journalism it did not deserve. This was 2,700 words of News Ltd propaganda, with complaints from a few politically motivated but unnamed sources and only one source on the record, former ABC board member Ron Brunton who despite being ideologically motivated as a member of the IPA, was only identified as an “anthropologist”. The self-serving article had a companion piece, an even more pious anti-ABC editorial that drove home the message from Kenny’s talking points.

The articles’ starting point a piece in the Guardian (coyly described as a “progressive newspaper” by Kenny and “a left-of-centre newspaper” according to the openly more hostile editor) about ABC boss Mark Scott and his well-documented stoushes with News Ltd. The enraged Australian wanted a gotcha on Scott, over his phrase “market failure broadcasting” which Kenny said was code for a political and cultural counterpoint to the commercial media.

Kenny achieves his aims with a remarkable leap of logic. Rather than go through the tiresome process of proving his points, he asks the readers “to assume, just for argument’s sake” the ABC critics are right. This assumption allows him to airily dismiss flaws in his argument and immediately swing into action rectifying the “problem”. Without a shred of evidence, Kenny suggests the organisation is unaccountable and then gets to his complaint, the ABC that “caters for an inner-city progressive elite”. Apart from the breathtaking arrogance of ignoring how many people in the bush enjoy the ABC, it also brings in the familiar right-wing weasel words “inner-city” and “elite” which are conflated to mean “other” (and insults the paper’s own demographics) in opposition to equally imprecise but culturally loaded phrases like “battlers”. According to the editorial, the ABC had the temerity to turn to Qatari Al Jazeera for its Osama news instead of the less well-informed but racially more acceptable BBC or CNN. What this proves is Auntie has been the victim of “a left-wing coup” where a “coterie of like-minded inner-city” staff members “commandeered” the airwaves to broadcast to “the vocal minority that share their prejudices”.

Both editor and Kenny were keen to share their prejudices. Kenny’s are dated and rehashed from the culture wars of the John Howard era. There is a tired argument about Counterpoint, a program seven years old, and a tedious diatribe about David Hicks, who has not been a newsworthy citizen for over four years. He also reheats the coals of the long-forgotten Brissenden/Costello affair (which also embroiled two non-ABC journalists) from 2007 and has a moan about The Drum, the ABC’s public opinion site.

Kenny and his editor are furious over market failure broadcasting: that of “taxpayer’s funding” serving a “small audience”. The ABC audience remains larger than the Australian’s audience but has always been a market failure broadcaster. Scott denied making the politically sensitive market failure statement and the actual words in the Guardian was that Scott “thinks of the ABC modestly as a ‘market failure broadcaster’”. The use of “thinks” rather than “said” suggests the Guardian is paraphrasing rather than quoting but Scott need not back away from it.

From the start of radio in the 1920s, there was a strong tradition of public ownership of broadcasting medium (except in the US where market failure actions are anathema) as an information service for democratic debate and decision making and also as a counterpoint to the partisan and usually right-wing press. The ABC was founded in 1932 along these lines but it also had a cultural aim inherited from the BBC. As its boss in 1934 WJ Cleary put it, the ABC’s task was to promote “the finer things in life” in order to teach people to “find interests other than material ones to live by more than bread alone”.

This Reithian philosophy was paternal and conservative – the BBC refused to cover the 1926 General Strike – and it still exists in some parts of the ABC. But today’s market failure broadcasting is not about bringing ballet to the hoi-polloi. It is about defending the public’s right to access to news in digital platforms. This is where the ABC steps on News Ltd’s commercial toes. Whether ABC should have that right is an economic argument though the Australian avoids it in its sanctimonious stance. Perhaps they don’t want anyone looking too closely at their own market failures. Given several full page ads from Telstra in the same edition, your telco bills are subsiding the Australian’s own small, elitist audience.

Why Media Watch is wrong about journalists and Twitter

Australia’s most important media watchdog made a rare lapse last night. ABC’s Media Watch got its message wrong where they warned off journalists from making controversial statements on Twitter. Little-known journalist Adam Turner was the scapegoat new host Paul Barry (no relation) pilloried to prove a flawed point.

Adam Turner is an Australian freelance technology journalist, formerly Melbourne deputy editor of Next and the business IT sections of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. He left The Age in 2005 and has been freelance ever since providing “news, features, reviews, blogs and podcasts to various business and consumer technology publications.”

Turner is a regular user of Twitter with over 2,000 tweets. Like many in the media he was online on 21 August as the federal election results came in. Turner was an avid contributor to the #ausvotes tag with at least 50 tweets on the day (including two mentioned by Media Watch since been deleted). Turner had an opinion and was not afraid to share it.

