The appointment of former Seven CFO Peter Lewis to the board of the ABC has drawn angry denunciations from staff and viewer groups, but ABC management has defended their newest board director against claims of conflict of interest.

“Ultimately this is a matter for government — they choose the ABC board members,” ABC corporate affairs director Michael Millett told Crikey. But Millett adds that Lewis, who was the chief financial officer at Seven for 14 years, comes with more experience than most board directors.

“He has a lots of knowledge about the ABC, and has worked in the media sector for a long time,” Millett said. Some groups, like Friends of the ABC, are troubled by Lewis’ extensive commercial experience, but Millett played down these concerns this morning. “Given the other board members have backgrounds in all sorts of things, I’m sure they could handle any conflicts of interest as they arise,” he said.

Lewis is the architect of Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s review into the efficiency of back-office operations at SBS and the ABC, and his appointment to the ABC board has been rumoured for some time. Turnbull confirmed his appointment yesterday.

“He will be a valuable addition to the ABC board, bringing with him extensive and deep industry knowledge and experience,” Turnbull wrote. Lewis’ appointment, effective for five years, was made after a recommendation from the independent nomination panel for SBS and the ABC. The government controversially added News Corp columnist Janet Albrechtsen and former Liberal Party deputy leader Neil Brown to this panel earlier this year.

The Community and Public Sector union has said that given Lewis was the author of the efficiency review, it would be a improper for him to then go about implementing it. “This will be viewed as a hostile appointment that it is simply politically motivated,” CPSU president Michael Tull said.

“The board has a statutory obligation to uphold the ABC Charter and to be independent of the government. This appointment has the potential to undermine that independence. This is because the government is appointing the person who has just completed a controversial, and secret, review of the ABC. The ABC board is currently considering that review, and the government is trying, via threatened budget cuts, to force the ABC to adopt the review recommendations,” he said.

“The appointment would clearly undermine public confidence in the independence of the board, and also creates a personal conflict of interest for Mr Lewis.”

The CPSU called on Turnbull to rethink the appointment, or, failing that, drop the review. Its views were echoed by some staff members within the ABC Crikey spoke to, who said Lewis’ appointment was a sign the government was trying to force the ABC to accept its funding cuts.

Friends of the ABC national spokesperson Glenys Stradijot says the appointment conveys “an alarming message about the ABC’s future”.

Most of the current ABC board members are lawyers or professional board directors. They include chairman James Spigelman, a former chief justice and lieutenant-governor of New South Wales, paediatrics researcher Fiona Stanley, lawyer and company director Cheryl Bart, company director Jane Bennett, investment banker Simon Mordant, Deutsche Bank vice-chairman Steven Skala, and staff-elected board director and journalist Matt Peacock.

Lewis’ appointment comes as ABC director of news Kate Torney, one of the most powerful people within the organisation, made the first statement on program cuts since news filtered out that Lateline could be axed nearly two weeks ago.

In an email to staff, Torney said the ongoing speculation over ABC program cuts was “a reflection of the importance of the ABC”.

She confirmed the news leadership team was looking at changes to the broadcaster’s output. “Change involves difficult strategic choices. But the reality is that the audience is changing and if the ABC does not change with it, we risk becoming irrelevant.”

She stressed that no decisions have been made, and said that none would be made until the size of the ABC budget cut was known.

Peter Fray

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