becoming the accidental CEO in the most scrutinised job in Australian media”26th February 2021
It’s Monday morning and David Anderson is on his way to work. Once, if you were boss of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, you travelled in a chauffeured government car. Not any more. Anderson is at the wheel of his 14-year-old Toyota Yaris, a vehicle so small and lacking in zip that his nickname for it is “the shopping trolley”. He’s a tall man and the top of his head almost touches the roof as he trundles along city streets towards the ABC’s headquarters at Ultimo in central Sydney.
Anderson isn’t complaining. At least he no longer has to pedal from place to place. He mentions to me, in the passenger seat, that before he started his career at the national broadcaster, he had a job as a courier in the Adelaide CBD, delivering letters and packages by bicycle. One day, he collided with a bus. “The bus didn’t hit me,” he says. “I hit the bus.“
On arrival, we putter into the ABC’s underground car park. Anderson finds a space for the Yaris, switches off the engine and extricates himself from the driver’s side. Besides being long-limbed, he is solidly built, with a friendly expression and diffident demeanour. Now 50, he stepped into the role of ABC managing director in September 2018. He has avoided personal publicity since then, much preferring to talk about the ABC than himself. Being in the spotlight makes him uncomfortable. “I wouldn’t normally do this,” he says of his decision to agree to a profile piece.
But in a way, he feels obliged. The ABC is a taxpayer-funded media conglomerate – a network of TV channels, radio stations and digital services financed by Australians for our mutual benefit. Polls show the national broadcaster is our most trusted source of news. It is also our largest and most influential cultural institution, required by government charter to inform us, entertain us and contribute to our sense of a national identity. He can see that people might be curious about the guy in charge.
From the car park, we enter the building via a lift in the basement. As a non-staffer, I’m supposed to have a visitor’s pass, but Anderson says he hasn’t got me one. “I’m going to break all the rules,” he jokes. “Because I make ’em!” A minute later, possibly having considered how that will look in print, he murmurs in a no-seriously tone: “I’m not a rule-breaker.”
The normally bustling lobby is quiet –many people are working from home during the pandemic – and the mood in the corridors is subdued. The ABC has had some rocky patches in its history, but at no time has its viability looked more threatened than the present. Ongoing funding cuts by the Coalition federal government, in power for 19 of the past 25 years, have resulted in mass retrenchments and significantly diminished programming. In what sometimes looks like a campaign to discredit the ABC, Coalition parliamentarians frequently accuse it of bias or inaccuracy in its journalism, airing their criticisms with maximum fanfare.
Late last year, when federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher sent a letter of complaint about a Four Corners program to Ita Buttrose, chair of the ABC board, he posted the document on Twitter even before Buttrose had had a chance to read it. Earlier this month, when Michael Rowland, co-host of News Breakfast on ABC TV, asked federal Health Minister Greg Hunt why he had attached a Liberal Party logo to a government announcement about the purchase of more COVID-19 vaccine – a reasonable question, since it was the Australian taxpayer, not the Liberal Party, who paid for the vaccine – Hunt accused Rowland of “identifying with the left”. Says Margaret Simons, principal fellow at Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism: “There’s real hostility from the government.“
Anderson took the helm at a particularly fraught moment, after the ousting of previous managing director Michelle Guthrie by Buttrose’s predecessor as chairman, Justin Milne. Guthrie responded by alleging that Milne, a friend of former Coalition prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, had urged her to succumb to political pressure and get rid of journalists the government didn’t like. Milne then resigned in a blaze of headlines. Adding to the tumult, the Liberal Party’s federal council had just voted resoundingly in favour of privatising the public broadcaster.
Some wondered whether mild-mannered, unassuming Anderson had what it took to defend the ABC and rally its demoralised staff. “He can be quite charming and endearing,” says Mark Scott, the managing director before Guthrie. “But the first impression you have of him is that he’s not the leader from central casting, right?”
