emma alberici
Emma Alberici (Image: AAP/Richard Wainwright)

The ABC is normally quick to respond to attacks on itself and its staff made by other media outlets.

It has an entire web page dedicated to “correcting the record”. When Dr Norman Swan was criticised for his coverage of the pandemic, the ABC released a long statement defending him.

An Australian attack on the ABC’s investigative reporting team drew a lengthy rebuke. An item on the ABC’s search engine optimisation practices elicited a monster 900-word response by ABC News communications lead Sally Jackson (coincidentally herself a former Australian media journalist). There are also media releases correcting claims by other media figures.

But the ABC has fallen strangely silent recently as The Australian has attacked journalist Emma Alberici — including publishing confidential information about her employment.

Alberici has been a regular punching bag for News Corp publications, The Australian Financial Review and senior Coalition figures for years. The government and its media cheerleaders launched an onslaught in 2018 after she published an excellent, detailed analysis of company tax payments, one that survived multiple attempts, including by the ABC, to discredit it.

That piece prompted fury from business figures whose companies were exposed as failing to pay tax and prompted phone calls by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to friend and then-ABC chair Justin Milne. Milne, later to resign amid suggestions of sexual harassment, demanded then-managing director Michelle Guthrie fire Alberici because “they hate her”. Turnbull’s chief media adviser during the controversy was former senior ABC journalist — and one of Alberici’s predecessors as economics correspondent — Mark Simkin.

Turnbull’s dislike of Alberici was said to go back further, to her handling of a 2013 election debate over the NBN.

In recent weeks, however, the constant targeting of the journalist by News Corp and the AFR has shifted as the ABC has embarked on a round of redundancies. The Australian has repeatedly run details about Alberici’s employment status that can only have come from within the ABC — and which seem to breach basic requirements of staff confidentiality.

On June 25, The Australian reported not merely that Alberici had been targeted for redundancy by the ABC — which was widely known after the ABC announced its latest round of redundancies the previous day — but that “the ABC will undertake a ‘process of consultation’ with her, in which it will consult Alberici ‘on positions that fit with her skills set … she may move to another area, such as the ABC news channel’ ”.

On July 20, Nick Tabakoff speculated Alberici could become a “shock jock”. Last week he reported her “redundancy is understood to have been reaffirmed” and “prospects of a radio redeployment occurring have faded”, though evidence there ever was a “radio redeployment” outside Tabakoff’s head is hard to find. This week Alberici is being reported as having refused an ABC News channel offer.

The message from the leaks and their reporting is clear: the ABC has done its darnedest to find a role for Alberici (to the extent that reading an autocue for the handful of viewers who watch the ABC news channel is a role) but, sadly, can’t find one she will deign to accept.

In contrast to the ABC’s regular output of corrections and refutations, there hasn’t been a single “Correcting the Record” response, of even modest length.

In most corporations and public sector agencies, staffing matters are confidential. Workplace privacy principles limit what third parties can receive information about staff and when. Usually, not even colleagues are supposed to know about matters pertaining to issues like remuneration, conflict management, performance management and redundancy.

The ABC knows this: it famously caused difficulties for itself over the years by refusing to reveal the salaries of high-profile staff to parliamentary committees.

Alberici, however, appears to be an exception. Either confidential information about Alberici’s employment is being widely shared within the corporation, and being fed to another outlet, or those who hold such information close within senior management and ABC HR are themselves leaking it.

The ABC disputes that information is being leaked about Alberici.

“Confidential information relating to potential redundancies has not been disclosed and no one in ABC management has commented in any way,” a spokesperson told Crikey. “Under the [ABC] enterprise agreement (EA), information regarding potentially redundant positions is included in the proposals for change, which are made available to all staff.”

While it is correct that Alberici’s position, along with other positions proposed for redundancy, was identified to staff as being made redundant on June 24, that doesn’t address how personal information specific to her own redundancy process such as potential other roles and consultations about her “skill set” was also shared in accordance with the corporation’s EA.

“Employees are consulted on how to respond to media speculation,” the ABC added.

Alberici has resisted being forced out of the ABC, adding to her 2018 sin in the eye of executives of upsetting the Coalition and business with her journalism, and refusing to back down over it.

It’s worth recalling how extraordinary the attacks by the government were on Alberici over an article that, far from being “riddled with errors”, as critics claimed, was forensic. Since the election of the current government in 2013, the tradition of ministers only communicating with the ABC via correspondence with the chair — a tradition observed, with trivial exceptions, by Coalition ministers like Richard Alston and Helen Coonan, and Labor’s Stephen Conroy, has been trashed. Under the current government, prime ministers and ministers feel free to complain directly to ABC executives.

Remarkably, there has been no pushback from the ABC on this breach. Disturbingly, complaints from the prime minister’s office have been sent straight to the ABC director of news, Gaven Morris, for his personal actioning.

Such complaints have traditionally been handled at arm’s length.

Then chair and managing director Donald McDonald and Russell Balding, and minister Richard Alston, were all scrupulous in keeping the enormous controversy over Alston’s 2003 complaints about the ABC’s Iraq War coverage confined to minister-chair correspondence and the ABC’s independent complaints handling processes. Under more recent management, Morris appears to take a different approach that is far more responsive to the Coalition.

In one of the articles speculating about Alberici’s redundancy, The Australian journalist mocked her for her lack of work as the ABC’s chief economics correspondent, the role she was moved to after the axing of the long-running Lateline current affairs program, which has left a major hole in the ABC’s current affairs coverage.

However, Crikey understands ABC management and editors have acted to prevent, or refused to publish, Alberici’s work in the economics role.

Sources within the corporation say management has effectively blocked the economics route for her, prompting Alberici to make herself useful elsewhere, including on Foreign Correspondent and on Sydney radio. 

Alberici declined to respond to questions and directed Crikey to her lawyers, who did not return calls.

Given how cowed ABC news and current affairs has become in recent years, the treatment meted out to Alberici, beyond the breach of staff confidentiality, seems designed to send a signal to ABC journalists: upset the Coalition, and defend your journalism, and you’ll be the subject of a public campaign designed to portray you in an unflattering light — including to any future employers in what is left of Australia’s media.

At a time when Australian journalism is under existential threat, it’s a grim signal of how the ABC will approach the challenge of providing public interest journalism that holds the powerful to account.

Peter Fray

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