Queensland Liberal senator James McGrath had said the ABC’s headquarters in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane should be sold, and the funds used to retire government debt.
In the latest Coalition attack on the national broadcaster, McGrath declared: “The ABC currently operates like a closed-shop, left-wing vortex with an appointments process more secretive than the selection of the Pope”.
The ABC has faced repeated criticism and claims of bias since the Coalition was elected in 2013. A year ago the Liberal Party’s federal council urged it should be privatised – a call immediately rejected by the government.
McGrath said it “needs to shift its headquarters away from the inner-city latte lines to where the ‘quiet Australians’ live, work and play”. It was long past time that it moved to the suburbs or regions, he said.
Questions on notice submitted under Senate estimates showed the ABC’s property portfolio was worth $522 million, he said. “Of the 37 properties in the ABC’s portfolio, Ultimo, Brisbane South Bank and Melbourne Southbank account for 81% of the portfolio’s value. That’s $426 million. What is this achieving for the taxpayer?”
McGrath said given modern technology, there was no reason why the ABC couldn’t operate out of places such as Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Caboolture or Beenleigh.
“For the purposes of conducting interviews, the ABC could easily copy the Sky News model of a small booth close to capital city CBDs.”
He said this was part of a three point plan he proposed for the ABC “to return to its core duties of delivering accurate, factual and unbiased news services and content”.
“The other parts of the plan include calling for all ABC roles to be advertised externally to broaden the diversity of views within the organisation, and for the government to commit to a full review of the ABC’s Charter, taking into account the changing media environment.”
McGrath issued his statement off the back of comments by Nationals leader Michael McCormack who, when asked on Thursday whether the ABC, if it had more funding, could fill gaps left by WIN closures, suggested it could save money by relocating from Ultimo.
“I’m sure that there are plenty of empty shop fronts in Sale or Traralgon or elsewhere where the ABC could quite easily relocate to a regional centre and save themselves a lot of money and then invest that money that they’ve saved by not being in the middle of Sydney, where they don’t need to be, out at a regional centre.”
McCormack’s office later described his comment as tongue-in-cheek. McGrath’s office said his statement was not tongue-in-cheek.
WIN TV is shutting down newsrooms in Orange, Dubbo, Albury, Wagga Wagga in NSW, and Wide Bay in Queensland. McCormack, who formerly edited The Daily Advertiser in Wagga, said he was saddened by the decision.
“I appreciate that the market is tight and the margins are very slim. But I’m really disappointed that WIN has taken this decision. I’m really disappointed that those news bureaus are closing because they’ve done such a sterling job, in some cases, for up to 30 years.”
The Australian Federal Police has this week conducted two high-profile raids on journalists who have exposed government secrets and their sources.
On Tuesday, seven AFP officers spent several hours searching News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s Canberra home, her mobile phone and computer. The AFP linked the raid to “the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret”.
This stemmed from Smethurst’s 2018 article, which contained images of a “top secret” memo and reported that senior government officials were considering moves to empower the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to covertly monitor Australian citizens for the first time.
Soon after, 2GB Radio Presenter Ben Fordham revealed he had been notified by the Department of Home Affairs that he was the subject of a similar investigation, aimed at identifying the source of classified information he had reported regarding intercepted boat arrivals.
The reaction to the raids was immediate and widespread.
The New York Times quoted News Corp’s description of the Smethurst raid as “a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths”. The Prime Minister was quick to distance his government from the AFP’s actions, while opposition leader Anthony Albanese condemned the raids.
The crackdown of the past few days reveals that at least two of the core fears expressed by lawyers and the media industry were well-founded: first, the demise of source confidentiality and, secondly, a chilling effect on public interest journalism.
Upon finding out he was the subject of an investigation aimed at uncovering his sources of government information, Ben Fordham declared
The chances of me revealing my sources is zero. Not today, not tomorrow, next week or next month. There is not a hope in hell of that happening.
Source confidentiality is one of journalists’ most central ethical principles. It is recognised by the United Nations and is vital to a functioning democracy and free, independent, robust and effective media.
One of the greatest threats to source confidentiality is Australia’s uniquely broad data surveillance framework. The 2015 metadata retention scheme requires that all metadata (that is, data about a device or communication but not, say, the communication itself) be retained for two years. It may then be covertly accessed by a wide array of government agencies without a warrant. Some reports suggest that by late 2018, some 350,000 requests for access to metadata were being received by telecommunications service providers each year.