You could call Anderson the accidental managing director. If Guthrie hadn’t been sacked, he wouldn’t have been thrust into the hot seat. And if he hadn’t ridden his bike into the bus, he wouldn’t have been at the ABC in the first place. The crash happened in 1989, when he was 18. He tells me that after he hit the ground, he saw a fellow courier jump off his own bicycle and run over to him. Anderson was touched: “I thought, ‘Isn’t that lovely?’ ” The other courier picked up Anderson’s backpack, which contained letters for the accounting firm KPMG, and made off with it. Anderson did get some sympathy, though. “A friend up the road said, ‘You need a safer job.’ And her dad was a floor manager at the ABC in Adelaide. He said, ‘Get your résumé together.’ ”
In the photo on Anderson’s first ABC staff card, taken about a week later, his hair hides the nasty bruise on his forehead. “I had hair back then,” he says. Joining the ABC was an enormous thrill, even if he was such a lowly recruit that the other people in the mail room, where he was based, barely acknowledged his existence. His title was “utility attendant”, and one of his duties was to change the tea towels in the kitchenettes in the eight-storey Adelaide office. As he wandered the corridors, “clean tea towels on one shoulder and dirty ones on the other”, catching glimpses of journalists and program-makers at work, he felt as though he had stumbled into another world. “I was fascinated by this place – this magical place.” After only a couple of months, he got his first promotion. “Then I was allowed to consort with ABC staff by actively sorting mail in the mail room.”
If you had said to the young Anderson that he would end up as managing director, he wouldn’t have believed you. Even now, in his third year in the role, he seems not just chuffed but somewhat startled to find himself in such an exalted position. As he points out, he spent almost 30 years rising quietly through the ranks. Then, whooshka, he was the bloke at the top. “From one week to the next, my life changed quite dramatically.”
The way Anderson tells it, the then chairman Milne phoned him at home on a Sunday night and asked whether he would be willing to fill the gap left by the possible exit of Guthrie. Milne wanted an instant decision. “I couldn’t think about it,” Anderson says. “It was, ‘If Michelle goes, will you act in the role for a period of up to six months?’ I said, ‘Yes, of course.’ ”
The next morning, Monday, Milne fired Guthrie. By Thursday, Milne was gone too. The sudden departure of both the managing director and chairman sent shock waves through the ABC and the wider community. “It was a strange period,” says Anderson, recalling his first few days in the job. “There were people picketing outside the building and inside the building about potential political interference into the ABC.”
Within the organisation, trouble had been brewing for some time. Resentment simmered over budget cuts that had forced the axing of highly regarded programs such as Into the Music and Hindsight, and the abolition of more than 1000 jobs in four years. Among the remaining 4000 staff, there was disappointment in Guthrie, a former executive of Google and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, who seemed to her critics to have little real understanding of the ethos of public broadcasting. “The barbarians are not at the gate,” a radio producer told me at the time. “They’re actually in the building.”
Morale at the ABC was at a low ebb when Anderson took over. “He did not inherit it in good shape,” says senior journalist Norman Swan, presenter of the Health Report on ABC Radio National. “Basically, the place was in a mess.”
I get the feeling, as Anderson ushers me into his top-floor office, that he is faintly embarrassed by how big it is. You could park about a dozen Yarises in here. When former ABC TV presenter Kumi Taguchi visited Anderson, she thought he looked lost. “I sensed that he doesn’t need or want that amount of space,” says Taguchi, who now hosts SBS’s Insight. “It’s just not him.”
His neighbour on the top floor is Ita Buttrose, whom Anderson first met when both were guests at the January 2019 Australian of the Year awards ceremony in Canberra. Buttrose hadn’t yet been tapped to replace Milne. Anderson had been filling in as managing director for a few months. He says the seat he found in the auditorium happened to be next to Buttrose’s daughter-in-law, who offered to introduce him to the former magazine editor and media industry grande dame when she returned from doing an interview. “I was a little bit thrown by that, actually,” he says. “I thought, ‘Ita!’ You know, Ita is Australian royalty. I went, ‘Oh no, it’s all right.’ She goes, ‘No, no, no, Ita would like to meet you.’ ”
After the ceremony, he and Buttrose had a chat. Neither knew that later that same evening, Prime Minister Scott Morrison would invite Buttrose to chair the ABC board. Morrison had chosen her even though her name wasn’t on the shortlist of candidates recommended by the nominations panel. “There was no woman on the list,” says a regally smiling Buttrose, 79, when Anderson takes me down the hall to see her. “Remember that. No woman.”
