How ABC chairman Justin Milne compromised the independence of the national broadcaster



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Reports this week revealed that ABC Chairman Justin Milne called for a journalist to be fired after receiving complaints from the government.
Joel Carrett/AAP

Peter Fray, University of Technology Sydney and Derek Wilding, University of Technology Sydney

Update: Justin Milne has now resigned as chair of the ABC board.


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.




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ABC Board Chair over-reaches in a bid to appease hostile government


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…”




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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.The Conversation

Peter Fray, Professor of Journalism Practice, University of Technology Sydney and Derek Wilding, Co-Director, Centre for Media Transition, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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ABC Board Chair over-reaches in a bid to appease hostile government


Andrew Linden, RMIT University

Update: Justin Milne has now resigned as chair of the ABC board.


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.

The emails have emerged in the wake of the ABC board’s termination of ABC managing director, Michelle Guthrie.




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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.

Partly non-political

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.




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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 Conversation

Andrew Linden, Sessional Lecturer, PhD (Management) Candidate, School of Management, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.