The head of the Department of Communications and the Arts will conduct an investigation into claims of interference at the ABC. A Senate inquiry is also likely when parliament resumes next month.
While ABC staff were walking off the job after leaked emails showed its chairman Justin Milne (pictured above) interfering over news coverage he didn’t like, the Communications Minister Mitch Fifield was deflecting calls for Milne to be stood down and investigated.
But by the afternoon Fifield had met with the Prime Minister. He came out of that meeting with a changed tune. Mike Mrdak, Secretary of the Department of Communications and the Arts would conduct an inquiry into the reports of surrounding the ABC, its board and its chairman, Milne.
Mrdak is a highly respected senior public servant, experienced in dealing with difficult-to-budge stakeholders and highly sensitive relationships. Before taking he took over as secretary of DCA last year, Mrdak served nearly two full terms as head of the Infrastructure portfolio and had been the Commonwealth Coordinator-General and PM&C’s deputy secretary in charge of the Cabinet office.
The day began with revelations that Milne sought the sacking of ABC reporter Emma Alberici, with a leaked email noting “There is no guarantee they [the Turnbull government] will lose the next election.”
Current and former government officials who spoke with The Mandarin today were baffled why Milne would put such a statement in an email, saying those kind of sensitive matters were normally conducted without leaving an official record.
- EARLIER COVERAGE: ABC staff applause for Guthrie’s sacking turns to fury at chairman’s call to sacrifice Alberici
The leaks further revealed Malcolm Turnbull had sent an 11-point email to Milne complaining about Alberici’s reporting, which was critical of tax impact claims made by his government. This email was sent the day before Milne’s intervention with now-sacked Managing Director Michelle Guthrie.
Three ABC employees were subject to board discussions– Alberici, political editor Andrew Probyn, and ABC Melbourne radio host Jon Faine. Alberici declined an invitation by Faine to comment on air on whether Milne would resign, but did say she was disturbed by the revelations.
Other individual ABC stars, former employees and even former Managing Director David Hill did begin calling for Milne to resign as his position as chair was untenable. The union which covers most ABC employees, the MEAA, also called for Milne to resign.
Fifield issued his first statement for the day, putting the onus on dealing with leaked revelations about Milne back on the ABC:
“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.”
Milne issued his own statement — he would not be standing down, but nor was there a denial of the allegations:
“The job of the ABC board is to independently govern the corporation, protect its best interests, ensure that it is well funded, well managed, and that our content is of the highest standards. That is precisely what the board has done and will continue to do.”
By lunchtime, ABC staff across Australia had held stop-work meetings and were entire offices were calling calling for Milne to step aside pending an investigation. At least once office, Brisbane, was calling for Milne to resign immediately.
The Federal Opposition and the Greens indicated they would initiate a Senate inquiry when parliament resumes next month. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Milne’s position was untenable.
A few hours later, Fifield had met with Prime Minister Scott Morrison. He issued another statement saying an APS-led review had been commissioned:
“Having met with the Prime Minister this afternoon, I have asked the Secretary of the Department of Communications and the Arts to undertake an inquiry to establish the facts in relation to today’s media reports surrounding the ABC.
“The Secretary will report his findings to me as soon as possible.
“It is important for the community to have confidence in the independence of the ABC.”
The ABC board held a teleconference but the discussion and outcome of that meeting is not known.
Milne ended the day still as ABC chairman.