ita buttrose

In retrospect, Ita Buttrose AC OBE MAICD was an obvious fit for the role of ABC chair. It helps she’s spent more than 60 years in the media — starting as a copy girl at 15, running messages and making tea. Following in the footsteps of her journalist and former ABC executive father, Charles, she has worked in print, radio and TV; as an editor, a publisher, CEO and director. And with publishing industry giants such as Sir Frank Packer and Kerry Packer AC, Rupert Murdoch and Sir Peter Abeles.

So when the job of heading Australia’s national broadcaster was going in the wake of the shock sacking of CEO Michelle Guthrie and resignation of chair Justin Milne FAICD in 2018, how was it such an ably qualified person didn’t get a look in during the original selection process? Buttrose says she knew the role was going, but didn’t apply. “I was busy doing other things,” she reflects.

Buttrose is a former chair and now national ambassador for Dementia Australia, a member of the Sydney Symphony Council and a trustee of the Centennial and Moore Park Trust.

“I do have a very busy life and lots of other commitments, some of which I’ve put aside for this job,” she says. “So when the Prime Minister approached me, you sort of think, well, why not?”

In February, Scott Morrison announced her five-year appointment to chair Australia’s most trusted organisation, describing Buttrose as a person of integrity and strength trusted by Australians.

The 2013 Australian of the Year, Buttrose is the 18th chair in the ABC’s 87-year history. She’s the second female chair (after the late Dame Leonie Kramer AC DBE in the early 1980s) and the first with actual media experience. A media icon, Buttrose was also popularised in the 1980 Cold Chisel song, Ita, and has 64,000 Twitter followers.

On ageing: “One of the advantages when you’re older is that you realise that you don’t have to be in such a hurry. You can actually take a little more time to make a decision — and, sometimes just pausing for a moment to think of the very best decision gives you that. That’s something you just learn.”

Stepping up

Current ABC deputy chair Dr Kirstin Ferguson FAICD was acting chair from September 2018 to March 2019. The lawyer, former CEO and Air Force officer is on several ASX-listed boards, and is the co-author of Women Kind.

Ferguson says she has huge respect for Buttrose, admiring her direct manner, sense of humour and enjoying the unusual experience of being stopped in the street when the two are out together. She says she’s never been on a board where literally every Australian is a stakeholder and has a view — and will let directors know at every opportunity.

Reflecting on the governance challenges in stepping up, Ferguson says dealing with multiple issues while in the public eye adds a whole new level of pressure for boards. “You never know how you’ll deal with a crisis until you’re in it,” she says. “What you want from people who are leading is to calmly and methodically work through the different issues that you’re confronting. There’s always more than one issue and you’ve got to prioritise.”

Ferguson found herself doing live interviews and being door-stopped by media. “There’s no preparation for that other than to do it and learn on the fly.”

She completes her term on the ABC board in November 2020.

In the nine months since moving into the role, Buttrose has been a visible and vigorous advocate for the ABC’s role in Australia’s social and cultural fabric, as a fearless public broadcaster and champion of the public’s right to know. She has promoted the ABC as a vehicle for strengthening regional and global soft power and challenged growing political correctness, bemoaning the loss of larrikinism and lack of diversity in programming and on the board. In May, she and the board appointed a new managing director, David Anderson, who had been acting MD during the period of upheaval.

Buttrose is frequently asked in business circles about political bias in ABC coverage by journalists who’ve been described as a “nest of left-wing vipers” and “inner-city, latte-sipping socialists out of touch with ordinary people”.

“Sometimes unconscious bias does play a part,” she says. “People form views, but for the most part, if you look at our news programs, ABC 24 and so on, Australians rely on that news and they are happy with it. And they are our shareholders. We’ve had umpteen reviews into the ABC. There’s always a review going on. We seem to get through them quite well and nobody finds anything untoward. When governments change office, we often get the same claim from the new government. Doesn’t matter which one is in office, there’s always some problem with the ABC. If there’s a fault, blame the media — and the ABC is a popular punching bag.”

Leadership turmoil

Buttrose is circumspect when asked about the events that led to the breakdown in the relationship between the CEO of two years, Guthrie, and chair of just over a year, Milne, followed by their spectacular exits in September 2018. There were allegations of political interference, and ABC executives and directors were grilled at a subsequent Senate inquiry. In her trademark direct fashion, Buttrose is emphatic: “That’s all past.”

The 2018–19 ABC annual report deals with the fallout from the drama in two paragraphs of her letter from the chair. “The ABC,” Buttrose writes, “is an essential part of Australia’s social fabric... more than two-thirds of the population connect with [it]. How many other Australian institutions can boast that level of constant engagement? Or the solid levels of trust and support?

“In my short time as chair of the ABC, I have sought to maintain those benchmarks. It has not been easy. The period covered by the annual report included some disruptive leadership issues culminating with the departure of both the former managing director and chair in September 2018. As a result, the board and management spent too much time in the latter half of 2018 being the news rather than producing it. That is now behind us.”

