Who is running the ABC now?

With David Anderson given the nod as MD of the ABC, four pundits gave their views on whether he's ready to lead.

There were mixed responses to the new appointment of acting Managing Director David Anderson to the ABC’s top job at a packed session of the Sydney Writers Festival (SWF). Previous MD and current SWF chair Mark Scott gave the kind of glowing endorsement that might have been a job reference. ‘I think David Anderson is the most outstanding ABC MD for a generation,’ Scott told the ‘Whose ABC?’ session at SWF.

‘He knows the place backwards. He started … picking up tea-towels at the old production studios down in Melbourne. He’s run the back office of ABC television and he’s fronted it. He’s commissioned programming and done ABC strategy … you’ve got to be a managing director who the staff respect. You’ve got to be a managing director who the staff are going to follow and who the staff believe in and I think he passes all those tests. ‘

Journalist and author Margaret Simons was more skeptical. She acknowledged that it as was a ‘good appointment … but without knowing who is on the short list it’s impossible to say if it’s the right appointment.’ Simons has a point as the recruitment for the MD began before Ita Buttrose was appointed and involved an international recruitment firm only to find a career ABC exec who was acting in the job.

She could see that Anderson had been good for morale during the knifings of previous MD Michelle Guthrie and ABC chair Justin Milne. He ‘would continue to “settle the horses” after a very traumatic period and that’s no mean feat.’

What Simons felt Anderson lacked was his own vision. ‘I have yet to hear of David Anderson spell out an agenda and a vision for the ABC that is different and moving on from the direction set out by Mark Scott’s vision and agenda.’

‘I have yet to hear of David Anderson spell out an agenda and a vision for the ABC that is different and moving on from the direction set out by Mark Scott’s vision and agenda.’ Margaret Simons

‘Mark was a successful MD of the ABC… and David was very much one of Mark’s proteges and that is in many ways a good thing, but he now needs to step out of Mark’s considerable shadow and define himself both to his staff and the ABC’s audience, the Australian taxpayer.’

Of course the timing without knowing who his political masters might be at the end of May is difficult for Anderson. Simons said, ‘I understand that he might not want to do this in an election context but very soon after that he has to make sure that he is not going to repeat one of Michelle Guthrie’s mistakes which is the failure to communicate.’

Guthrie’s lack of communication with staff and the consequent expectation that a new lead will have to win hearts and minds was a thread picked up by Marc Fennell, an employee of both ABC and SBS. ‘I’ve only met David a few times, but he has been doing the rounds talking to staff and what I will say based on that feedback is that David understands what he’s selling. He understands what the ABC means to the Australian public and what it means to work at the ABC – which I’ll be the first to say his predecessor did not understand as well.’

Jonathan Holmes was shocked about the killing season that led to vacancies for both MD and Chair of the national broadcaster. Holmes said, ‘Let’s be clear – what Justin Milne did was unprecedented, almost unprecedented, and I’d be astonished if that happened again either by Ita Buttrose or by David Anderson.’

Holmes was also concerned about Anderson’s ability to lobby government in that shadow left by Scott. ‘One of Mark’s considerable strengths was to communicate to the public and to politicians by making these speeches that surveyed the whole media landscape and to really push for the ABC. That’s one of the things we really missed when he left. David so far has not shown anything like that ability to go out there and sell himself and the ABC and his vision. Let’s hope that he finds it.’

George Dunford is Director of Content at ArtsHub and Screenhub. He has written for Meanjin, The Big Issue, Lonely Planet, The Good Food Guide and others. He has worked in digital leadership roles in the cultural sector for more than 10 years including at the National Library of Australia, National Museum of Australia and the Wheeler Centre. You can follow him on Twitter: @Hack_packer