Kim Wililiams’ ABC appointment means organisation should prepare for hurricane



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He says that, like many older organisations, the ABC “has silos that have self-focus rather than external focus. In many ways, it’s very human in that aged people reflect on the past and past glories … but often see that preferentially to the present.”

Williams doesn’t shy away from the fact there will be casualties with change but that the true priorities will be on content, on independence and integrity on journalistic authority.

Having observed Williams at various times in his career, those who know him have several common observations. First, no matter the company, Williams is most often the smartest person in the room. Second, he is a change agent. And third, he is strong-willed and has an underdeveloped instinct for self-preservation.

These attributes make Williams a particularly interesting choice to helm one of the most factionalised and independent-minded institutions in the country.

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The move brings to mind the paradox of the immovable object hitting the irresistible force.

Williams, among his numerous previous corporate roles, was the man who a decade ago famously attempted to bring Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp into the 21st century digital age – undaunted by blowback from the media group’s entrenched editors.

He won many of those battles but ultimately lost the war when he made a deal with Nine Network over the broadcast rights to the National Rugby League, which angered Lachlan Murdoch who was at that time the owner of Network Ten. It was an unsurvivable move as Rupert Murdoch sided with his son and Williams’ fate was sealed.

When he read that room, Williams misjudged that there were only two important people in it.

The ABC will be a challenging beast to tame, with limitless stakeholders to manage and a whole new level of complexity.

On the one hand, Williams needs to be the ABC’s greatest cheerleader, as was his predecessor, Ita Buttrose.

But he will have views on how the place should be changed, and that is sure to meet with some institutionalised resistance and community opposition – particularly given Australians feel a strong sense of ownership of the public broadcaster.

His first test will be ready for him when he puts his feet under the desk in March – dealing with a staff uprising over the alleged sacking of journalist Antoinette Lattouf, but only if it remains a live issue for the next couple of months.

Williams is a polymath with experience across business, the media, the digital economy, many areas of the arts, and even sport, so he won’t be caught short by a lack of internal expertise on just about any subject.

Nor will Williams be daunted by his politician masters. Being married to Gough Whitlam’s daughter Catherine, he is minor royalty in the Labor Party.

He notes that being an independent statutory authority “means that the ABC must be respectful towards the government of the day and sustain workable constructive relationships” – but Williams says that doesn’t mean compromising its independence or integrity.

“Governance treated properly requires of a chair that you manage the agenda, that you lead the board towards a consensus-driven approach towards effective decision-making, that you sustain a good and constructive relationship with the leadership team,” he says.

In other words, Williams will need to bring the board and management with him on any journey towards change.



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