Inside Story

Taking the arrows

Gaven Morris leaves the job of ABC news director after six of the broadcaster’s most controversial years

Margaret Simons The Media 12 November 2021 2538 words

“At times in that period I really didn’t want to be here anymore,” says Gaven Morris. Bianca De Marchi/AAP Image

There is surely no more thankless job in journalism than news director of the national broadcaster. You’re the target of predictable slings and arrows from government and the subjects of the ABC’s journalism. Audiences have their pet programs and nostalgia for earlier times. You are spending taxpayer money, with all the attendant scrutiny. And the culture wars rage on around you.

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all comes from ABC journalists with king-sized profiles and impressive CVs for whom you will never be sufficiently brave or bold, who will always want more from you. And when you are brave, according to Gaven Morris’s account of his time in the top job, you might not always tell them about it.

It’s just a month since Morris announced he was leaving both the job and the national broadcaster, after six years as the ABC’s director of news, analysis and investigations. His precise exit date, and his successor, have yet to be announced. His predecessor in the role, Kate Torney, also lasted six years, and Morris thinks that’s probably enough for anyone.

In an interview with Inside Story to mark his exit, he describes the job as relentless. “There are 1300 staff at ABC News. It’s a $200 million budget. The news cycle is twenty-four hours. You get really tired in a role like this.”

He is also, he says, not a “mind-the-shop kind of guy.” When he applied for the job he set out his ideas for change and asked not to be appointed if the board didn’t want to go in that direction. He wanted to prioritise digital transformation by bringing the ABC’s websites up to scratch as homes for the best journalism. He had already overseen the organisation’s shift towards continuous news, including the launch of the News 24 television channel, the pet project of the broadcaster’s managing director at the time, Mark Scott.

Although the road has been rocky, most would give Morris a tick on both those achievements. Much to the chagrin of Nine and News Corp, the ABC is now the number one news media website in the country, which is important to its continued claim on the taxpayer’s dollar. Website traffic is evenly spread across age groups, whereas the broadcast presence plays increasingly to children and retirees.

Morris’s internal critics concede this success. But they characterise him as more of a manager than a journalist’s journalist. They see change and platforms emphasised rather than content. But perhaps they don’t know the full story.

Six years is a long time — just how long is evident from all the controversies Morris has weathered. Shortly before he took up the top post, when he was still head of news content, there was the “burnt hands” controversy after the ABC aired asylum seekers’ claims that they had been mistreated by the navy. The ABC took five days to admit that its reporting could have been “more precise” and that it didn’t necessarily accept the asylum seekers’ claims.

Morris was only tangentially involved. The weight of the controversy fell on Torney and managing director Mark Scott. But he learned a lesson. “Taking too long” to resolve controversies has been a “recurring pattern,” he says. “Applying a little more triage to some of our dramas would have assisted us in not letting them get as big as they sometimes got.”

Then there was the filing cabinet full of cabinet documents sent to the ABC, only to be returned to the government after a few not particularly earth-shaking stories. There was the closing of the Drum opinion website, and the end of Lateline.

At times the organisation has seemed to be fighting internal battles as much as external ones. There was a bitter clash with former economics editor Emma Alberici, for example — something Morris says he is still not willing to discuss in detail.

More recently, during the controversies over successive Four Corners programs, some of the background briefing and leaking has come from inside the ABC, and against Morris. The delayed screening of a report on prime minister Scott Morrison’s QAnon-following friend, for example, was attributed to alleged political interference — something that Morris denies outright.

All news organisations experience battles between managers and strong-willed journalists, he says. “I think there’s something good about that creative tension… The difference with the ABC is almost every word of it plays out publicly in a way that would never happen at any of the commercial broadcasters or any of the newspaper organisations.”

He goes on: “I like being straight up and honest with people. But when that then gets played out immediately in a leak to a newspaper or a website, it makes you much more reticent than you might otherwise have been. That’s one of the real difficult parts of the ABC culture. I’ve always struggled with that.”

