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A talk with Mark Scott

Mark Scott

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host Matt Smith and today we have an interview with Mark Scott, the Managing Director of the ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This interview took place on Wednesday 20th of July, ten or so hours after Rupert Murdoch gave evidence before a parliamentary committee to answer questions relating to the phone hacking scandal. Due to the timely nature, it is presented with little editing.

Mark Scott, Managing Director of the ABC, thank you very much for your time today. My first question for you is with the phone hacking scandals in the UK, and it's just kicking up right now – most of it happened last night with Rupert Murdoch having to answer a lot of questions related to it, questions on the conduct of the press and calls for greater accountability are also being put forward. How much do you think the news landscape will change and how much should it change?

Mark Scott:

Well, there are good tough questions for the media in all of this. I think if you operate in the media, it's an area of rights and responsibilities, you know, I think a free press, operating well, is a great tonic for democracy, to hold those in power accountable, to make sure there's a transparency in how our institutions operate. This is all very important. I think it's important, remembering on the News of the World saga, that it was journalism that brought these journalistic excesses to light and I think a tremendous sustained piece of investigative journalism by The Guardian enabled us to understand exactly the level of corruption as it existed. You want to be careful, I think, in reacting to these changes, you don't want to create an environment that makes it difficult for journalism to do its work. But it's not simply a case of journalists having rights and freedoms, there are responsibilities that go with it as well. And I that centrally goes to ethical behaviour, lawful behaviour, being thoroughly accountable for the work we do. So I welcome an engaged and spirited debate about the rights and responsibilities of journalism, the accountability of journalism, the regulatory framework in which we operate and I think all in all that will be a positive thing, even though this has been a dreadful, dreadful story.

Matt Smith:

Do you think that it is a case of that though? Do you think that accountability is going to happen, or do you think that as we go on, journalism is going to need to be a field that holds itself responsible?

Mark Scott:

I think that it's a critical debate. I think there's an argument that says that the best regulation, if it works well, is self regulation, but it's got to have teeth, it's got to be seen to be significant and to have consequences if there's failure, and I think there's been a self-regulatory failure in the UK. The ABC has quite a rigorous self-regulatory framework here, that we take very seriously, that our Board is engaged with, and there are some external accountabilities as well, through ACMA. So I think the debate as to the extent to which you regulate externally, or ensure that you have significant self regulation that is meaningful – I think that's exactly the kind of debate that we'll now have in light of this.

Matt Smith:

So you think it's a case of, and I'm using this very broadly when I say this, do you think it's a case of one rotten apple in the tree, or do you think there are problems throughout journalism?

Mark Scott:

Well, you know, I suspect that there are some aspects of The News of the World saga that are somewhat idiosyncratic to that most atypical newspaper market and I don't think people are realistically suggesting that all that is happening in Australia and we just haven't found it. The extent to which the media needs to be responsible and accountable for its behaviours, I think that's a significant issue everywhere and I suppose I'd say that what this does is affects the brand of journalism generally. I think most people would say that there are journalistic excesses, that privacy is not respected as much as it should be, that the media takes a view that getting the story at any cost is worthwhile and I think in a sense we will need to demonstrate that we are good stewards of the public's trust if we are to remain credible, and I do think that in this changing media landscape where your audience has so much choice, so much material available, there will be benefits to those media organisations who demonstrate that they are reliable and trustworthy sources of information, and I think that will be a brand value that will be increasingly important. So I think organisations, certainly like the ABC will look to be able to demonstrate that we are deserving of that trust with the public.

Matt Smith:

But as you say, the ABC is very deserving of that trust but at the same time, it's a public broadcaster, it doesn't have to chase advertising or ratings to some extent – it's fully funded by the public. Do you see that as being a distinctive thing about the ABC that you have to your advantage?

