Communications Minister Paul Fletcher and ABC Chair Ita Buttrose (Images: AAP/Alex Murray, AAP/Lukas Coch)

If it was unclear before that Communications Minister Paul Fletcher is badly out of his depth, his mishandling of the government’s reprisals against the ABC over Four Corners‘ revelation of the antics of Alan Tudge and Christian Porter has confirmed it.

It’s debatable whether the government should even have looked to punch back against the ABC for the program. The revelations — entirely in the public interest — of the behaviour of two senior ministers were already yesterday’s news. In the “permanent present” of the press gallery, where no one remembers longer than five minutes ago and any story broken by another outlet is ignored until it can’t be, the news cycle had moved on.

Until Fletcher dispatched his letter to ABC chair Ita Buttrose.

Fletcher’s tactics are bizarre. When Richard Alston decided to attack the ABC over coverage of the Iraq war in 2003, he used the ABC’s own processes against it by lodging dozens of complaints — some of them hilariously trivial. The ABC was forced to investigate each one, with the possibility that they could be appealed to what was then the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA).

The process dragged on for 18 months — long after Alston had left politics — until the ABA found most of Alston’s complaints unjustified, but he managed to secure a few wins along the way.

History, of course, has vindicated the ABC in spades about the illegal Iraq war, but at the time the confected outrage from the Howard government and News Corp was at maximum.

Fletcher — who was chief of staff to Alston until 2000, when he was replaced by the far smarter David Quilty — has taken a different approach. He’s simply fired off a long letter to ABC chair Ita Buttrose accusing the ABC of bias, accusing the board of supporting intrusions into the personal lives of Coalition ministers and of overseeing breaches of codes of practice and the ABC Act.

It’s riddled with absurd questions like “why should an objective observer not conclude that the program demonstrates a failure by the board in its duty under section 8 of the ABC Act“, when an objective observer might conclude that the personal behaviour of a minister who used private information to smear a government critic, and an attorney-general allegedly behaving in ways that make him a security risk, and ministers attempting to cover that up, is exactly the sort of high quality public interest journalism the ABC should produce.

Fletcher also sent the letter to his media mates before its intended recipient received it. Classy, Paul.

In The Australian today, an obviously well-briefed Niki Savva reports that Buttrose will tell Fletcher where to shove his letter.

In reality, she could do no other. Fletcher’s letter, unlike Alston’s complaints, leaves no option. Giving even an inch to the government will look like crumbling in the face of political pressure. And Fletcher in effect is directly questioning Buttrose’s own judgment, not just that of ABC executives, given she had seen the program before broadcast.

Scott Morrison might have thought Buttrose was a savvy appointment to replace Justin Milne, because she was popular and wouldn’t make trouble. But as John Howard and Richard Alston discovered with Donald McDonald, some ABC chairs take their responsibilities very seriously indeed, and political pressure only reinforces their determination to stand by the corporation.

Worse, Fletcher has nowhere to go after his letter, if Buttrose and the board decide to make a paper plane out of it and throw it out the window from the boardroom at Ultimo. There’s no ABA for complaints about the ABC board. And Fletcher can’t sack the board. Under section 18 of the ABC Act, directors can only be removed “for misbehaviour or physical or mental incapacity”, if they go bankrupt or stop showing up to board meetings.

It’s possible Fletcher and most of his Coalition colleagues think it’s “misbehaviour” not to act as a News Corp-style propaganda arm for the government, but that won’t do the trick in the real world. Fletcher’s invocation of section 8, “Duties of the Board”, will avail him nought given they are not “to be taken to impose on the board a duty that is enforceable by proceedings in a court”.

Any purported sacking of an ABC director on the grounds of “misbehaviour” could lead to some very interesting litigation, including defamation proceedings.

And does the government want to publicly humiliate Ita Buttrose — Ita bloody Buttrose — and sack her along with the rest of the board, made up (with the exception of the staff-elected director) of people the government itself appointed?

Maybe Fletcher is stupid enough to try it. He’s painted himself, and the government, into a corner in a fight with an institution that, no matter how he much he slashes its funding, will always have far more trust among the community than any politician.

Peter Fray

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