Home Social gathering Outgoing ABC News boss Gaven Morris reflects on achievements, pressure from powerful people, and future of news gathering

Outgoing ABC News boss Gaven Morris reflects on achievements, pressure from powerful people, and future of news gathering

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This is one of the toughest and most scrutinized jobs in Australian media, leading a team of 1,250 people across the country, producing a wide variety of news and current affairs content on ABC radio, television and digital platforms.

After six years as director of ABC News, Analysis and Investigations, Gaven Morris is ending December 3.

A journalist for 30 years, with experience as a news officer in Australia and abroad, Morris’s vision has been to broaden ABC’s audience, to make news content more relevant to all Australians, to reorient staff to deliver equal quality digital content alongside broadcast programming and to foster diversity in the press team and in news coverage.

At the same time, he overcame the pressures and challenges of COVID, the AFP raid targeting two journalists, the controversial departures of former ABC chairman Justin Milne and CEO Michelle Guthrie, and complaints about some journalists.

ABC CEO David Anderson called his contribution to the ABC “huge.”

“As the best leaders do, Gaven has always led by example, with a tremendous work ethic, absolute integrity, fearless independence and great courage,” he said.

ABC Backstory asked Gaven Morris about the ups and downs of ABC News.

What did it mean to you to run ABC News?

I am very proud to have (hopefully) helped our people tell their stories.

I miss writing, being in the field and talking to people, chasing a thread and aiming for a target to challenge – but for the past six years my job has been to empower those who do.

I was able to rub shoulders with the giants of journalism and also, encourage certain emerging ones.

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In our industry and in the CBA there are so many potential obstacles – funding cuts, opponents of public broadcasting, political pressure, truth deniers, the corrupt and the powerful.

My job has been to try to remove as many of these obstacles as possible.

There are stories I’ll never tell how overwhelming some of these pressures were – but I took my role very seriously in protecting our people and letting them do their best, in the public interest.

I may be leaving a newsroom for the first time since I was an adult, even since imagining myself to be an adult – I’m very sentimental about it, I know I’ll miss it every day – but once you’ve led the ABC News team, there is no higher accolade in our industry to aspire to.

Before becoming director, Morris was in charge of setting up and managing the continuous news channel. He is pictured with presenters Joe O’Brien, Karina Carvalho, Jeremy Fernandez and editor-in-chief Tim Ayliffe, on the channel’s 10th anniversary.(ABC News)

When you started working as a News Director, what did you want to accomplish?

I wanted us to be as relevant as possible to contemporary audiences, to the way they experienced journalism and to meet their habits.

My biggest fear was that ABC News would do great coverage and great journalism for a diminishing slice of the community, for smaller niches and narrower interests.

I once said – in a very provocative way – about our audience “you are old and white and rich, we do a lot for you” – so many programs and services that are suitable for the same people.

Our challenge was to be much more relevant to Australians who are younger, less wealthy, less empowered, more culturally diverse and more geographically dispersed.

Both through the excellence of the services we provide and the value of the stories we tell, we must do better to show all the Australians who pay their taxes that we are providing great value for their money.

This has been the sole guiding principle of my tenure in this role.

What were the challenges?

The noise. White noise, unnecessary, sometimes deafening – usually from predictable places.

Neither the background of the wrong stories (which are very few in the full context of what we produce), nor the diversion of precious resources (which we almost never do), nor the pressure from powerful people (whom I have found many simple tactics to defy), but the errant and obvious public comment of special interests that have a reason to be threatened by the excellence of the CBA and the public trust in it allowed.

It takes a considerable and disproportionate amount of time for the ABC.

I’ve always said this: we should look at the impact and appreciation of what we do in the Australian general public and stick with it.

We should retain the value of commenting on special interests – political and media – with the same resonance as the general population.

It is mostly superficial and narrow and advanced for reasons that say more about the source than the subject.

Group of young men and women standing in front of a wall with graffiti painted on it.
Gaven Morris (main center) started at ABC in 1993 as a 20-year-old reporter on an innovative youth affairs TV show called Attitude. He then worked for the ABC for almost 20 years in three separate terms.(ABC News)

How did you come to journalism and why did it attract you?

I wanted to be a journalist before meeting one or knowing a lot about what it entailed.

My family weren’t big consumers of information and certainly didn’t really watch or listen to ABC, but when I was a kid I spent my school holidays with my grandmother, who was a reader. avid The Daily Telegraph and loved Brian Henderson on Channel 9.

I remember reading and watching stories from all over the country and the world, on politics, sports and interesting issues and I fell in love with the news – I became really obsessed with it and my conversations with my Nan, who was neither worldly nor educated but was so wise and interesting.

I especially liked the idea that people can do a job where they have the opportunity to see and hear these stories from afar and write about them so that everyone can know.

Around 13 or 14, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

Journalism is an incredible privilege.

Having access to people’s stories, allowing them to share their most difficult and honest times and for us to be able to subject the most powerful people to scrutiny on behalf of every anonymous citizen is a humble way to make a living.

My experiences throughout my career have exceeded any expectations I had as a child reading a newspaper with my Nan and imagining a world bigger than the one I knew.

Man standing in newsroom talking to staff.
Morris says “the post-broadcast world is upon us” and he thinks the ABC is well positioned to adapt to it.(ABC News)

How has information gathering evolved over the course of your career?

When I first covered an election on the road, cellphones and the internet were not a tool in our arsenal.

When I first ventured out on an international mission, we would take 28 suitcases full of disassembled satellite dish equipment so that we could broadcast images of the terrain.

When I first returned to ABC News, we didn’t have the capacity to effectively cover a live news event, like the election of the first African American president in the United States.

In the span of a career, every fundamental technological fad that allows us to do our job as a journalist has changed in ways we could never have imagined – this has never happened before in the history of the media.

However, some things haven’t changed – the truth, the written word, great storytelling, compelling narrative – these things will last forever, no matter what platform or device.

As journalists, we must keep this in mind.

What is the future of news gathering as you see it and how is ABC placed?

We are entering a period of profound change than the advent of the Internet, mobile phones and social media.

As ABC News, we have to imagine a life beyond the “B” on our behalf because the post-broadcast world is upon us – when deadlines, show times: the clock does It does not matter to the public who will seek their news and information on their conditions, when and how the best information providers can meet their needs.

This changes the basic principles of ordering the functioning of newsrooms since the existence of journalism.

How are we positioned? Better than any other organization, IMHO.

ABC was once an industry Luddite, an old aunt content with the older audience and their well-established habits.

Now we are the innovator – ready to change and meet the needs of the public.

Our people are amazing, our content is great, our journalism is stronger than it’s ever been – we’re the digital news source that more Australians trust and we’ve done better than most at support our loyal listeners and viewers.

We have this.

Staff are tired of change and transformation – always with smaller budgets and reduced resources.

But we rise to the challenge and we are adaptable and responsive.

We know the public is ours and we are there for them, without any other interest or influence.

We will win.

What’s the next step for you?

I love projects (in my career, the launch of CNN.com, the launch of Al Jazeera in English, the launch of ABC News Channel and Equal Digital Life at ABC News).

I am looking for opportunities where I can help grow and support things that I really love.

First and foremost: my family – the most amazing and fulfilling experience of my life.