Mark Scott:

Oh, I think that certainly because we don't have to chase every ratings point or every newspaper sale, does mean we're in a privileged position, I appreciate that and understand that. But I think what we can see through The News of the World experience that just simply having a mindset about get any story that will sell, well that can be short term thinking because that was certainly the driving model that appears with the News of the World – get the most sensational story you can get, it doesn't matter how you get it, it will sell a lot of newspapers. Well, it may have sold a lot of newspapers, but that newspaper is now out of business. And brands can be destroyed, overnight, by dubious decision making, by a failure of ethics, a failure of culture. And I suppose the challenge is, even for those organisations that are acting in a very commercial environment, the News of the World lesson would be that failures in these ethical areas can lead to very harsh commercial costs as well.

Matt Smith:

Sooner or later we're going to be faced with a world without Rupert, so to speak. How do you think that world will look?

Mark Scott:

Well, I think you talk to a lot of different people and you'll get a lot of different speculation on it. I think one of the interesting things that's emerged through this and Rupert Murdoch said it in his evidence last night, that newspapers are an increasingly small percentage of the News Corporation portfolio of interests. And I think that's actually been a key to the success of News Limited overall, that they have multiple streams of income that have allowed them almost to protect their newspapers because of the big money that's been made through Fox Studios and Avatar, through Fox News in the States, through satellite networks through Europe – they have streams of different incomes and so the newspapers have been protected. I think the question in the medium to long term about News Limited is whether in fact those shareholders think that the power that newspapers have bought is worth the drag that exists almost on earnings as a consequence of those, and a number of those News Limited newspapers lose significant amounts of money and I think there would be an argument that some would say they're only kept there because Murdoch and the Murdochs like them, if in fact you were simply driving that company on a shareholder value equation, you might say that the newspapers don't fit. Now, if the newspapers don't fit for News Limited, are there other buyers for those newspapers? There was speculation today that would Lachlan Murdoch be a buyer for The Australian newspaper operations. Who knows? But I think the current scenario that says those newspapers had been in a very protected cove in News Corporation, a protected, sheltered harbour in stormy seas, that won't be the case in the future. And I think there will be tougher questions asked about whether News Corporation remains News Corporation or whether in fact it effectively becomes Entertainment Corporation, and there's not the place for the newspapers in the future. But only time will tell on that.

Matt Smith:

Do you think that's also why it was so easy to get rid of News of the World? To shut them down.

Mark Scott:

Well, it was still making good money for them, but as Murdoch suggested last night, it only really represented one per cent of the business. A very different call to close down Fox Studios or Fox News or the Fox Network in the States. And I read some statistics that suggest that over the last decade or more, they're about a third of the size of the impact of the overall earnings of the organisation. Because it's a big conglomerate media entity. And that's a contrast to an example in an Australian context to Fairfax, that has diluted its dependence on the Herald and the Age, but still newsprint absolutely dominates the Fairfax revenues, whereas it doesn't dominate the News Limited revenue, News Corporation revenues in the same way.

Matt Smith:

One thing that Rupert Murdoch spoke last night was about competitive press and transparent society and how important that sort of thing was. Is media transparency an important concept in Australia and does media need to be more transparent here?

Mark Scott:

Yeah, but it depends on what you mean by transparency. I mean, I feel that we run really quite a transparent operation here. Journalists anywhere, they don't disclose their sources but you know, we're not paying for interviews, we're not paying for talent, we're certainly not paying for teams of private investigators and things like that. So I think we're pretty open about our processes whilst protecting our sources. I think it will be interesting to see whether in fact there are broader changes that other media organisations feel that they need to be more open, where in the past it's been more dark arts. But again, time will tell.

Matt Smith:

Where do you see ABC's place in holding the media accountable for what it reports?

Mark Scott:

Well, I hope… I suppose two things. Firstly, we've just got to look to our own standards, and our own performance. We have clear editorial policies, we have strong internal system of program reviews, editorial audits, I think significantly my role is Managing Director but also Editor in Chief. I'm held accountable at a Board level but also through Senate Estimates Hearings on our performance and there isn't a media organisation in the country that has its editorial performance under greater scrutiny than the ABC. We're sometimes criticised for what we do but there's no sense that we operate in secret around that, or we're not… that questions aren't asked for how we perform. As for our role in keeping the rest of the media accountable, I suppose you've got a program like Media Watch that I think has made an important contribution now over several decades, around the media's role, but we aren't the watchdog, we aren't the regulator, that's not the role we were meant to play. Fundamentally our role is to deliver quality news and current affairs for our audience. That's what we're funded to do, that's what we need to do, that's our key role.

