Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has become embroiled in a controversy over free speech, patriotism and the government’s right to police the internet, after he drew SBS management’s attention to a series of provocative tweets about Anzac Day by SBS football reporter Scott McIntyre.

Turnbull says he didn’t ask SBS to sack McIntyre, despite finding his tweets highly offensive. The national broadcaster sacked him anyway, less than 24 hours after the tweets were posted at 5.30pm on Anzac Day.

“As soon as I was made aware of the tweets by Mr McIntyre I drew them to the atttention of the [SBS] Managing Director Mr Ebeid who then investigated the matter,” Turnbull said in a statement to Crikey. “The management of SBS however, not the Government, is responsible for  staffing decisions at SBS.”

Asked why he felt it appropriate to comment on the private tweets of an SBS reporter, Turnbull said McIntyre’s account “clearly identified him as an SBS reporter”. “The comments were so offensive that they deserved the widespread condemnation that they received,” Turnbull said.  “McIntyre, as a private citizen, is entitled to express his political views, but in his capacity as a reporter employed by SBS he has to comply with, and face the consequences of ignoring, the SBS social media protocol, a number of provisions of which were breached by him with his offensive tweets.”

McInyre began tweeting at 5.30pm on Saturday, decrying the modern evolution of Anzac Day and the historical realities of war. Turnbull weighed in at 9pm, saying he found it “difficult to think of more offensive or inappropriate comments”. SBS managing director Michael Ebeid said at around the same time that McIntyre’s views did not reflect those of SBS. “We remember and commemorate our ANZACs,” Ebeid wrote on Twitter.

By noon the following morning SBS had put out a statement saying it had terminated McIntyre’s employment.

McIntyre lost his job over five tweets, posted in rapid succession. The first stated that “the cultification of an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation that Australia had no quarrel with is against all ideals of modern society”.

The second read: “Wonder if the poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers pause today to consider the horror that all mankind suffered.”

The third blasted the Anzacs for “summary execution, widespread rape and theft” committed in Egypt, Palestine and Japan, while the fourth and fifth focused on the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, labelling them the largest terrorist attack in history.

In a statement sent to media on Sunday morning, Ebeid and SBS director of sport Ken Shipp said McIntyre had made “highly inappropriate and disrespectful comments via his Twitter account, which have caused his on-air position at SBS to become untenable”.

SBS said McIntyre had breached the SBS code of conduct and social media policy, and so the network had taken “decisive” action to terminate his employment with immediate effect.

“At SBS, employees on and off air are encouraged to participate in social media; however, maintaining the integrity of the network and audience trust is vital. It is unfortunate that on this very important occasion, Mr McIntyre’s comments have compromised both,” the statement continued.

Crikey has been told that McIntyre had the opportunity to apologise and retract his tweets on Sunday morning, which he choose not to do. We weren’t able to contact McIntyre this morning to confirm this. It’s understood that the sacking may be the subject of legal action.

McIntyre has been covering Asian football since 2000 and is perhaps Australia’s leading expert on the subject. However, he was quickly deserted by The World Game’s most senior commentators, who rapidly distanced themselves from his views.

“For the record: In my view today’s tweets on Anzacs by [Scott McIntyre], if properly attributed, are an utter disgrace. His own, his own alone,” SBS soccer heavyweight Les Murray said on Saturday night.

Former Socceroo and The World Game commentator Craig Foster was no less critical. “Scott, I’m advised of your comments and am saddened you feel this way,” he tweeted at McIntyre on Sunday morning.

Foster said he’d had numerous family members who served in the military, including his grandfather who died on active duty. “We take deep offence at your comments relating to their conduct and that of their fellow Diggers, whose spirit we played for,” Foster said.

Crikey understands that some people within SBS view The World Game as a “bloated” program with too many staff. One SBS insider said losing a reporter might be welcomed. “SBS has been looking for ways to offload staff anyway,” we were told.

The sacking follows SBS looking at ways to on-sell some of its soccer rights to the commercial networks in a bid to make some quick cash.

The union for journalists, the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance, has expressed concerns about social media policies and the sacking. The union said in a statement:

“Increasingly, media employees are being required to use social media platforms to promote their work and those accounts are then being used as a marketing tool benefiting media employers. The policies have begun to infringe on the private lives of media professionals, dictating what they can and can’t say in a private capacity, outside of their work.

“MEAA believes that employers must recognise that their employees are entitled to a private life, with their own beliefs and opinions; opinions that should be able to be expressed without heavy-handed retribution by the employer. Striking a balance between engaging in debate and freedom of expression requires social media policies to be nuanced. What MEAA is finding is that social media policies of employers are inflexible and deny staff the right to have and express a personal opinion.”

Peter Fray

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