The national media union, the MEAA, wants a shake-up of the ABC to try and proof it against political interference, including a Board with more “independent, accountable and experienced” directors.
Media Editor Dr Lee Duffield says the call for more “transparency” is contained in a submission to a Senate inquiry — one of three announced investigations.
THE JOURNALISTS' ORGANISATION has not joined in calls for the governing ABC Board to be sacked outright, but has given the Senators a formula for doing it.
It has reacted to the collective uptight response of the seven surviving members of the governing body to last September’s crisis over the sacking of the Managing Director, Michelle Guthrie.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT?
Guthrie, when fired on 24 September, confirmed accusations that the then Chairman, Justin Milne, wanted the sacking of two senior journalists plus actions against Triple J radio and a comedy program, to head off government reprisals in the form of new budget cuts.
When he then resigned on 27 September, an acting Chair, Kirstin Ferguson, was appointed who said Milne’s departure was a relief but otherwise would not tell what had gone on.
Interviewers got effectively nothing from Ferguson as to how much she and the other Board members knew about the exchanges between Guthrie and Milne — nothing to shed any light on later leaks that they’d been taking different sides.
The rule of silence follows the “corporatisation” model taken up by the ABC to make it like a commercial company.
That means non-media business types occupying the board, and a tight-lipped “top-floor” culture, over-doing “commercial confidentiality” enough that you cannot know if they do any more than tick-off on what managers tell them.
The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) wants this changed, demanding transparency, plus representativeness and expertise, with a set minimum of media professionals on the board.
Three inquiries have been set up:
- The Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications, into allegations of political interference in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), submissions now closed (on 13 November 2018). These inquiries have transparent processes and publish their reports.
- An inquiry by an “external, independent expert adviser” appointed by the ABC Board the day before Guthrie’s forced resignation to investigate matters relevant to her trouble with the organisation. The identity of the advisor and process details were kept secret. “As noted, it is being investigated and managed on a confidential basis,” said a spokeswoman for the Board.
- The Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield, bid into it, mid-crisis, on 26 September, announcing his Department Secretary, Mike Mrdak, would investigate.
WHAT DO THE MEDIA WORKERS SAY?
The MEAA statement says the process for nominating and appointing candidates to the ABC Board needs a complete overhaul to ensure the board has appropriate levels of media experience and is protected from interference by lobby groups.
- no one who has an official role as a lobbyist or with an industry lobby group should be eligible to be a director of the ABC;
- at least half the directors on the board should have experience in the media, journalism or broadcasting;
- a transparent, independent board appointment process should be followed and the relevant minister should not have discretion to bypass this process;
- there should be a doubling of the number of staff-elected directors to two;
- extend the bar to board appointments for certain political persons to three years; and
- disclosure of all political affiliations and donations by board members.
The MEAA has also made recommendations to the Senate inquiry for external independent advisers to assist in setting triennial funding of the ABC and for a review of the ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs division to ensure there is procedural fairness when dealing with external complaints.
MEAA Chief Executive Paul Murphy said:
The sacking of managing director Michelle Guthrie and the subsequent resignation of chairman Justin Milne have severely undermined confidence in the board to maintain the standards of independence as required under the ABC charter.
This affair has also highlighted other deficiencies in the current board, namely a lack of experience in media or broadcasting and the potential conflicts of interest that may arise when directors have roles with industry lobby groups.
This is partly a failure of process when the Minister for Communications has either ignored or bypassed the independent board nomination process which was put in place by the previous Labor Government.
See the full submission here.
PROBLEM WON’T GO AWAY
The problem will not go away for members of the current ABC Board.
The public Senate inquiry is multi-party, though dominated by the Opposition and Greens and is set to report in a politically-charged atmosphere by 29 March next year — a month or so before the coming federal elections.
If the inquiries get out some hard information about the ABC’s governance and dredge up more questions to be answered, there will be no refuge in haughty silences for members of the Board.
The Board, under law, has to safeguard the independence and integrity of the ABC — it will be time to talk.
Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.
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