Kim Williams was announced by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese as the next chair of the ABC on Wednesday morning, becoming the very public face of one of Australia’s most cherished and scrutinised organisations.
WHO IS HE?
Kim Williams is a veteran Australian media executive with a distinguished pedigree in broadcasting and the arts.
He was a professional clarinettist, and is a former chair of the Copyright Agency, the Sydney Opera House Trust, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Williams is currently chair of Thomson Reuters Founders Share Company, and co-chair of the State Library of NSW Foundation Board, and he is married to Catherine Dovey, the daughter of former Labor PM Gough Whitlam. His diverse résumé includes being a composer, and also being appointed an AFL commissioner in 2014.
Most prominently, Williams is known for his affiliation with the Murdoch-owned News Corp empire, where he was CEO between 2011 and 2013.
WHY IS ITA BUTTROSE STEPPING DOWN?
The current chair of the ABC, Ita Buttrose, is stepping down in March when her term ends, after she said last year she would not be seeking a reappointment.
THE NEWS CORP YEARS
Williams spent a significant portion of his career at News Corp. His rise within the company saw him move from running its Fox Studios in Sydney, to transforming pay-TV operator Foxtel into a profit-making entity between 2001 and 2011, before being installed as chief executive at News Corp’s Holt Street headquarters.
Things ended poorly at News, however, with Williams clashing with the company’s most senior editors.
Those included current Sky News Australia chief Paul Whittaker, who is hotly tipped as the local boss-in-waiting, and who was at the time editor of The Daily Telegraph. Williams also clashed with Lachlan Murdoch, then running Network 10. Williams resigned after 20 months, citing some “really confronting” issues.
IS HE A NEWS CORP MAN?
Chair of the ABC Alumni, a prominent group of former staffers, Jonathan Holmes, urged those viewing Williams’ appointment as a Murdoch takeover of the ABC to “think again”.
“Kim is a highly experienced media executive, but also a very strong-minded person. He will not be a nominal chair, he will be an active chair, and very interested in how to proceed with the digital transformation of the ABC,” says Holmes.
Another perspective on Williams and his tenure at News Corp comes from Chris Mitchell, a noted ABC critic who was previously editor-in-chief of The Australian when Williams was running News Corp.
“Put it this way, he may be more at home there than he was at News Corp,” Mitchell told this masthead.
“Given he’s Gough Whitlam’s son-in-law, his politics probably sit pretty well with Albo [Anthony Albanese].”
DOES HE HAVE HISTORY WITH THE ABC?
Williams has thrown his hat in the ring for leadership roles at the ABC before. He tried for the managing director role in 2015 after Mark Scott signalled his resignation, eventually missing out to Michelle Guthrie. A profile of Williams in 2014 revealed he applied for the job in the 1980s, at only 28 years of age.
After Guthrie and chair Justin Milne’s tenure imploded in 2018, Williams again was in the process, this time for the chair role.
He got as far as the independently nominated final three candidates, alongside former Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood and Ian Robertson AO, national managing partner of law firm Holding Redlich, with Scott Morrison instead opting for a “Captain’s pick” of Ita Buttrose.
Under pressure to follow the established procedures, the Labor government confirmed on Wednesday morning that Williams was, in fact, again on the panel’s shortlist.
VIEWS ON THE ABC
Williams is taking on what he called the “hardest job in media” in an interview with ABC Sydney’s Sarah Macdonald on Wednesday. He said his “uncompromising view” was that the broadcaster is the “campfire of Australia”.
“The ABC must at all times be an organisation that is relevant to its current time, and not in some ways bathe in past glories. It needs to really focus on what it is to be innovative and comprehensive in the 21st century,” Williams said.
In 2012, he admitted an impatience and discomfort with the “almost endless capacity for self-congratulation” at the ABC, speaking to Radio National.
On the broadcaster’s funding, his views were outlined in 2015 by The Australian Financial Review, two years into a Coalition government that took a knife to the ABC’s budget.
“I’m not saying there should be no public funding of broadcasting – of course there should. What I am saying is that in the digital age we need to be careful to ensure that public broadcasters like the ABC don’t merely replicate what the private sector is now doing or inadvertently crowd out market-driven creativity and innovation,” Williams said at the time.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES AT THE ABC?
The ABC has been thrust into crisis this month, with outgoing chair Buttrose forced to issue a rare statement following an emergency meeting of the board on Tuesday.
The circumstances around fill-in host Antoinette Lattouf’s dismissal have led the ABC into a storm, with leaked WhatsApp messages from a group of pro-Israel lawyers showing attempts to lobby management and the chair. This fed into long-standing staff frustrations around a lack of protection for journalists in the face of criticism and attacks, particularly relating to staff with diverse backgrounds.
Buttrose dismissed the staff’s claims that ABC managing director David Anderson did not support staff as “abhorrent and incorrect”.
When asked on Wednesday how he planned to deal with the likes of the pro-Israel lobby, he told the ABC any comment at this stage would be highly inappropriate, but he noted the board’s recent vote of confidence in its managing director.
The main question, Holmes says, is “how he will handle the relationship between the board and its management, which is always tricky”.
Both Buttrose, and Milne before, were viewed as hands-on and interventionist with management processes. Keeping lines of delineation will be key for Williams.
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