ABC boss Justin Milne falls on his sword

By Tom Burton & David Donaldson

Thursday September 27, 2018

Ted Evans to make ABC recommendation to Scott Morrison, after chair Justin Milne resigns. 

Former Treasury chief Ted Evans will lead a new selection process to replace the ABC chair after incumbent Justin Milne resigned today, following reports claiming he had pushed for the dismissal of senior ABC journalists critical of the Turnbull government.

Milne’s resignation comes days after managing director Michelle Guthrie was fired. Milne claimed the ABC was looking for a different style of chief executive, calling out the need to have better relationships with government.

He resigned today following a mid-morning board meeting without him, after a newspaper report citing emails of Milne pushing Guthrie for the resignation of senior journalist Emma Alberici, after a series of articles she wrote about company tax. This was followed by a separate report claiming Milne had also sought the sacking of the ABC’s political editor, Andrew Probyn.

Milne told Leigh Sales in an interview that he had decided to go because there was a lot of pressure on the organisation:

“As always, my interests, my aim, has 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,” he said.

Asked whether his resignation was an admission he had failed to protect the ABC’s editorial independence, he responded:

“Absolutely 100% not. In fact I feel that the interests of the ABC have always been uppermost in my mind and just to sort of get it on the record for you is that there is absolutely no interference in the independence of the ABC by the government. Nobody from the government has ever rung me and told me what to do in relation to the ABC. Nobody ever told me to hire anybody, fire anybody or anything else. They absolutely didn’t. I know that’s the sort of the narrative that’s been running in the papers but that — but that absolutely never happened.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Milne and the board had “made the right call”.

The catastrophic collapse of governance at the ABC comes amid several government-led inquiries and a controversial budget decision to cap funding growth. This had followed increasing protests by Turnbull ministers and Coalition backbenchers about journalistic accuracy and bias.

The Federal Liberal Party Council passed a resolution in the middle of this year calling for the privatisation of the ABC.

The Department of Communications and the Arts is undertaking a competitive neutrality review looking at ABC expansionism into digital media. At the same time a second efficiency review is being undertaken by former Foxtel boss Peter Tonagh and former ACMA deputy chair Richard Bean.

Evans is chair of the Prime Minister and Cabinet nomination panel that was set up by the previous Labor government to ensure ABC board appointments are not politicised.

Earlier last year, Evans recommended the appointment of Sydney lawyer Danny Gilbert founder of tech law group Gilbert and Tobin. That recommendation was not taken up with the government instead choosing Milne, a close business colleague of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Others on the nomination panel include Media Director of Ogilvy Public Relations Anne Fulwood, Queensland lawyer and chair of Super Retail group Dr Sally Pitken, and former mandarin Helen Williams.

Under the rules of the selection process their recommendation will be made directly to the prime minister, who makes the appointment of the chair.

The resignation of Milne also leaves up in the air the future of the ABC’s digital strategy. Milne was a strong advocate of project jetstream, a proposal to revamp the ABC’s operating systems to enable it to easily stream any of its content to any device at any time of the day.

This expansion had been strongly contested by commercial media groups who say the ABC is unfairly competing for the same digital readership as its mastheads and broadcast outlets.

How it came to this

Only yesterday Department of Communications Secretary Mike Mrdak was asked to investigate leaked emails showing Milne interfering over news coverage he didn’t like.

Milne had reportedly asked managing director Michelle Guthrie to fire journalists Emma Alberici and Andrew Probyn, and wanted action taken against radio presenter Jon Faine, for upsetting the government.

He also strongly opposed moving the date of Triple J’s Hottest 100 from January 26, saying “Malcolm will go ballistic”.

These revelations follow the surprise ouster of Guthrie earlier in the week. Guthrie had struggled in the job, meeting pressure from staff, the board and the government.

Fairfax reports staff had made it clear to the board they would walk off the job in protest if Milne wasn’t asked to step aside.

ABC members of the journalists’ union yesterday passed a unanimous motion calling on Milne to step aside while the independent investigation was carried out.

ABC Board Chair over-reaches in a bid to appease hostile government
How ABC chairman Justin Milne compromised the independence of the national broadcaster
Streaming the ABC’s ‘Jesuits’: Michelle Guthrie’s hard lesson for digital leaders

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