Public broadcasting

The ABC has been beset by allegations of government interference, budget cuts, endless politicised inquiries, calls for it to be sold off — all culminating in a leadership crisis.

Then Treasurer Scott Morrison is congratulated by then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after delivering the 2018 Budget speech Alex Ellinghausen Fairfax Photos

It has been the most tumultuous year in the ABC’s history. From the politicisation of the national broadcaster’s funding and a call for the organisation to be sold off, the imposition of unnecessary inquiries as favours for the support of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation for the Government’s media package, and a crisis of leadership at the ABC.

Funding cuts

The Federal Budget brought down on Tuesday May 8 2018 revealed cuts of $127 million from the funding of the ABC.

MEAA called the cuts “dangerous and irresponsible”, and added that the cuts presented grave implications for audiences seeking news and information. MEAA said the cuts only weaken public broadcasting at the very time when commercial broadcasting is struggling due to the challenges of digital disruption — particularly for audiences in rural, regional and remote Australia.

MEAA said[i] the loss of $43 million over three years in funding to support news and current affairs, particularly in regional Australia, is particularly short-sighted (the funding was to expire in 2019–20 and the ABC would have to re-bid for further funding. In its pre-election Budget on April 2 2019 the government restored the funding for three years — see below), as the ABC “can and must” play a crucial role in providing high quality public interest journalism in the era of “fake news” and social media platforms stripping revenue from commercial news media.

What did Communications Minister Mitch Fifield do with the millions he stripped from the ABC? The Guardian reported: “Savings from the ABC cuts will be redirected to other spending measures within the communications and arts portfolio, according to the budget papers, including $48.7 million for the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s landing in Botany Bay.”[ii]

MEAA Media director Katelin McInerney said: “The [combined] potential $43 million cut to dedicated news funding, and the freezing of indexed funding at a cost of $84 million, are crippling blows to the ABC and follow years of under-funding by the Abbott and Turnbull Governments.”

The latest funding reduction would amount to almost $340 million being cut from the ABC’s base funding since 2014.

This has had a significant impact on ABC news, on television drama, and on radio programming, and there needs to be a major reinvestment in the ABC by the federal government. “These funding cuts have placed enormous stress upon the ABC which, last night, was once again being asked to do more with less,” McInerney said.

“The timing of these cuts could not be worse: in the lead-up to a federal election when strong journalism to independently scrutinise politicians’ claims and counter claims will be needed. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the ABC to deliver original investigative journalism and local and regional newsgathering with these deep cuts to its funding,” McInerney said.

“The spate of highly politicised assaults on public broadcasting by the Government in recent years fly in the face of calls made to restore funding. In February the Senate Select Committee into the Future of Public Interest Journalism recommended that the Government must ensure adequate funding for the ABC and SBS to ensure they meet their charter obligations — particularly in rural and regional services and fact-checking capacity,” McInerney said.

“Right now, the ABC is already seeking to cut 20 journalist positions in a proposed restructure, cuts that will hurt its local newsrooms and in turn, starve local communities of quality reporting of news stories that matter to them. Every time the Government announces these politically motivated assaults on the ABC it is local communities that suffer.”

MEAA Equity director Zoe Angus warned: “These Federal Government cuts also represent a dangerous threat to the creation of original Australian television production, particularly drama. It is this type of short-sighted and devastating cuts to funding that has spurred the Make it Australian campaign. The constant slashing of funding by Governments endangers the ABC’s ability to produce quality Australian screen content and fulfil its important cultural role in Australian storytelling.

“Even before last night’s Budget, more than $250 million had been cut from the ABC since 2014. Over this same period, the ABC’s commissioning budgets for adult drama and children’s content each dropped by 20 percent. Given their important cultural role, the ABC must be properly funded and future funding must be guaranteed so that productions can be developed with certainty,” Angus said.

MEAA responded to the funding cuts by once again invoking “Hands Off Our ABC”, a community and advocacy campaign co-ordinated by the two unions that represent the vast bulk of employees at the ABC: MEAA and the Community and Public Sector Union. The campaign’s goal is an editorially independent ABC that is fully funded by the government and meets its charter as a comprehensive national broadcaster, that is resourced to tell Australian stories across multiple platforms, and positioned to take advantage of new technology to retain its position as the most trusted and reliable source of news and entertainment in Australia.