He was no fan of Tony Abbott. There were tweets like “If Abbott wins, New Zealand will be swamped with boat people on Monday” and “If Abbott wins, helicopter waiting to fly Kerry O’Brien off the ABC roof as coalition forces close in”. His tweets were partisan but hardly noteworthy. They were little different to hundreds of other similar tweets that night from those supporting the left parties.

Turner’s turning point came as Tony Abbott emerged to address his party and the country on live TV. According to the program transcript, Turner tweeted “Listen to this c——-er gloat when he hasn’t even won” which he followed shortly by “this a—hole is trying to make a victory speech, complete with cheersquad”. I suspect Turner spelt out the words cocksucker and arsehole in his tweets though I can’t be certain as they have been deleted. They would have been lost in a swathe of tweets with the same hashtag, many would have had harsher words to say about Abbott, an extremely divisive public figure.

But someone had it in for Turner and informed the ABC. Media Watch made it seem like the pinnacle of investigative journalism tracking him down as Barry announced “I think we have our man”. All they did was count his number of followers (as if that had any meaning) and then grab the text off his bio that I’ve reproduced above. Both the bio and the tweets are openly available to anyone who looks at Turner’s Twitter page or follows him. There was no suggestion Turner had anything to hide.

Media Watch wanted to save Turner from himself. “Luckily Turner’s not a political correspondent or he might now be unemployed,” Barry said. “But even so, why on earth did this seem like a good idea?” He compared Turner to Catherine Deveny sacked for discussing child sexuality with her tweet “I do so hope Bindi Irwin gets laid”. Leaving aside the sanctimonious outcry from rival media, the Deveny furore ignores the fact The Age probably wanted to shaft the troublesome columnist anyway. Her tweets had nothing to do with her work at The Age.

Similarly with Turner. What he got up to on election night with a few bourbons on board was hardly unethical. It also had nothing to do with his work. Yet Media Watch felt the need to ask The Age’s editor Paul Ramadge about his freelancer. Ramadge’s reply was succinct “[Adam Turner] has received an official first and final warning.” Media Watch’s verdict was it was an “embarrassing mistake”. Barry didn’t seemed to understand the openness and conversation that underpins social media tools like Twitter.

This became apparent with Media Watch’s second target this week. ABC WA journalist Geoff Hutchison was forced to delete his Twitter account after he had a go at Tony Abbott during a Q&A program in the week before the election. Hutchison tweeted “Tony, why are you frightened of intercourse with Julia? Is it because we will be watching and measuring?”

This sarcastic offering offended someone enough to contact ABC management who ordered him to delete his account. ABC Radio spokesman Warwick Tiernan said the comments had breached ABC’s social media policy. “Geoff’s comments, posted on a personal Twitter account, do not meet ABC social media guidelines and do not represent the views of the ABC,” he said.

Media Watch claimed the problem with Hutchison’s tweets was it interfered with his job which to be objective. Under ABC’s social media rules staff are directed not to mix “the professional and the personal in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute” and not imply the ABC endorses personal views. Hutchison was not working when he attacked Abbott. No reasonable person could imagine his personal comments could bring the ABC into disrepute. It is also an insult to Hutchison to think he could not be professional enough to leave his personal opinions to one side when interviewing politicians.

Media Watch inadvertently let slip the real reason he was forced to delete the account. “Stupid comments like that make it harder for him to do that job properly… and they’re a gift to the ABC’s critics.” What Barry is really saying is that this has nothing to do with left-wingers putting their gripes on the Internet and everything to do with not giving ABC’s right-wing enemies the opportunity to make tired claims about bias.

Andrew Bolt (an able interviewer of politicians despite his own well-known political biases) was quickest off the mark lumping Turner and Hutchison together in a rogue’s gallery with Deveny, Marieke Hardy and Daniel Burt. “Yes, only five,” Bolt admitted in his final sentence, “but all attacking from the Left, with the ABC and barbarians [Fairfax] strongly represented.” Bolt avoided drawing conclusions letting his audience do the dirty work for him.

If Barry and his cohorts are frightened by streams of invective from “ABC’s Critics” like Bolt and his audience then we really have a problem. Silencing Turner and Hutchison achieves no purpose. We need more robust views not less. We need to know what our politicians and our journalists think, not frighten them off into platitudes. Guiding social media policy should be an underlying philosophy of publish and be damned. There will be those who will damn the ABC no matter what they do or what their policies say. Media Watch should be standing up to them not for them.

ABC News Twentyfour Seven Eleven

In 20 years time when they ask the trivia question “in what year did ABC start its 24-hour television news channel?”, I hope we will not remember the answer with a sense of nostalgia for something we’ve lost.

