Last Friday I attended a speech by the new ABC CEO Michelle Guthrie put on by the New News conference which is always good value and a tribute to the forward-looking energy of Margaret Simons – Melbourne Uni professor of Journalism and frequently practising journalism. Simons wrote a piece on Guthrie in the Monthly. Unusually for her, it had very little content but went on for thousands of words. Guthrie wouldn’t give her an interview.
Why? Well Guthrie has a view of her role which is not all that simpatico with the culture of modern mainstream journalism. As I understand it she offered simultaneous interviews to a range of journals but this created tensions and several – including the Monthly – did not participate on the grounds that their interview would not be ‘exclusive’. Then they came back and asked for an interview and Guthrie said that, at this stage, she had nothing more to say.
The resulting Simons article was a strange beast on account of its lack of content. Here’s a representative passage:
Everyone likes her. She is, it is unanimously agreed, smart, personable and even charismatic. But she has some people worried. … Guthrie has yet to build a public profile, but she seems to speak with less care [than her forebears]. It would be wrong to describe the things she says as thought bubbles. She is pursuing similar messages in her so far limited public appearances and within the organisation. She is consistent, and clearly means what she says.
Margaret interviewed Guthrie after her talk. She said that when she heard Guthrie say that no program was sacrosanct, only the mission, she assumed that meant that Lateline would not be on next year. Guthrie declined to give Margaret the satisfaction of a confirmation or denial. But she explained her meaning by referring to Foreign Correspondent. She said the purpose of Foreign Correspondent was to inform Australians about what’s going on overseas from an Australian perspective rather than in itself to be a TV program – though her implication was expansive – not that Foreign Correspondent would be downgraded to a website. Simons asked again. Did that mean that Lateline wouldn’t be on the tele next year. But like Mick Jagger, Simons couldn’t get no satisfaction. I was sitting in the front row, and said audibly and in disapproval of Simons’ questioning ‘gotcha’.
Simons is quite right that it’s too early to tell whether Guthrie will be a success, but I was impressed with her. One thing she’s offering is a non-macho – I daresay feminine 1 – model of leadership. It’s a style of leadership that eschews what I call the CEO as hero. You don’t turn up on day one, with Your Plan that you’ll impose on the organisation. As Simons puts it in her article:
In her one substantial media interview since taking up the top job at the beginning of May, Guthrie claimed to be “more a listener than a talker”. She said her role was to unleash the creativity of the organisation, rather than to be a heavy-handed boss. Those who have dealt with her agree that she is exceptionally easy to like: chatty, empathetic and charismatic. She speaks rapidly, waving her hands around.
Now as Simons goes on to read the tea leaves we get this:
In her first weeks, Guthrie took away senior staff’s individually reserved car spaces. She has since announced that she will be moving down from the expansive eyrie at Ultimo to a smaller office in the heart of the building. It is all very democratic and “Googly”, an adjective heard frequently these days when people talk about the background of the ABC’s new boss. It is a reference to her corporate experience, most recently as a senior executive for Google in the Asia Pacific.
One member of the ABC board observes that the removal of car spaces can be read as pleasingly democratic but also as a message to the senior staff: “I can make or break you.” The executive is understandably nervous about the new boss, knowing that the cosmetic changes will not be the only ones. There is, the board member observes, a lot of sucking up going on.
I smell a bit of a rat here. I guess Simons is trying to look at things from every which way, which is a reasonable journalistic thing to do. But Simons is a broadly left-of-centre journalist. I would have thought that these things are pretty unambiguously good from that perspective. It’s good in a simple political sense, but, done right, there’s a lot of evidence that it’s good management as well. Of course, those who are preoccupied with questions of power and whose power such moves threatens will always project such motives onto such a move. Should they be given an equal airtime in a profile of Guthrie? Simons gives them at least that, and arguably a bit more.
Let’s hightail it to Martha Nussbaum’s explication of the masculine and feminine in Political Emotions. Commenting on Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro offers this contrast between the masculine and feminine sensibilities in the Opera:
Mozart sees something that Beaumarchais does not see: that the ancien regime has formed men in a certain way, making them utterly preoccupied with rank, status, and shame, and that both high and low partake of this social shaping. What one does not wish to lose, the other wishes to enjoy. For neither, given their obsession, does any space open out in the world for reciprocity or, indeed, for love. …
Unlike the men, however, the women use their similarity not for mutual combat but for cooperation …. When we focus on their teamwork, we notice, as well, that there is absolutely nothing like teamwork and reciprocity among the men. The women’s partnership, moreover, despite their class difference, appears to be quite unhierarchical, as they benefit one another with genuine mutual friendliness.
It seems to me significant that Simons is both a woman and (having had quite a few conversations with her I think she would describe herself as) a feminist. I think her ‘gotcha’ question partakes of a particularly macho interpretation of the journalist’s role. Of course, there are times when journalists should press those they are interviewing. But the Gotcha question typically does more than that – as Simons does here. It sets up a struggle in which the journalist battles with their quary to disrupt the quary’s preferred framing, or as they love to say these days ‘the narrative’. It was perfectly possible to press Guthrie in a non-gotcha way – to draw her out on how she would manage conflicts set off by changing things – using the Foreign Correspondent example as a stepping off point for instance.
Geraldine Doogue, one of my favourite interviewers and conductors of a public conversation, is no soft touch. She’s mixed it in news and current affairs journalism and is quite capable of forcefully pressing a line of inquiry. But even when she’s talking to politicians bent on staying ‘on message’, she almost always does it in a way that is respectful of the way her interviewee is telling their story. This isn’t just more informative – it’s usually more penetrating, as people will often be more revealing when they’re drawn out in their own terms and questioned on the merits of what they’re saying, particularly considering that those who are trying to stay on message will generally have sufficient media skills to handle gotcha questions with the usual bland-out.
Simons also challenged Guthrie on why she hadn’t defended the ABC against the attack squad sent out after the recent 4 Corners program on offshore detention. She said that she had made it clear that she did support the program against the attacks, that she felt it was good journalism. When asked why someone else was the main ABC spokesman against the attack she said that he was exceptionally good. But she also said that she didn’t think it was necessarily the ABC’s job to come out and defend itself against every attack. It was it’s job to create and present great programing.
As I considered this I realised that of course this is much more what would have happened a few decades ago, when it wasn’t the ABC’s job to represent its interests in political combat either in lobbying for money or in representing itself against others expression of their opinions – except perhaps to clarify facts and so on. Again, this is a much less macho view of the world and one I welcome as more consistent with my own views about how government funded instrumentalities should behave. The problem is that the media are so hungry for spin that if you won’t spin they’ll amplify those spinning against you – if they’re not spinning against you themselves. I recall that Ted Baillieu wanted to the Premier who wasn’t a 24/7 spin machine. Some other weaknesses probably contributed, but the more spun against than spinning Premier was seen out the door a little after his first term was half over. Guthrie’s position is very different. But I’m hoping she’s giving these matters some careful, strategic thought. And I’m wishing her luck and feel very optimistic about the scope for her to take the ABC more fully into the 21st century.
- The word ‘feminine’ is freighted with all sorts of overtones which make it awkward to use here. I tried writing “female” instead of “feminine” above, but that didn’t work because I’m not really seeking to refer to a person’s gender so much as qualities of our makeup which will be present to a greater or lesser extent in us all. Suffice it to say at this stage that you may interpret my use of the word sympathetically with this recent essay of mine, and I offer more on the distinction between the way I’m using ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ in subsequent discussion of Martha Nussbaum’s treatment of the same ideas. ↩