'Malcolm will go ballistic': Former ABC chair denies fight to keep Triple J's Hottest 100 on Australia Day

Screenshot from webcastJustin Milne
  • Former ABC chair Justin Milne has rejected claims of political interference at the national broadcaster.
  • He appeared today before a federal parliamentary inquiry.
  • Milne told the hearing he had no memory of telling Triple J staff not to change the date of the Hottest 100.

Former ABC chair Justin Milne says he has no memory of meeting with Triple J staff about changing the date for the Hottest 100 from Australia Day.

He was responding to questioning in a hearing of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee which is investigating allegations of political interference in the ABC.

Michelle Guthrie, whom Milne sacked as the head of the ABC, has alleged Milne was an interventionist on editorial matters.

Guthrie, in her written submission, says there had been growing undue pressure by Milne to fire journalists in order to “please the government” and as a quid pro quo for funding of $500 million.

She says the first example of Milne’s interventionist style was Triple J’s popular listener’s poll, the Hottest 100. Triple J management had commissioned independent research showing a majority of listeners favoured moving the date, setting the event apart from any political debate of the holding of Australia Day.

Guthrie was aware it would be controversial so she made the board aware of the change.

“Mr Milne thought we were front running the issue and told us we were making a huge mistake as he thought a majority of Australians were in favour of Australia Day,” Milne says.

“I pointed out the difference between the Triple J audience and the broader ABC audience and that the reason for the move was to depoliticise the Hottest 100 rather than be caught up in the debate. He was very unhappy with the decision but the rest of the Board supported the Leadership Team decision.”

However, Guthrie says she later learned Milne had intervened with Triple J staff directly and without consulting her.

“It was not until about August 2018 that I learned of this intervention when I had a conversation with Mr Michael Mason, ABC Director for Regional and Local.

“During that about the proposed change of date to Triple j’s Hottest 100, (Milne was) telling staff that they should not change the date because ‘Malcolm will go ballistic’.”

This was a reference to then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

However, Milne told a parliamentary inquiry today: “I do not have the slightest memory of that.”

He also told the hearing the former prime minister had at no time given him any directions to do with the ABC.

Labor Senator Kristina Keneally asked Milne if he could give examples where he protected the independence of the ABC.

“You’ve given us many statements today which unequivocally deny assertions of political interference that are made in Ms Guthrie’s submission,” she said.

“I am wondering if you can give us … some specific actions you can point to demonstrate how you sought to protect the integrity and independence of the ABC from political interference.”

Milne: “I can point to the fact that all the things I am supposed to have done to interfere with the ABC never actually ultimately occurred. Nobody was sacked, nothing changes, the date of the Hottest 100 was not changed, and Tonightly … ran for another full season then was ultimately removed. All of these things, in my dastardly ways I was supposed to have done to affect the ABC, ultimately didn’t occur.”

He was then told that Guthrie might argue that was so because she had stopped him.

Milne: “That I disagree with fundamentally.”

In his written submission, Milne says he has never allowed any politician or government body to influence or attempt to influence his role as chair of the ABC.

“I have exercised my own judgment in the discharge of my duties as Chairperson of the ABC in the pursuit of the best interests of the ABC, its employees and the Australian public at all times and have acted with the complete support of the Board at all times,” he says.

Guthrie was sacked on September 24 halfway through her five-year term “in the best interests of the ABC”. David Anderson, the director of entertainment, is acting managing director.

At the time, Guthrie said: “I am devastated by the board’s decision to terminate my employment despite no claim of wrongdoing on my part.”

She is taking legal action against the ABC.

Milne is a non-executive director of Tabcorp and NBN, and Chairman of cloud software accountancy group MYOB.

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