The implications of ongoing funding cuts were soon made clear. At a Senate estimates hearing in May 23 2018, the ABC’s chief finance officer revealed that the broadcaster had shed 1012 jobs since 2014. The Guardian reported: “A total of 939 employees or 829 full-time-equivalent have been made redundant in four years, including 205 as a result of the closure of the ABC’s retail shops and a further 73 vacant positions were closed. The ABC has been shedding staff since the Coalition cut $254 million from the ABC budget in 2014. [Managing director Michelle] Guthrie, who has been in the position for just over two years, has imposed several restructures which have led to hundreds of staff being made redundant. A further 22 journalists will be made redundant this month.”[iii]

On June 12 2018, Labor promised it would restore the $83.7 million cut by the Coalition. MEAA described[iv] the promise as “a good first step” towards reversing the damage from a succession of funding cuts since 2014.

Responding to the Labor promise to restore the ABC’s funding,[v] MEAA said: “The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance welcomes the announcement from Opposition Leader Bill Shorten that a Labor government would not proceed with the funding indexation freeze which effectively cuts $83.7 million from the ABC over three years from 2018–19.

MEAA chief executive Paul Murphy said: “ABC executives have warned that the $84 million cut in last month’s Budget cannot be absorbed through more efficiencies, but can only come from cuts to programming, services and operational staff, such as journalists. ABC news staff are already going through another painful round of redundancies with 20 jobs to be axed when the cut was announced. Put simply, the ABC is doing more with less than ever before, and the latest cut was especially vindictive.

“While we welcome Labor’s commitment not to go ahead with the funding freeze if elected at the next election, we will be looking for further concrete pledges of increased funding from all political parties,” Murphy said. “We will also continue to press all political parties to respect the independence of the ABC and reinforce the integrity of its charter to be the national broadcaster for all Australians.”

The then ABC chairman Justin Milne wrote an opinion piece on the issues confronting the ABC.[vi] He said: “The ABC is an organisation known intimately to every Australian and about which every one of us has an opinion. The letters pages of newspapers contain a steady stream of bouquets and brickbats for the public broadcaster. Yet according to pollsters, with around 80 percent support, the ABC is the most trusted media organisation in the country by a very wide margin. It is one of the few organisations to maintain trust when confidence in institutions everywhere has declined.

“The commercial television networks and some newspapers peddle an ever more urgent message that the ABC is hurting their business and should be held back. They take delight in reviews into the broadcaster’s efficiency and business practices, hoping they will coalesce into a full-blown revision of the ABC’s Charter that relegates the public broadcaster to a “market failure” function limited to programming about fine arts, science, education or philosophy. This would likely spell the end for popular programming like Four Corners, Australian Story, Gruen or Sea Change because, the argument goes, these programs could be produced by commercial media and taxpayers would save millions. But this argument misses two points,” Milne wrote.

“First, the ABC’s existence is not and never was based on a premise of market failure. Our Charter, enacted by legislation, has always required much more of us. By fulfilling that Charter, we provide Australians with distinctive content, media diversity, a strong creative sector and more. Even better, the ABC costs each Australian half what it cost 30 years ago.

“Second, the declining audiences reported by commercial media are not and never have been the fault of the ABC. What has changed for all media is the arrival of the FAANGs — or Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google — with their mega-billion-dollar production budgets and global-scale economies that have upended business models the world over,” Milne said.

On April 2 2019, in its pre-election Budget, the Government decided it would extend the funding of the ABC’s “enhanced news measure” — the funding had previously been under a cloud and was due to expire in the coming year. The funding extension is worth $43.7 million over three years and would allow the ABC to continue to support local news and current affairs services, particularly in regional areas.

In a statement[vii] in response to the Budget, the director of ABC news, analysis and investigations, Gaven Morris, said of the extension of the funding: “It complements the $15 million a year investment we have made in regional news. It allows us to create jobs at a time when commercial news media are reducing services, particularly in regional Australia.”

ABC acting managing director David Anderson said: “The program budget sustains critical roles in ABC Investigations and the Specialist Reporting Team; provides camera operators in Broome, the Alice and the Hunter; funds the Parramatta, Geelong and Ipswich bureaux and regional VJs in Bunbury, Newcastle and Renmark; and enables capital investment in linking equipment and other technology.

“The extension of this program for another three years at $43.7 million is recognition of the important work the national broadcaster does in delivering more tailored news to communities, in investing in specialist resources that explain complex policy and political issues to the public and in providing a national audience for news from across the country.[viii]

The ABC statement went on to say: “On the negative side, despite extensive requests from the ABC, the Budget papers have locked in the $83.7 million pause in indexation funding flagged in last year’s budget. This is on top of the $254 million the ABC has had to absorb in efficiency cuts over the past five years.

“The cut comes into effect at the start of the next financial year, with a first-year impact of $14.6 million. Given our tight fiscal envelope, meeting the costs will have to involve tough decisions on staffing and services. Our commitment is to consult with staff in considering options. I will keep you informed on this front.”

