City Life - Sydney: Broadcaster pulls the plug on leader with few fans

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The Independent Online

Many in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which is modeled on the BBC and has a similar reputation as a snake pit, are rejoicing after seeing off its abrasive managing director, Jonathan Shier, who led a series of purges.

Mr Shier, headhunted from Britain to reform the ABC's culture, was forced to resign last week after just 19 months in the job. He endured a series of controversies that included blazing public rows with senior executives.

Unpopular with many employees from the start, Mr Shier provoked tensions so acutely that the board of directors felt compelled to accept his resignation in the week before a general election. Although he will stay on until the end of the year as part of a face-saving deal, the public broadcaster has been left, in effect, rudderless.

News of his dethronement was greeted with whoops of joy and the popping of champagne corks at the ABC, where he had alienated many staff and managers alike. He apparently cared little about his personal ratings. Revelling in his appointment to one of the country's most powerful media posts, he told staff soon after his arrival that they would have to put up with him because "I've got the gig".

On one occasion, referring to a female ABC newsreader, Mr Shier reportedly inquired: "Who's that dog of a woman?" In another contentious move, the ABC's head of programming, Hugh McGowan, was obliged to sit a psychological aptitude test for his own job. He failed and resigned, humiliated and angry.

Even some of those who advocated sweeping reforms of the bureaucracy were uneasy about the rise to power of Australian-born Mr Shier, a former Thames Television marketing executive who had recently been head of Baltic TV, a European pay-TV operation,

Much was made of the fact that he had little experience of public broadcasting. Some questioned his commitment to the ethos. As one commentator remarked, it was "like a vegetarian taking a job in a meat works".

Those fears were amply borne out when Mr Shier dropped highly respected programmes and presided over a historic fall in ratings and a purge that led to the departure of 26 senior managers including several hand-picked by him. One critic said he had instituted a "terrifying rollercoaster of despair" at the ABC.

A former employee of the conservative Liberal Party, he intervened to prevent the broadcast of a programme that was critical of senior Liberals, saying that he wanted to seek outside legal advice – even though the programme had already been approved by the ABC's own lawyers.

But it was Mr Shier's management style and ritual humiliation of senior executives that made him the most enemies. Mr McGowan said: "I saw him savage a fellow executive, and the executive was pinned with fear to his seat." The last straw came when he launched a vitriolic public attack on Max Uechtritz, the head of news and current affairs, over the ABC's coverage of the terrorist strikes in the United States.

The only person to praise him publicly was Richard Alston, the Federal Communications Minister and senior Liberal. Others are questioning not why Mr Shier has gone, but how he managed to hang on so long.

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