As easy as ABC?

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Words || Erin Christie

A leadership crisis has erupted at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in this final week of September, the likes of which have not been seen in its almost nine decades of operation. Beginning with the sacking of Managing Director, Michelle Guthrie, on Monday the 24th of September, a week of seemingly intense events have unfolded. Following her removal, heavy criticism of ABC Chairman, Justin Milne, led to his resignation the following Thursday, the 27th. The sacking and resignation of two ABC figureheads have seen the company left in turmoil of sorts, with the public left wondering what led this all to occur.

There are various problems with the dramatic turn of events, which are seeming somewhat akin to the leadership gymnastics of our government over the previous month. In fact, it has been heavily suggested by various news outlets that the government’s influence has been a direct cause of the sacking of Guthrie. The original statement, given by Milne on behalf of the board, claimed that the decision was ‘driven by our commitment to deliver the best possible outcomes for audiences and the best possible experience for our own people.’ This is lacking in any direct truth regarding issues caused by Guthrie’s leadership. However, investigations throughout the week revealed Justin Milne to be a close friend of Australia’s most recent ex-Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

It was reported by Fairfax that a contributing factor in Guthrie’s dismissal was this relationship between Turnbull and Milne. According to Fairfax reporters, Mr. Milne allegedly contacted Guthrie regarding the ABC’s employment of Emma Alberici, a chief economics correspondent to be removed from the ABC due to her work and reportage upsetting the Coalition. Milne is reported to have told Guthrie that ‘the government hate her…. Get rid of her. We need to save the ABC – not Emma.’

Turnbull has admitted to problems with Alberici, stating ‘As is a matter of public record, we did complain about the very poor standards of journalism, and lack of accuracy of journalism shown on a number of occasions by ABC journalists,’ but confirmed that he ‘gave no instructions to the ABC chairman on any matter.’ However, as they work for a public broadcaster, journalists at the ABC are held to incredibly high journalistic standards. It is doubtful that Alberici made any false reports, leading this accusatory comment to perhaps be read as hateful, as Milne’s alleged comment suggests.

Interference within the media from the government, and vice versa, is currently being viewed under a proverbial microscope. Following the most recent leadership spill within Australian parliament (see most other pages of this news section), it has been reported by the ABC’s political editor, Andrew Probyn (whom Guthrie was allegedly instructed by Milne to ‘shoot’) that Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Stokes both had a hand to play in the removal of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister. The stakeholder status of Murdoch, whose presence stretches beyond simple ‘media mogul’ and the current Chairman of Fox News to something more ever-present and akin to Big Brother is watching, seems somewhat unsurprising. Kerry Stokes reportedly has a good relationship with the ex-PM but was told by Murdoch that ‘Malcolm has got to go.’

Leadership speculation was then elevated by various news sources owned and influenced by Murdoch, including 2GB Radio and the Daily Telegraph. The Twitter account of 2GB tweeted on August 17th that ‘Ray Hadley confirms there will be a move against Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the next two weeks.’ That morning, the Daily Telegraph’s National Political Editor, Sharri Markson, ran a front-page story entitled ‘MP’s hit the panic Dutton’. Turnbull was out within the following week.

This drama of the past month has led to speculation on how much the government and the media should be allowed to influence each other. Private News companies, such as those owned by Murdoch and Stokes, are subject to influence in a sense that cannot be interfered with. However, the ABC’s status as a public broadcaster means that government influence is much more problematic. A tax-funded corporation should act to report accurately to the tax-payers.

In place of Milne currently sits Dr. Kristin Ferguson. She has firmly stated “I don’t have a relationship with the government. I am focused only on the ABC and independence.”

However, in a state where the government and the media seem to be waging a private war for control, is this ever a safe claim to make?

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