On the value of mutual trust: “The managing director has to know whatever we talk about will remain between us — and he has to do the same thing, whatever I’m saying to him.”

In the annual report, Buttrose thanks ABC deputy chair Dr Kirstin Ferguson FAICD for a job well done when she became acting chair following Milne’s exit, navigating the organisation through a Senate inquiry and departmental investigations. Ferguson was also acting chair when the legal settlement with Guthrie was made over an adverse action for being terminated halfway through her five-year contract. The ABC annual report lists a total payment of $1.56m, including $1.34m in termination benefits for the year to June 2019. “It’s wonderful now, having the stability of Ita as chair,” says Ferguson. “I’m relishing my role as deputy chair, which is to support the board and the chair.”

The last half of 2018 was “a challenging time for everyone on the board” Buttrose writes in the annual report. “It is important to acknowledge the key finding of the Senate inquiry that the board’s decision to terminate Michelle Guthrie was made without reference to real or perceived political interference. Staff morale was badly shaken, and my priority has been to reinvigorate it by restoring order and enhancing good governance with the help of managing director David Anderson and his management team. Our employees, in content areas and vital support functions, need a strong sense of direction and a feeling that management has their backs. I feel we are providing it now.”

On the value of questioning: “Why is a very good question for a director. You have to say: ‘Why is that? Why are we spending that? Why is it costing that?’ As a director, you have to sometimes be prepared to rock the boat.”

Buttrose and Anderson are now grappling with a diminishing budget, including a $84m cut from the 2018 budget in real terms. As she told a Friends of the ABC forum in September, the “attention economy” is ever growing with the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) and torrents of available content, while commercial media is “pulling up the drawbridge”.

She says these challenges are “daunting and perhaps good reason to think about marching backwards or retreating completely”. However, Buttrose has a counterintuitive instinct. “This is our opportunity to be bold, to be enterprising, to be Australian.”

She says being chair is a good role in which to ask: “What if it doesn’t quite go like that? What if something changes?”

ABC by the numbers

$879m operational funding from government, down 29.5% since 1985–86

4649 employees, 70.1% content makers, 110 Indigenous

4.79m likes for ABC Education’s Learn English Facebook page

100m+ iview plays of Bluey — the animated adventures of a blue heeler dog, now also shown on Disney

201m podcast downloads

82% of Australians believe the ABC performs a valuable role in the community

68.3% combined audience reach, down 1.9% on 2017–18

977.4 hours of Australian-produced content

74% believe the ABC is accurate and impartial when reporting news and current affairs

66% believe the ABC is efficient and well managed

371 emergency broadcast events, up from 256 in 2017–18

126 TV rebroadcasters downlinked the ABC Australia television service in the Asia Pacific region, across 37 countries and territories

Ageism

Buttrose was a captain’s pick by Scott Morrison, selected outside the normal ABC process. When asked about headlines questioning whether 77 was too old to be a CEO or chair — which Buttrose found offensive — she points to the likes of the 79-year-old Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Democrat Senator Nancy Pelosi.

“We can be quite ageist as a nation,” says Buttrose. “People have got skills to bring to bear — could we all just be a bit more adult about it and try to broaden our horizons? Could we just change our attitudes to ageing? Younger people who insinuate I might be a bit older have never got to where I am in life, so they have no idea what it’s like. They should wait until they walk in my shoes before they pass judgement. It’s quite obvious I still have the ability and skills. I haven’t lost my curiosity. We don’t think about age anywhere in very positive ways. You know you can only lead by example, and I hope I’m an example and that people will observe I am a woman of a certain age, but it doesn’t reduce my capacity to do a good job.”

Buttrose says there are benefits in being an older director and supports Minister for Aged Care Ken Wyatt’s notion of a senior’s gap year at 65 because it is now apparent that many people will end up working until they are 80.

“You do learn as you go along,” says Buttrose. “As you get older and get more experience, you do read people a lot better and understand people a lot better. That is a really good skill and you become more discerning. I can pick when people are telling me porkies, as well. I could do that years ago, but I think I do it a lot better now.”

Restoring trust

Buttrose says she found the public hearings in the Senate inquiry unnecessarily aggressive. “It’s not customary for directors of boards to be subjected to that,” she says. “I found some of the questioning very aggressive. I don’t think the directors needed to be treated with such aggression. They are men and women trying to do their best. I understand the reason why they were having a Senate inquiry, but you don’t need to be that aggressive in your questioning.”

Buttrose is critical of the loss of trust in business, politics, sport and other institutions — and of how rules get broken when money is involved. She says the only way to restore trust is by your behaviour. “It starts at the top. You have to understand what ethics are all about — we have to become ethical leaders. The culture or the ethics of the place, the chair, directors, the managing director, all through management structure — it goes all the way down to the bottom. If the top of the structure is an ethical one, then those values permeate the organisation.

The people who work here know that I have their back and if I say I’ll do something, I do it. I try to be very honest in all my dealings.”

