ABC chairman Justin Milne’s plan to ride out pressure to resign will be challenged by duelling inquiries conducted by the Morrison government and the Senate into whether the former Telstra and Ozemail executive subjected the national broadcaster to political interference.
Facing a Labor and Greens-dominated Senate inquiry, the Coalition yesterday commissioned Department of Communications secretary Mike Mrdak to examine whether Mr Milne inappropriately pressured ex-managing director Michelle Guthrie to act against multiple journalists, a comedy show and the triple J radio network, for upsetting the Coalition government.
In an extraordinary day in ABC history, sentiment shifted among staff from relief that Ms Guthrie had been removed to shock and anger at revelations Mr Milne demanded economics correspondent Emma Alberici be sacked over her coverage of business tax cuts.
Ignoring political pressure and unanimous resolutions at staff meetings to step down or explain himself, Mr Milne defiantly said he wasn’t going to “provide a running commentary on day-to-day issues which arise in pursuit of our duties”.
Labor leader Bill Shorten, former ABC managing director David Hill, and commentators from the right and left called on him to resign. “The government has made his position untenable,” Mr Shorten said.
But Mr Milne has the legal protections of a federal judge, and it would be up to Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, acting on the advice of the government, to remove him on the grounds of wrongdoing or breaching the ABC act, which requires the board “to maintain the independence and integrity of the Corporation”.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Communications Minister Mitch Fifield initially said it was up to the ABC to resolve the matter. “I expect the ABC to behave in a professional way,” Mr Morrison said.
After Labor promised to hold a Senate inquiry, the government said it would conduct its own investigation “to establish the facts in relation to today’s media reports surrounding the ABC”.
The ABC board held a telephone conference call Wednesday afternoon to hear from Mr Milne. Lasting less than an hour, the board discussed the possibility that more embarrassing information could emerge from the firing of Ms Guthrie this week, according to a source.
The board was unanimous in support of Ms Guthrie’s termination on Monday, the source said, and was unified behind Mr Milne and would not bend to pressure for him to resign.
A Senate inquiry could seek more emails between Mr Milne and Ms Guthrie about numerous government complaints made about ABC news coverage. It could ask Ms Guthrie to recount conversations with Mr Milne that could embarrass the Coalition government, which has been highly sensitive about what it perceives is unfair coverage by the ABC.
In addition to apparently pushing for Ms Alberici to be fired, Mr Milne asked Ms Guthrie to take action against Canberra political editor Andrew Probyn and radio broadcaster Jon Faine, and the political comedy show Tonightly, which upset conservatives by directing offensive language at some right-wing politicians, a source familiar with the situation said.
Mr Milne tried to overturn a decision by the triple J radio network to move its annual Hottest 100 broadcast from Australia Day out of deference to Indigenous citizens, the Guardian reported. “Malcolm will go ballistic,” Mr Milne reportedly said.
The ABC chairman, who once had a business relationship with former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, seems to have made a major tactical mistake by explicitly linking, in writing, his wish to remove Ms Alberici with the government’s resentment at her negative reporting about its business tax cut policy.
“They hate her,” Mr Milne allegedly said in the email to Ms Guthrie leaked to Fairfax Media. “We are tarred with her brush. I think it’s simple. Get rid of her. We need to save the ABC – not Emma. There is no guarantee they [the Coalition] will lose the next election.”
‘Conflict of interest’
The ABC wouldn’t confirm, but didn’t deny, that the account of the email was accurate. “I am not in a position to confirm or deny private correspondence between the chairman and Michelle Guthrie,” an ABC spokeswoman said.
Ms Guthrie reportedly circulated the email to ABC board members on Sunday evening. It was leaked two days later. By portraying Mr Milne as willing to sacrifice a reporter who challenged a controversial Coalition policy, the publication of the email appeared designed to shift public and ABC staff opinion in favour of Ms Guthrie.
Ms Alberici wasn’t fired, and in an interview with Mr Faine on Wednesday she accused Mr Milne of having a conflict of interest because she reported a company he chairs, MYOB, didn’t pay corporate tax.
“It’s disappointing if it’s true, obviously, that your chairman holds such a dim view of you and your journalism,” she told Mr Faine, who was one of Ms Guthrie’s biggest internal critics.
“I don’t think someone should be making recommendations on something that they have … at least an appearance of a conflict of interest,” she said.
With Phillip Coorey, David Marin-Guzman and Michael Pelly