The government was not blind to the potential impact of this scheme on source confidentiality. For example, obtaining metadata relating to a journalist’s mobile phone could reveal where they go and who they contact and easily point to their sources.
This led to the introduction of the “Journalist Information Warrant” (JIW). This warrant is required if an agency wishes to access retained metadata for the direct purpose of identifying a professional journalist’s source.
So, access to a professional journalist’s metadata in order to identify a confidential source is permitted, provided the access has a particular criminal investigation or enforcement purpose and the agency can show it is in the public interest and therefore obtain a JIW.
This week’s raids suggest that either JIWs could not be obtained in relation to Smethurst, Fordham or the ABC Journalists, or the journalists’ metadata did not reveal their sources, or the AFP did not attempt to access their metadata.
Alternatively, if metadata had identified the journalists’ sources, it is less clear why these dramatic developments took place.
After 2015, journalists were advised to avoid using their mobile devices in source communications. They were also encouraged, wherever possible, to encrypt communications.
As well as expanding computer access and network access warrants, the Act provided a means for government agencies to co-opt those in the telecommunications industry to assist agencies with their investigations. This could include covertly installing weaknesses and vulnerabilities in specific devices, circumventing passwords or allowing encrypted communications to be decrypted. A warrant would then be required to access the device and communication data.
It is impossible to know whether Australian journalists have been targeted under the Act or had weaknesses or spyware installed on their personal devices. This week’s raids suggest the AFP would be prepared to target journalists under this framework in order to identify journalists’ confidential sources.
However, this could only be done for some purposes, including in the investigation of a secrecy offence.
In June 2018, the government introduced a suite of new espionage, foreign interference and secrecy offences. This included an offence of current or former Commonwealth officers communicating information, obtained by virtue of their position, likely to cause harm to Australia’s interests. This offence is punishable by imprisonment for seven years. If the information is security classified or the person held a security classification, then they may have committed an “aggravated offence” and be subject to ten years’ imprisonment.
This week’s raids reveal just how common it is for public interest journalism to rely on secret material and government sources.
But the journalists themselves may also be facing criminal prosecution. The 2018 changes include a “general secrecy offence”, whereby it is an offence (punishable by imprisonment for five years) to communicate classified information obtained from a Commonwealth public servant. Fordham’s radio broadcast about intercepted boat arrivals was, for example, a clear communication of classified information.
Again, journalists are offered some protection. If prosecuted, a journalist can seek to rely on the “journalism defence” by proving that they dealt with the information as a journalist, and that they reasonably believed the communication to be in the public interest. The meaning of “public interest” is unclear and, in this context, untested. However, it will take into account the public interest in national security and government integrity secrecy concerns as well as openness and accountability.
Protecting media freedom
Australia has more national security laws than any other nation. It is also the only liberal democracy lacking a Charter of Human Rights that would protect media freedom through, for example, rights to free speech and privacy.
In this context, journalists are in a precarious position – particularly journalists engaged in public interest journalism. This journalism is vital to government accountability and a vibrant democracy, but has a tense relationship with Australia’s national interests as conceived by government.
National security law has severely undercut source confidentiality by increasing and easing data surveillance. National security laws have also criminalised a wide array of conduct related to the handling of sensitive government information, both by government officers and the general public.
And these laws are just a few parts of a much larger national security framework that includes: control orders, preventative detention orders, ASIO questioning and detention warrants, secret evidence, and offences of espionage, foreign interference, advocating or supporting terrorism, and more.
JIWs, and the inclusion of a journalism defence to the secrecy offence, recognise the importance of a free press. However, each of these protections relies on a public interest test. When government claims of national security and the integrity of classifications is weighed into this balance, it is difficult to see how other interests might provide an effective counterbalance.
One of the most disturbing outcomes is not prosecutions or even the raids themselves, but the chilling of public interest journalism. Sources are less likely to come forward, facing risk to themselves and a high likelihood of identification by government agencies. And journalists are less likely to run stories, knowing the risks posed to their sources and perhaps even to themselves.
Against this background, the calls for a Media Freedom Act, such as by the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, have gained significant traction. It may take this kind of bold statement to cut across the complexities of individual laws and both recognise and protect the basic freedom of the press and the future of public interest journalism in Australia.
Despite some reprieve in the 2019 federal budget, the ABC is still in dire financial straits. More job losses and a reduction in services remain on the agenda.