The Budget also contained a Department of Finance perspective on ABC staffing levels. It was the ABC’s intention to maintain staffing at 4180 for 2019–20 but the Department said this would have to change saying the ABC should employ 4130 people — a loss of 50 jobs.[ix]

The Budget also saw a funding boost for SBS of $29.6 million over three years for its TV, radio and online operations.

Privatising the ABC

The proposal to privatise the ABC was passed by the Liberal Party’s federal council Screenshot Fairfax Media

Amid the debate about funding the ABC appeared a sure sign that public broadcasting had simply become a political plaything for conservatives. The Liberal party’s federal council meeting on June 16 2018 voted 2:1 to privatise the ABC.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported:

“The overwhelming vote at the party’s annual council in Sydney gained vocal support from conservative think-tank Institute of Public Affairs, which said the company could be sold or given to Australians who already own it. The vote came in a debate on Saturday where about 110 council delegates, representing Liberal branches from across the country, also voted for an efficiency review into SBS.

Council delegate Mitchell Collier, the federal vice president of the Young Liberals, said he had enjoyed ABC programs such as Bananas in Pyjamas during his childhood but said there was no economic case to keep the broadcaster in public hands.

“High sentimentality is no justification for preserving the status quo,” Mr Collier told the meeting, which included cabinet ministers, Liberal state premiers and top party officials.

The motion said: “That federal council calls for the full privatisation of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, except for services into regional areas that are not commercially viable.”

The vote has no binding power over Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, federal cabinet or federal MPs, who set policy in their party room meetings in Canberra.

But Mr Collier won the vote on the floor of the council.

“There are several ways we could privatise the ABC — we could sell it to a media mogul, a media organisation, the government could sell it on the stock market,” he told the meeting.

“Privatising it would save the federal budget $1 billion a year, could pay off debt and would enhance, not diminish, the Australian media landscape.”

There was no explanation of how the ABC would have any commercial value to a buyer if the government imposed restrictions on the sale to protect rural services, forcing any buyer to continue operations that might lose money.

Nobody rose from the federal council floor to speak against the motion, but Communications Minister Mitch Fifield spoke from his position as a senior minister to note that privatising the ABC was not government policy.

Senator Fifield told the meeting that he had made two appointments to the ABC board — Minerals Council of Australia chair Vanessa Guthrie and Queensland rural leader Georgina Somerset.

He also said the government was amending the ABC’s governing act to stipulate that it was “fair and balanced” in its coverage and would force it to disclose the names of staff earning more than $200,000 a year.

No other members spoke on the motion and it was carried on a show of hands from delegates, with roughly twice as many voting in favour of the motion as those who voted against. No count was taken. Senator Fifield voted against the motion.

Asked about the vote later, Treasurer Scott Morrison said there was no plan to sell the ABC and the Liberal council did not decide government policy.

“We listen and we consult with our members, all the time, as we do with all Australians,” Mr Morrison said.

“But I should be very clear: the government has no plans to privatise the ABC.”

Mr Morrison quipped that some Australians “may think the Labor Party already owns it” but the government had no plans to sell the ABC…

[Institute of Public Affairs] research fellow Chris Berg said the question should be about the best way to privatise the ABC, with options being a sharemarket float, a sale to a media mogul or the IPA’s preferred option is for ownership to be transferred to ABC staff or Australian taxpayers. [x]

As public broadcasters, both the ABC and SBS are already owned by Australian taxpayers. Communications Minister Mitch Fifield is reportedly a member of the Institute of Public Affairs.[xi]

Leadership crisis

Former ABC chair Justin Milne, former ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie and former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on August 15 2018 Alex Ellinghausen Fairfax Photos

The next key event in the ABC during the year would propel the ABC into a profound crisis precisely at a time when strong, united leadership was vital in the face of the funding cuts and other assaults on the public broadcaster.

On Monday September 24 2018 Justin Milne announced that ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie had been sacked — two years and four months into her five-year term.

MEAA responded to the news by calling[xii] for next managing director of the ABC to be someone prepared to fight for better funding and independence, and to champion public broadcasting in a hostile political environment. “The departure of Michelle Guthrie follows a tumultuous period for the ABC, and MEAA members hope that new leadership… could be a circuit breaker for the organisation.”

The director of MEAA Media, Katelin McInerney, said Ms Guthrie’s two-and-a-half years as managing director would be remembered for historically low levels of funding culminating in the loss of $84 million announced in the 2018–19 federal budget, hundreds of redundancies, unprecedented political attacks on the ABC’s independence and low staff morale.

