The sacking of ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie has revealed another teeming nest of political white-ants undermining our democracy.
The Liberal Party may claim to be fierce warriors for freedom of speech, but the truth is ‒ as you will have read time and time again in these pages – they are anything but. Free speech, it seems, is only a right for the right.
On Monday, 24 September, Michelle Guthrie was sacked, raising eyebrows for three reasons:
- it is unprecedented for an ABC board to sack its managing director — the closest a board has ever come was Jonathan Shier in 2002, who resigned halfway through his term;
- the axing came hard on the heels of Malcolm Turnbull’s untidy political execution;
- News Corp were given news of the sacking even before ABC staff had been notified.
As senior editor Michelle Pini wrote in a highly prescient article on Monday:
'That her [Guthrie’s] departure from the ABC was first "exclusively" reported by The Australian, apparently before the ABC newsrooms had had their morning coffees, would also indicate that only the ABC Board (minus its MD), the Government and possibly News Corp were aware of the sudden need to fire Guthrie.'
It seems my instincts on Guthrie's hasty departure were correct — she was not doing the bidding of the Murdoch machine effectively enough. https://t.co/5gy9bvMPe8— Michelle Pini (@vmp9) September 25, 2018
THE MILNE EMAIL: “THEY HATE HER”
Yesterday, Wednesday, an email was leaked to Fairfax from a “source close to the board” revealing Justin Milne had instructed Michelle Guthrie to fire the ABC’s chief economics correspondent, Emma Alberici, because the Government “hated her”.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported the contents of the email yesterday, 26 September:
“They [the Government] hate her,” Mr Milne said in the email, which was conveyed to Fairfax Media by a source close to the board.
“We are tarred with her brush. I think it’s simple. Get rid of her. We need to save the ABC - not Emma. There is no guarantee they [the Coalition] will lose the next election.”
Milne is a close personal friend and former business partner of Malcolm Turnbull, who not only appointed him chair of the ABC in 2017, but also put him to the board of the embattled NBN Co. He was described, at the time of his appointment as ABC chair, as being “in the pocket” of Turnbull. The Milne email was received on 8 May — a day after then Prime Minister Turnbull had sent a list of 11 grievances to the ABC’s news director Gaven Morris regarding an Alberici article. Turnbull had complained about Alberici before and has a long history of bullying the ABC and SBS — usually ending in the offending journalists losing their jobs.
Guthrie resisted Milne’s pressure to sack the Alberici. She also stared down direct complaints by the Government over other high-profile ABC journalists, including political editor Andrew Probyn and Melbourne morning radio host Jon Faine. This recalcitrance appears to have sealed her fate.
Milne’s predecessor as ABC chair, Jim Spiegelman (2012-2017), told the ABC he thought the intervention was “inappropriate”:
"It’s not something I would have thought appropriate for me to do. I was surprised and I would not have done it."
Milne issued a blanket denial of any wrongdoing on the ABC's website this morning:
The job of the ABC board is to independently govern the corporation, protect its best interests, ensure that it is well funded, well managed and that our content is of the highest standards.
That is precisely what the board has done and will continue to do. I do not propose to provide a running commentary on day to day issues which arise in pursuit of our duties.
At time of writing, ABC staff, the journalists’ union (MEAA), the public sector union (CPSU), and the Greens have all called for Milne to resign, whilst the Opposition has said it will push for a Senate inquiry into political interference into the ABC.
Emma Alberici appeared on ABC Radio Melbourne this morning, telling Jon Faine the revelations were “very disturbing”:
"It really undermines the independence of the ABC, and that's certainly why I work there."
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
Alberici also revealed that Milne was profoundly conflicted, being chair of MYOB, one of the companies featured in a February article on corporate tax. This article was bitterly objected to by the Government, as it questioned the rationale behind its proposed company tax cuts.
Reports emerging suggest Milne’s intervention into ABC editorial matters appears to have been rather extensive.
During his brief reign as ABC chair, Milne has reportedly:
- asked Guthrie to sack Alberici, Probyn and Faine;
- complained about a comedy show Tonightly, which directed offensive language at a far rightwing politician; and
- tried to convince the ABC board to reverse the decision to move the Triple J Hottest 100 broadcast from 26 January.
It has also been revealed ABC chairman Justin Milne was furious about a @Tonightly sketch, and adamant @TomCBallard should immediately apologise on-air. The ABC's internal complaints unit and Acma cleared the #Tonightly sketch https://t.co/wJQXA6Jny4 pic.twitter.com/fs0Krwsq0X— Guardian Australia (@GuardianAus) September 26, 2018
Milne’s main priority at all times seems to have been placating the Government and his friend, Turnbull.
For instance, regarding the Hottest 100 decision, Milne reportedly told the Board:
"Malcolm will go ballistic."
CIRCUMVENTING DUE PROCESS
One of the duties of the ABC board laid out in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act is to ‘maintain the independence and integrity’ of the broadcaster and ensure the gathering and presentation of ‘news and information is accurate and impartial’.
The grave suspicion any impartial observer would have about these events is that the Board was influenced by Milne to sack Guthrie — not only to please the Government, but also to further Milne’s private business interests. Although how hard it would have been for him to persuade a board made up exclusively of Coalition apparatchiks ‒ with the sole exception of the one staff appointed director ‒ is highly questionable.
Earlier this year, the Guardian detailed the way the Liberal Party had been circumventing due process to stack the ABC Board with its friends and allies:
On Friday [14 May 2018] Fifield appointed Melbourne investment banker Joseph Gersh to the ABC board as a non-executive director, despite his name not being on the final list of recommended candidates provided by a panel set up to vet candidates.
Gersh is a friend and political ally of Liberal power brokers Peter Costello and Michael Kroger from university politics.
The minister has the power to appoint directly but must submit a list of reasons to parliament.
Fifield has also appointed Vanessa Guthrie, Kirstin Ferguson and Donny Walford to the ABC board this way.
Since the 2017 election, the Federal Government has been in a virtual pitched battle against the ABC.
As former chair Jim Spiegelman told ABC Radio yesterday:
"It’s very rare for a government to be happy with what the ABC is doing. It’s also rare for the complaints to be as frequent as they have been since the last election."
There are clearly defined complaints processes for the ABC, including from the Government, which should make its complaints at arm’s length, through the broadcasting regulator, ACMA.
As with its Board appointments, the Government has circumvented this official process dozens of times since the 2017 election, with Turnbull and Communications Minister Mitch Fifield writing numerous letters of complaint to Michelle Guthrie and other ABC executives. Fairfax Media also reported that Mr Turnbull informally complained about Andrew Probyn’s “anti-Government bias” to Ms Guthrie at a pre-match function before last year’s AFL grand final.
Justin Milne is only half the story. His email implies someone gave him cause to believe ABC funding was linked to the current government getting its way. That's the who, where and how that needs answering.— richard glover (@rgloveroz) September 26, 2018
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This internal inquiry is a whitewash designed to shield Fifield and Lib Govt from independent scrutiny of political interference with the ABC. This simply isn't good enough. What are they scared of? #auspol #ABC pic.twitter.com/0kbjo6R98x— Michelle Rowland (@MRowlandMP) September 26, 2018
BREAKING: Government launches internal Government inquiry into Government interference in the ABC.— Dave Donovan (@davrosz) September 26, 2018
"No chairman of any major organisation ... can be so witless as to send an email - an email, for pity’s sake, traceable forever! - effectively admitting he is doing the government’s dirty work, and expect to survive."https://t.co/MhdmnxMBpH— Coalition Tea Lady (@ItsBouquet) September 26, 2018