The Coalition government has provided another three years of tied funding of A$43.7 million specifically for the national broadcaster’s “enhanced news-gathering” program. This program supports local news (particularly regional and outer-suburban news gathering), national reporting teams and state-based digital news.
But this funding doesn’t address the broadcaster’s need for more stability in its operational funding.
In July, the ABC will start to feel the full impact of a three-year, A$83.8 million indexation freeze on its funding, which was contained in the 2018 budget. So devastating is the size of that cut – and the ones prior to that – that ABC managers are almost completely focused on money, undermining their capacity to be strategic about the future.
There is no provision in the 2019 budget to restore the funding lost over the past six years and certainly no boost to cater for the dynamic and changing media environment.
Audiences who value what the ABC does now – and what it needs to be doing to support Australian democracy into the future – should take a closer look at the numbers, the way the money has been allocated and the impact of that.
To illustrate the need for more secure operational funding for the ABC, one of the authors of this article, Michael Ward, conducted research on just how much the broadcaster stands to lose in the aggregate over the course of an eight-year period. Ward used a number of public financial sources to build the table below, including ABC portfolio budget statements and ABC answers to Senate Questions on Notice
One of the difficulties in looking at budgets is the way forward estimates work. As the figures in the table show, the past six budgets have included measures to reduce, remove or freeze (indexation) ABC funding, without adding any new funding initiatives.
This has resulted in an accumulated reduction in available funding of A$393 million over a five-year period, starting from May 2014. According to current budget forecasts, this also means the ABC stands to lose A$783 million in funding by 2022, unless steps are taken to remedy the situation.
The Coalition government and others would argue, however, the ABC actually received a reprieve in this year’s budget with committed funding for “enhanced news gathering” because it treats as “new” the renewal of tied fixed-term funding as it expires.
The “enhanced news gathering” and digital delivery funding was first enacted by the former Labor government in 2013. Although “enhanced news gathering” funding has been renewed twice by the Coalition government since then, including in this year’s budget, the amount allocated for the program was slashed in 2016.
So, while it appears that the current budget announcement is good news for the ABC, the reality is, it is simply a continuation of what should be seen as core business.
One way governments of all ilks have tried to control the ABC – and to win voters over – is by providing tied funding to specific programs like this. One of the earliest examples of tied funding was a National Interest Initiative by the Howard government in 2001, and later the Rudd government’s Children’s Channel and Drama Funding Initiative of 2009. These were seen as core to the ABC’s work, and were eventually made part of the ABC’s ongoing budget.
The problem, of course, is that voters do not understand the impact of the cessation of limited-term, tied funding programs.
We argue that tied funding is also contrary to the principles of independent public broadcasting because it effectively forces the broadcaster to prioritise its activities and programs at the current government’s whim. It also inhibits longer-term effective financial planning by the ABC.
Tied funding used by all parties
If elected, the ALP has committed to restore the A$83.8 million indexation freeze for the ABC included in last year’s budget. It has also promised an additional A$15 million for specific projects to restore short wave radio to the Northern Territory and add more local and regional content, emergency broadcasting and a news literacy program aimed at combating misinformation campaigns online.
These commitments are important, but the freeze is just the tip of a funding iceberg that the ABC has been dealing with for the past six years. The continuation of a tied funding approach doesn’t address the underlying budget problem. More needs to be done.
JERAA argued that the ABC has been cowed by repeated parliamentary inquiries, funding cuts and efficiency reviews. These have had a severe impact on the broadcaster’s ability to perform its important role for the Australian people, which includes production of excellent public affairs reporting, local programming, international news, children’s programming and services on a range of current and emerging platforms.
Tied funding stops the ABC from meeting the core components of its legislated obligations, particularly digital content delivery, where the cost of success – increased take up of services – carries an extra financial burden, unlike analogue broadcasting.
Unless the ABC has ongoing stability of funding and ideally an increase that allows it to keep innovating, it won’t be able to maintain relevance in this fast-moving, globalised media world, nor will it be able to continue as a watchdog on people in power, particularly governments.
In appointing Ita Buttrose to chair the ABC, the Morrison government might just have got it right, having got it so hopelessly wrong last time.
Buttrose comes with what might be called three big negative advantages:
she is not a former business associate of the prime minister
she is not a well-known climate-change denier like Maurice Newman, whom John Howard appointed in 2007
she is not a strident culture warrior like Keith Windschuttle, Ron Brunton and Janet Albrechtsen, with whom Howard stacked the ABC board in the early 2000s.
