Thursday, September 27, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Not normal transmission at the ABC
What happened under ex-chairman Justin Milne must never happen again


The Morrison government might wish that the ABC resume normal transmission, but there is nothing normal about Monday’s shock dismissal of MD Michelle Guthrie and today’s resignation of chairman Justin Milne. Just as it did with the leadership spill that installed Scott Morrison as prime minister, the divided Coalition government has brought on a bloodbath and then promptly asked the public to move on, without an explanation. The hard questions are only beginning to be asked – like, how long has this been going on? How badly has the ABC’s independence been compromised? What else don’t we know?

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s lawyerly defence from New York overnight cuts no mustard. Perhaps it is true that he never formally instructed Milne to get rid of ABC journalist Emma Alberici, or to “shoot” political editor Andrew Probyn. But the leaked documents show that’s what Milne heard and acted upon. In one long phone call, described in this morning’s Daily Telegraph, the PM’s anger was described [$] as “white hot”. That’s the “Turnbully” of old, who loves nothing more than going over a journalist’s head – to the editor, the boss, the chairman. Forget the highly educated small-L liberal – this is the raw side of a whatever-it-takes businessman-cum-politician. Turnbull’s appointment of old friend and business associate Justin Milne has been disastrous for the ABC.

Then there’s communications minister, Mitch Fifield, who was actually Milne’s boss. Fifield said nothing of substance at his press conference this morning, but no doubt precipitated the board’s decision by letting Milne swing in the breeze. The directors had their green light, and Milne is gone. But the plotting Fifield, who has written half a dozen vexatious complaints against the ABC, remains the minister. Fifield even had the gall to complain about a report that fingered the government for holding the Super Saturday by-elections on the same day as the ALP’s National Conference in July. As if they didn’t do it on purpose! Pub test, anyone? Not only does the government want to obsess over their ridiculous partisan politics, they want to get all outraged when journalists call them on it. A payout and a non-disclosure agreement may not be enough to keep the lid on; Milne might need a sinecure to restore his reputation as well.

Fifield appointed the rest of the directors. All of the scandalous back-and-forth between Milne and Guthrie – over Alberici, Probyn, Jon Faine, the Hottest 100 – was in writing before the board, yet they were staunch behind Milne right up until yesterday, telling The Australian “We have to hold the line”. What line? The party line, perhaps? We already knew most of them had no experience relevant to the public broadcaster; now we find their governance credentials sorely lacking as well. Only under maximum public pressure will they fulfil their most important statutory obligation, which is to defend the independence of the ABC.

Perhaps, as the SMH writes today, the entire board needs a clean-out. More important is a permanent fix, to ensure the ABC is given back its independence. As the ABC staff resolution yesterday stated, it is time for a thorough, independent inquiry, which ensures the organisation’s independence. The Labor party tried to entrench the independence of the board by instituting a merit-based appointment process at arms-length from the government. But if the communications minister can simply ignore the recommendations and appoint their own candidate, and table their reasons in parliament, what’s the point?

Perhaps the ABC should simply refuse to cooperate with the ridiculous competitive neutrality inquiry, which was a sop to Pauline Hanson, designed to put the news division through the wringer. Send a spokesperson. Submit a two-page fax. Be at the hairdresser. This week has to be an inflection point for a vital, much-loved public institution that has been bullied and slashed for too long, and which this week was taken to the very precipice by a bunch of government stooges. It’s time for the ABC to stand up and fight.

since this morning

The federal government has threatened to withhold billions of dollars of funding earmarked for Australian public and private schools next year if states refuse to sign up to its new education funding deal.

Katherine O’Regan, the prime minister’s preferred Liberal candidate for Wentworth, has called for the Enid Lyons fighting fund to relax its rules to help women win preselection.

in case you missed it

The Guardian reports that there is “no shortage of names in the mix to replace Michelle Guthrie”.

The Australian reports [$] that federal Labor MP Emma Husar is reconsidering her decision to quit at the next election over a staff bullying scandal, after the extension of a NSW ALP deadline for “expressions of interest” in her Western Sydney seat.

There is growing disquiet among crossbench senators over the “draconian” proposed spyware bill, according to Fairfax Media.

by Luke Goodsell
‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot’: a return to quintessential Gus Van Sant
The veteran director discusses his unconventional biopic and eclectic career

by Martin McKenzie-Murray
The West Coast boys done bad
Ten years after the Eagles’ 2006 premiership, a culture is laid bare

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.


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