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17 Dec

We must protect the independence and integrity of the ABC

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Untenable: John Hewson says ABC chair Justin Milne (pictured) must resign immediately. Photo: Alex EllinghausenThe ABC has been left in adangerous positionwith no managing director, a chairman in an untenable position, a compromised board, and embarking on tri-annual budget discussions with the government.

If the leaked email from the chair, Justin Milne, to ex-MD, Michelle Guthrie, is verified, where Milne told Guthrie to fire a key journalist, Emma Alberici, at the behest of ex-PM Turnbull, and if the board was apprised of the situation, the “independence and integrity” of the ABC has been totally undermined. Milne sold out to undue political influence.

This comes on the back of other episodes of attempted/effective political influence, including the handling of JJJ’s decision to move their Top 100 from Day, and over statements made by political editor Andrew Probyn in relation to certain defence/security issues.

This is not the first time, of course, that a political leader has sought to influence the ABC – Hawke, and particularly Keating, were famous for “making their views known”. Nor is it the first time a chairman has sought to influence Aunty’s journalism – Maurice Newman accused them of “group think” on climate change, leaving something of a legacy, even to this day, as it often seems that the ABC “self censors” on coverage of the subject.

But, this time it is all out in the open. The email screams at you. The interference is clear. The responsibilities are obvious. A meeting of some 350 ABC staff has called for Milne to stand aside. The government has initiated a departmental, rather than an independent, inquiry. The Greens/ALP are threatening a Senate inquiry. Neither Inquiry is likely to add much to what is known.

The “enemies” of the ABC on the “right” of politics, in the government and the media, are salivating – you know something’s on when the likes of Andrew Bolt call for an inquiry. Some feel their day has come. Spending tothe ABC can now be cut even further, even drastically. Some hope that these circumstances now warrant it to be “privatised”, as was called for a few months ago at a Liberal Party Council meeting.

Clearly, there has been a major failing of governance. The board’s charter is to protect the independence and integrity of the ABC. Sure, governments and others will express their views. Sure the board must listen, digest, examine, and respond as appropriate – in this it’s very important to be able to separate the “white noise” from the substance.

But, this certainly doesn’t mean that you just give in, fail to protect your journalists, indeed seek to fire them for fear that the government may be returned at the next election, and you would need to be “in their good books” to avoid those feared budget cuts, or to maximise your chances of retaining the “half a bill” you hope to get from closing down your transmitters.

A “fish rots from the head” – the chair and the board are totally responsible for this governance failure, either directly or by acquiescence. Their position is untenable. This is Governance 101!

Unfortunately, the chair can’t be fired in these circumstances. It’s up to Milne, and indeed his board, to accept the reality of their responsibilities, and failure, and to resign. The longer they decide to just tough it out – and Milne strikes me as just that sort of person – to attempt to defend the indefensible, the more damage that will be done to the standing and viability of the ABC.

It is imperative that in moving on from here the board and management of the ABC deal with both the perceptions and reality. The very worst outcome for the long-term viability of the ABC will be if both are seen to have been compromised.

In a world where some resort to accusations of “fake news”, and where a loss of trust in our politicians and political processes is in danger of spreading to other institutions that are fundamental to our democracy, protection of the independence and integrity in the ABC is of absolute importance.

Our new PM, Morrison, doesn’t really get it either with his usual attempt to “spin the issue”, expecting the ABC “to act in a professional way” and to respect that “it’s funded by n taxpayers”. Threat or solution?

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

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