She also has many positive advantages.
She’s tough. She worked for the Packers — Frank and Kerry – and for Rupert Murdoch at senior management and board level. That is not territory for shrinking violets.
She knows the media – albeit mainly print and commercial television. She was founding editor of the ground-breaking magazine Cleo, an assertive magazine for women, openly discussing what were then taboo subjects such as women’s sexuality, which it celebrated with a nude male centrefold.
Its advertising pitch was, “What Cleo wants, Cleo gets”, a statement encouraging women to be ambitious and take their place in the world.
She went on to edit The Australian Women’s Weekly, the Packer flagship, and later was editor-in-chief of Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph in Sydney, before being appointed by him to the News Limited board.
As an editor in the 1980s, she exhibited a strong sense of decency and fairness by standing out against the moral panic in some elements of the media over HIV-AIDS when that disease first emerged in Australia.
Hysterical preachers thundered about how the wrath of God was being brought down on homosexuals and people who engaged in extra-marital sex. Buttrose was part of the more responsible elements of media that repudiated this untruthful and prejudicial drivel.
When tragic cases emerged of HIV-contaminated blood having been used in blood transfusions, she and others such as the then chair of the National AIDS Task Force, Professor David Penington, worked hard to restore public trust in the blood bank, once procedures had been adopted to eliminate the risk.
More recently as national president of Dementia Australia she has been a high-profile advocate for a stronger public policy response to dementia and greater public awareness of the needs of people with dementia.
Given her background, and her demeanour at the media conference at which the prime minister announced her appointment, she promises to bring strong moral leadership to the ABC.
And if it’s one thing the ABC needs in the wake of the disaster that engulfed the former chair Justin Milne and managing director Michelle Guthrie last September, it is strong moral leadership.
Buttrose said she was a devoted ABC listener who believed passionately in the ABC’s independence. She said her priority was to restore stability to the board and management.
She also endorsed the ABC’s continued involvement in digital media, which will give no comfort to those in commercial media who have been campaigning to have the ABC’s wings clipped in this area.
Twice she reiterated the level of trust the Australian public has in the ABC’s news service, making the point that on ABC news, the public got stories they did not get on commercial media.
Asked whether the ABC needed more funding, she said she had not seen the books, but if she thought more funding was needed, “I won’t be frightened to ask”.
Buttrose’s stated attitude to the ABC and the answers she gave at the media conference evoked memories of Sir Zelman Cowen.
He was appointed governor-general in 1977 after Sir John Kerr had bitterly divided the nation by sacking Gough Whitlam as prime minister in 1975.
Upon his appointment, Sir Zelman said he wanted to bring “a touch of healing”.
There is still a lot of healing to be done at the ABC, and the scrutiny arising from last year’s crisis is not over yet.
The surviving members of the ABC board are scheduled to appear next Tuesday (March 5) at the Senate inquiry into political interference in the ABC. What they did – or failed to do – in protecting the independence of the ABC will undoubtedly be a central question.
A major cause of that crisis was the stacking of the board with political mates and special-interest groups who share the government’s worldview.
The ABC Act contains a provision designed to prevent this, but it has been routinely ignored by ministers and prime ministers for decades.
The act provides for an independent nominations panel whose job is to present names to the minister for communications and the prime minister.
Ita Buttrose was not nominated by the panel, as the prime minister revealed in his announcement. Even so, it is a choice that has merit, and if she succeeds in reasserting the ABC’s independence from political interference, that will make a pleasing irony.
Two reports out this week – one into the operations of Facebook and Google, the other into the competitive neutrality of the ABC and SBS – present the federal government with significant policy and political challenges.
The first is by far the more important of the two.
It is the interim report by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission of its Digital Platforms Inquiry, and in a set of 11 preliminary recommendations it proposes far-reaching changes to media regulation.
Of particular interest are its preliminary recommendations for sustaining journalism and news content.
These are based on the premise that there is a symbiotic relationship between news organisations and the big digital platforms. Put simply, the news organisations depend heavily on these platforms to get their news out to their audiences.
The problem, the ACCC says, is that the way news stories are ranked and displayed on the platforms is opaque. All we know – or think we know – is that these decisions are made by algorithms.
The ACCC says this lack of transparency causes concerns that the algorithms and other policies of the platform giants may be operating in a way that affects the production of news and journalistic content.
