Plaudits for the ABC board’s decision to sack Michelle Guthrie from within the company have quickly soured, as a shocking leaked email showed chairman Justin Milne saying exactly the sort of thing the national broadcaster’s dedicated employees do not want to hear.
On the face of it, Milne feared regular complaints and accusations of bias from members of the government were a serious risk to the corporation and told Guthrie to jettison economics reporter Emma Alberici in order to appease the critics in the Coalition. According to the article, the email included the following widely reported comments:
“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 [the Coalition] will lose the next election.”
As Guthrie reportedly considers a potential legal challenge to her termination as ABC managing director, the leak’s emergence in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning severely undermines Milne’s credibility with staff and seems aimed at showing Guthrie standing up for an employee in the face of political pressure. Before today, it was widely reported that a lot of staff were happy to see Guthrie’s term cut short, but Milne may now end up being seen as the bigger villain in an organisation whose people are not shy about expressing their views and defending their independence.
“What a mess,” tweeted Media Watch host Paul Barry, while former ABC reporter Quentin Dempster, now at The New Daily, suggested Milne would now have to consider his own position.
Alberici told the Melbourne ABC radio host Jon Faine she had the unpleasant experience of finding out about the blunt call to throw her to the wolves in this morning’s headlines, and added her own pointed comment into the heady brew. As Faine reminded listeners, Milne is also chairman of MYOB, one of many companies she reported as having paid no corporate tax in a series of articles that drew the strongest complaints from the government.
Alberici said that in her view, Milne had “at least an appearance of a conflict of interest” in the matter and should not have made recommendations in relation to it.
The union for media workers is already rallying the troops, and the ABC house committee has called staff to a 1pm meeting that might be “the most important staff meeting since the [Jonathan] Shier era” according to an email that has been reported elsewhere. “We need to send a message that it is not okay for the chairman of the board to bow to political pressure about ABC coverage,” it reportedly adds. “This is vital to the ABC’s independence and our ability to report fearlessly and independently.”
At Ultimo, an official ABC function is happening in the foyer while upstairs in an entirely open space hundreds of staff are rallying against Justin Milne. Competing speakers and applause. Extraordinary.
— Jason Whittaker (@thetowncrier) September 26, 2018
Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance chief Paul Murphy has said if the report is true — and it has not been denied — then Milne was “enabling political interference in the ABC” and made his position untenable. Murphy said:
“I can’t recall an instance like this. I cannot recall an instance where there has been reason to question the dedication of the chairman of the ABC and its board to protect the ABC’s independence.
“The ABC is a public broadcaster, broadcasting in the interest of the community. It is not a state broadcaster, it is not broadcasting state propaganda.
“To have a suggestion that a journalist should be sacked because the government of the day is unhappy with their reporting is just extraordinary, disturbing and intolerable.
“I think that the chair is in an impossible position. That is our view. The level of concern being expressed to us by our members at the ABC and indeed our journalist members across the country in other media organisations is unprecedented. They all understand they can’t do their jobs unless they are protected, unless their independence is protected and they are allowed to report free of interference in the best interest of the public.”
The former chair James Spigelman, who led the board that hired Guthrie, told Radio National host Fran Kelly this morning that he would not have taken such a drastic step of asking the managing director to sack a journalist as a sacrificial lamb, and observed the government-owned corporation was responding to pressure coming from the conservative wing of the Coalition. In reference to former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s ultimately unsuccessful efforts to keep the same group happy, Spigelman observed: “There’s no point in appeasing bullies.”
The Minister for Communications and the Arts, Mitch Fifield, has been one of the foremost critics of the ABC and Alberici but denied he had ever sought to influence its operations or editorial independence. Fifield issued the following statement just after noon:
“From time to time, I have raised factual errors in ABC reporting, but have always respected the legislated operational and editorial independence of the ABC.
“I have never involved myself in staffing matters, nor am I aware of any member of the Government who has sought to do so. The operations of the ABC are entirely matters for the board and management of the ABC which, by law, the Minister does not have a role in.
“Questions about the ABC’s board and management are matters for the ABC.”