I have no idea what television will look like in 20 years but whatever medium it transforms into, its content will still include 7 x 24 news with a local slant. The ABC “News 24” station launched today despite the grumblings of Sky News Australia’s owners. There is no reason it cannot become the Al Jazeera of the Asia Pacific, especially if it can nail overseas broadcasting.
There are misgivings, and Sky’s are not the limit. In the 1840s Henry David Thoreau noted our inventions are pretty toys which distract attention from serious things. At time, the US was rapidly linking itself up by magnetic telegraph to Britain and its farflung states. Thoreau reminded us the first news on these newfangled tubes may well have been that Princess Adelaide had the whooping cough while Maine and Texas may have nothing important to communicate to each other.Thoreau was right to sound his warning about the blandness of news into the “broad flapping American ear” but wrong about Maine and Texas. They had plenty of important things to communicate as they shared in the national imagining of a greater America. The ABC News 24 channel can fulfil a similar role here.Managing-director Mark Scott has no doubts about its raison d’etre. He told his reporters there should be a 24/7 news channel on Australian free-to-air television and the public broadcaster ABC was ideal to run it “given our history, given our experience, given our resources given our integrity, given our independence.” He says News 24 will ensure the ABC’s future in broadcasting.

Jason Wilson said the public is entitled to be sceptical. He said the broadcaster is already overstretched and no new resources have been allocated for the channel. It means the station must reuse content from other media, poach staff from other departments and expect the journalists to work longer hours.

Wilson wonders whether ABC are straying too far from “core business” and should be looking at more innovative ways of delivering content in the post-broadcast age. “There’s no convincing case for creating yet another one-size-fits-all continuous news broadcaster when cheap, plentiful bandwidth will allow for the distribution of a plethora of niche, on-demand or streaming audiovisual content,” Wilson said.

This long tail approach leaves the audience fragmented which leads to yearning for a more centralised delivery. ABC has a role in providing informed news across Australia. When the national broadcaster was set up in 1932, the newspapers at the time (led by Keith Murdoch) resisted moves for its radio station to include news. But by the end of World War II, the ABC had a mandate to produce news despite Murdoch’s best efforts in his wartime role of Director-General of Information.

Keith’s son Rupert is still annoyed about public broadcasting impinging on his turf, but that is more of a reason to treasure the ABC. Taxpayers should not be expected to pay additional dollars for this new service. Working harder, repurposing content and shifting staff are all reasonable demands when the money is not there up front. ABC News 24 may have to “fake it till it makes it” but with broad public trust and time on its side, the oily rag can one day turn into a silk coat. I welcome its addition to the public sphere.

BBC strategic review is useful template for the ABC

The BBC Strategy Review of March 2010 (pdf) is an important read for those interested in the future of Britain’s premier broadcaster and its antipodean cousin the ABC. With a tagline “getting the best out of the BBC for licence fee payers” the 79-page document is the BBC Trust’s attempt to steer a course for the public-funded organisation in the likely event of a Conservative win in the forthcoming election and a reduction in government expenditure.

(photo: The Guardian)

The Trust said its reference points were the audience and the market. Its says its audience is proud of the BBC and willing to pay for a strong and independent voice delivering original and high quality content. The market is more ambiguous. It wants the BBC to fulfil its public service charter but questions where the boundaries lie with private enterprise and also its genuineness in its proposals for partnerships.

The Trust said it was time to look at possibilities of expansion. It asked four key questions: Is its portfolio of services still appropriate in the digital age? Has its near 7 x 24 expansion caused a dilution in quality and distinctiveness? What is the best distribution model for content? And finally how should it react to the problems of commercial media? These raised five questions the Trust put to BBC management: How can the BBC best maintain quality and distinctiveness? Where could it narrow focus and scale? What will a fully digital BBC look like? Can the BBC better define the public space it provides? And finally how can the BBC create the most value from its scale?

The response from BBC management called “Putting Quality First” is in the same document. The Director-General’s vision was to create “a BBC focused on quality content and enduring values, keeping open a public space for all”. This would be achieved by five central principles: putting quality first, doing fewer things better, guaranteeing access, getting better value from the licence fee, and setting new boundaries.

The BBC mission has relevance in the Australian context. It says, “[the mission] is constant and enduring: to inform, educate and entertain audiences with programmes and services of high quality, originality and value. It strives to fulfill this mission not to further any political or commercial interest, but because the British public believes that universal access to ideas and cultural experiences of merit and ambition is a good in itself. The BBC is a part of public space because the public themselves have put it there.”

The BBC is part of a public space that include other media, public institutions, libraries, museums, parks, universities, monuments and voluntary bodies.  While the digital age should be a “golden age” for public space, fragmentation of audiences is destroying business models causing public space to diminish. The BBC says its role is to be a guarantor of public space and its technological underpinning and should also be a catalyst and connector within that space.

Its mantra, says management, should be putting quality first. It will have five content priorities: world-class journalism, inspiring knowledge, music and culture, ambitious local drama and comedy, outstanding children’s content, and events that bring communities and the nation together. That means changing £600m of priorities a year (a fifth of the BBC’s costs) over four years and committing to 90 percent of licence fees on high quality content (though it will be interesting to see how ‘high quality’ will be defined and measured).

