How Kim Williams’ new ABC role allows him to do what he couldn’t manage at News

As a former CEO of News Corp, married to the daughter of the late Gough Whitlam, there’s no way to know whether Kim Williams will appeal more to the right or the left when he replaces Ita Buttrose as ABC chair. Madonna King peels back the layers

Jan 25, 2024, updated Jan 25, 2024
Former News Corp Australia CEO Kim Williams is an intriguing choice to run the ABC as its new chair. (AAP Image/Dan Peled)

Former News Corp Australia CEO Kim Williams is an intriguing choice to run the ABC as its new chair. (AAP Image/Dan Peled)

Stories about Kim Williams can keep a dinner party going for hours after the last drink is served.

Whether the dinner guests rubbed shoulders with him at Foxtel or News Ltd, as an AFL commissioner or while he was running Musica Viva or the Sydney Opera House Trust, the stories follow a similar theme.

Kim Williams, the new chair of the ABC, hates the ‘royal order of the tummy compass’, in his words.

Gut instinct is out, and when Williams wants to discuss a strategy or change, he’ll want to see the proof.

And it will mean, in his new gig, that he will expect that data will drive all big decisions.

Williams doesn’t suffer fools in any way (and particularly not gladly). He explained once that this was the result of his musical training, where professional musicians are notoriously sharp with colleagues who miss the cue or the note.

He’ll know who is smiling to his face while stabbing him in the back too. In fact, he’s even popularised a novel word to explain that – telling News Corp executives once that he called it ‘grin-f…ing’, and he would not tolerate it.

His tenure at News ended when the disparate arms of the company enlisted Rupert Murdoch against Williams’ desire to centralise functions. Ironically that has now happened, with the big news dailies all sharing a high proportion of their coverage in print and producing near-identical websites.

Those who liked him and those who don’t both call him strategic and determinate and passionate. He’s undoubtedly highly cultured – and proud of it. But the ABC shouldn’t think that’s the direction he’ll want to head; as a media executive, he is driven by audiences over personal taste at every turn.

What does that mean this weekend?

No doubt he will have made himself familiar with what’s on the JJJ Hot 100 – but he will also be very attuned to the Classic 100, playing over on Classic FM. Indeed, as one person quipped yesterday, he’s likely to have either performed or overseen the performance of some of its contents either as a musician or CEO of Musica Viva or chair of the Sydney Opera House Trust.

The ABC has a broad audience and Williams will already know it well. But he’ll ask for proof; briefings, data, and information will trump natural inclination.

Is this bad? Probably not. The ‘tummy compass’ might have a place, but not over data in the 21st Century.

At his first meeting in 2011 as CEO of News, he told executives that Amazon had algorithms so sophisticated that it knew he carried a particular passion for Italian cinema, for instance, and would deliver it to him. La Dolce Vita quickly become popular at News Corp’s Sydney bunker!

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That said something about Amazon. But just as much about Williams. His knowledge on most things is close to encyclopaedic so he can find a way into most conversations – in English or Italian.

Forget the politics for a moment, but his CV to take over from Ita Buttrose is stellar. He’s run major cultural institutions (Musica Viva and the Sydney Opera House Trust), and launched pay TV in Australia at a time when Foxtel had three owners (Packer, Murdoch and Telstra). The key to their success was sport and Williams, after leaving News, became an AFL commissioner, as the AFL drove some of the toughest and most lucrative rights deals.

The ABC role gives him the chance to win an argument he lost at News; to take on the cultural issues, particularly the siloed approach which decentralises editorial power.

Whether his appointment is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ricocheted around business and political circles yesterday. While some called it inspired, saying few have his experience, others say it is politically mad. The Right, they say, will arc up at a Sydney elitist married to Gough Whitlam’s daughter as the head of the ABC. The Left will see him as a News Corp man, not fit to sit in the top chair at the ABC.

Already, the fact that he joins a board with others who share a strong commercial media backgrounds, is creating talk of pending commercial considerations.

After all, isn’t the BBC now charging for podcasts?

Whatever the view on his appointment, you could sell tickets to his appearance before any Senate committee because it will be a hoot. Williams well understands the difference between a board position and a management position, but he will be an active chair.

And he will stand up for the organisation if he feels it’s being wronged. Buttrose’s response to staff condemning the managing director this week will look positively soft.

But he won’t be going into bat using any ‘tummy compass’; he’ll be looking for cold hard evidence. As simple as ABC.

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