ABC chairman James Spigelman tells Tony Featherstone the only constant in the media landscape now is the ability to change quickly.

    Directors could be forgiven for avoiding media boards. Share prices of most listed media companies have slumped as readers move from print to online media and far fewer advertising dollars follow them. Fairfax Media and News Corporation in Australia have announced big restructures, and Fairfax in particular faces an uncertain future as mining billionaire Gina Rinehart jostles for board seats.

    The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is not immune to the incredible forces shaping the country’s media landscape. It, too, faces huge threats and opportunities as media consumption habits change, new competitors emerge and Federal Government budgetary pressures intensify.

    In truth, nobody knows for sure how Australia’s media industry will evolve in this era of digital convergence. It seems unthinkable that the ABC’s biggest competitor could in a few years be Google’s YouTube, or that the national broadcaster might one day fill a void for quality print journalism left by a shrinking print media industry. A daily ABC newspaper, anyone?

    The Hon James Spigelman AC QC has the delicate task of chairing the ABC at a time of great internal change, cultural transformation and market uncertainty. The long-serving former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales began a five-year term as ABC chairman on April 1. Chairing the ABC is one of the most important and prominent governance roles in Australia.

    Spigelman has big shoes to fill. He replaced one of Australia’s most experienced chairmen, Maurice Newman AC FAICD, the former chairman of the Australian Securities Exchange and a veteran director of more than 40 organisations.

    Under Newman’s chairmanship, the ABC launched several new channels, including ABC News 24, substantially expanded its online presence well ahead of many media competitors and received a significant funding boost from the then Rudd Government.

    Under Spigelman, the ABC must continue to become a more adaptive, innovative organisation that can change rapidly, build on the good work from the past five years and ensure the ABC meets its charter.

    The ABC, of course, will never please everyone. For every Aunty-hater who thinks it is too left-wing, there is another who believes it has become too commercial and that its editorial integrity and programming quality have suffered. But beneath the headlines is a story of innovation and cultural transformation, led by managing director Mark Scott, who was reappointed for another five-year term from July 2011. To achieve what the ABC has, without significant industrial unrest, is remarkable given its history of a change-resistant, unionised culture.

    Spigelman is acutely aware of the ABC’s need to have a culture that is aligned with organisational strategy and corporate innovation.

    "I see one of the board’s main contributions as ensuring the ABC continues to adapt to this extraordinarily changing technology landscape," he says. "It has made excellent progress in this regard under Scott and his team, and more work is needed. It is very hard for any media company to predict where things will go or what the overlaps between technology and media will look like. The only constant is the need to be able to change quickly."

    In some respects, Spigelman seems an unlikely ABC chairman. His governance experience is in chairing much smaller arts boards, notably as chairman of the National Library of Australia Council (from which he recently retired), chairman of the Film Finance Corporation and deputy chairman of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He also served on the boards of two funds management companies in the early 1990s.

    His political experience was gained in the 1970s as senior adviser and principal private secretary to the Prime Minister and as Permanent Secretary of the Commonwealth Government’s Department of the Media.

    Spigelman has more eclectic interests than most chairmen. He has written books about secrecy in government, medieval history and human rights, and co-authored another on nuclear energy. Over 40 years, he has written 170 published articles on topics ranging from politics to social issues, Australian, British and Chinese history, and the law. He was a radical student during his days at the University of Sydney in the 1960s and campaigned for the rights of Aborigines.

    His strong interest in social justice must please ABC stakeholders who long for a broadcaster that better champions the rights of minority groups and the disadvantaged. It seems Spigelman is more intent on ensuring the ABC continues its good work, rather than reinventing strategy or meddling in management.

    His job as chairman is hard enough; the ABC board has had significant renewal in recent years, with four new members appointed since 2009 and another to be announced shortly. An eight-member board is arguably small for an organisation with $1.24 billion in assets in 2009-10 and one the largest footprints in Australian society.

    Spigelman’s interest in social justice in some ways overshadows his record as a change agent as Chief Justice and Lieutenant-Governor of NSW from 1998 to 2011. Under his leadership, the number of female judges at the NSW Supreme Court increased from two to 10, court delays were reduced and more cases were heard.

    Spigelman also presided over several landmark rulings, which included the James Hardie decision in the NSW Court of Appeal in 2010 (he declined to comment in this interview, on the James Hardie or any other legal cases that affect directors).

    The Polish-born Spigelman’s interest in social change was shaped during his early childhood. His Jewish family lived in a region near the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. The Spigelmans survived the Holocaust and moved to Australia in 1949, when James was three. "The importance of social tolerance was one of my key childhood values," Spigelman says. This is a precious guiding value to govern a broadcaster that has a central role in everyday Australian life.

    The 66-year-old still practices law as an international commercial arbitrator. He is married with three children – a son in Beijing and daughters in New York and Canberra.

    Here in an edited extract of his interview with Company Director:

    Company Director (CD): What attracted you to the role of ABC chair?

    James Spigelman (JS): It is an institution I have grown up with and always regarded very highly. The ABC enriches the lives of so many Australians, helps maintain our national identity and promotes social inclusion. I wanted to be part of it. Thirteen years as Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court was enough for me personally, professionally and for that organisation. I left when nobody wanted me to leave, but I do know people change their minds.

    CD: How have you found the ABC role so far?

    JS: It is very early days. Like most chairmen who are new to an organisation, I have spent plenty of time listening, learning and meeting staff around Australia, and talking to people in the Government and the Opposition. I’m impressed with the organisation under Scott’s leadership and that there has been so much significant change without a great deal of noise or controversy. The ABC has shown it can find significant internal efficiencies to fund initiatives, such as freeing up $20 million to fund the creation of ABC News 24. The staff deserve a lot of credit. For example, TV news studios that used to have 14 people now have four, thanks to production innovations. It shows what can be achieved when people work together to find better ways to do things.