“It is no secret the ABC is caught in the pincers — between the need to invest in an ever-changing media landscape, and a decline in real funding to historically low levels,” Ms McInerney said. “The next managing director of the ABC will face real challenges, including how to restore the trust and confidence of staff by ending the “Hunger Games” processes, casualisation, and outsourcing which in four years have seen more than 1000 experienced workers leave the organisation.

“They must have a clear vision for the ABC and be able to articulate the direction they want to take the organisation. They must be a vocal public advocate for the ABC, who is prepared to tackle head-on the historically low levels of ABC funding with meaningful engagement with the Federal Government. They must be 100 percent committed to public broadcasting and to fend off any attempts to privatise the ABC either directly or by stealth. They must be a champion for quality Australian content and specialist content and a staunch defender of the ABC’s independence and of its editorial staff. This includes refocusing daily journalism away from lifestyle content and ‘clickbait’ and back towards news and current affairs,” McInerney said.

“Importantly, the ABC board must also be prepared to back the staff of the ABC and the integrity of the ABC as a respected publicly owned institution in the face of unrelenting political attacks.

“We feel it is time for a new vision and new direction for the ABC to emerge, allowing journalists and content makers to get on with the job of serving audiences with the content they trust.”

However, the leadership crisis at the ABC worsened on Wednesday September 26 when allegations were raised suggesting Milne had compromised the ABC’s independence — allegations he denied. MEAA responded to the news, saying[xiii]:

ABC chairman Justin Milne should heed the decision of his board and stand aside today to allow a comprehensive, independent inquiry to go ahead into alleged political interference in the running of the ABC.

Further revelations today that Mr Milne urged former managing director Michelle Guthrie to ‘shoot’ the network’s political editor, Andrew Probyn, make his position as chairman completely untenable.

On top of earlier reports that Mr Milne also told Ms Guthrie to sack the ABC’s economics editor, Emma Alberici, indicates a pattern of overt political interference in the running of the ABC that is in clear breach of the ABC charter and the role of the chairperson.

Mr Milne seems to have misunderstood that the role of the ABC is as a public broadcaster, not a mouthpiece for the government of the day. He must stand aside immediately, and these issues must be investigated fully by an independent inquiry.

The allegations sparked an overwhelming response from ABC staff. MEAA noted that the reports alleged Milne had sought to interfere in editorial and staffing decisions at the ABC. “MEAA believes that, if true, they would indicate Milne has no understanding of editorial independence, proper complaints handling processes, or the appropriate distance a board chair needs to keep from staffing matters.”[xiv]

Staff meetings were held at ABC offices with the following resolutions[xv] passed by staff. At Ultimo, ABC staff said: “We call for an independent inquiry into the allegations that have been made in the media today, and for the chairman to stand down in the interim while the investigation takes place. The idea behind the investigation is to secure the editorial independence of the ABC from top to bottom.”

At ABC Melbourne the meeting resolved: “ABC staff in Melbourne are calling for the chairman Justin Milne to stand aside while an independent inquiry takes place. The ABC is, and always has been, a fiercely independent news organisation and it is of no concern to our program makers or journalists whether they are hated by any government. We are dismayed that the chairman of our own board is exerting political pressure behind closed doors. Mr Milne’s position as chairman of the board is untenable if he does not support the ABC’s fierce pursuit of journalism without political interference.”

The ABC Brisbane staff passed the following resolution: “This meeting calls on the chairman to publicly acknowledge if the political interference in the reported email is true and, if so, immediately resign from his position.”

In Tasmania the resolution read: “ABC MEAA staff in the Tasmanian newsroom join calls for the Chairman Justin Milne to stand aside while an independent inquiry takes place. We are dismayed that the chairman of our own board appears to be exerting political pressure behind closed doors. Mr Milne’s position as chairman of the board is untenable if he does not support the ABC’s fierce pursuit of journalism without political interference.”

The following day, on September 27 and just four days after Guthrie was sacked, Milne resigned.

Allegations of political interference

ABC Sydney staff protest over allegations of political interference

The leadership crisis led MEAA to subsequently call for a comprehensive public inquiry. “Staff members made very clear yesterday their disgust with the targeting of journalists behind the scenes from those who are supposed to uphold the ABC’s independence. This is not a one-off attack on the ABC’s independence, but is the culmination of years of inappropriate external meddling in the ABC’s affairs.”[xvi]

MEAA chief executive Paul Murphy said: “Mr Milne seems to have misunderstood that the role of the ABC is as a public broadcaster, not a mouthpiece for the government of the day. The job of the chair of the ABC is to defend the independence of the broadcaster from political attacks, not to act as a messenger or do a hatchet job because the government is unhappy with the coverage it is receiving. ABC journalists cannot do their jobs of reporting fairly and without fear if they do not have confidence that the board and the chairman have their backs.”

