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.

Is Rome burning? Murdoch picks a fight with the ABC

“You want sensitivity training? Don’t hang out in a newsroom, that’s your sensitivity training.”
(From Overheard in the newsroom #1979)The media is a harsh business full of oversized egos and a well defined sense of self-importance. So when there is substantial disagreement on a major matter of media principle, it likely the bruises will be public. No noses have been bloodied yet in the private vs public access battle playing out at the moment but it is only a matter of time. Corporate media led by Murdoch want to charge for content but are aware they will leak substantial audience to publicly-owned media companies who have no intention of charging directly for content. Public enemy number one in Australia is ABC boss Mark Scott who is becoming a talisman for the power of new media.

The fundamental charge of Murdoch’s empire is public corporations are inherently anti-competitive with funding power giving them an unfair advantage. The ABC undercuts private companies’ ability to provide content on the Internet, says Murdoch. Last week, Scott took up the cudgels and compared the empire of The Sun King to the Fall of Rome. The times they are a-changin’ in the world of news, he says. He ridiculed News Corporation’s plan to charge for Internet content and provided a spirited defence of the national broadcaster’s right to provide free news to the masses.

It didn’t take long for the Empire to strike back. Today News big guns took to the columns of its Australian flagship newspaper to attack Scott’s assumptions. ABC’s own Media Watch covered the “conflict” in its program tonight. Media Watch is not entirely neutral but is an Internal Affairs watchdog and usually not afraid to put the boot into its own employers.

Tonight’s program was called the “end of the free ride”. Scott’s speech took on the challenge provided by paid content head on. His theme was end of empire and taking his cue from Gibbons, Scott charted the progress of the media giants now struggling in these “desperate days” to cope with new realities. According to media writer Margaret Simons, the Internet’s revolutionary intent is comparable to the printing press which changed religion, democracy and the organisation of societies.

Big Media has been subsumed into Big Business. There are few people in the banks and private equity companies that understand how this business works. They are all waiting for Murdoch because he is the only “newspaper man” left. And he is on the defensive. In Beijing he hammered philistine bloggers and plagiarist aggregators feasting on News’s content. He also condemned search engines that make their money from pushing around other people’s content without giving anything back to the creators. Murdoch’s son James went further and warned the public that their ways must also change. It is essential for the future of independent digital journalism, he said, for a fair price for news “to people who value it”. The message was the Internet free ride is over.

But Mark Scott said News’s “empire” no longer has the power to dictate terms. The audience has the power now he says and media providers must engage with audiences on their terms. For 15 years people have gotten used to not paying for online content and are unlikely to pay now, he says. News Digital CEO Richard Freudenstein retorted today in today’s Media Australia that Scott was “shielded from the commercial reality”. Freudenstein says people are willing to pay for journalism online but advertising alone won’t work on the Internet. People will pay for online content if relevant and delivered in ways they want, he says.

His article was accompanied by a Kudelka cartoon which shows an appreciative Rudd hugging Scott for thinking he had come up with a way not to require government funding. “Wayne” (Treasurer Swan) would be delighted with him, gushed the wonky PM, always thinking about red lines that might disappear from the $53b budget black hole. Scott is increasingly distraught as the PM “misunderstands” what he means about free content.

In the same edition, The Australian’s media analyst Mark Day hinted how News might implement their paywall. It would not be an old newspaper-model, he said. “They’ll be more akin to social networks, a hybrid of news, services, commerce, information and entertainment designed for like-minded people or communities,” Day said. They will not be providing old content for “like-minded people” but new content. Basic news will still be free.

Simons said paying will work for some things but people will not pay for general news in countries with strong traditions of public broadcasters (eg Australia and the UK). James Murdoch calls the “dumping” of free state-sponsored content which makes it difficult for journalism to flourish on the Internet. Murdoch notes the distinction between broadcasters and newspapers is irrelevant on the Internet and what we have now is an “all media market” (Keating’s “Princes of Print and Queens of the Screen” looks very dated 13 years later).

If commercial organisations charge people for content in this new converged environment, they should not face competitors who provide the same content free courtesy of the taxpayer. James Murdoch says it is fundamental for journalism and the creative industries that public media “exist on a far, far smaller scale”. Or as the Times put it to the BBC in Chinese-fashion, they should get its tanks off our lawn.

Mark Scott says the public pays the ABC to provide distinctive content which they are entitled to view “free of charge”. Free to the user but not to the taxpayer. The ABC has an $844.6m budget (2007 figures) that insulates Scott’s decisions from his audience’s wants. The private companies must live or die by their paid content. Media Watch says the signs are we won’t be asked to pay for what we currently get free, but for new content.

Scott says one reason the ABC is required is because of the abdication of news in commercial companies. ABC should not be crippled just to make private concerns wealthier, he says and adds “there is no political sentiment to make this happen”. Media Watch cited the $14m ABC got over four years to provide websites for regional Australia.

It interviewed APN Media boss Brendan Hopkins who questioned this strategy. APN is in direct opposition to ABC Regional as it owns 14 regional newspapers in northern NSW and Queensland (disclosure: this journalist has worked for APN and is hoping to do so again) and Hopkins says he cannot see the government supporting a model of the ABC where the cost “keeps going up”.

He says if APN think ABC is getting unfair treatment they will talk to Graeme Samuels at the ACCC and “hold them to account”. When asked whether after 75 years the ABC should even exist, Hopkins said “now is a good time to have that debate”. With Margaret Simons agreeing the ABC is in a serious position to hurt the commercials’ business model, this argument has a long way to go. Maybe it is time, as Hopkins says, to re-evaluate what is meant by “your ABC”. The Anglosphere has scoffed at Sarkozy’s 600m euro press interventionism in France, but how is our public broadcasting funding much different?