To respond to this concern, the preliminary recommendation is for a new regulatory authority to be established. It would have the power to peer into these algorithms and monitor, investigate and report on how content – including news content – is ranked and displayed.
The purpose would be to identify the effects of the algorithms and other policies on the production of news and journalistic content.
It would also allow the authority to assess the impact on the incentives for news and journalistic content creation, particularly where news organisations have invested a lot of time and money in producing original content.
In this way, the ACCC is clearly trying to protect and promote the production of public-interest journalism, which is expensive but vital to democratic life. It is how the powerful are held to account, how wrongdoing is uncovered, and how the public finds out what is going on inside forums such as the courts and local councils.
So far, the big news media organisations have concentrated on these aspects of the ACCC interim report and have expressed support for them.
However, there are two other aspects of the report on which their response has been muted.
The first of these is the preliminary recommendation that proposes a media regulatory framework that would cover all media content, including news content, on all systems of distribution – print, broadcast and online.
The ACCC recommends that the government commission a separate independent review to design such a framework. The framework would establish underlying principles of accountability, set boundaries around what should be regulated and how, set rules for classifying different types of content, and devise appropriate enforcement mechanisms.
Much of this work has already been attempted by earlier federal government inquiries – the Finkelstein inquiry and the Convergence Review – both of which produced reports for the Gillard Labor government in 2012.
Their proposals for an overarching regulatory regime for all types of media generated a hysterical backlash from the commercial media companies, who accused the authors of acting like Stalin, Mao, or the Kim clan in North Korea.
So if the government adopts this recommendation from the ACCC, the people doing the design work can expect some heavy flak from big commercial media.
The other aspect of the ACCC report that is likely to provoke a backlash from the media is a preliminary recommendation concerning personal privacy.
Here the ACCC proposes that the government adopt a 2014 recommendation of the Australian Law Reform Commission that people be given the right to sue for serious invasions of privacy.
The media have been on notice over privacy invasion for many years. As far back as 2001, the High Court developed a test of privacy in a case involving the ABC and an abattoir company called Lenah Game Meats.
Now, given the impact on privacy of Facebook and Google, the ACCC has come to the view that the time has arrived to revisit this issue.
The ACCC’s interim report is one of the most consequential documents affecting media policy in Australia for many decades.
The same cannot be said of the other media-related report published this week: that of the inquiry into the competitive neutrality of the public-sector broadcasters, the ABC and SBS.
This inquiry was established in May this year to make good on a promise made by Malcolm Turnbull to Pauline Hanson in 2017.
He needed One Nation’s support for the government’s changes to media ownership laws, without which they would not have passed the Senate.
Hanson was not promised any particular focus for the inquiry, so the government dressed it up in the dull raiment of competitive neutrality.
While it had the potential to do real mischief – in particular to the ABC – the report actually gives both public broadcasters a clean bill of health.
There are a couple of minor caveats concerning transparency about how they approach the issue of fair competition, but overall the inquiry finds that the ABC and SBS are operating properly within their charters. Therefore, by definition, they are acting in the public interest.
This has caused pursed lips at News Corp which, along with the rest of the commercial media, took this opportunity to have a free kick at the national broadcasters. But in the present political climate, the issue is likely to vanish without trace.
While the government still has an efficiency review of the ABC to release, it also confronts a political timetable and a set of the opinion polls calculated to discourage it from opening up another row over the ABC.
The government’s inquiry into whether the ABC and SBS are competing
fairly with the private sector’s media operators has given a tick to
the public broadcasters.
The report concluded: “Given their market shares, and other factors, this inquiry considers the National Broadcasters are not causing significant competitive distortions beyond the public interest”. But it did see the need for greater transparency from them.
The review arose from a 2017 deal between the government and Pauline
Hanson to get One Nation support for media law changes which
liberalised ownership rules. It has been chaired by Robert Kerr,
formerly from the Productivity Commission. The report was released by
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield on Wednesday.
The outcome will be disappointing to News Corp in particular which has
been highly critical of the ABC’s expansion in online publishing. The
former Fairfax organisation, now taken over by Nine, also complained
about the competition eating into the market of commercial media
The report said: “Competitive neutrality seeks to ensure that
competition is not distorted by public entities taking inappropriate
advantage of government ownership.
“It is not intended to prevent public entities from competing, nor to
relieve discomfort from competitive processes which are bringing
benefits to consumers as they rapidly adopt and enjoy new services”.
