KIM WILLIAMS INTERVIEW: New ABC chair opens up on impartiality, social media hatred, iView & Parramatta move

Anthony De Ceglie
The Nightly
9 Min Read
Kim Williams has just taken on the top job at the ABC, a high-profile and often controversial role.
Kim Williams has just taken on the top job at the ABC, a high-profile and often controversial role. Credit: Don Lindsay/The West Australian

Interviewing the new ABC chair Kim Williams is like swallowing a dictionary and washing it down with a thesaurus.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In fact, his use of words like “grandiloquent” and “axiomatically” have quite the opposite effect.

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To put it into parlance that a fan of our national broadcaster would appreciate; it’s a little like relaxing back into your couch while listening to an episode of Conversations with Richard Fidler.

It’s an exuberance for intelligent conversation that would, no doubt, too often get mistaken for old-fashioned wanker-ism. Especially in the cut and thrust of a newsroom.

Yet, as Williams confidently tells me, he refuses to kowtow to the idea that Australia is a “land of yokels”.

Rather, it’s one “of curiosity”.

It’s also a country where the taxpayer-funded media channel he now leads is “deeply committed” to “independence, integrity and a genuine aspiration to impartiality”.

Or, as he puts it, “a good central place”.

I don’t get a sense that the ABC is either soft or tough on either side of politics,

In a wide-ranging interview with The Nightly just a few weeks into the very high-profile and often very controversial role, Williams opens up on why he despises social media and wishes reporters would get off X.

The former Australian boss of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp also denies the ABC is too soft on Anthony Albanese’s Labor and too hard on Peter Dutton’s Liberals.

Meanwhile, he concedes that what were once market-leading digital products, such as streaming platform iview, are now sorely lacking. He also reveals a performance metric used by Britain’s BBC that he wants to usher in locally to keep ABC staff on track.

LEFT VERSUS RIGHT

“I don’t get a sense that the ABC is either soft or tough on either side of politics,” Williams says.

“I think the ABC generally endeavours to steer a middle course that asks the right questions and that challenges the propositions from either primary side of politics in a way that better informs people.”

There is no doubt Williams’ tenure as chair comes at a pivotal point for the national broadcaster. It’s long been the punching bag of conservative politics and, ironically considering his past, the Murdoch media.

But, now Aunty is also bleeding from attacks courtesy of the left as well.

The current most high-profile example is a case before the Fair Work Commission where sacked ABC fill-in Sydney radio presenter Antoinette Lattouf is arguing she was unlawfully terminated from her job for sharing a post by Human Rights Watch.

The post said: “The Israeli Government is using starvation of civilians as a weapon of war in Gaza.”

While Williams wouldn’t buy into the controversy, he opens our interview by saying he is now “tiresomely, reliably, boringly” on the record about his total commitment to “the ethics that have to drive a public institution”.

He emphasises the ABC must “always” be “aspiring to independence, integrity and a genuine aspiration to impartiality”. “Human beings have all manner of frailties, but we should always be aspiring to impartiality and wherever possible achieving it,” he tells The Nightly.

“Of course, people will always focus on those moments when it’s less than perfect rather than recognising that the majority of the time, it’s pretty damn good.”

Williams says that critics need to talk about balance “across a spectrum of reporters, a spectrum of commentators and . . . over reasonable periods of time”.

“In the heat of the moment people can get very, very agitated about the balance not being evident in this hour and you think, ‘Well . . . Australia might just be a little more complex than that’,” he says.

“You need to say that in this week, in terms of all of the different viewpoints that were covered, all the different propositions that were being discussed within the community, was the balance basically there?

“And, generally, I think the ABC does a pretty good job on that.”

However, Williams vows he won’t have a glass jaw and “relishes” heavy scrutiny.

“The ABC has to be able to stand up and account for itself, which is why I think that public criticism of the ABC and commentary of the ABC is always a healthy thing,” he says. “It should be taken in the right spirit by the ABC, that this is all invaluable expression of community feedback.”

THE ANTI-SOCIAL NETWORK

One thing Williams is adamant about is his utter disdain for social media.

For example, he strongly believes journalists shouldn’t be wasting their time posting content on X for “hundreds or a few thousand people” while neglecting their job to reach possibly millions of people through official channels.

“The thing that most riles me about social media (is) that it deals in such modest numbers,” he says. “People get it completely out of proportion.”

Williams also warns that the ABC Act is very prescriptive in the checks and balances required by reporters.

He doesn’t think the immediacy of social media always allows for this.

“(The ABC) Act is in fact very precise in the requirements as to the aspiration to objectivity in the provision of news,” he said. “If you’re employed by the national media organisation you actually have absolute obligations that are specified in the ABC Act.

“In other words, they are in fact a law of the land.”

Williams says that the “first principles” of journalism must always remain, even on social media.

“First principles in journalism relate to ensuring you are properly covering the diversity of views in any major human conflict,” he says. “That you are properly maintaining as a journalist your scepticism.

“That you are validating anything that you are actually reporting and that you are properly, where necessary, forensically scrutinising what is being said and establishing the bona fides of it.”

