Your ABC story: Two sackers get sacked — next whole Board may go

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons)

The three-day story of the ABC this week has a dramatic anatomy, moving suddenly from one crisis and point of interest to the next. Media editor Lee Duffield says it surpasses in drama and intrigue, any of the personal “ABC stories” being put up by celebrities and others in the organisation’s current solidarity campaign on air.

ONE DAY, the managing director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Michelle Guthrie, being fired was the story.

Suddenly, next day, it’s the chairman, Justin Milne, accused of helping the Government interfere with ABC independence — by trying to sack a journalist the Government dislikes.

Next day after that (today Thursday, 27 September), Justin Milne has gone and several voices – such as the Federal Opposition and the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance – want the governing Board of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to be given a good looking-over.

Milne states that he public-spiritedly resigned to create a “release valve” after all the controversy.

Yeah-yeah, after saying for 24 hours he would not go, because he had never received orders from the Government to sack journalists, and had given no orders along that line, and not until after the Board had met, without him, to suggest he should step down for a while.

That “while” would be the time it might take for the Communication department to hold its inquiry, ordered up by the Government, into media reports that he told his managing director, Michelle Guthrie, certain journalists should be sacked because the government did not like them.

Even today, he told ABC 7.30 it was “realistic” for the Board and senior management to talk about what the government wanted:

“You can’t go around irritating people who are going to give you money time after time."

Talking about it is different to giving orders for sackings, he said.

Still, as early as yesterday morning the smart money was that he had to go, even if the man himself, with his top-floor ways, did not get why.

David Hill, who served as both chairman, then managing director of the ABC – went so far as to say the actions imputed to him would be a case of the Corporation’s own chairman undermining its independence – and a breach of the ABC Act of Parliament.

Justin Milne has come across as a company chairperson from central casting: on the arrogant side, telling the chief executive what the government would like or not like, refusing to answer certain open questions (this last being everybody’s right, but a qualified right if you are chairperson of a major national institution that is being accused of malpractice).

The journalists’ union, the MEAA (Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance), today moved the story on, supporting calls for an investigation of the ABC Board.

It states that the Board has been politically appointed and has almost no representation of persons with requisite broadcasting or journalism expertise.

Appointments to the Board were being handled under an arms-length system started by Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, something like the English idea where independent nominators put names to the government.

That was scrapped as soon as the Liberal Party came to power in 2013 and appointments have been made directly by the Government — usually putting up business people, definitely not media professionals.

Does it show?

Is the problem a failure of understanding, of why the ABC needs to be independent and why its staff should be free to do their work without political intimidation?

What works for ordinary companies might not work for the national broadcaster — “everybody’s” ABC.

The Labor Party Opposition and Greens have determined there should be a Senate inquiry where they can call in the players in the drama and late today were looking for crossbench support to set that up.

They want to look at the Board and any menaces to editorial freedom.

Members of the Government have meantime been declaring staunch support for ABC independence, which if they are drafting the next Federal budget, they might demonstrate by reversing the $84 million in punitive cuts already made against the national broadcaster.

Just a look back at the tussle between Justin Milne, the career company chairman, and Michelle Guthrie, seen this week as a 53 year-old yuppie and sacker, bent on a radical corporatisation of the ABC, which had already exacted a nasty toll in staff redundancies.

By all accounts, Justin Milne was close to the erstwhile Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who’d been making complaints about the broadcaster while he was in office.

We have yesterday’s Fairfax story about the email traffic, along the lines that ABC finance correspondent, Emma Alberici, was a candidate for sacking because the Government “hated her”.

The journalist had written a long report about major corporations not paying their tax.

Opening up further, her work had mentioned the MYOB corporation – which sell business services software and where Milne is chairman – opening the question of a conflict of interest.

(It is a reminder of Mr Milne’s dealings with Malcolm Turnbull when they were interested in making money from small telecoms in the dot.com days — picking the eyes out of enticing urban markets. Turnbull went on to replace the NBN concept with a slower model, made up of bits and pieces of small operations; Milne took his enthusiasm for digitalism into the ABC, where he was pushing proposals for a gargantuan digital platform to host all services).

Not wasted on many observers: if the email quoted in the Fairfax report is in truth from Milne to Guthrie – which Milne agreed on ABC 7.30 tonight it was, though it was taken "out of content" – and if by chance it were let out directly by Guthrie, with some intent, we could say that, as the saying goes, “She got him a beauty!”

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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