After Buttrose’s appointment, she selected Anderson from the field of contenders vying for the permanent managing director’s position. The pair meet in her office one morning a week. “We’ve got to be able to speak very frankly to each other about all sorts of issues that we wouldn’t discuss outside of here,” Buttrose says. “If the walls could speak! Thank god they can’t.”
Out of Buttrose’s earshot, Anderson tells me he values her counsel – “She has an incredible depth of media experience” – and never approaches their meetings casually. “I think, ‘This is Ita Buttrose. Make sure the shoes are shined.’ ”
The board has overarching responsibility for the ABC, including a duty to protect its independence and integrity. It is Anderson – himself on the board – who actually runs the national broadcaster. “I think Ita is very impressed by his grip on the operation,” says staff-elected board member Jane Connors, who makes the point that Anderson is a details man: “He knows where every cent in the organisation is, and how it’s best deployed.”
“David Anderson did not inherit the ABC in good shape. Basically, the place was in a mess.”
A Senate committee of inquiry into political interference in the ABC found in 2019 that “the problem of politicisation of appointments [to the ABC board] runs deep and wide”, successive governments having bypassed the merit-based selection process outlined in the ABC Act. The committee expressed “grave concern” that, in appointing Buttrose, Morrison had made yet another so-called captain’s pick. As it turns out though, Buttrose isn’t the kind to bend to outside pressure. Anderson makes clear that he has come to regard her as a staunch ally in the battle to fend off meddling politicians: “There is one thing I can guarantee: Ita will never say, ‘David, do this because the government wants it.’ That is never going to happen. She is a journalist at heart.’”
Buttrose’s celebrity diverts attention from Anderson, which suits him down to the ground. He says new acquaintances who learn he is the ABC’s managing director all have the same question: “They ask me what it’s like to work with Ita.” He understands their interest. “If I’m in her presence, I still have a moment of thinking, ‘Wow, this is Ita.’ My mum would be so impressed.”
His parents divorced when Anderson was two years old. After that, he says, “It was just Mum and I. We had a little unit in a suburb called Seaton in Adelaide.” His mother, Christine, a hairdresser, took on other work out of necessity. “I remember her leaving very early in the morning to clean squash courts. I had to be quite independent, get myself ready and wait for the neighbour to take me in to primary school.” He adds: “I wasn’t neglected at all. Mum was just trying to make ends meet.”
Their circumstances changed when Christine fell in love with a man who had a hobby farm in the Mount Lofty Ranges, east of Adelaide. “We moved up there,” says Anderson, who at the age of 12 went from having a minuscule backyard – an area the size of a Yaris, he claims – to having eight hectares in which to roam. “It was amazing.”
“I had to be independent, get myself ready and wait for the neighbour to take me to primary school. I wasn’t neglected … Mum was just trying to make ends meet.”
Soon after they arrived, in February 1983, the property was threatened by what became known as the Ash Wednesday fires, which destroyed thousands of homes and killed 75 people, 28 of them in South Australia. Anderson vividly recalls helping his mother and her partner prepare to defend their house. “The sky went orange and then it started to get dark,” he says. “Then the smoke comes through and you start to get disorientated. We were lucky. In the end, the fire went past us, but it was on three sides of us at one point. We heard the service station blow up.”
The other sound he remembers? The radio, tuned to the ABC, transmitting vital information about fire movement and wind direction. Christine kept it with her all day, and at the most frightening time, when all was darkness and confusion, the voices of the announcers were a comfort to Anderson. “It was, ‘Where’s Mum? Well, I can tell where Mum is because I can hear the radio.’ “
That experience came back to him when vast tracts of south-east Australia went up in flames in the summer of 2019-20. “People turn to us during those times,” he says. “The Australian public turned to us when the fires were happening and they certainly turned to us during the pandemic.” As deaths from COVID-19 mounted last year, and lives were turned upside down by lockdowns and border closures, ABC audiences rose across the board – for radio, television and especially for the ABC News website. “Trust has never been more important,” says Anderson, who learnt something about Australians’ relationship with the ABC when he worked on the switchboard in the Adelaide office.
