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Bernard Keane

Kim Williams will be a quite different ABC chair, and is no Murdoch stooge

Let’s dispose of the Murdoch thing straight away. Kim Williams worked for Rupert Murdoch for more than a decade, but the idea that he’s some sort of sinister News Corp plant installed at the ABC (by, erm, Labor) is the kind of conspiracy theory only the left Twitterati could sustain.

Williams has worked at senior levels in film, broadcasting and the arts for several decades apart from his spell at News Corp — including under former chair David Hill at the ABC, a relationship that ended in tears. The fact that Lachlan Murdoch is now running the show at News Corp is all the more reason to assume that Williams will be rigorously independent as ABC chair.

Williams always seemed a poor fit at News Corp. Most particularly, he ran a successful business, which in the Australian operations of the Murdoch empire made him almost unique. Whereas Chris Mitchell’s The Australian lost money for the majority of his tenure, in the 2000s Williams drove huge growth at Foxtel — despite the ridiculous limitations of the anti-siphoning list — before being booted upstairs for his stint as News Corp Australia CEO, where he was endlessly undermined by the loss-making reactionaries that still litter the joint.

Williams thus comes to the ABC with huge media, television and arts experience — and that makes him unique. No previous ABC chair since it became a corporation has had operational broadcasting management experience — although Donald McDonald was distinguished in arts administration, and Ita Buttrose had a preeminent career in publishing.

There have been two approaches to ABC board appointments over the decades. The traditional one — and one followed by Labor and the Turnbull government in recent times — is that the chair, and directors, come from a senior legal or business background, and are experienced directors. The ABC is a huge organisation that operates across multiple platforms (which compete internally for resources) and is viewed as requiring quality corporate governance, in addition to the public interest demands of the charter the board is required to follow. Broadcasting or journalistic expertise is not seen as a prerequisite.

The other approach was that of the Howard, Abbott and, to a lesser extent, Morrison governments: appoint right-wing ideologues or Coalition mates (I should know — in the early 2000s, I was the one doing the paperwork for such stacking of the ABC and SBS boards). Labor had appointed its own mates to the ABC board, of course — it put in John Bannon in the 1990s — but Howard and Abbott took it to a new level.

The problem with the Howard approach, which coincided with a period of historic transformation of the ABC as it went digital and moved online, is that its stackees could write an angry column denouncing the ABC as a socialist racket, but had no grasp of broadcasting operations, preventing them from exercising any real oversight over the ABC as it underwent the most profound technological transformation since the introduction of television. ABC senior managers knew they faced little board scrutiny over major capital strategies or procurement.

That situation also applied to more traditional ABC boards, but good governance from well-run and experienced boards can apply scrutiny even in the absence of technical expertise, as it does on the boards of well-run private companies with quality independent directors.

That’s why Williams is different. It’s been more than a decade since Williams was in broadcasting, and the industry has dramatically changed, but he brings a perspective on broadcasting operations and audiences to rival that of managing director David Anderson. Anderson and senior ABC executives can expect a much better-informed board scrutinising their strategies and proposals. The ABC’s ever-shrinking arts team will also find themselves much more in the internal spotlight, for better and for worse — Williams has already flagged, in his first interview after the announcement of his appointment, that he thinks the ABC’s arts coverage is decidedly underdone.

One more thing regarding Murdoch. Williams made use of an illuminating — no pun intended — metaphor in his interview, saying he very much saw the ABC as Australia’s “campfire”. That is, he sees the ABC as the place all Australians can gather around, a shared space for all citizens, a unifying institution.

That vision of the ABC is inimical to the whole business model of News Corp. Like it does in the United States, News Corp makes its money here from dividing Australians, from provoking and exploiting the resentment of Australians, from selecting targets to demonise and other. It is innately hostile to the idea of unifying institutions. It wants to drive people apart and exploit hate and outrage.

This is another reason to expect that Williams will be anything but a Murdoch stooge in his new role.

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