The inquiry found the broadcasters’ business activities in order; they
were “abiding by a best endeavours approach to competitive
neutrality.” It suggested there should be some improvements in
transparency and internal procedures.
Beyond that, “the question arises as to how competitive neutrality
principles about competing fairly without distortion might apply to
the free services delivered by the ABC and SBS.
“Free ABC and SBS services are having some competitive impact.
Submissions included complaints about the ABC’s online news service
and SBS’ multi-channel and streaming services. But the National
Broadcasters are established and funded to provide free services. So
long as they operate within their statutory Charters they are
operating in the public interest”.
The report said submissions questioned whether the broadcasters were
operating within their charters. But, it said, these charters were
very broad, and reporting against them “is not detailed or robust
enough to settle doubts”.
“Accountability is difficult, especially as there is no opportunity
for Charter complaints to be addressed”.
The broadcasters should improve their reporting of charter performance
in the context of competitive neutrality. “If this enhanced reporting
does not occur, the government should consider a way of managing
complaints about Charter performance in this area,” the report said.
“While the National Broadcasters are not prohibited from competing,
some improvements in the way they interact with markets should be
The report also said the government should consider options for a
longer term funding framework for the national broadcasters,
accompanied by increased transparency and accountability.
Fifield said he recognised the broadcasters’ charters were broad and
allowed flexibility in how their boards implemented them.
“It is now up to the national broadcasters to act on these
recommendations,” he said.
Labor’s communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland said the
government’s “fishing expedition” had spent half a million dollars to
establish what the public broadcasters had said all along – that they
“are operating in a manner consistent with the general principles of
“Australians trust and value the ABC and SBS and should not have to
foot the bill for Mitch Fifield and Pauline Hanson’s vendetta against
public broadcasting,” she said.
Also in return for Hanson’s support the government agreed to bring in
legislation to require the ABC to be “fair” and “balanced” in its
Under the legislation, the board would be required “to ensure that the
gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information
is fair, balanced, accurate and impartial according to the recognised
standards of objective journalism.”
But the legislation is bogged down, with no chance of being passed
before the election.
The government has yet to appoint a new ABC chair, after the implosion
within the organisation involving the board sacking managing
director Michelle Guthrie and the resignation of Justin Milne as chair
amid a row over editorial interference.
Behind the extraordinary events engulfing the national broadcaster lies a rather ordinary and clear statement of principle enshrined in the ABC Act. It clearly stipulates that one of the functions of the board is to maintain the corporation’s independence and integrity.
Has Justin Milne, as chairman of the board, done that?
Reports from Fairfax Media this week revealed email correspondence between Milne and the then managing director, Michelle Guthrie. In the emails, Milne called for chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici to be sacked over a report on government funding for research and innovation.
Then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had complained about the article; this followed complaints in February about two other pieces by Alberici on corporate tax, also critical of government policy. The ABC amended and reposted one of these pieces and eight days later republished the other, an analysis.
An internal ABC review found fault with both earlier articles, which had attracted considerable attention.
Another report this week in The Daily Telegraph makes further claims that Milne later demanded the resignation of ABC political editor Andrew Probyn, following anger from Turnbull. “You have to shoot him”, Milne is claimed to have said to Guthrie.
On one view, the performance of a journalist is an operational matter for the MD or other executives, not a strategic matter, and there was no cause for intervention by Milne.
But others might ask, isn’t it the role of the board to intervene if there’s possibly severe reputational damage to the organisation and executives are not acting?
Both points seem reasonable, but this is the ABC, not a commercial operation.
It’s hardly contentious to say that its journalistic role distinguishes a news organisations from other businesses. Watchdog, fourth estate – however we describe it – news media are different. Editorial independence, along with editorial standards, is important.
But this is even more pronounced for public broadcasters. While government funds the ABC and SBS using public money, these are not state broadcasters. Being free from state control is a part of the legislation under which the ABC operates. It’s when we look at the ABC Act that we see the problem for Milne.
Although we often speak of the ABC “charter”, this is really just section 6 of the ABC Act. It sets out the functions of the ABC and it’s where we find reference to the ABC providing “innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard”.
But important obligations are found elsewhere. The requirement to provide a news service, for example, is in a later, operational section.
