Flat White

The curious case of Joe Gersh and his defence of Ita Buttrose

28 November 2021

11:17 AM

28 November 2021

11:17 AM

The repeated efforts of ABC Director Joe Gersh to defend his Chairperson, Ita Buttrose, are as laughable as they are futile. 

They also raise interesting questions relating to good governance and the self-proclaimed ‘exceptionalism’ of the ABC itself.

Can anyone name another Chairperson in either the public or public sectors who has been as heavily and repeatedly defended as Ita Buttrose by one of her fellow directors?

Not for the first time — and likely not the last, Victorian lawyer and property millionaire, Joe Gersh, has been vigorously defending Buttrose — this time against what he claims was a ‘disrespectful’ attack by former ABC director Michael Kroger against Buttrose. 

It is highly unusual for directors to publicly defend their chairpersons and the very act of doing so diminishes the authority of chairs to defend themselves. 

Kroger, speaking on Sky News Australia, described Buttrose as a ‘terrible failure’ in her $200,000 a year role as chairperson of the national broadcaster.

There are many people deeply concerned about evident declining standards of the ABC who would agree that the broadcaster has morphed into a strident and decidedly unsubtle anti-government force within the national media landscape. 

Whatever the merits of the Kroger comments about Buttrose, it is clear she has badly miscalculated her most recent attack on the federal government over the ABC’s complaint handling procedures.

Buttrose claimed that the decision of the Senate Communications Committee to inquire into public disquiet over the ABC’s complaint handling process was “an attack on the broadcaster’s independence.”

This is nonsense. We know it, Buttrose knows it and the government knows it.  It is nothing of the sort.  The bid by Senator Andrew Bragg to convene a senate committee inquiry (since defeated in the parliament) into ABC complaint handling is entirely within the scope of the Senator’s accountabilities and is long overdue.   

The fact the broadcaster itself is conducting its own inquiry into the matter does not negate the need for an ‘arm’s length’ investigation because the public — who fund the broadcaster — is not satisfied the internal inquiry will be open and transparent.

Bragg’s decision and the Buttrose response to it, represent merely the latest skirmish in a long-running and bitter war between the ABC and the hand that feeds it.  Each time Buttrose is attacked for criticising the government, reliable Joe is there ready with his fawning defence of his Chairperson. It is now comical and reflects poorly on both of them.

There are two important observations to make about the dire relationship between the government and the national broadcaster.

The first is that it is unsustainable and must be repaired in the national interest. The second, and more substantive observation, is that the ABC has manifestly failed to adapt to the increasingly hostile environment in which it operates.

Successive ABC managing directors and chairpersons have preferred to play the ‘victim card’, stridently attacking even the most diplomatic suggestions that the broadcaster could do certain things better to improve its public offering.

Listening to and engaging with those who have complaints, ideas or suggestions can be highly instructive for any organisation. Creating tensions by not engaging in meaningful ways is unproductive and frequently destructive. The ABC appears unwilling or unable to appreciate this reality.

The ABC perpetuates the myth that it is somehow exceptional in the bureaucratic maelstrom of government, never mind the $1.1 billion we provide to the organisation annually. 

Important as it should be – the ABC is no more or less exceptional than the ATO, the armed services or the Bureau of Meteorology. 

Joe Gersh, who appears to have no discernible credentials in the media space, would do well to focus more on meeting the expectations of the Australian public rather than defending the ABC Chair.  

Ita Buttrose is more than capable of doing that herself. 

John Simpson is a Melbourne based company director and a former journalist with ABC radio and television.

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