Briefing | opinion

Now ABC chairman Justin Milne must sack himself

SuppliedJustin Milne

  • ABC chairman Justin Milne must sack himself.
  • His extraordinary view on operational matters are astonishing, to the point of making his position untenable.
  • The many other companies Milne also chairs, including NBN Co, must also now be wondering if their board member also offers advice to the executive on their future employment.
  • The email leaks have damaged the perception of the ABC Board’s independence and that’s why Milne needs to step down.

As Chairman Justin Milne struggled on Monday to articulate just why the ABC board had dismissed Michelle Guthrie as Managing Director half-way through her five year contract, two comments explaining the decision now take on new meaning in light of an email Milne sent to the MD telling her to sack chief economics correspondent, Emma Alberici.

Milne said the ABC needed a different kind of leadership and Guthrie’s relationship with the government could have been better.

Which brings us to his May 8 email to Guthrie saying the government of now former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull hated Alberici and the solution was “simple”.

“Get rid of her,” Milne wrote to his MD. “We need to save the ABC – not Emma.”

He was responding to an email from Guthrie detailing Turnbull’s complaint about Alberici’s political analysis.

“We are tarred with her brush,” he said.

It was an extraordinary view on operational matters from the chairman of the corporation, especially given then-prime minister Turnbull has a long-standing friendship with the former telco executive, who was OzEmail CEO and Bigpond managing director before rising to board level.

At the time of his appointment by Turnbull last year, Milne said he would not take an “interventionist” approach to his ABC role.

But as anyone with a rudimentary understanding of corporate governance would know, Milne’s view, expressed in print, is astonishing for someone of his experience.

To the point of making his position untenable. +

He also chairs NetComm Wireless and MYOB Group (a company which Alberici reported about) boards and is a non-executive director at Tabcorp, ME Bank, and the NBN Co. (an appointment Turnbull made as Communications Minister in 2013, two months after the Coalition won government).

That’s a lot of companies where staff must also now be wondering if their board member also offers advice to the executive on their future employment, especially at a business that’s also as politically sensitive as NBN Co.

Guthrie did not act on Milne’s suggestion, but it came in the ongoing context of a sustained campaign by the government, specifically Turnbull and Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, over claimed bias at the ABC in stories critical of the Coalition.

In such a highly-charged political environment, the likely outcome had Guthrie acted on Milne’s suggestion, expedient as it have been in dealing with a particular pain point, would be inflamed debate over the government’s perceived attempts to make the national broadcaster kowtow to its will, had it been carried out.

The signal to all would have been clear to all, so for a chairman who purports to champion the ABC’s independence and journalism, it’s difficult to understand how he did not see the ramifications of his advice, regardless of its appropriateness from the board.

And making Alberici a sacrificial lamb would unlikely appease the Conservative political gods seeking a drain all the blood from Aunty. The Coalition’s campaign has also involved the outspoken Melbourne radio presenter Jon Faine and the ABC’s political editor, Andrew Probyn.

The ABC has been under siege from the Coalition from the moment former PM Tony Abbott broke his 2013 election promise of “no cuts to the ABC” and it continued under Turnbull. With an election looming it now looks like a death match for all the protagonists.

It’s worth remembering an ABC investigation found several mistakes in Alberici’s coverage of the government’s corporate tax cuts plan. All up, nine complaints were made about two stories.

As the former Turnbull government fought a losing battle for crossbench support for his its plan, it’s easy to see why errors in the stories infuriated them.

The two stories were changed. A news article titled “Why many big companies don’t pay corporate tax” was amended, while an analysis titled “There’s more to jobs and growth than a corporate tax cut” was reworked and republished.

They sparked furious debate on all sides over both government policy and ABC bias.

In response to the leak of the emails today, Milne issued a statement saying he won’t “provide a running commentary on the day-to-day issues which arise as we carry out our duties” – quite – and defended the board’s role.

“The job of the ABC Board is to independently govern the Corporation, protect its best interests, ensure that it is well funded, well managed, and that our content is of the highest standards,” he said.

“That is precisely what the board has done and will continue to do.”

But the emergence of this email has damaged the perception of the ABC Board’s independence and that’s why Milne needs to step down.

Like so many appointments in government entities, the ABC Board – a particularly shiny bauble – is gifted via the patronage of those in power.

Tenure in the chairperson’s role – the Dame Leonie Kramer in the early ’80s was the first and only woman to have the position – depends on how long the government lasts. Donald McDonald saw out two terms under John Howard – an era that also saw conservative warriors Janet Albrechtsen, Keith Windschuttle and the Liberal powerbroker Michael Kroger appointed to the board. During the final year of his reign in 2007, Howard made businessman Maurice Newman chairman and he became a critic of the broadcaster from within. While he was willing to serve a second term, Kevin Rudd installed former NSW Chief Justice James Spigelman, who only lasted one term, despite also wanting a second, before Turnbull gave the role to Milne.

Which is why anyone who takes on the role needs to clearly establish their independence from government in leading the ABC. The broadcaster’s charter demands it.

There’s been much debate over Guthrie’s flaws and her failure to be the public face of the ABC in defending it from political attack, and on occasion, Milne has had to step up to the plate in her place, but the leak of the email makes him appear like a government messenger.

Milne observed in his email that it was no certainty that Labor would win the next election, but right now, both Canberra and the ABC appear to be in a process of renewal.

Milne should include himself in that clearing of the decks.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

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