He never doubted the QAnon program would go to air, but the lesson from the burnt hands controversy, and others, is that if a story runs into trouble it is nearly always because it needed a bit more work and a bit more time. The QAnon story needed more of both, and then he approved it.

Then there’s the constant rumble surrounding Q&A, and more recently Four Corners’s “Inside the Canberra Bubble” report, followed by the rape allegations against then attorney-general Christian Porter, which Porter vigorously denies.

Morris has recruited leading political journalists David Speers and Laura Tingle and seasoned investigative journalist John Lyons, and overseen an increase in diversity in the newsroom. He says his team, and its capacity to reflect a broader spectrum of Australian experience, is the thing of which he is most proud.

Reflecting on the six years, Morris is clear about when the organisation was most at risk, and that was during the two and a half years from mid 2016 when Justin Milne was chairman and Michelle Guthrie the managing director.

Guthrie was sacked by the board in 2018, and Milne was forced to resign shortly afterwards after Guthrie revealed he had pressured her to sack journalists — specifically Alberici and political editor Andrew Probyn — because they were supposedly “hated” by the government. Milne was widely known to be a friend of then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Morris says the problems were deeper and of longer standing than the pressure concerning Alberici and Probyn. A “subtle” but implacable pressure was applied over many months.

“When Turnbull came out and said, ‘Well, I’ve never phoned Gaven Morris,’ he’s right about that. I didn’t get phone calls from Turnbull, but what I would notice is that other people would get phone calls that were very similar to the ones I was getting from other quarters… So the [Canberra] bureau would get a phone call from somebody. I would get a phone call from somebody else. Michelle [Guthrie] would get a phone call from somebody else.”

The message was clear, he says. “We’re all getting different phone calls, and the people involved would all be able to say that they never talked to so-and-so. But on a number of occasions, it was clear to me what was happening. It was quite a dangerous time in terms of the editorial independence of the ABC because of the different characters involved and the dynamic that was at hand.”

Morris resists my several attempts to get him to identify these callers. Board members, cabinet ministers or others? He apologises for “speaking in tongues.”

He also says that sometimes, when asked to do something he disagreed with during that time, he would “just put it in the bottom drawer and ignore it… Quite often someone would come back quite angry because I hadn’t done it. And I would say well, frankly, that’s my choice, and that’s what I’ve chosen to do.

“I thought, ‘I either leave or I’ve just got to put my shell on and sort of trudge on.’ I thought, ‘If my only job in doing this role at this time is to try to protect the people in the news division and hope that somehow this gets sorted out down the track, then I’ll hang on.’ If I left, I didn’t know what would happen behind me, even though at times in that period I really didn’t want to be here anymore.”

When the controversy over Milne’s behaviour broke, some reporters were “quite angry” with Morris for not having told them about the pressure. But he saw his role as “taking the arrows into my own body. They should not know. There should be no question of them changing a story because of that pressure, so I kept it from them and I have no regrets about that.”

He credits Guthrie with seeing through a necessary restructure of the organisation around genres rather than platforms. “She did that with great verve and great passion, and it needed to be done.” Her departure was “brutal,” he says.

Morris was brought back to the ABC from Al Jazeera to drive the move to continuous news and launch the News 24 channel, all on a tiny budget. He soon realised it would be the leanest and most underfunded news channel on the planet.

The problems were exacerbated when Julia Gillard called an early election in 2010 after overthrowing Kevin Rudd. Scott had promised the new channel would be launched in time to report the campaign, and the early date meant the channel was deprived of three months of practice and dry runs.

On day two of the campaign came the awkward and iconic encounter between Gillard and Rudd in which they were purported to have made up but could hardly look at each other. “We totally failed,” says Morris. “We couldn’t get camera to it. We couldn’t get a live signal out of it, and it was the picture of the day. And, you know, it was our first real major flop for the news channel, and it was fairly dispiriting.”

