Kerry O’Brien: “It is the content itself on which the ABC will live and die”

As Ita Buttrose departs ABC, a former ABC presenter expresses fears about the direction of the public broadcaster.

Former ABC presenter and renowned journalist Kerry O’Brien has warned ABC is at risk of losing its direction by drifting closer to a commercial model, chasing younger viewers and lacking ‘clarity of thought.’

Speaking to ABC Radio as Ita Buttrose departs the broadcaster as ABC Chair, O’Brien said ABC management was under intense pressure.

“I don’t think the times have ever been more complex, certainly in my lifetime, than they are now. We live at a level of intensity that I think is unprecedented. We feel overwhelmed by so many of the challenges that we see governments not particularly facing. We get a sense that democracy is under threat. We have a sense of living on shifting sands. And we shouldn’t be able to look to our public broadcaster with confidence as one of the beacons of our democracy that we can rely on,” O’Brien said.

He referred to a “sense of unhappiness and unease about the state of play at the ABC” noting that some problems have risen to the surface.

“I wouldn’t want to be the head of the ABC right now. I wouldn’t want to be the head of News and I wouldn’t want to be the head of Programming, because I think they are just extraordinarily difficult and complex jobs. But the thing that I would observe most, without talking specifically about Ita, is that the greater the complexity you face in an organisation like the ABC, the more vital the clarity of thought that you’re applying for that complexity,” he said.

“And I think at times the ABC has been -I think right now- it is still in danger of losing its way. I think that they have got themselves too caught up at times in being more fixated on marketing and on demographics of younger audiences versus older audiences, rather than applying that kind of clarity of thought to where the really important landmarks are… you know, the sort of foundational aspect of the ABC which is that no matter what the means of delivery of your content is, it is the content itself on which the ABC will live and die.”

He added, “I think over a long period of time the ABC has drifted more and more close to a commercial model. I think that there’s been at times a sense of panic about the drift of traditional audience …. I don’t know whether marketers have had too much influence in the place.”

O’Brien was also not in favour of ABC journalists using social media for personal opinions, particularly because their comments could impact independence in future news reporting.

“If you’re going to work for a public broadcaster, particularly in relation to your work, if you’re going to use social media, or any media, if you’re going to make any kind of public comment…. your role is one of reporting news and analysing news. It’s not expressing your personal opinions on a story or on issues more broadly.”

3 Responses

  1. When has an ABC journalist ever been held to account for violations of editorial policy? Other than violating the social media policy which is standard corporate stuff and designed to be enforced.

    1. At Senate sessions they have confirmed journos were reprimanded or issued warnings (I am paraphrasing). SBS has fired people in the past. ABC Radio has a current case where social media impacted their on air term but let’s not get into that here.

  2. He speaks a lot of truth. Always has. But the ABC became fixated on chasing audiences and ratings and demographics a long time ago. But I get, as a viewer, closer to Kerry’s age than the audience they are wanting to attract, that unless the ABC grabs and keeps a younger audience, it will be irrelevant, as the generations ‘move on’, so to speak. Social media is not the only answer.

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