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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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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A public broadcaster that bows to political pressure isn’t doing its job



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The ABC’s independence is a global concern.
AAP/Joel Carrett

Johan Lidberg, Monash University

The ABC’s chief economics correspondent, Emma Alberici, did her job the other day. She wrote a well-researched analysis piece investigating whether the Turnbull government’s proposed company tax cuts would grow the economy and break Australia’s wages deadlock.

Alberici’s article came in for a lot of criticism from the Turnbull government for its one-sidedness and lack of balance. Later, the ABC took down the article from its website.

If you read her piece, you’ll see that, yes, she could have included more voices, and yes, the case for company tax cuts was forcefully argued against. But the argument and analysis was built on sound research, as Saul Eslake (one of Australia’s most senior and respected independent economists, who was quoted in Alberici’s story) has pointed out.

So, why on earth did ABC take the article down?

Part of the answer to this lies in the very editorial policies that are supposed to safeguard the ABC’s independence. The current wording of these polices function as a straitjacket on ABC journalists and make it hard for them to toe the line between analysis and opinion.

And that in turn makes the ABC look less independent.

High level of trust

One of the ABC’s greatest assets is the high public trust it enjoys compared to many of its commercial media competitors.

That trust is to a large extent built on the broadcaster maintaining and defending its independence from commercial, political and any other societal interests.

There are a lot of misconceptions regarding what a public broadcaster is. But one thing it is not is a government or state broadcaster.

There are certainly examples of some public broadcasters that are. One prominent recent case was when the Polish government in practice took control of the country’s public broadcaster and turned it into a government mouthpiece.

A serious case of self-doubt

The ABC Act and the ABC Charter are the safeguards of ABC’s independence from the government of the day. This independence was challenged to unprecedented levels by the Abbott government a few years ago.




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A new major challenge to the ABC’s independence is the current change, driven by One Nation, to the ABC Charter requiring it to be “fair” and “balanced” in its reporting. If you recognise these terms, that’s because it used to be Fox News’ catchphrase.




Read more:
How the government and One Nation may use media reforms to clip the ABC’s wings


The ABC is not turning into the Polish Broadcasting Corporation, but it has clearly lost a lot of confidence lately. In Alberici’s case, it appears it bowed to government pressure when it should have stood its ground.

But getting heat from the government of the day (regardless of the particular side of politics) is an indication that a public broadcaster is doing its most important job (provided you get your facts right): holding power to account. If you bow to political pressure, you’re not doing your job.

A public broadcaster with a confidence problem is a serious issue for political and democratic wellbeing.

Globally, there are between ten and 15 properly funded public broadcasters (depending on what level of funding you define as proper) with enough funding and safeguards to be able to call themselves editorially independent. This means there are only ten to 15 large repositories of in-depth public interest journalism – globally.

The ConversationSo, the case is strong for the Australian public to get behind the ABC and ask it to snap out of its crisis of confidence. Then it can get on with the job of keeping power to account – just like Alberici tried to do.

Johan Lidberg, Associate Professor, School of Media, Film and Journalism, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.