Murphy said the announcement of a departmental inquiry into the affair was inadequate. “A departmental inquiry is simply not good enough and the public cannot have faith it will be anything but a whitewash,” he said. “The only way for this to be fully investigated is through a Senate inquiry, held in the open and with the power to force witnesses to testify. The government must co-operate with a Senate inquiry, and [Communications Minister] Senator Fifield, Prime Minister Morrison and former Prime Minister Turnbull should all be called to give evidence about how deeply they were involved in these attempts to interfere with the editorial decisions of the ABC.”

Murphy said the leadership crisis had exacerbated the climate of instability and uncertainty for all ABC staff, who should be commended for continuing to work professionally in extremely difficult circumstances. “MEAA members and supporters will continue to stand up for an independent ABC. We thank all who supported our action yesterday, and our ongoing campaign to safeguard Australia’s journalism.”[xvii]

A review by Mike Mrdak, secretary of the Department of Communications and the Arts, into the events at the ABC looked at the role of Milne and Guthrie as well as the ABC board members in the lead-up to the leadership crisis.[xviii] Public service news website The Mandarin reported:[xix] “Communications Minister Mitch Fifield tabled the Mrdak review in the Senate today, highlighting that Milne and Guthrie both told his department head “there was no request or suggestion” by any minister that led the national broadcaster’s former chair to demand senior journalists be sacrificed to appease an increasingly unfriendly government.

“Of course, the former chair’s stated reasoning for very strongly suggesting that Guthrie fire senior reporters Emma Alberici and Andrew Probyn was that the government clearly disliked them and some of their recent reporting, based on clear public statements and letters of complaint from ministers, including former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and Fifield himself.

“Mrdak was looking at how Milne communicated with Guthrie around a series of complaints from the government, regarding Alberici and Probyn, the decision by Triple J to stop running the Hottest 100 countdown on Australia Day, and edgy political satire televised on Tonightly.

“A timeline of events included in the report demonstrates that each case involved both interventions by the board and complaints from the government which reflected identical concerns. The former chair maintains he was making his views known to the managing director, not giving a direction, while Guthrie sees it the other way around.”

“…As to whether Guthrie’s sacking was a direct result of the Alberici and Probyn arguments, Mrdak simply observes a difference of opinion between Milne’s claim that her resistance to his strong interventions over editorial and staffing matters was not the main reason for the board’s decision to cut her loose, and the former MD’s impression that it was a major factor.”[xx]

The vacuum created by the departure of the ABC chair and the ABC managing director would be followed by an example of direct government interference in the ABC’s board selection process — and not for the first time.

On February 25 2019 Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield and Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that former print media executive and more recently Network Ten panel show member Ita Buttrose would be recommended to the Governor-General for appointment as the new chair of the ABC board.

The government’s move to override the legislated independent panel selection process was reportedly because the recruitment firm appointed during the five-month hiatus since Justin Milne’s resignation had not found a woman to make the short list of three. Morrison said: “It is true that she was not one of those who have been independently recommended, and I can confirm that the independent recommendations did not include a female candidate.”[xxi]

Her appointment came “after Senate estimates heard… that the company brought in to run the recruitment process was paid more than $160,000 to whittle down the list of potential names.”[xxii]

MEAA chief executive Paul Murphy said: “There is an independent panel selection process in legislation which the Government has yet again ignored, as they have on very many occasions in making appointments to the ABC board. That’s not a reflection on Ita Buttrose but it’s an important point we’ve been raising.”[xxiii]

In its opening statement[xxiv] to a public hearing of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee as part of its inquiry into allegations of political interference in the ABC, MEAA expressed grave concerns with the conduct of the former ABC chair, Mr Milne, at the time his views concerning senior ABC editorial staff were publicly aired, shortly before his and Ms Guthrie’s departure from the corporation.

MEAA said:

MEAA and its members abhor selective and/or politically motivated interventions by senior ABC personnel. We are dismayed by members of the political class continually undermining the ABC by sniping, carping and punishing the ABC, and by encouraging dissent towards the corporation, ordering meritless inquiries, cutting funds and, on occasion, stacking its board. For the record, MEAA submits that complaints concerning editorial staff or perceived institutional bias should be aired and considered in an orderly and dispassionate manner where the principles of procedural fairness are observed. There should be no room for senior ABC officers to prosecute complaints outside of such processes.

