With Justin Milne’s resignation as chair of the ABC, the risk is that this sorry saga will be seen as only about Milne’s political motivations and failures in the role. Instead, Milne’s performance makes more sense if he is seen as the Liberal Party’s inside man in a broader, and increasingly relentless, war against the ABC.
The Liberals’ war against the ABC is wide-ranging. It consists of multiple funding cuts totalling hundreds of millions of dollars; a constant stream of vexatious complaints about journalism that the Liberals find inconvenient, and attacks on journalists in parliament; attempts, mostly successful, to intimidate ABC management; the adoption of a party policy to privatise the broadcaster; a constant stream of “reviews” by commercial media executives and a remarkable singling out of the ABC in the government’s police state-style prosecution of Witness K and Bernard Collaery, in which the media company that broke the ASIS crime story, News Corp, was omitted.
We know that Michelle Guthrie failed to push back adequately in defence of the national broadcaster — even refusing to support Emma Alberici at a Senate estimates hearing — but now we know that her now-departed chairman, Justin Milne (appointed by his friend and former business partner Malcolm Turnbull), was seemingly not interested in defending the ABC at all. Instead, recent evidence reveals Milne pushed the Liberals’ agenda to attack journalists from within — explicitly because they had upset the Liberals.
In this, the Turnbull government managed to go one step further than the Howard government. The Howard government slashed ABC funding, appointed a friend of the prime minister to the chairmanship, launched a stream of vexatious complaints about its journalism, imposed reviews and stacked the board with Liberals and right-wingers. But Donald McDonald took his role as chair seriously and, as a conservative, saw the importance of defending a longstanding and trusted institution. He pushed back, hard, against attempts by the Howard government to target journalists.
Milne, in contrast, was an enemy within; he demanded the sacking of journalists who had incurred Liberal displeasure.
This, it seems, became apparent to the rest of the ABC board, which met this morning to deal with the crisis, and decided Milne’s position was untenable. The board is specifically given a statutory duty to defend the independence and integrity of the ABC. At the moment, that duty is the most important one of all for the ABC. Milne’s departure is the right step in the rest of the board fulfilling that duty.