Mike Mrdak's ABC review: Milne told Guthrie to sack ABC journalists of his own accord

By Stephen Easton

October 15, 2018

When erstwhile ABC chair Justin Milne pressured former managing director Michelle Guthrie to fire journalists who annoyed the government, it was his own decision, according to a review by Mike Mrdak, secretary of the Department of Communications and the Arts.

Communications Minister Mitch Fifield tabled the Mrdak review in the Senate today, highlighting that Milne and Guthrie both told his department head “there was no request or suggestion” by any minister that led the national broadcaster’s former chair to demand senior journalists be sacrificed to appease an increasingly unfriendly government.

Of course, the former chair’s stated reasoning for very strongly suggesting that Guthrie fire senior reporters Emma Alberici and Andrew Probyn was that the government clearly disliked them and some of their recent reporting, based on clear public statements and letters of complaint from ministers, including former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and Fifield himself.

Mrdak was looking at how Milne communicated with Guthrie around a series of complaints from the government, regarding Alberici and Probyn, the decision by Triple J to stop running the Hottest 100 countdown on Australia Day, and edgy political satire televised on Tonightly.

A timeline of events included in the report demonstrates that each case involved both interventions by the board and complaints from the government which reflected identical concerns. The former chair maintains he was making his views known to the managing director, not giving a direction, while Guthrie sees it the other way around. “She advised that it was consistent with what she regards as an interventionist approach to individual staffing and editorial matters which the chair adopted,” Mrdak reports.

Milne told Fifield on September 12 that the board had decided Guthrie had to go and would inform her the following day, the minister revealed. He was then told of her imminent sacking on September 23, the day before it happened, but denies any knowledge of the controversial “encounters” between Guthrie and Milne that turned up in the newspapers soon after, catalysing the Mrdak inquiry and leading Milne to fall on his sword.

As the ABC board has already revealed, another “confidential” review is still underway. At Guthrie’s request on September 21, an external, independent investigator was appointed to look into unspecified but clearly related issues she raised in a letter to the board. Fifield has sent the Mrdak review over so it can be provided to that investigation.

“I have also sought the advice of the board as to the scope and the timeframes of the external, independent expert adviser’s investigation,” the minister added.

“In addition I have sought from the board their assurance that they have acted at all times to uphold the independence and integrity of the organisation.”

As to whether Guthrie’s sacking was a direct result of the Alberici and Probyn arguments, Mrdak simply observes a difference of opinion between Milne’s claim that her resistance to his strong interventions over editorial and staffing matters was not the main reason for the board’s decision to cut her loose, and the former MD’s impression that it was a major factor. Guthrie disputes claims that a performance management process had begun or that she had any warning that she was on thin ice before August 22.

Mrdak kept the review pretty simple. He simply arranged meetings with Milne, Guthrie and interim managing director David Anderson, whom he asked to furnish “the specific emails, papers and any other documents that were referred to in media reports, along with any other associated documents and relevant records associated with these events” as well. The report mainly summarises what each of the three said.

Following discussion between the two agency heads around exactly what documents Mrdak would get to see and confidentiality arrangements, Anderson provided the DCA secretary with “a very limited number of documents” and a timeline of events.

“I was not provided with any papers prepared for the ABC Board on the matters which fell within the Inquiry,” Mrdak writes.

“Mr Anderson provided the limited papers to me on the basis that they are confidential to the ABC, and would not be distributed or their contents referenced in this report. These documents have been used as background material only and are not directly referenced unless the contents were: (I) available to the Department via its own internal record; or (ii) a matter of public record.

“While I have no statutory power to compel parties to participate in the meetings and/or compulsorily provide documents to the Inquiry, all parties approached to participate in a meeting indicated a willingness to cooperate to the extent they were able.”

Fifield’s statement and the Mrdak review can be accessed on the Australian Parliament House website.

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