Spending on the BBC’s website will decrease by a quarter each year to 2013 and its number of sections will be halved. There will also be more external links to double monthly ‘click-throughs’ to external sites. Other services closed will be Radio 6 Music, Asian Network and teen offerings BBC Switch and Blast! BBC management want to make internet-connected television a reality, continue free access to news and also open its archives and program library and work with its partners like the British Library and BFI to bring public archives to a wider audience.

The BBC is proposing to reduce costs, slash senior management numbers, freeze pay and suspend bonuses. They will also reduce spend on overseas content, cap sports rights spending, defer to commercial radio and other broadcasters in popular music and serving teenagers and not go more hyperlocal than they already are.

Opponents of public broadcasting in Australia like Mark Day have seized on this report as a rationale for trimming down, if not totally removing the ABC from the media landscape. While this goes too far, the BBC Trust document asks good questions and opens up a debate on public broadcasting and its platforms and contents we need in Australia. With no licence fee, we should question the direction the ABC is headed (and ask where SBS fits into the picture). All too often media policy is reactive. As the analogue age ends we need to examine the BBC document. It is a template for honest and mature discussion into what we might want from “our ABC” in the coming years.

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 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”.

Media140 and Mark Scott

I’ve just finished watching ABC boss Mark Scott display his sense of humour for the second time in four days. Tonight I watched his flagship ABC1 channel where Scott was praising the Andrew Olle lecture given by Chaser executive producer Julian Morrow. Scott said Morrow and the Chaser team were the reason why the ABC legal team had quadrupled in size. Morrow was the reason for his grey hair and letters he gets from Gerard Henderson and also suggested Morrow could afford a Lachlan Murdoch-like $23 million Sydney mansion if he was prepared to rely on his ABC salary for a thousand years. (photo of Mark Scott at Media140 by Neerav Bhatt)

The self-deprecating wit hides a very sharp brain of a man who is now probably the second most important media player in Australia (behind Lachlan’s Dad). He acknowledged Morrow’s points about primary and secondary audiences and how the ABC should react. He also endorsed Morrow’s points about the importance of new media. The head of Australia’s foremost public broadcaster has used a number of key speeches to throw his weight behind the new media revolution and he was in zealot mode again on home turf at Ultimo on Thursday in the keynote speech for day 1 of Media140 Sydney. Scott’s introduction to Twitter is typical of many people’s experience (including my own): an initial period of scepticism, followed by silence and then eventual acceptance. Scott said he signed up in late 2007 and followed just one person: Ana Marie Cox (the American political blogger who founded Wonkette).

Scott said he quickly became “bored and confused” and his interest in the tool faded away. He quoted co-founder Biz Stone’s statement that “if there were two or three sentences I’d use to describe Twitter, one of them would be ‘I don’t know'”. It wasn’t until February 2009 that he re-engaged with Twitter and “came to understand it”. Scott’s epiphany was the Victorian Bushfires emergency. As the scale of the devastation started to emerge on Black Saturday, ABC local radio station 774 Melbourne’s twitter hashtag became an increasingly vital hub of information using the hashtag #bushfires. Scott praised ABC staffer Wolf Cocklin (@wolfcat) who manned the Twitter feed for three days passing information to and from the broadcaster, the CFA, the police and the public.

Inspired by WolfCat, Scott returned to Twitter and quickly saw its possibilities. But while he joked about assiduous management of his follower numbers, he said Twitter was just a technology and it was communication that counted. He reminded the audience of the famous Henry David Thoreau quote: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

Scott did have important things to communicate in his speech. He announced two new ABC online initiatives. Firstly he was commissioning 50 digital media producers to help local communities create their own content and secondly was the launch of “ABC widgets” to allow people run broadcaster news feed content from their own blogs and social media pages. As Margaret Simons noted, the issue will be whether commercial media organisations selling ads would also be allowed to use the widgets.

Scott also provided four guidelines for ABC staff using social networks. These were 1) do not mix professional and personal conduct in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute 2) do not undermine work effectiveness 3) do not imply ABC endorse personal views and 4) do not disclose confidential information. The guidelines are straightforward and encourage journalists to engage with social media rather than be afraid of them.

With Murdoch-led paywalls on their way, it is crucial ABC journalists have the tools to provide a useful free-to-net alternative for those unable (or unwilling) to afford to buy their news. As the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism notes, social media, blogs and user-generated content are not replacing journalism, but are creating an important extra layer of information and opinion. Most people are still happy to rely on mainstream news organisations to sort fact from fiction and provide a filtered view. But these people are increasingly engaged by this information, particularly when recommended by friends or other trusted sources. With Mark Scott at the helm, the ABC are well placed to become leaders in this new exciting field.