Former ABC chairman Justin Milne. Image credit: Mick Tsikas/AAP.

Before they take hold in the history of what unfolded at the ABC this week, some key claims need to be shot down.

1. This shows the board was wrong to sack Michelle Guthrie

It’s possible to take the view that neither Milne nor Guthrie did the their jobs properly. In fact, that’s probably the only rational conclusion when it comes to the task of protecting the ABC. We know for a fact Milne was trying to oust journalists who had displeased the Liberal Party. But what did Guthrie do to defend the ABC? In February, she pointedly refused to express confidence in Emma Alberici at a catastrophic Senate estimates hearing. Guthrie is not a hero of ABC independence just because she didn’t sack someone. A good defender of the ABC is across their brief, resolutely responds to criticisms at estimates hearings and in the public domain and lets ABC staff know that they have got their backs and will defend them for doing their jobs. Guthrie did not do that.

2. Malcolm Turnbull didn’t interfere with the ABC

Turnbull’s defence is that he never told Milne to sack anyone. That’s not the point. Turnbull appointed his friend and former business partner to the job, then rang him and hectored him about journalists and specific pieces of journalism. What did he think would result? What a contrast with John Howard, who never contacted Donald McDonald about editorial matters at all — but then, Howard wasn’t anywhere near as thin-skinned as Turnbull evidently is. Turnbull behaved like a media proprietor ringing an editor to complain about the coverage in his outlet: he doesn’t need to issue directions, he just needs to express his own views.

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3. The departure of Milne fixes the problem of political interference at the ABC

The damage to the ABC’s independence predates Milne. The government has been working to cow and intimidate ABC management for years and it has succeeded. As the appalling cave-in to the government over the PM&C files shows, ABC Newscaff executives have an overly deferential and compliant attitude to both politicians and the public service. Only a clean-out of kow-towing executives and their replacement with tougher, more resilient types prepared to stand up to politicians will address the damage done to the ABC since 2013.

4. The government was complaining about the accuracy of Alberici and Probyn

The problem with the work of the two journalists singled out for termination by Milne wasn’t accuracy but the fact that they embarrassed the government. As Phil Coorey pointed out yesterday, there’s a funny pattern to the government’s complaints; they didn’t have a problem with Probyn when he was at The West Australian but suddenly got stuck into him when he joined the ABC, and didn’t say boo when Coorey reported similar stories to Probyn about which they bitterly complained, unless he mentioned them on the ABC. As for Alberici, Milne, the government and News Corp lickspittles are continuing to peddle the claim that she made major errors in her company tax piece. The ABC has repeatedly acknowledged that the errors were introduced into her piece in the editing process. Milne last night went further and claimed there were “small disciplinary matters” regarding her stories — a serious claim to make about any member of an organisation, and one that is utterly false.

5. ‘You cannot go around irritating the person who is giving you funding again and again’

Milne’s view that the ABC would not receive funding for his favoured Jetstream digitisation project unless sources of discontent on the part of the government were removed is demonstrably false. The Howard government gave hundreds of millions of dollars to the ABC and SBS to fund their conversion to digital broadcasting, which required a mammoth refit of production and internal distribution facilities as well as new transmission contracts with private sector providers. It continued to do so while openly engaged in a war with the ABC over editorial issues. Milne’s lack of understanding of his role as chairman evidently extended to a lack of understanding of the recent history of the ABC.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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