The ABC’s former chairman, Justin Milne, has propelled himself from obscurity to infamy in just four days. Along the way, he has ended the tenure of the ABC’s first female managing director, prompted two federal inquiries, revealed the dysfunctional relationship between the national broadcaster’s board and its upper management, and laid bare the politicised climate in which the ABC operates.
But on the positive side, it’s just possible that he has opened up a discussion that’s sorely needed about the independence of the ABC and the pressures that work to undermine it.
Milne’s position became untenable following leaks that appeared to reveal serial interventions in day-to-day management. These included petitioning former managing director Michelle Guthrie to sack senior journalist Emma Alberici and to “shoot” political editor Andrew Probyn because the government didn’t like them.
Read more: Justin Milne quits as ABC chairman after furore over attack on political editor
The leaked emails suggest Milne wanted particular staff removed to protect the ABC from its many strident critics in the federal Coalition government, and that he actively lobbied on a wide range of causes, including Triple J’s decision to move the Hottest 100 from Australia Day. He opposed the move because it offended his friend, the then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
The ABC board met today without Milne and asked him to stand aside. But Milne instead offered to resign. Afterwards, he told ABC journalist Leigh Sales:
Clearly there is a lot of pressure on the organisation. My aims have been to look after the interests of the corporation. And it’s clearly not a good thing for everyone to be trying to do their job with this kind of firestorm going on so I wanted to provide a release valve.
Milne’s resignation has provided some resolution. But Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s hope that “normal transmission” will now resume is the wishful thinking of a government that desperately hopes the ABC won’t become an election issue, either in the impending Wentworth by-election or at next year’s general poll.
The government has announced an inquiry, to be conducted by Mike Mrdak, secretary of the Department of Communications and the Arts. Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said it would determine the facts and restore confidence in the national broadcaster.
But as several critics have pointed out, a review conducted by someone who answers to the minister is unlikely to considered independent, especially as it was the government that Milne was seeking to appease.
Labor’s Communications spokesperson, Michelle Rowland, and others have dismissed the proposed inquiry. Paul Murphy, chief executive of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, labelled it a “whitewash” and called for a full public inquiry.
The Opposition and the Greens have supported a separate Senate inquiry to investigate the issue with wider scope and greater powers. Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said it was needed “so we can question members of the board about what has really been going on”.
She also called for a clean sweep of the entire board because of questions about what it knew about Milne’s interventions and its failure to protect staff:
We need a broom through the board and we need to give the public broadcaster a fresh start.
ABC’s independence under threat in other ways
This chaotic week has exposed the increasingly politicised climate in which the ABC now operates and the inconsistencies in the government’s narrative about the independence of the national broadcaster.
Both Fifield and Morrison have declared their support for the ABC and suggested that Milne’s reported interventions were unacceptable. But the party they represent is at the same time attacking the ABC on numerous fronts.
It has several pieces of legislation before the parliament that seek to undermine the ABC’s role or change its editorial charter, some at the behest of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
Read more: A public broadcaster that bows to political pressure isn't doing its job
It has cut the ABC’s budget by a reported A$83 million, and subjected the broadcaster to reviews into its efficiency and competitive neutrality, at the request of its commercial competitors.
Fifield is himself a regular complainant about ABC journalists on the grounds that they have not reported on the Coalition fairly.
On Monday, which now seems so long ago, the former ABC staff-elected director Matt Peacock observed that for all her faults, Guthrie did at least stand up for the ABC’s independence. He told the Media Files podcast that Guthrie understood its importance and did her best to defend it. It was an astute observation, given that independence has become the dominant theme of this unedifying week.
This is hopefully the main topic that will be explored in the impending inquiries. The issue of independence transcends the appointment of a new chairman or managing director, although clearly the next permanent occupants of those roles need to understand what a public broadcaster does and the importance of fearless, civic-minded journalism.
Read more: Why the ABC, and the public that trusts it, must stand firm against threats to its editorial independence
Questions about independence go to the way appointments are made to the board – a process that has been politicised by both major parties. It is about what a public broadcaster is and whether governments are prepared, on the one hand, to support and fortify the ABC against its critics and, on the other, to leave it alone to do its job.
Others have called today for the government to ensure board members are appointed at arm’s length, as is meant to happen under existing rules, and to appoint directors who have media experience and a passion for public broadcasting.
As Marcus Strom, president of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, told ABC News, the staff deserve better and are sick of being treated like “political footballs”.
For the millions of Australians who care about the ABC, this has been a wearying week in which odd alliances have emerged. It’s a strange day, for example, when an editorial in The Australian concurs with the unanimous sentiment of ABC staff.
But the disruption won’t have been in vain if more awareness emerges about the fragility and importance of the ABC’s editorial independence.