Australia's ABC in turmoil amid government interference row

Australia's national broadcaster has lost both its chairman and managing director in less than a week, amid ...

Posted: Sep 27, 2018 10:14 AM
Updated: Sep 27, 2018 10:14 AM

Australia's national broadcaster has lost both its chairman and managing director in less than a week, amid staff protests over concerns of government interference in its editorial independence.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), one of the country's largest media organizations, is publicly funded by the government but intended to be politically independent and unbiased.

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The trouble began on Monday when the ABC board unexpectedly fired Managing Director Michelle Guthrie, claiming it was not in the broadcaster's "best interests" for her to continue.

Not long after announcement was made, Fairfax Media reported the existence of emails from ABC Chairman Justin Milne to Guthrie, urging her to fire a senior economics journalist because the government "hates her."

It later emerged he had also pushed her to sack the broadcaster's political editor because he was unpopular with the ruling Liberal National coalition.

Neither journalist was fired from the ABC and both continue to work for the broadcaster.

ABC journalists across the country held mass meetings on Wednesday expressing outrage at the attempted interference in their work and calling for the chairman's resignation.

The next day Milne announced he would quitting his role, leaving two of the broadcaster's most senior positions vacant.

"I feel that the interests of the ABC have always been uppermost in my mind ... There was absolutely no interference in the independence of the ABC by the government," Milne told the ABC.

The ABC is regularly ranked as Australia's most respected media organizations, an institution which has a place at the heart of the country's cultural, political and sports scenes.

An Essential poll released on September 25 said 54% of those surveyed trusted the ABC, vastly more than said they had faith in the federal parliament (28%) or Australia's political parties (15%).

But the organization's editorial independence, as with public broadcasters around the world, has long been an issue of fierce debate. Conservative politicians and commentators often accuse it of left-wing bias and seek to cut its budget.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on his official social media the ABC's board and its chairman had made the "right call."

"Time for the ABC to resume normal transmission, both independently and without bias. That is what Australia's taxpayers pay for and deserve," he said Thursday.

Alleged interference

In the emails released by Fairfax Media on Wednesday, Milne was quoted as demanding the firing of ABC Economics Correspondent Emma Alberici over pieces she wrote about the government's plan for corporate tax cuts.

"(The government) hate her ... We are tarred with her brush. I think it's simple. Get rid of her. We need to save the ABC -- not Emma," Milne said, according to Fairfax.

He went on to say there was no assurance the ruling coalition would lose the next election, the implication being that Alberici would continue to pose a problem into the future.

The Daily Telegraph later reported a conversation between Milne and Guthrie in which Milne suggested that the ABC's future would be at risk if political editor Andrew Probyn wasn't fired.

Milne strongly denied on Thursday that he had attempted to interfere in the ABC's editorial independence. "Nobody (from the government) ever told me to hire anybody, fire anybody, or do anything else," he told the ABC's current affairs program 7.30.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also denied he'd asked Milne to pressure the board on editorial matters.

Horrified by the suggestion the government could have a say in their jobs and content, ABC journalists held union meetings in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Hobart and passed motions calling either for an inquiry or for Milne to stand aside.

"The ABC is, and always has been, a fiercely independent news organization and it is of no concern to our program makers or journalists whether they are hated by any government," the motion passed by ABC Melbourne said.

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