Former Chairman of the ABC Board, Justin Milne fell on his sword after sacking the Managing Director, Michelle Guthrie, recently. The discussion around this will continue for quite a while, especially if the ex-MD follows through on her threat to sue for wrongful dismissal. Where that particular saga ends up is anyone’s guess and hopefully when the government does appoint people to the vacant positions, they will follow the legislated process of ‘rubberstamping’ the recommendations of the independent panel that is responsible for research and character checking. In fact, it is probable that the current dramas wouldn’t have occurred if the recommendations were followed last time
by Communications Minister Fifield.
It was interesting to watch the change in focus over the week when Guthrie and Milne walked the plank. On Monday, Guthrie was claimed to be someone who was completely out of touch with the demands of the job, by Thursday the narrative had changed to Milne apparently instructing Guthrie
to sack journalists who were ‘critical’ of the government, an instruction Guthrie refused, demonstrating how ‘in touch’ she was!
It really doesn’t matter who said or didn’t say what to whom. Milne and Guthrie are victims of a process of the current government to eliminate criticism of their actions. There was significant media coverage at various times suggesting that Turnbull and Fifield were not happy with perceived errors, criticisms or inaccuracies in some ABC current affairs reports. Fifield has also been regularly filing complaints with the ABC for trivialities. You can’t really blame Milne for making the assumption that the government was ‘not happy’ with the actions of some of its journalists, albeit his subsequent actions were apparently wrong. However it is important to note that most of the ‘inaccuracies’ Turnbull and Fifield complained about were actually factual.
Rather than going down ‘he says, she says’ rabbit holes, have a look at the core problem. Yes, the government of the day funds the ABC using taxpayer funds. So the current ABC ‘yours’ marketing campaign is correct — we all own the ABC. The reporting of information that doesn’t necessarily reflect positively on the government of the day’s actions or behaviours is something that demonstrates that we as taxpayers are getting value for money. This is evidenced by the journalists we employ, who are doing their job and reporting fact without fear or favour to those that control the funding source. After all, one of the many criticisms of governments such as the one in North Korea is that adverse commentary, let alone dissent, on the actions of the government or questioning the government policies is strictly prohibited.
Ex-PM Turnbull has been reported in various media outlets as not directly asking anyone to sack anyone. He’s probably literally correct in that he didn’t get on the phone to Milne and order anything happen to anyone. But he didn’t have to. Waleed Aly’s recent opinion piece in Fairfax
publications claims the recent ABC goings on are part of a bigger issue
. Aly writes about a phone call between Peta Credlin (in her role as Abbott’s Chief of Staff) ringing Chris Mitchell (the editor of The Australian
) demanding the sacking of an opinion piece writer, a journalist wrongly caught up in the Centrelink ‘robo-debt’ fiasco and, after writing a blog piece on her experiences, having personal details leaked by the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison government to the media. In addition, the federal parliament has passed legislation allowing certain issues, say a hypothetical ASIO raid on the office of the Opposition Leader, to be retrospectively claimed as a ‘national security’ issue. Those that have filed their reports on the matter prior to the declaration would then potentially endure jail time because they reported on a ‘national security’ matter. ABC funding is also an area of implied editorial control by starving the organisation of cash to pay the researchers. At the same time, the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison government claim to be promoting free speech for ‘persecuted’ right wing Christian groups!
We could also discuss the undue influence in Australian politics of the likes of News Corp, who’s proprietor chose to forego his Australian citizenship to further his business interests; or radio announcers such as Alan Jones, who recently lost another defamation case through his lack of attention to facts in his commentary — but we all probably have better things to be doing for the rest of the day.
The ABC ran a campaign in the 80s saying it costs each Australian 8 cents a day. Their Chief Financial Officer recently suggested the cost had gone down to 4 cents a day
. For our 4 cents a day (or $14.60 per year), we get reporting by some of the best practitioners of the journalism trade in Australia and relevant content targeted to most demographics in this country across many media platforms. What we shouldn’t get is real or implied political interference because the reporting is perceived to be critical of government or their policies.
Some will always believe that our government should be the best that their money or influence can buy, and they are entitled to their opinion. However, the recent interest in the ABC’s independence demonstrates that the majority of us want fair, unbiased reporting rather than self-censorship because of interference. We also seem to have a tolerance for the demonstration of the maxim: if you don’t occasionally stuff it up, you’re not trying to do your job to the best of your ability. As the owners of the ABC, we need to remind all politicians that media independence is our expectation and criticism comes with the turf.
What do you think?