And it’s section 8 where we find the twin requirements of independence and editorial standards. These are worth setting out in full:
8(1)(b) to maintain the independence and integrity of the Corporation
8(1)(c) to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism
The problem for Milne is that these obligations are not imposed on the ABC as an organisation. They are imposed on the board. The lead-in to section 8 is: “It is the duty of the Board…”
Returning then to the emails, at issue was a report by Alberici on the main 7pm television news bulletin on May 6. According to the Fairfax report, Turnbull sent an email to news director Gaven Morris the next day complaining about the report.
Morris sent it to Guthrie, who contacted Milne. Milne responded, saying “they [the government] hate her” and “get rid of her”.
This apparently is before Communications Minister Mitch Fifield complained about the same report on May 9 and before the ABC’s complaints review unit had a chance to assess the complaint. When it did, it found no problem with the article except for one inaccuracy – certainly nothing that would justify the dismissal of the journalist.
It appears Milne acted to protect the reputation of the ABC. He and the board are required to do that – protecting its “integrity” is a part of their statutory duties. And the board also has a role in upholding standards.
Had the ABC’s complaints unit found there was a serious problem for a second time and executives had failed to act, maybe the board would have been right to intervene. But that step – assessing the validity of the complaint – was skipped, and it seems the main reason for proposing Alberici’s dismissal was to appease the government.
In this case, “independence” should have trumped the reputational aspect of “integrity”, especially when the risk was political. Instead, the chairman of the ABC may have compromised both values.
Reports of the contents of leaked emails written by ABC Board Chair Justin Milne provide a powerful insight into how governments of the day can exert influence over what parliament had intended to be an independent agency.
Milne is correct in asserting that the ABC Act requires the board “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”.
But it doesn’t operate in exactly the same way as other corporate boards.
The ABC board is different
For example in most corporations, commercial or otherwise, boards exercise control over management by using specific delegations and determining corporate policy.
Boards also appoint the chief executive and in some instances other members of the management group.
However that’s not the case for the ABC.
The ABC Act provides that on advice of the prime minister and communications minister the governor general appoints the chair and other directors with the exception of the managing director and the staff elected director.
The Act bars former members of parliament and senior political staffers (for a time) from being appointed as the chair or as non-executive directors.
Appointments to all other ABC board positions, including the chair, must follow a merit-based process with candidates interviewed in a process that the government does not control.
But that requirement does not apply to the managing director. This gives the board greater latitude to appointment a candidate that may draw less criticism from the Government of the day.
And partly political
This is highly problematic because of real (but usually latent) potential that a managing director might arrive with an agenda to undermine the board’s statutory role and parliamentary-determined Charter to be an independent public broadcaster.
The potential conflict is more acute because at the ABC the managing director is designated in the Act as the editor-in-chief.
Because the managing director is responsible for content, the reported instances of the Chair pressuring the managing director to remove individual journalists and approaching ABC editorial staff are inappropriate.
Setting the scene for conflict
The Act sets up a potential conflict between most of the ABC directors (who essentially have a trustee role) and the managing director who might be a non-merit based appointee.
The ABC board used to avoid this conflict by sticking to the public service tradition of appointing technocrats to the managing director role.
But over time perceptions about the appointment have become increasingly politicised.
As Marco Bass, ex head of ABC news and current affairs Victoria has written, the temptation to control the news is becoming harder to resist:
What [Guthrie and Shier] shared was an implicit brief to disrupt the ABC, dismantle internal fiefdoms and, importantly, bring the news and current affairs division under control.
Make no mistake, federal governments, regardless of political complexion, don’t care about Peppa Pig. They care about political coverage by the ABC’s journalists and broadcasters.
These idiosyrantic governance rules amplify flaws in the design of boards on which both executives and non executives sit.
Other boards have similar problems
As I and colleagues have written previously, mixing executive and non-executive directors on a single board creates governance problems.
On corporate boards managers who are also directors can (and usually do) position themselves as very powerful gate keepers and dominate both other directors and senior executives.
This was a problem at the Commonwealth Bank and from some reports was becoming a problem at the ABC.
If a government can use the idiosyncrasies of the the ABC Act to cower a much-loved and very public institution like the ABC, imagine how pliable agencies like APRA, ASIC and ACCC might be in accommodating the views of a government who might not want to deal with the political fallout of, for example, tough but necessary decisions such as cancelling banking or superannuation licences.
This piece has been edited to remove an earlier incorrect statement that under the ABC Act the managing director is appointed by the governor general on the advice of government ministers. The managing director is appointed by the board, but without the constraints imposed on the government in appointing other board members.
The people who are turning up at Save the ABC rallies around the country are defending a cultural institution they value because they trust it.