Callers ranged from the very old to the very young: “If Play School went off the air for some reason, people would ring up and put their kids on the phone.” Whatever their reason for making contact – to complain, bestow praise or just ask a question – those on the line seemed to him to have one thing in common: a feeling of intimate connection with the ABC. “I was hearing in their voices how much it meant to them.”
Anderson is standing in the kitchen of the house in inner-west Sydney he shares with his wife, Sam, and two of the kids in their blended family (two others – a daughter, 18, and son, 15, from Anderson’s first marriage – live in Melbourne). The place is preternaturally tidy, like a display home. “Yeah, no, I tend to be neat,” he says with an apologetic laugh. He points to a clean cereal bowl and chopping board on the draining board by the sink. “Even this bothers me.”
Through glass doors, I can see a well-tended garden, which he says he created from scratch. “Every plant, everywhere on the block, I put in. Gardening is something I’ve always loved.” Lately, though, there hasn’t been much time for pottering in the yard. He is not whingeing – “I am absolutely up for it” – but the truth is that being managing director is a 24-hour-a-day assignment. His phone pings with messages and emails around the clock. “There is no reprieve. You can never turn off. I feel like I should be available all the time.”
For most of last year, Anderson ran the national broadcaster from the spare bedroom. He continues to work from home part of the time, often with his border collie, Snickers, at his feet. The room used to belong to Anderson’s eight-year-old son Liam, and still contains evidence of his occupation (Lego by the bed, light-sabres behind the door). In an attempt to make it look more corporate in Zoom meetings, Anderson has put a plant in the corner and a painting on the wall. When Snickers barks, the illusion is shattered: he knows that.
The parents of News Breakfast’s Michael Rowland live close to Anderson. Melbourne-based Rowland tells me that at the height of the pandemic, when the couple was effectively housebound, Anderson suggested he do some grocery shopping for them. “It was an absolutely genuine offer,” Rowland says. “I knew he was poised to hop in his car, drive to Coles, buy the bread and milk and walk it up to Mum and Dad’s place.”
In the picture on that first ABC staff card, 18-year-old Anderson is wearing a jumper his mother knitted him. He and Christine were on their own again: she had left his stepfather after five years on the farm. “He was not a nice man,” says Anderson. Three years later, in 1992, mother and son moved from Adelaide to Melbourne so Christine could be close to her sister. By then, Anderson knew where his ambition lay: “When I saw people making television, I just thought, ‘Wow, I want to be part of that.’ ” Not that he had any desire to be in front of the camera. What interested him was the behind-the-scenes stuff – the back-room organising that allowed creative types to get programs to air.
“The ABC can be a difficult place. It’s full of problems that you have to try to resolve, and Anderson was always a problem-solver.”
“Careful, considered, super-smart,” says former ABC TV executive Chris Oliver-Taylor, explaining why Anderson succeeded in his chosen field. “He bloody works hard as well. Like he really works hard. Always has.” What’s more, says Oliver-Taylor, Anderson had a positive attitude. “The ABC can be a difficult place. It’s full of problems that you have to try to resolve, and he was always a problem-solver.”
By 2006, when Mark Scott breezed into the ABC as managing director, Anderson had been toiling there for 17 years. “He’d spent a lot of his career in the engine-room of television production,” says Scott, now secretary of the NSW Department of Education. “He really knew the nuts and bolts. Then he got promoted to be the chief finance person in television.” Scott subsequently brought Anderson on to his senior executive team, giving him one hefty role after another. Director of strategy and planning. Director of the digital network. Next he got his dream job, director of television.
Anderson lights up when he talks about programs he commissioned – among them Utopia, Employable Me and the smash-hit children’s show, Bluey. He says he’ll never forget screening another of his commissions, the crime-drama Mystery Road, for a group of international distributors at a theatre in London. The opening shot – “that beautiful shot of this old ute parked out in the desert at night with the door open” – drew an audible gasp from the audience. “I’ve got goosebumps telling you,” he says, beaming.