In our submission, we didn’t seek to further canvass the events of September last year. We believe that this inquiry should focus on the systems that enabled those events to occur and on measures to ensure that board selection processes are sound and are not polluted by political interference. We concentrated our comments on terms of reference ©, (d) and (e). For the reasons set out in our submission, we make a total of 12 recommendations, and those are in three main areas: firstly, strengthening the independent selection process for board positions, removing political considerations from them and making them more transparent; secondly, replacing ad hoc and seemingly endless efficiency reviews with set, fixed term reviews based on consistent criteria and introducing independent external advice to guide triennial funding decisions; and, thirdly, reviewing the existing internal complaints handling processes.

On the first point around board appointments, we believe the initiative to establish an independent selection process some years ago for the ABC board was a good one, reflecting the need for the public to have confidence that board members would be selected based on merit and be capable of defending the independence and integrity of their public broadcaster. Multiple recent examples of the minister bypassing that process have, in our submission, produced a board not best fit to fulfil its duties. The perception of political favouritism in any appointment undermines public confidence, and, to be honest, the perception we have is that the minister of the day views the independent selection process as little more than an obstacle course to be overcome before making the appointment that they desire. In our submission, legislation should be amended so that no future appointments can be made outside of proper consideration and recommendation by the independent nomination panel.

We also make recommendations regarding board composition, specifically to extend the ban on former political officeholders being appointed to the board and to bar them from appointment to the independent nomination panel. We also recommend specifying that at least half the board should have experience in journalism or broadcasting, and for the creation also of an additional staff elected board position.

On funding, we note that since 2014 the ABC has faced funding cuts of more than $350 million and the resulting loss of hundreds of jobs. On one analysis, referred to in our submission, Australia invests 34 percent less per person in public broadcasting than is the average figure for comparable democracies. Our submission notes that the ABC has been subject to no less than 16 efficiency reviews in the last 20 years. These reviews are often perceived as being driven by political considerations.

No-one argues the ABC should not be subject to efficiency reviews. Like all public institutions, it must be accountable for the use of public money. But reviews should be on a regular cycle, rather than being announced ad hoc, and should be conducted on consistent and transparent criteria. With regard to triennial funding, in our submission the engagement of independent advisers to assist government in assessing appropriate funding levels would be of great benefit.

“And finally, in relation to the complaints processes, we have fielded several complaints from ABC personnel about the manner in which the ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs unit deals with complaints. The ACA fielded 26,850 complaints in 2017. It examines all manner of complaints, from subtitling errors to claims of bias in reporting. Of those complaints, 120 were upheld in 2017. On occasion, it receives multiple complaints from business and community organisations that allege an ingrained bias against their interests. A number of cases where such bias has been alleged have seen the ACA arrive at preliminary and sometimes final findings about bias without first providing allegations to the editorial staff member concerned. MEAA submits that the ABC’s complaints system must inform relevant staff of editorial complaints without fail. In addition, the person whose behaviour is complained about must have the ability to respond directly to the allegation before a preliminary or final decision is made. Anything less is a denial of natural justice and actually serves to undermine the integrity of the complaints process itself.”

On April 1 2019, the Senate political interference inquiry made a series of recommendations:

  • Amend the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 to define the term “consult” to ensure that the Prime Minister provides the Leader of the Opposition with information about the outcome of the Nomination Panel recruitment process and any alternate nominee, and the opportunity to discuss a proposed recommendation for appointment.
  • Amend the election criteria for the appointment of non-executive Directors) Determination 2013 to:

o allow for applicants with substantial experience or knowledge in the field of education;

o emphasise the need to demonstrate an understanding of the role of the fourth estate and independent media in democracy; and

o require no less than two non-executive members of the ABC Board to demonstrate substantial experience or knowledge in the media industry.

  • Amend the Act to set out the selection criteria for the Nomination Panel and enhance the transparency and accountability of the work of the Nomination Panel.
  • Amend the Act to require the Prime Minister to table a statement advising the Parliament on the extent and outcome of consultations with the Leader of the Opposition.
  • The Board should formally review these events, including the findings of this inquiry, and report to the Minister on lessons learned and steps taken to guard against a similar occurrence in future.
  • The Government should acknowledge the benefit and desirability of stable funding for the ABC, not only for ABC planning purposes but also as a guard against political interference, and commit to stable funding for the ABC over each budget cycle.[xxv]

Commenting on the report, MEAA chief executive Paul Murphy said: “It must be remembered that this inquiry was called following the sacking of ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie and subsequent allegations of interference in the ABC’s editorial processes by board chairman Justin Milne.

“Recommendations which improve the independence and transparency of board appointments, add more media experience to the board and protect the ABC’s staff from political interference are all sensible and welcome.