Other missteps followed. “I often went home feeling gutted and deflated because it wasn’t as good as it needed to be in the beginning, and we were getting pilloried everywhere. People were working so hard and I wanted it to improve. We had live trucks, but no live truck operators. We had technology that wasn’t built for doing live broadcasting… Everybody was learning on the hop.”

The new service was also a “pretty violent revolution” in the culture of the ABC, and plenty of “old salts” among the reporters were expecting it to fail. There were fears that quality would be undermined by the pressure for continuous content.

Nobody now doubts that it needed to be done, says Morris — and the 2019–20 bushfire coverage, bringing together all the parts of the ABC, was as good as any continuous news in the world. “It might have taken us ten years to reach Nirvana, but it was worth the investment.”

With most of Morris’s time in the top job dogged by successive cutbacks in funding after the relative plenty of the Scott years, unpopular decisions were inevitable. He didn’t grieve the Drum, which he felt was simply adding to the ubiquity of opinion. But the decision to axe Lateline, with its shrinking but rusted-on audience of political tragics, was emotionally difficult.

“The impossible task of the ABC is not starting new things but working out how to resource them when your funding is falling.” Audience research showed that Lateline watchers also watched 7.30: in other words, they were being served twice, while in Morris’s view the ABC was under-resourcing investigative journalism. The funding was reallocated to a dedicated investigative unit, producing cross-platform content.

As to current controversies, he rejects the rumble from the government and its fellow travellers in News Corp that the ABC, and Four Corners in particular, has become a haven for “activist” journalism. He signed off on the recent controversial programs and has no regrets.

He also continues to defend the ABC’s three-part documentary on the Luna Park fire, Exposed, despite its being criticised — as well as praised — by an independent review (which I discussed here). Exposed was “an extraordinary achievement,” he says; and while the review should be “reflected on” it is “not the law.”

ABC journalists’ use of social media — and particularly Four Corners reporter Louise Milligan’s tweets about MPs Andrew Laming and Christian Porter — has also been controversial. The ABC has had a code of conduct that governs social media use for some time, so why were reporters allowed to tweet away, sometimes in apparent breach?

Morris says what was needed were the “right mechanisms” — upgraded advice and guidelines now put in place by managing director David Anderson. While Mark Scott encouraged journalists to use the then-new platforms of Facebook and Twitter, Morris says that has changed, and that reporters “are not required to be on social media for their work… so don’t bother unless you want to personally, in which case it’s your own personal realm.”

He is deeply disillusioned with social media, which has carried claims that he is a Liberal Party stooge, including false theories that he is related to Grahame Morris, John Howard’s former chief of staff. “It doesn’t reflect any sort of rational or fair-minded or even intelligent conversation very much anymore… Unfortunately, it’s one of the innovations of the digital age that hasn’t aged well.”

If Morris has a clear plan after he finishes up, he isn’t detailing it, talking about possible consultancy work. What about regrets?

“I am not a regrets kind of guy,” he says, but he regards one issue as “still a work in progress.” It is the quest to overcome the worldview of most journalists and better reflect the views of the Australian population. This is not a matter of left–right bias, he says. That is not how most Australians think. The ABC should spend less time worrying about the “noise” that comes from the Australian and its News Corp stablemates.

Rather, he worries whether the ABC tunes in to the breadth of experience and views of the audience — working-class people, people living with a disability, people most journalists never meet. He worries, for example, about whether the organisation adequately reflected the views of the 30 per cent of Australians who voted “no” in the marriage equality referendum. “I’m not talking about religious zealots. I’m talking about genuine Australians who have a point of view that’s different to the 70 per cent. Are we at least making sure that is reflected? I don’t necessarily think we struck that right.”

Otherwise, he thinks he is leaving the organisation on a high. David Anderson has “restored order” after the Guthrie–Milne trauma. The ABC is once again “confident, certain of its mission. Morale is good. Resources are being managed well, good programs are being made. It didn’t have to turn out like that, but it has.” •

The publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.