Scott doubts that, even as Anderson’s areas of control expanded, he saw himself as managing director material: “I don’t think he would have thought he was able to do it.” Scott believed Anderson had the credentials, and encouraged him to apply for the position when he, Scott, vacated it in 2016. Chris Oliver-Taylor is sure Anderson was disappointed to be beaten by Singapore-based Google executive Michelle Guthrie (he was reportedly runner-up). “But he just got on with it,” Oliver-Taylor says. “And then I think he tried to help her through the difficult times.”
Mutinous muttering started early in Guthrie’s tenure. “As storm clouds gathered around the place, many of the old members of the executive team left,” says Scott, adding that Anderson had the opportunity to bail out too. “I know he was offered really interesting jobs outside but his heart was still at the ABC. He’d given his entire working life to it and he felt that it needed him, so he stayed. And then, suddenly and dramatically, the board turned to him.”
People who wind up in command of large enterprises tend to be a particular personality type. Forceful. Extroverted. Supremely confident. “You almost expect the ego to walk in the door first, with a managing director,” says Virginia Trioli, host of Mornings on ABC Radio Melbourne. “With David Anderson, you don’t have that.” What you do have, it seems to Trioli, is “a genuinely very nice guy. And nice guys aren’t supposed to finish first, right?”
Anderson’s low-key style may well have disadvantaged him when he applied for the top job in 2016. “He’s quite self-effacing,” says Norman Swan. Anderson’s decades of loyal service to the broadcaster might have counted against him too. In the corporate world, sticking with one employer doesn’t necessarily win you points: the accepted wisdom is that the sign of a go-getter is preparedness to get up and go. But when Michelle Guthrie was sacked halfway through her five-year term (she later sued for wrongful dismissal, accepting a $730,000 settlement), ABC staff welcomed Anderson’s installation in her place. “We had been through so much turmoil,” says senior ABC TV journalist Sarah Ferguson. “I think there was a collective sigh of relief that someone had taken over who understood the institution.”
For Kirstin Ferguson, the ABC board member who became acting chair after Justin Milne’s resignation, the relief was in realising that Anderson had the strength required to restore order and get everyone back to business. “You learn a lot about someone when you go through a crisis together,” says Ferguson. “From the get-go he was very capable of making difficult decisions, and making them quickly, in the best interests of the organisation. I think people underestimate David.”
“From the get-go David was very capable of making difficult decisions, and making them quickly, in the best interests of the organisation.”
Board member Jane Connors was already aware of that underlying toughness. Connors says she first encountered Anderson about 10 years ago, when both were members of an ABC management team that met to discuss strategy before a round of wage negotiations with staff. “David put what appeared to me to be quite a hardline position on salary increases,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘What a hard-arse. He’s obviously a real numbers man, just a money man.’” Since then, Connors says, Anderson has softened. “I now find him someone who takes a very humane and very personal approach, who worries about people’s wellbeing. I think he’s become much more empathetic.”
Perhaps too empathetic for his own good, says Phillip Adams, host of Late Night Live on Radio National. A three-year funding freeze that took effect in 2019 resulted in the scrapping of 229 ABC jobs last year. (The ABC’s outlay for transmission and distribution rises annually, so the government’s decision to stop incremental funding increases has reduced the amount of money available for everything else.) Adams says he went to see Anderson at the time, “and here’s this poor, lonely guy sitting in this vast acreage of an office. And it seemed to me as we chatted that he was effectively suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I’m not joking. One of the problems of getting that job from within is that he actually knows the people he’s got to f…ing well sack. I just felt this wave of sympathy for him.”
Anderson suggests the sympathy be saved for those who walked out the door (and yes, when presented with a list of staff whose positions were earmarked to go, he saw that it included many of his friends – “people I’d worked with for years, some of them for 20 years”). As he sees it, he is fortunate. For a start, he still has a job – an extremely well-paid one: his package is worth more than $1 million a year, though he voluntarily took a 5 per cent salary cut for six months in 2020. What’s more, he says, it’s a job he loves. “I’m leading an organisation that is making a positive contribution to this country. I find that incredibly rewarding.“
“One of the problems of getting that job from within is that David actually knows the people he’s got to f…ing well sack.”
