ABC crisis deepens
Malcolm Turnbull’s hand-picked chairman is toast
Suddenly friendless ABC chairman Justin Milne’s position now appears to be completely untenable, after revelations in Fairfax Media this morning that he pressured former MD Michelle Guthrie to sack high-profile journalist Emma Alberici for political reasons. The report, which Milne did not deny in a statement today, contained an allegation that he sent Guthrie a spine-shivering email: “They [the government] hate her. 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.” Those 35 words roll up everything you don’t want in an ABC chairman: cowardice, partisanship, meddling in day-to-day management. ABC staff in Sydney and Melbourne this afternoon unanimously passed a resolution calling on Milne to stand aside during an independent inquiry into the allegation, while in Brisbane they went further and called on him to resign immediately if the political interference reported in the email was true.
The Guardian has live-blogged the crisis today, and media commentators on the left, right and centre are aghast. Crikey’s bulletin today was headed “Milne must go” and at the Herald Sun, conservative columnist Andrew Bolt reached exactly the same conclusion [$], writing “this is outrageous”:
We have a close mate of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who got him the job, taking up a personal beef Turnbull had with one staffer to demand her sacking, when Alberici’s failings were not sackable offences. Worse, Milne makes perfectly clear in this email, as reported by Fairfax, that his sacking call is driven by political considerations more than by concerns about journalistic standards or the ABC charter. He ... suggests that the possible return of the Turnbull Government makes that sacking more necessary. That also implies that Milne would not find it necessary to sack Alberici under a Labor Government. This kind of political calculation is disgraceful. Shame on the board for not quashing it immediately. Milne must go.
Much has been made of Milne’s friendship with Malcolm Turnbull, which goes back 20 years, when he ran dotcom OzEmail for a time while Turnbull was chairman. The truth is that Turnbull has always been well connected, but has few close friends. As communications minister he appointed Milne to the board of NBN and then as PM made him the ABC chairman.
But however close Milne was to Turnbull, that relationship would be more of a liability than an asset in Canberra today. “Milne’s toast,” a senior Liberal source told The Monthly Today, and it stands to reason: why would Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, who abandoned Turnbull in the leadership spill, stand by one of Turnbull’s mates now? Fifield batted questions straight back to the ABC board today, in a statement that expressed no confidence in Milne whatsoever. The New Dailyprofiled the ABC directors this morning – after five years in government, they’re all Coalition appointees. If they have a scintilla of concern for the editorial independence of the ABC, they will vote no confidence in Milne, assuming he attempts to brazen this out.
The union covering ABC editorial, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, this morning issued a statement that, if the Fairfax report was true, Milne should resign immediately, and former ABC director and chair David Hill likewise called the reports “deeply disturbing” and said similarly that, if they’re true, Milne should resign. Milne’s predecessor, Jim Spigelman, toldRN Breakfast this morning that he was surprised: “It’s not something I would’ve thought appropriate for me to do … I would not have done it.” Emma Alberici herself told ABC Melbourne’s Jon Faine this morning the reports were “disappointing if true”.
There is much more to come: as ABC Sydney Drive host Richard Glover tweeted this afternoon, 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.” Milne’s history as chair is coming out: in Meanjin, Margaret Simons writes that he is “notoriously interventionist”. The Guardian’s Amanda Meade reports today that Milne tried to stop Triple J’s move of the Hottest 100 from Australia Day, arguing that “Malcolm will go ballistic”.
This afternoon Opposition leader Bill Shorten weighed in describing Milne’s position as “untenable”. Labor and the Greens will move for a Senate inquiry into the independence of the ABC.
We know how truly independent statutory bodies behave – take a bow, Gillian Triggs and Tim Soutphommasane, dear-departed from the Australian Human Rights Commission, who stood up under relentless fire from the federal government and hostile media. That’s what taxpayers expect and deserve.
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
Suddenly friendless ABC chairman Justin Milne’s position now appears to be completely untenable, after revelations in Fairfax Media this morning that he pressured former MD Michelle Guthrie to sack high-profile journalist Emma Alberici for political reasons. The report, which Milne did not deny in a statement today, contained an allegation that he sent Guthrie a spine-shivering email: “They [the government] hate her. 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.” Those 35 words roll up everything you don’t want in an ABC...