CONTEMPORARY RELEVANCE

When Williams was announced as ABC chair, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described him as “a perfect fit . . . it’s almost as if he were made for it”.

“He is as much at home running media companies as he is running arts organisations . . . There aren’t too many Australians I can think of who have both studied composition in Italy and been an AFL commissioner,” the Prime Minister said.

Williams says the first few weeks in the job have been “a chest full of surprises and delights in equal measure”.

“You think you know an organisation terribly well because you’ve been interacting with it, responding to it, working at it, producing programs at it, making dramas for it . . . all manner of things . . . and then when you actually get right inside . . . you think, ‘Gee, I’ve got to renovate all my thinking and reposition’.”

Portrait of Kim Williams. 
GOOD WEEKEND Photo by James Brickwood
When Kim Williams was announced as ABC chair, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described him as “a perfect fit . . . it’s almost as if he were made for it”. Credit: James Brickwood

The other phrase alongside impartiality that Williams has been quoted saying repeatedly is that he wants the ABC to recapture “the heartland of contemporary relevance to Australia and Australians”.

When pushed on what that actually means, he says he wants reporters to fight for issues such as a strong education system and national security.

“All Australians have an enduring concern for a strong education system and an education that is properly equipping our people for a prosperous future, and not just prosperous in terms of financial wealth . . . but in terms of having the intellectual grunt to actually take the nation forward,” he says.

“All Australians look to a nation that is secure and that enjoys a peaceful existence.

“People look to having a strong handle on the economic future of the nation. People look to the strength and vitality and resilience of their democracy.

“When we look at other jurisdictions, we see democracy being well and truly severely challenged by people who are not necessarily acting in the old-fashioned concept of the national interest.”

THE CREATIVE COUNTRY

Williams speaks passionately about the role of the ABC to foster the nation’s arts scene.

“We also need to remember that Australia is full of a very, very, very large diversity of creative people,” Williams, who has had significant roles with everything from the Sydney Opera House Trust to the NSW State Library, adds.

“I think Australians are much more generous-minded about celebrating the creative outputs of their fellow country people than they often get given credit for.

“I don’t think of Australia as a land of yokels. I think of Australia as a land of generosity and of curiosity. I think the ABC must be challenging itself to expose those things and celebrate those things.”

One of the biggest issues facing the ABC is resources. Williams wants more.

“I think in a time when Australia is completely overwhelmed with a tsunami of foreign content there is always a case for there being a strong, determined voice for Australia,” he says. “And if that’s not the ABC then I don’t know who is.”

Williams, whom the Prime Minister also dubbed a “renaissance man”, says the national broadcaster has fallen behind with its digital offerings.

“We’re not moving into a digital era . . . that’s happened. We are all digital now,” he says.

“People can’t talk about digital as if this is a new-fangled thing. This is an old-fangled thing that is becoming constantly better . . . and you have got to stay in the slipstream. If you’re not at the top of the pack, you’ll lose.”

Williams uses the ABC’s free streaming service iview as an example. “I was talking to our managing director (David Anderson) earlier,” he says.

“I said, ‘We were at the top of the pack with iview . . . it was the most innovative free media tool introduced way before all of the commercial services and we need to get back there because the functionality is not as good as it once was.

“It lets the side down on recommendations, so we’re going to fix that — quickly.”

Williams also thinks the ABC erred by not explaining to the public better why iview suddenly wanted you to login and provide personal information

“Without a login detail you can’t tell anyone anything about what’s available to them,” he says. “We’ve got to do a better job of explaining. That’s what happens with Netflix, that’s what happens with Amazon, that’s what happens with Apple.

“Now no one has any issue about registering with those services. Now admittedly they pay for those services. Well, guess what, they pay for the ABC, too — it’s called tax.”

THE PARRAMATTA PARADOX

Williams ends his conversation with The Nightly talking about the biggest staff issue in Sydney — the contentious move to Parramatta. ABC staffers will tell you they feel cynical about relocating from an inner-city location in Ultimo to the western Sydney hub.

It might only be 25km away, but the city is a labyrinth.

Employees are angry about having to navigate real estate markets, childcare locations and even schooling during a cost-of-living crisis.

Williams is sympathetic but resolute. He says the new premises will be better equipped, serviced well by public transport and “take a huge number of journalists closer to the diversity of the Australian community”.

“I don’t think it will surprise you that change is always difficult in Australia,” the 72-year-old says. “We are a pretty conservative old bunch as a nation. And so change that affects a large number of people will always get a pretty predictable, negative reaction.

“I would hope that people have now moved on to saying, ‘Well, let’s see how it goes.’

“It’s easy to rush to judgment on these things. I think we’ve moved into saying, ‘Look the proof will be in the pudding’.”

Williams admits that “modern media is a very, very complex landscape” and a “very challenged landscape”.

So then, what does success at the ABC look like? “One measure I think is really great in looking at public models of television is the BBC’s 5-5-2 model,” he says.

“They aim to have all Britons look at at least five hours of their services across five days of the week, with at least two of those spread between digital delivery and all of the other modes of delivery.

“It’s a modest measure, but when you actually add it up, it’s a gigantic objective in terms of being relevant to the people on a weekly basis.”

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