An aversion to being the centre of attention means Anderson has never relished public speaking. Ita Buttrose is helping him get better at it, he says. “She has given me advice as simple as, ‘David, anchor your feet. Deliver that message!’ ”
It isn’t only when giving speeches that he has to front up to a microphone. ABC managing directors are required to appear regularly before a Senate estimates committee in Canberra. They are grilled on any subject the senators care to raise, and the whole thing is filmed and put online. When Mark Scott was in the job, Anderson would go along to support him, often arriving in the committee room well before Scott. “I was always desperately worried that he wouldn’t show up and I would have to do it,” Anderson says. “He took great delight in strolling in at the last minute.”
Now, of course, Anderson is the one being interrogated. He beetles back and forth to the national capital in the Yaris, and in his predecessor’s opinion, handles the questioning well. “He may not enjoy the joust,” says Scott, “but he’s done the preparation and he’s got the answers. He comes across as straight and honest and earnest and committed. And that’s kinda who he is.“
Though not a journalist by background, Anderson also holds the title of ABC editor-in-chief. “He understands that public-interest journalism is at the core of the ABC,” says John Lyons, the broadcaster’s head of investigative journalism. “Inevitably we’re going to upset some powerful people and organisations.”
“He understands that public-interest journalism is at the core of the ABC. Inevitably we’re going to upset some powerful people and organisations.”
According to Lyons, Anderson has shown reporters that he has their backs: he, for instance, provided unstinting support to Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, the two journalists who faced the possibility of prosecution after their revelation of allegedly unlawful killings by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan prompted an Australian Federal Police raid of the ABC’s Sydney office in 2019. Occasionally Anderson will ask to see a program before it goes to air, Lyons says. “But in my three years here, he’s never knocked back or suppressed a single story.”
Anderson applauds from the sidelines when the gloves come off in interviews with politicians, says Patricia Karvelas, host of Radio National’s Drive program and Afternoon Briefing on the ABC News television channel. “David will text me and go, you went so hard on that minister, wonderful.” This doesn’t mean he is against the government, Karvelas hastens to add. “It’s more that he encourages you to do vigorous journalism.”
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, who describes Anderson as “a very thoughtful, measured person”, makes the point that there have always been tensions between the ABC and the government of the day: “It’s not specific to political parties.” Anderson agrees. The ABC doesn’t discriminate: “We upset all sides of politics, simply by holding people to account.”
A couple of weeks ago, Anderson sent a group email reminding employees of their obligation when using social media to avoid mixing the professional and personal in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute. This followed exasperated tweets by a few ABC staff in response to Health Minister Greg Hunt’s attack on Michael Rowland, and a tweeted lament late last year by ABC TV political journalist Laura Tingle about the axing of jobs as result of funding cuts (“We grieve the loss of so many of our colleagues to government ideological bastardry. Hope you are feeling smug @ScottMorrisonMP”). Asked by the Senate estimates committee about Tingle’s Twitter comment, Anderson said he and she both deemed it an error of judgment.
Christine died in 2014, too soon to see her son complete the journey from the mail room to the managing director’s office. Anderson knows she would have been proud. “The thing about my mother is that she was always proud of me,” he says. “And would always tell me that. Proud of me as a person, not for what I did. I make sure that I tell my kids that, because I know how much it helped me as I grew up.”
When ABC staff talk to me about Anderson, I detect a note of wonderment in their voices. Says news director Gaven Morris: “He’s brought this great sense of calm over the organisation.” Says Patricia Karvelas: “He never acts like he’s the smartest guy in the room. He’ll ask me what I think about things and actually look like he wants to hear the answer.“
Whereas Michelle Guthrie was to many staff a remote figure, Anderson is as familiar to them as the ABC logo, and so approachable that in pre-pandemic times, when everyone was in the office, he couldn’t cross the lobby without being bailed up every few paces. “I reckon it would sometimes take him 45 minutes to walk from the front door to the lift,” says John Lyons. Anderson’s popularity doesn’t surprise journalist Sarah Ferguson. “He’s a completely decent human being who understands the institution in his bones. And loves it,” Ferguson says,“Hooray!”
Anderson isn’t much given to displays of exuberance, and he certainly doesn’t like to blow his own trumpet, but he will say this about being managing director of the ABC: “I’m glad it’s me.”
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