“Particularly important is the final recommendation for stable funding over the budget cycle of the ABC ‘as a guard against political interference’. We urge the swift and full implementation of the Committee’s recommendations.

“That would be an important step towards ensuring the chaos and dysfunction of last year is not repeated.”[xxvi]


Senator Pauline Hanson in the Senate Alex Ellinghausen Fairfax Photos

The ABC has been subjected to inquiries that appeared to be largely politically motivated or spurred by rivalries with other media outlets. At least two were initiated at the behest of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. The first was the introduction of the Fair and Balanced Bill — the legislation has stalled in the Senate[xxvii] after a standing committee inquiry was split along party lines with the Greens and Labor dissenting with the Government representatives’ final report.[xxviii]

The other One Nation-provoked inquiry was into the national broadcasters’ businesses in comparison to their commercial rivals. The Australian Financial Review said: “The then-Turnbull government set up an expert panel to run an inquiry into public broadcasting in March as part of a deal with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation to get Communications Minister Mitch Fifield’s media reform package through the Senate.”[xxix]

On March 29 2018 the Communications Minister launched the inquiry into “the competitive neutrality of the national broadcasters”. The inquiry was predicated on the premise: “Competitive neutrality principles provide that government business activities should not enjoy net competitive advantages simply by virtue of their public sector ownership.”[xxx]

In its submission to the competitive neutrality inquiry, MEAA said: “MEAA note that this Inquiry is being conducted in an environment of overt hostility towards the ABC and to a lesser extent, SBS. In our view, this is an inquiry in search of an ill-articulated (or non-existent) problem. This Inquiry follows the ABC and SBS Efficiency Study of 2014, approximately $380 million in funding cuts to the ABC and $20 million for SBS since 2014 and is taking place in conjunction with a further ABC efficiency review announced by the Government in May 2018…

“We further note that this Inquiry is occurring before two other inquiries have reported their findings: Treasury’s Review of the Commonwealth Government’s Competitive Neutrality Policy, which commenced in 2017; and the ACCC’s Inquiry into Digital Platforms.

“It strikes us as premature that this Inquiry should proceed while the foundations of competitive neutrality policy are being reviewed and before the main threats to the Australian media sector’s plurality, if not survival — digital platforms such as Facebook and Google and unregulated content providers including Netflix, Amazon and Stan — has properly been assessed.

“Finally, we note the existence of the Productivity Commission’s Competitive Neutrality Complaints Office (AGCNCO). This office is charged with fielding complaints and launching investigations into whether public entities have adhered to the Competition Principles Agreement. The by-passing of this office in favour of this inquiry is puzzling and concerning…”[xxxi]

MEAA concluded its submission by saying: “MEAA supports full public accountability for public broadcasters. Their statutory origins form the basis upon which Australians can trust and test that the monies they receive and the ventures they participate in — are in furtherance of their public missions.

“The ABC and SBS have made admirable headway in the first decade of the digital media era. It now appears that this is a source of unrest for commercial broadcasters, who are looking to preserve income streams, especially advertising income.

“As we pointed out earlier, the national broadcasters are not to blame for diminishing advertising returns. The ABC receives no advertising revenue and SBS’s share is relatively modest. Our public broadcasters are efficient and they are dedicated to meeting audience expectations and demands, including making quality content available on a variety of platforms.

“It would be absurd if the national broadcasters were constrained from making use of the technological tools that encourage public access to their platforms. There is simply no public utility in doing so. It would impair the value and purpose of these enterprises’ delivery of excellent news and entertainment.

“With all due respect to the panel members on this inquiry, MEAA believe that competitive neutrality principles, which have largely fallen into disuse in the past 10 years, are a virtual Trojan horse through which the Government can mount further attacks on the ABC and its employees.

“Meanwhile, the progressive failure by government to modernise broadcasting regulation to suit the digital era continues. For as long as this situation prevails, all producers of content in Australia will be fighting with one hand tied behind their back, revenues will continue to fall and the alarming trend of job losses will continue.

The inquiry handed down its report on December 12 2018.[xxxii]

“The report concluded: “Given their market shares, and other factors, this inquiry considers the National Broadcasters are not causing significant competitive distortions beyond the public interest. But it did see the need for greater transparency from them.”[xxxiii]

The Conversation reported: “The outcome will be disappointing to News Corp in particular which has been highly critical of the ABC’s expansion in online publishing. The former Fairfax organisation, now taken over by Nine, also complained about the competition eating into the market of commercial media groups. The report said: “Competitive neutrality seeks to ensure that competition is not distorted by public entities taking inappropriate advantage of government ownership. It is not intended to prevent public entities from competing, nor to relieve discomfort from competitive processes which are bringing benefits to consumers as they rapidly adopt and enjoy new services.”