In particular, they trust its news service. Public opinion polls going back to the 1950s consistently show it is by far the most trusted in the country.
So at this time it is pertinent to look at what creates a trustworthy news service. The cornerstone is editorial independence. As opinion polls have shown time and again, where people suspect a newspaper, radio, TV or online news service of pushing some commercial or political interest, their level of trust falls.
Editorial independence does not mean giving journalists licence to broadcast or publish whatever they want or to avoid accountability for their mistakes.
It means encouraging journalists to tackle important stories regardless of what people in power might think, then backing them to make judgments based on news values and the public interest, not on irrelevant considerations such as commercial, financial or political pressure.
Editorial independence is hard won and under constant pressure from outside the newsroom.
In commercial media, this pressure comes from big advertisers or company bosses with financial or political interests to push.
In public-sector broadcasting, the pressure comes from the federal government, which provides the funding and has powerful means of subjecting the broadcaster to intense political pressure.
A robust editorial leadership is essential to resisting this heat. It’s a daily battle. If the senior editorial management wilts, the weakness is swiftly transmitted down the hierarchy.
Middle-level editors and the staff journalists who work to them start looking over their shoulders, tempted to take easy options and avoid possible heat. The easiest option is self-censorship, dodging sensitive stories, leaving out material or watering it down.
This is where the ABC is at a crossroads. It has as its managing director and editor-in-chief Michelle Guthrie, a person with no journalistic background and who until recently showed scant signs of understanding the impact on the ABC’s editorial independence of the Turnbull government’s relentless bullying.
Then last month she gave a speech at the Melbourne Press Club in which she said Australians regard the ABC as a great national institution and deeply resent it being used as “a punching bag by narrow political, commercial or ideological interests”.
It was a start, and now the cause has been taken up by ABC staff themselves and by the wider public in the Save the ABC movement led by ABC Friends.
It is strongly reminiscent of events at The Age nearly 30 years ago, when I was an associate editor there. Then, a Save The Age campaign showed how effective a public outpouring of support for a news outlet can be when they set out to defend one they trust.
The campaign’s origins lay in concerns among senior journalists at the paper over what might happen to its editorial independence when receivers were appointed in 1990. This followed a disastrous attempt by “young” Warwick Fairfax to privatise the Fairfax company, which was the paper’s owner.
A group of senior journalists, including the late David Wilson and the distinguished business writer Stephen Bartholomeusz, formed The Age Independence Committee. It drew up a charter of editorial independence.
The key passages stated that:
the proprietors acknowledge that journalists, artists and photographers must record the affairs of the city, state, nation and the world fairly, fully and regardless of any commercial, political or personal interests, including those of any proprietors, shareholders or board members
full editorial control of the newspaper, within a negotiated, fixed budget, is vested in the editor
the editor alone decides the editorial content, and controls the hiring, firing and deployment of editorial staff.
The Save The Age campaign generated tremendous public support. Former prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam, who had barely been on speaking terms since the Dismissal 15 years earlier, joined together at the head of a public demonstration in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens. One of the campaign slogans was “Maintain Your Age”, a pun on Whitlam’s post-Dismissal election slogan, “Maintain Your Rage”.
Eventually, the receivers signed the charter and so, after some wrangling, did the new owners led by the Canadian-born newspaper baron, Conrad Black. Black is gone but the charter remains.
Like The Age in 1990, the ABC today has strong public support.
Like The Age in 1990, senior journalistic staff, most notably the Melbourne “Mornings” radio presenter Jon Faine, and former presenter of 7.30 on ABC TV, Kerry O’Brien, have shown leadership, lending their profile and authority to the cause.
But unlike The Age, the ABC does not have publicly acknowledged bipartisan political support.
Whatever Malcolm Turnbull’s private views of the ABC, and whatever the stated policy of his government, the facts are that since 2014 the Abbott and Turnbull governments have cut $338 million from the ABC’s funding, and the federal council of the Liberal Party voted last month to sell it off.
It is quite possible that when it reports in September, the present inquiry into the ABC’s competitive neutrality will provide some impetus to this proposition or propose some other ways to clip the ABC’s wings.
It is significant in the context of editorial independence that the inquiry is taking a particular interest in the ABC news service. That is the part of the ABC most detested by politicians, and on which the present government has focused its most intense pressure.
If editorial independence weakens, public trust will weaken too. That would make the ABC an even more attractive political target for a hostile government.