Senate report blasts ABC board over Michelle Guthrie dismissal

Senators have blasted the ABC board over the dismissal of managing director Michelle Guthrie last year.

In a report into the national broadcaster’s independence following the MD’s firing last September and the subsequent resignation of chairman Justin Milne three days later, Senators said they were “astounded” at the board’s behaviour .

(L-R) Then ABC chairman Justin Milne with managing director Michelle Guthrie, board member Peter Lewis and board member Kristin Ferguson at a 2018 public meeting.

The committee was convened following accusations Milne and Guthrie had both attempted to sack ABC presenters who had incurred the Federal government’s ire.

During the committee’s deliberations, Ita Buttrose took over as ABC chair while Michelle Guthrie settled her unfair dismissal complaint against the broadcaster for a reported $730,000. The vacant managing director role is yet to be filled.

In its report, the committee conceded the decision to fire Guthrie was not due to political interference but was astounded by the board’s failure to investigate when she presented a dossier describing her deteriorating relationship with Milne that included allegations of attempted political interference.

“The committee is astounded,” the senators wrote. “That the ABC Board did not make further inquiries — both before and after presentation of the dossier — about the source of this tension that was so clearly impacting the corporation and which clearly could have, and did jeopardise, the independence of key personnel.

“Throughout the inquiry, ABC Board Directors emphasised their absolute commitment to the independence of the ABC. However, when presented with allegations against the Chair—by no less than the MD—the first response was not to prioritise and investigate those allegations but to proceed to deal with another issue which had arisen about the same time.”

At the time of Guthrie’s dismissal, the ABC was under siege with a steady stream of government complaints about political coverage which culminated in the communications minister accusing the broadcaster of transmitting “Labor Lies”.

The committee went on say that Milne’s resignation may not have been necessary had the board properly investigated Guthrie’s allegations.

“Had the allegations raised by Ms Guthrie in her dossier not leaked to the media the board may never have suggested Mr Milne consider his position, the action which led to his resignation.”

The committee also said the board should have done more to support Guthrie, given much of the pressure applied to her came from Milne who himself was a board member.

In its conclusions, the Senators said: “The committee acknowledges that Australian Governments have a long history of political interference in the ABC through the use of various levers, most especially the funding lever.

“It is reasonable to conclude that this interference has both short and long-term impacts on ABC Staff, neither of which may be clear to casual observers. However, the ABC Board and the ABC Leadership Team are not casual observers.

“The committee believes that political interference or the prospect of political interference, and all that that entails, is experienced to varying degrees throughout the ABC.

“The ABC Board and Acting MD confidently asserted that independence is a demonstrated priority for the ABC but the committee heard that this message is either not reaching ABC staff or is being treated with little regard in the besieged workplace.”

Government senators strongly defended the role of then-Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull in the events leading up to Guthrie’s dismissal

A dissenting report from government Senators on the committee denied there had been any interference, saying: “Government Senators strongly reject the contention in the majority report that political interference is experienced to varying degrees throughout the ABC.

“The inquiry found no evidence of political interference by the Government or the former Prime Minister.

“Not one director gave evidence that there was Government interference, that they were put under pressure by the Government, or that they had been contacted by the former Prime Minister or Government Ministers to seek to influence the ABC in operational, staffing, or editorial matters.”

In their report, the Senate committee recommended the ABC Act be strengthened to require governments to consult with the opposition over senior appointments, provide greater transparency into the recruitment process and specify that at least two board members have media experience.

The Senators also recommended the ABC receive a more secure funding commitment to reduce the risk of political interference by governments of all persuasions.


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