On her approach to governance, Buttrose says she is not a paper shuffler. “Make a decision and get on with it,” she says. “I like to make decisions, to work out where we’re going, to think how we’re going to get there — then work out the plan and set off. I’m a believer in running things on time, but within that, making sure we allow time for the things that need a long discussion — prioritising the tasks of the board so we spend time on the things that matter.”

One immediate thing to put right at the ABC was to signal trust in the relationship between the chair and managing director Anderson. Buttrose says it is crucial to have absolute trust in one another.

“The managing director has to know whatever we talk about will remain between us — and he has to do the same thing, whatever I’m saying to him.”

Buttrose and Anderson meet regularly. “We talk very frankly about issues,” she says. “I sometimes make suggestions for him to consider. He tells me what’s on his mind and listens while I give him my thoughts. We know where we want the ABC to go. He’s working on a five-year plan he’ll be announcing in March 2020. So we’ve been talking about that and what we’re hoping to achieve. We bounce ideas around. It’s a very frank discussion — and we have it behind closed doors.”

Buttrose is also hopeful that the case for more secure funding for the broadcaster is being understood, as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) put it recently “in recognition of their role in addressing the risk of under-provision of public interest journalism that generates broad benefits to society”.

On innovation: “We talk a lot about innovation, but I don’t think we’re as innovative as we could be. Small business is innovative, but you couldn’t say big business is. We just lost the fire in our belly. Everyone’s too comfortable. We could market our products so much better overseas than we are. We could be a lot more innovative. Small business is often where you find the best ideas. It’s leadership. We’ve just got to be a little more pushy. We have wonderful scientists and doctors, and medical breakthroughs in Australia. We could do a lot more than we do.”

Recovery mode

In the annual report, Buttrose described the period the ABC has been through as one of “disruptive leadership”. And the problem with disruptive leadership is that it permeates all the way down through an organisation. So how does the chair of an organisation recovering after a disruptive phase respond?

“You take your time,” explains Buttrose. “You listen, you observe and you read, trying to get a real handle on what’s been going on. Then you look at how things are done and you start to make suggestions about doing some things differently, but not too drastically.”

She adds it’s important to respect your colleagues and lead by example. “You’re aware they’ve been through a disruptive time,” she says.

Buttrose says that as an editor, she made sure she got out to meet people in the community, adding that the way to understand people is to mix and talk with them.

She has continued on that path, insisting the ABC board and management get out more. The board has met in Townsville and next year will convene in Darwin.

“You’ve got to get out to the countryside, to the suburbs. You’ve got to look at what the letters to the editor are saying, they’re always a good barometer of what people are thinking.”

That’s one rationale for the ABC’s Australia Talks survey, which asked more than 54,000 people to share their thoughts and feelings on almost 500 questions; plus interviews with 60 community leaders, in collaboration with Canada’s Vox Pop Labs. The aim is to promote a national conversation about the key issues affecting modern life — people’s concerns, health and happiness, and perceptions of their nation. It has proved revealing.

“I feel like the federal election showed that media and politics has become really weighed down in broad and overarching philosophies, which are something to aspire to, but we’re forgetting to talk about the everyday fears and concerns of people,” was how one Australia Talks interviewee put it.

Buttrose emphasises it’s important to not lose sight of one thing. “The ABC is really funded by the Australian people,” she says. “We belong to the Australian people, that’s who we are responsible to. That’s why it’s very important everybody at the ABC understands our job is to serve the people of Australia. It doesn’t matter what we think about all of these things, we have to think about what they think.”

Report card

Launched in 1932 by Prime Minister Joseph Lyons as the Australian Broadcasting Commission, the first ABC chair was Charles Lloyd Jones. The Australian Broadcasting Act 1942 (Cth) provided for it to be fully editorially independent, including in its broadcast of political speech. Board duties are set out in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983. Current directors are Buttrose, Ferguson, Joe Gersh, Peter Lewis, Donny Walford FAICD, Georgie Somerset FAICD, Vanessa Guthrie MAICD, staff-elected representative Jane Connors, and MD David Anderson.

The 2018–19 inquiry by the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee into allegations of political interference in the ABC, examined issues including conduct of board and chair, board structure, composition and appointments, and the role of funding uncertainty in facilitating political influence. It took submissions and questioned current and former directors. Its report, released on 1 April, provided insight into the board’s decision-making processes on managing CEO performance and relationships in a highly political context.

The federal government did not support four of its six recommendations. It rejected the inquiry’s call to amend selection criteria under the Act to require at least two directors demonstrate substantial media experience/knowledge, saying there was already scope within current processes.

On a fifth, relating to greater funding certainty, it noted: “in a rapidly changing media environment, the ABC has greater funding certainty than any other media organisation in the nation” — and remains exempt from the government-wide efficiency dividend.

On a recommendation the board report to the minister on lessons learned and steps taken to guard against similar occurrence, the government noted this was a matter for the ABC board.