The Conversation report continued: “The inquiry found the broadcasters’ business activities in order; they were ‘abiding by a best endeavours approach to competitive neutrality’. It suggested there should be some improvements in transparency and internal procedures.”[xxxiv]

The Australian Financial Review said: “ABC and SBS could be forced to give more detail on how and where they spend more their taxpayer-funded budgets, under recommendations made by a competitive neutrality inquiry into public broadcasting…. The inquiry, which cost approximately $495,000, concluded SBS and ABC were meeting their competitive neutrality obligations, but they needed to be more transparent in their business activities and report on how their operations related to their respective charters.”[xxxv]

[i] “ MEAA says cuts to ABC “dangerous and irresponsible”, MEAA, May 9 2018

[ii] “ABC funding slashed by $84m in budget to help broadcaster ‘live within their means’”, Amanda Meade and Patrick Keneally, The Guardian, May 8 2018

[iii] “ABC has shed 1,012 jobs since 2014, Senate estimates told”, Amande Meade, The Guardian May 23 2018

[iv] “Labor announcement on ABC funding a good start”, MEAA, June 12 2018

[v] “Labor announcement on ABC funding a good start”, MEAA, June 12 2018

[vi] “Commercial interests out to get the ABC”, Justin Milne, The Sydney Morning Herald, May 30 2018

[vii] “Message from David Anderson on the Federal Budget”, ABC, April 3 2019

[viii] ibid

[ix] “Federal Budget 2019: Winners and losers”, Jackson Gothe-Snape, April 2 2019

[x] “Liberal Party council votes to sell off the ABC and move Australian embassy to Jerusalem”, David Crowe, The Sydney Morning Herald, June 16 2018

[xi] “Mitch Fifield, the IPA and the ABC”, Mike Seccombe, The Saturday Paper, June 9–15 2018

[xii] “What we are looking for from the next ABC boss”, MEAA, September 24 2018

[xiii] “ABC chairman Justin Milne must consider his future”, MEAA, September 26 2018

[xiv] ibid

[xv] “Resolutions passed at ABC staff meetings”, MEAA, September 26 2018

[xvi] “ABC leadership crisis demands full public inquiry”, MEAA, September 27 2018

[xvii] ibid

[xviii] Inquiry into allegations relating to the ABC — Report to the Minister for Communications and the Arts from the Secretary of the Department of Communications and the Arts, Parliament of Australia, October 11 2018;fileType=application%2Fpdf#search=%22publications/tabledpapers/8b8fd2f1-e0ba-4bc4-8b36-69a8933cb4ef%22

[xix] “Mike Mrdak’s ABC review: Milne told Guthrie to sack ABC journalists of his own accord”, Stephen Easton, The Mandarin, October 15 2018

[xx] ibid

[xxi] “Prime Minister describes Ita Buttrose as ‘extraordinary’ amid speculation she could be new ABC chair”, Jade Macmillan and Matthew Doran, February 25 2019

[xxii] “Who is new ABC chair Ita Buttrose and how did she get the top job?”, Yasmin Jeffrey and staff, ABC February 28 2019

[xxiii] “Ita Buttrose to be named new ABC chair, ending months of leadership uncertainty at the public broadcaster”, Matthew Doran, ABC February 27 2019

[xxiv] “MEAA statement to the inquiry into political interference in the ABC”, MEAA, March 12 2019

[xxv] The allegations of political interference in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Senate Standing Committees On Environment and Communications, April 1 2019

[xxvi] “Media union urges swift action on ABC inquiry recommendations”, MEAA, April 1 2019

[xxvii] Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Fair and Balanced) Bill 2017, Senate,

[xxviii] Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Fair and Balanced) Bill 2017 — final report, Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications, February 16 2018

[xxix] “ABC, SBS may be forced to better justify funding, competitive neutrality inquiry finds”, Max Mason, The Australian Financial Review, December 12 2018

[xxx] “Inquiry into the competitive neutrality of Australia’s national broadcasters”, media release, Senator Mitch Fifield, Minister for Communications, March 29 2018

[xxxi] MEAA submission to the inquiry into the competitive neutraqlity of the national broadcasters, MEAA, June 2018

[xxxii] “ABC/SBS Competitive Neutrality Inquiry Released”, Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield, December 12 2018

[xxxiii] “ABC and SBS are not distorting media market, government inquiry finds”, Michelle Grattan, The Conversation, December 12 2018

[xxxiv] ibid

[xxxv] “ABC, SBS may be forced to better justify funding, competitive neutrality inquiry finds”, Max Mason, The Australian Financial Review, December 12 2018