(Image: Gorkie/Private Media)

The ABC board needs to take action on news director Gaven Morris and its own failures to properly handle communications with the government.

It’s clear that Morris is acting as a conduit for complaints and attempts to influence the ABC from the prime minister’s office. The PMO’s Nick Creevey complained to Morris about Dylan Welch’s reporting of the COVIDSafe app last year. In 2018, Morris fielded complaints from Malcolm Turnbull’s office about articles on tax avoidance by Emma Alberici.

Now Nine has reported that Morris received complaints from Morrison’s office about a Four Corners story on Scott Morrison’s links with a QAnon supporter, which have been extensively detailed in Crikey. That story has been spiked — delayed, insists the ABC — by managing director David Anderson.

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It bears repeating that the director of ABC news being happy to act as a postbox for complaints from politicians seeking to influence and alter ABC news and current affairs coverage is unacceptable. Morrison’s office or Turnbull’s office in 2018 has no more right to special access to the head of ABC news than anyone. They should have exactly the same access as everyone — they can complain via the ABC’s complaints process.

The one special access the federal government has is that it appoints the ABC board, funds the broadcaster and exercises certain powers via the portfolio minister in relation to the ABC’s corporate and board functions. In exercising those powers, the portfolio minister communicates with the chair.

Not the MD. Not the director of news, or any other executive. The chair.

That’s why, if you go back through the history of the Howard government’s stoush with the ABC over coverage of the Iraq war (Iraq, COVIDSafe — the Coalition sure knows what fights to pick) you’ll find it played out through correspondence between Richard Alston and Donald McDonald, and via the ABC’s complaints handling unit. Both men understood the importance of observing proper process.

That was part of a broader framework within which Howard refused to have informal contact with McDonald and complaints were handled formally. Not via emails between a PMO functionary and a division head.

The ABC board needs to reestablish proper process. The only thing Morris or any other ABC executive should do on receipt of emails or phone calls from the PMO is refer them to the ABC complaints process — like they’d do with anyone else’s complaint. Politicians and their flunkies will always try to influence the media via any means they can.

Morris acting as a postbox for complaints merely encourages them to go further in attempts to influence coverage of the government. And chair Ita Buttrose, who in a process familiar to long-time ABC watchers has gone from prime ministerial pick to hated enemy of the Liberal Party, should make clear that if the government has anything to say to the ABC it should be to her, in writing.

Australians are entitled to know about Morrison’s links with a QAnon supporter and evidence it has influenced some of Morrison’s decisions. Just because his office has an ABC executive on speed-dial shouldn’t mean an important story gets spiked.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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