Matt Smith:

I think Media Watch could easily go for more than fifteen minutes a week.

Mark Scott:

Yeah, that's a… people say that. I must say one of the things I think is good about Media Watch is that they get a lot of material, they do a lot of work on it, and then they kind of hone it down to a few key issues and I think the discipline of the relatively small time slot means that it's universally good quality and I think Jonathan and his team do a terrific job. I don't always like the stories that they do, you know, on us, but that's part of the culture here, that we allow them to be as critical around the performance of the ABC as they are around anyone else if that's what the circumstances call for.

Matt Smith:

Is there enough of a distinction between reporting the news and making the news in Australia?

Mark Scott:

Now, what do you mean by reporting and making?

Matt Smith:

Well, reporting is reporting on events that happen, making means creating and actively taking a role in letting those events happen.

Mark Scott:

I think there'll be ongoing debate and discussion about that. To what extent is the press gallery part of the story? Or simply reporting on the story?

Matt Smith:

Rallies over carbon tax…

Mark Scott:

Yeah, look I think there's an argument around that and people have held different views on it. I suppose I just look at our performance and I go, we're there to report and that's what we look to do. I think there is an increased… you know, part of what we're seeing at the moment in this crowded media landscape, how do you cut through? How do you stand for something different? And I think you can see it in The Australian, I think you can see it on commercial media too, commercial radio, that sense of you cut through by having a point of view, having a perspective, having an opinion and driving that hard. That's not our place, that's not what we want to do, not to say that we won't have programming that creates news, like Q and A will regularly create news, but that's through the integrity and bona fides of the program rather than deciding simply that's what we're going to do in advance.

Matt Smith:

I do have one question about The Australian Network, being the free to air international channel operated by the ABC at the moment. Why is the ABC better suited to operate such a service, rather than Sky News?

Mark Scott:

I can't comment on that, that's currently under tender and I haven't been making public comments on it and I can't make public comments on it.

Matt Smith:

OK, OK. What programs do you watch?

Mark Scott:

Ah, good question. Look, I watch a slate of news and current affairs. Like many Australians on Monday nights I just sit and watch the night through, that great slate of programs. I enjoy the comedies on Wednesday night. I thought the terrific drama that we did on Ita Buttrose and Cleo was fantastic. I enjoyed the opening of Crownies the other night, so I like it when we do new drama. I watch some of the crime stuff but not too much of the crime stuff really. So I like news and current affairs, comedy, drama, you know, a bit of sport. Pretty normal.

Matt Smith:

OK. Do you venture off the ABC?

Mark Scott:

Yeah, from time to time. At times I think I should do it a little bit more, to see what others are doing. I mean, I lived in America for a couple of years so I watch American sport, I watch the baseball from time to time, and see what ESPN are up to. I think they're a very innovative broadcaster. I've got three teenage girls so at times we will have the backdrop of the latest reality TV… so I walk through the room and there's a Masterchef or there's a Biggest Loser happening, or… They all love Offspring – I live in a house of women and they all love Offspring and so you know, I get a flavour of what's going on. I'm a fan of what pay TV in America has done, creatively in recent years. I watched all of The West Wing, I'm working through The Wire at the moment, and, yeah, programs like that.

Matt Smith:

How much of the ABC gets its inspiration from the BBC?

Mark Scott:

Oh look, to a degree, I mean, we've worked in partnership with the BBC for eighty years, but the reality is, they have a lot more money, delivering to far fewer people. They have none of the geographical challenges that we face here. So you can try and emulate the BBC or it can drive you a little bit crazy because they're resourced in a way that we're not. I think we do our things in our way and when we do our programs well, when we do a good Australian drama, we connect in a way that a BBC drama won't connect here I think. So we look at them but we don't get too spooked by what it is they try to do.

