Peter Coleman: Guthrie sacked over an impossible job

Like Fred Hillmer at Fairfax Media and Kim Williams at News, Michelle Guthrie had a near impossible job at the ABC and in many respects it's amazing she managed the half of it, writes Peter Coleman.

As one-time heads of the three media organisations, each had an audience problem driven by the commercial ambitions of Facebook and Google, directly impacting revenue for two of them.

But for the ABC chief - who was sacked this week over criticisms of her management style - and others before her, things were always a little different: Despite the so-called independence built into the ABC charter, you upset the government at your peril. And Michelle Guthrie's ABC - 'your ABC' - upset the government and its allies bigtime.

Forget that she - like Hillmer and Williams elsewhere and before - had made the most relevant and necessary changes to organisations hugely challenged by technology and the rise of the social platforms; it matters little if you can't keep enough of the stakeholders onside.

Nothing new about bosses who make necessary cuts and changes being unpopular with staff, but big name opinion leaders at the ABC took advantage of their public profiles to lay into Guthrie today with a vengeance. Phillip Adams - who writes a column for News as well as presenting programmes for the ABC - calling the former Google executive "utterly charmless".

That's tough, but goes with the job. The problem was that Guthrie's ABC also embarrassed the Australian government... which funds it and has the ear of its board, despite supposed independence.

And to complete the circle, at least partially, there's News Corp, which has been criticised - not merely by the ABC - for being increasingly a player in the news it reports. Central to this lately has been ABC political correspondent Andrew Probyn, who got upwards rather than sideways promotion after Guthrie had reportedly been worded up on the government's unhappiness with him.

Recently, Probyn has drawn media attention over a report which offered an insight into the recent push to unseat prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. Reports in News' titles had Probyn blaming Seven West owner Kerry Stokes, while drawing their own executive chairman Rupert Murdoch out of the spotlight.

Today, News' The Australian - in a report full of the commentary of "sources" - takes credit for a second meeting of the ABC board, "prompted" by their questioning, following which it says directors passed a 'no confidence' vote.

News has waged a persistent campaign against the ABC, doubly reviled as a competitor funded by the public purse.

Michelle Guthrie is the inevitable casualty, but leaves with a sound programme of restructuring to her credit, something which former newspaperman Mark Day, in a column yesterday in The Australian, was gracious to acknowledge and admit she will get little credit for.

Pity career ABC executive David Anderson, who gets the interim job but might be well advised to keep clear of the poisoned chalice on a permanent basis.