The Guardian | January 24 |2024 |Tory Shepherd and Josh Butler

Kim Williams, a former chief executive of News Corp Australia, will replace Ita Buttrose as chair of the ABC.

Prime minister Anthony Albanese’s announcement follows union members’ vote of no confidence in managing director David Anderson

The prime minister, announced Williams’ nomination on Wednesday morning.

Buttrose said last year she and she will finish in the role in March.

Albanese said the national broadcaster needed “the right leadership” and that Williams was “a perfect fit”.

“Kim Williams … of all the people who were forwarded potentially as candidates for this position, shares a life experience and a breadth of capacity that he will bring to this role,” he said.

In his first interview after the announcement, Williams was asked about the scrutiny the ABC often faces.

“I think I’ve had constant public scrutiny in most of the organisations that I’ve run,” he told ABC television.

“I’m not averse to scrutiny, and in fact I think scrutiny is part and parcel of things that matter,” he said. “It’s a public institution and it’s accountable to the public.”

The surprise announcement came at a tumultuous time for the national broadcaster.

Union members passed a vote of no confidence in the managing director, David Anderson, this week, after the broadcaster defended itself in the Fair Work Commission against a claim by journalist Antoinette Lattouf that she was unlawfully fired. That comes amid a broader conversation about the ABC’s impartiality in reporting on the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.

Williams said the ABC would need to defend itself calmly and authoritatively, without being “grandiloquent”. Asked whether some of the scrutiny verges on “vexatious complaints”, he said there was a certain degree of vexatious representation in any media environment.

“That come with news in particular where clearly often emotions can be very volatile,” he said. Asked whether the ABC had been measured in its coverage of the current Middle East war, he said he would talk to his colleagues at the ABC before venturing into “various potholes”.

Albanese described the ABC as “one of our most important institutions” and a “pillar of Australian life”.

“It is, indeed, one of the great pillars of our democracy,” he said. “It’s part of our cultural identity and our cultural wellbeing. Crucially, it’s a lifeline in times of disaster.”

Williams has previously had leadership positions at the Sydney Opera House Trust, the Australian Film Commission, Musica Viva Australia, as well as a stint as an executive at the ABC.

In 2006, he was appointed as a member in the Order of Australia for services to the arts and public policy formulation in the film and television industries.

When he left News Corp, Williams said he had faced “really confronting” roles and issues, and that he left with a “heavy heart and a mixed bag of feelings”.

“There have been many good wins matched with some memorable awful problems and opponents,” he said.

At the time, University of Melbourne journalism expert Denis Muller described Williams’ appointment as “like putting celebrity chef Gabriel Gaté in charge of the abattoir”.

In the lead-up to the 2013 election, News Corp wanted to see Labor defeated, Muller wrote in the Conversation, pointing to a notorious “kick this mob out” headline on the Daily Telegraph’s front page. Williams’ “allegedly civilising influence” was not having a visible effect on the “visceral anti-Labor campaign”, he wrote.

The Media Watch host, Paul Barry, said Williams was “a fascinating character” who was “incredibly well qualified for the job”. He described him as smart, hard working, and “extremely tough”.

“I think it’s going to be an interesting ride,” he said.

Barry said Williams had made the “right noises” about quality and independence.

Some people described him as a “micromanager and a control freak”, Barry said, adding that there could be conflict with the managing director because Williams was someone that liked to be “in control”.

Williams’ friend, former Victorian premier Steve Bracks, said Williams “probably has the greatest depth of understanding of the media more broadly in Australia than anyone else”.

His time at News Corp “probably wouldn’t be one of the highlights of the career of Kim Williams”, Bracks told the ABC’s Radio National.

Albanese’s press conference on Wednesday morning came after months of speculation about who would replace Buttrose.

The Australian Financial Review reported in December that the Sydney Opera House CEO, Louise Herron, and the ABC deputy chair, Peter Tonagh, were being considered, with some speculation ABC veteran Barrie Cassidy was also on the independent panel’s list.

The Australian reported this week that Herron, Tonagh and former Fairfax boss David Kirk were on the shortlist, and that a range of others including former prime minister Julia Gillard had been considered.

The speculation prompted Albanese’s announcement sooner than some had expected.

“Kim is a true renaissance man,” Albanese said. “The breadth of his experience is matched by its depth and his intellect, his energy and his insatiable curiosity [have all meant] that he’s been able to devote himself to a great diversity of passions.”

Williams said the role had a responsibility to “give life and personality” to the ABC charter.

“The charter is often invoked but rarely read and the charter is a refreshingly broad statement,” he said

“It speaks to the cultural diversity of Australia, it speaks to the responsibility to national identity in the process of informing and entertaining the nation, it speaks to the necessity of being innovative and comprehensive in the approach that is taken across all of the delivery methodologies of digital media, broad casting on television, and radio, and clearly in a lot of written information.”

Asked about the ABC’s responsibilities in reporting on war in the Middle East, Williams said that at the core of ABC journalist was “the imperative of being absolutely, verifiably independent, offering at all times true journalistic integrity and to the extent possible in human affairs, having an aspiration to freedom from bias”.

Albanese said he spoke to outgoing chair, Ita Buttrose, who finishes up in March. He declined to comment on the Lattouf case because it is the subject of a Fair Work hearing.

The communications minister, Michelle Rowland, said Buttrose was “the right chair for the right time” and had shown “steady leadership” while defending the ABC’s independence.

The union representing journalists said Williams must “must restore ABC’s reputation for independence”, calling on the prominent media executive to address concerns at the broadcaster about the “impact of external pressures on editorial decision making”.

The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance was quick to urge Williams to chart a new course at the broadcaster, saying he should “work with unions to support staff who are under attack, reaffirm the commitment to cultural diversity in the workplace, and uphold the standards of reporting without fear or favour that the public expects of the ABC”.

MEAA’s acting chief executive, Adam Portelli, said it was a “crucial time” for the ABC, and alleging that Buttrose was “completely out of touch” with concerns from staff.

“On Monday, union members overwhelmingly said they had lost confidence in David Anderson because of his failure to address very real concerns about the way the ABC deals with external pressure and supports journalists from First Nations and culturally diverse backgrounds when they are under attack,” he said.

“Public trust in the ABC as an organisation that will always pursue frank and fearless journalism has been damaged, and management under Mr Anderson has not demonstrated it is taking these concerns seriously.

“We are optimistic that the incoming chair, Kim Williams, will bring a more collaborative approach to dealing with issues of cultural safety and editorial integrity than has been witnessed under Ms Buttrose.

“He must understand that nothing less than the reputation of the ABC is at stake here.”

Albanese said he consulted with the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, about the role, and now will recommend Williams’ appointment to the governor-general. Opposition communications spokesperson, David Coleman, welcomed the move and said the ABC’s most fundamental obligation was to represent all Australians.

In a statement, the ABC said Williams’ appointment signalled “the continuation of stability and good governance at the ABC board under the leadership of Ms Buttrose over the past five years”.