Matt Smith:

Can I ask about the Australian content that you try to get here? It seems to be very distinctive and I find that the ABC goes to lengths that the other networks wouldn't to develop comedies and dramas, as you say, so is that something that you're actively promoting?

Mark Scott:

Yeah, absolutely. I think the "A" is for Australian in the ABC, it's part of our distinctiveness. I think if you look ahead, one of the things we may have to deal with as a country is the arrival of this vast amount of global content, cheaply available on networks, a lot of it available on line. How are we distinctive in that place? Well, part of the way you're distinctive is to create and develop great Australian content. We've got more money from the Commonwealth around drama and so where people see a lot of that, you know, Crownies is the latest. We've got The Slap coming up later this year, which is premiering at the Melbourne International Film Festival in coming days. I think in comedy we've got a long track record of working with great people and developing talent. I think Kath and Kim, The Chaser, Laurence Leung is wonderful, I think Chris Lilley is clearly a genius, and the fact that we've been able to take some risks on that talent. I think commercial broadcasters face the challenge that they need to be making money from day one, so there's not the same appetite for risk, and not the same patience to let the talent develop, that we have. And I think for someone like Chris Lilley, it's been great to see that talent develop and to give him the creative space that he needs to do that.

Matt Smith:

Under your leadership the ABC has made great lengths and great progress in becoming a digital channel and moving content online as well. What direction is the ABC going to take in those areas, and do you see that as a big part of the future?

Mark Scott:

I think we're still working some of that through of course. We're currently chock a block with the spectrum – there'll be no more television channels unless we get additional spectrum. I think there is more that we can do online and at the moment we're just doing some hard thinking about what it means to work in a fully digital world including a world of fast broadband everywhere. I think you can expect to see more growth in digital radio. One of the things I pushed in the lecture last night was our desire not to deliver a split level service, where there's a superior ABC service available in the city than there is in the bush. I think digital radio gives us a chance to expand and tailor our radio offerings to our audiences. So you can expect to see more growth there. The other thing I think we'd say is that I think we're just beginning to explore the way that this new media creates an opportunity to deliver in partnership with audience a genuine commitment to user-generated content, a partnership with the audience in news gathering and reporting, the ability to be able to tap into more Australian stories in more places in the country and in a sense we become a distributor of content as much as a creator of content. I think we're learning all the time. We're learning through our advances in social media, our experiments on Twitter and on Facebook, our ability to find new ways of engaging the audiences and, you know, people ask me where the future is and the answer is, you don't actually quite know where it is, you just know the direction it's in. And you know the direction will be around creating distinctive content in a content saturated world, using the technology to genuinely engage in partnership with audience. And I think there will be areas where increasingly we'll just look for the ABC to deliver, because the commercial market won't be able to deliver.

Matt Smith:

In a recent address to the press club, Julia Gillard told reporters "don't write crap". It was met with a laugh but there was a lot of seriousness in that sort of thing. What advice would you give to people who are trying to become journalists?

Mark Scott:

I still think there will be a great thirst for knowledge and insight. I think one of the interesting things is, you can see through social media, the growth of blogs, websites and the like, is that people are getting hungrier for information. The more that's there, the more that they want and I think, you know, the Prime Minister is right. You know, people will be looking for, and relying on, journalists to deliver information that is accurate, that is credible, that is authoritative, and then the world of wailing and conflicting voices can be trusted, and so I would think the challenge for journalists is not to be distracted by the noise, but for aspiring journalists in particular to get those craft skills, to be able to break a story and then be able to communicate a story effectively, to be energetic, to be able to ask lots of questions, to be able to craft a narrative structure that takes an audience with you. I think the craft skills of journalism will still hold people in great stead in the years ahead.

Matt Smith:

Mark Scott, thank you for your time today.

Mark Scott:

It's a pleasure.

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