     What do you hope to achieve in the role?

    JS: I have not arrived at the ABC with any agenda. I do want the ABC board to ensure the organisation’s independence and integrity, built over many years, is maintained and that the board supports management with the job of building an adaptable organisation. I don’t know who the ABC’s major competitor will be in coming years; it may be Google’s YouTube, or iTunes, which already has thousands of radio stations available.

    What I do know is that the ABC must be able to respond quickly to this rapid convergence of different media. We cannot allow fiefdoms and turf battles, which characterise all large organisations to some degree, to impede change. Management has done a good job breaking down these fiefdoms and needs to continue that work. And, we have to learn from our successes and failures. For example, the way news is put together for ABC News 24 is already positively influencing other parts of the ABC.

    CD: Are you satisfied with the quality and editorial balance of ABC programming?

    JS: Balance is something that occurs over a period of time. You can’t expect balance in every ABC program at every time. One program might present a particular point of view and other stakeholders, not just those in minority groups, might feel their perspective is overlooked. I believe the ABC does a good job with its programming and has sufficient editorial balance. Over many years, I have come to realise the incumbent Government and Opposition always have some complaint about the ABC. It’s when people stop complaining that I will need to worry.

    CD: Do you agree with your predecessor, Maurice Newman, that SBS should merge with the ABC to create economies of scale and save costs?

    JS: Such a merger is not on my agenda. It is ultimately a question for the Government, which must decide if the cost saving is worth not having the institutional differentiation achieved by having two government-funded broadcasters.

    CD: Are you worried about cuts in government funding to the ABC, given Federal Budget pressures and the Government’s desire to maintain a budget surplus?

    JS: The ABC goes through long waves of being well funded, reasonably funded and not well funded. Right now there are clear constraints on government funding across the board. This is already affecting the ABC. By and large, under the later years of the Howard Government, and in the early years of the Rudd and then Gillard governments, the ABC has done reasonably well on the funding front and can continue to do well.

    CD: Has the ABC become too commercial in the past five years?

    JS: If by commercial you mean the ABC has strived to do things better, to save costs and produce a stronger editorial product, then yes, we have rightly become more commercial. It is certainly not the case that the ABC will chase ratings or switch to a sponsorship or advertising model.

    CD: What is it like chairing a much larger organisation for the first time?

    JS: It has been a big learning experience. The ABC is a large, complex organisation with many different elements. I have been pleasantly surprised by the ABC’s ability to achieve more with the same resources, and quite impressed by the organisation’s efficiency gains. It sends a good message to ABC stakeholders that the organisation is capable of driving significant internal change and self-funding important initiatives.

    CD: The ABC board has had significant renewal since 2009, with four new directors and another set to join in the next few months. Does that make it harder to chair the board?

    JS: Most of the change in the board was because of natural turnover as directors ended their term, and one director left to work overseas. We have another director joining the board, with an independent panel overseeing that appointment. The ABC chairman has no formal role in that process, which is not entirely satisfactory. I do think there should be scope for the chairman to have more input into who sits around the board table, but that is not for me to decide.

    CD: Apart from managing director Scott, the ABC board only has one director, Julianne Schultz, with a specialist media background. Does the ABC board have enough media experience to deal with this rapidly changing media landscape?

    JS: Yes. It is true other board members do not have a full-time media background. However, our board collectively has significant experience in cultural and social institutions across Australia that is very relevant. I have a media background in many different ways, from writing the first book in the 1970s to advocate for a Freedom of Information Act, to my period as chairman of the Film Finance Corporation, and during my time as barrister. I am confident the ABC board has an appropriate mix of skills to consider the perspectives of a diverse range of stakeholders across Australia in this changing media environment.

    CD: Is there enough cultural diversity on the ABC board, given Australia’s multicultural society?

    JS: From my perspective, I was born in Poland and have had extensive dealings in Asia. My son studies Chinese medicine in Beijing and I regularly travel to Asia. Other directors on the ABC board have close links with Asia and other regions. I don’t believe this is an issue.

    CD: The ABC board now has four women on a seven-member board. They are Julianne Schultz (appointed 2009), Cheryl Bart (2010), Professor Fiona Stanley (2011) and Jane Bennett (2011). What is your take on the gender debate in directorship? Are boards doing enough to drive higher levels of female directorships?

    JS: I can’t judge the progress of other boards in this area, but I understand why there are more female directors on the board of a corporation such as ABC. Women have broken through the glass ceiling in a range of organisations relevant to the ABC, much more than they have in some industries, such as engineering or construction.

    To be honest, I don’t think about the higher number of female directors of the ABC board relative to some other boards. My concern is ensuring the ABC board continues to perform and that the organisation is well governed. That said, I certainly fought to have a much higher representation of female judges at the NSW Supreme Court and dealt with four attorney-generals on this issue.

    CD: Can we expect to see you on more boards in coming years?

    JS: No. My priority now is to do the best possible job as ABC chairman. I don’t intend to accept any commercial board appointments at this time. The ABC takes at least half my time right now and I do some work as an international commercial arbitrator.

    CD: On a personal note, you have a strong background in social justice. Where does that come from?

    JS: I am sure it comes from my parents, who survived the Holocaust. The question of social tolerance was very important throughout my childhood and formed a significant part of my values. Growing up, I heard stories about how my parents and elder brother survived, when they lived in the immediate region near Auschwitz. I always understood the importance of social tolerance in the community.

    CD: How do you relax away from work?

    JS: I write and read a lot, swim and go to the gym, although not as much as I would like. Family is very important; my wife and I have three children who live in Australia and overseas, and are involved in medicine, the law and the public service.

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