ABC chair Ita Buttrose has accused the Coalition of “political interference” at the national broadcaster, blasting a Senate inquiry into its internal processes as an attempt to “undermine” the channel in a blistering public statement.
Ms Buttrose called on the Senate to terminate the inquiry, set up by Coalition senator Andrew Bragg, and allow an existing independent review to do its work.
“This is an act of political interference designed to intimidate the ABC and mute its role as this country’s most trusted source of public interest journalism,” Ms Buttrose said on Sunday.
“I am duty bound to call out any action that seeks to undermine the independence of the national broadcaster.”
As chair of the Senate’s environment and communications committee, Senator Bragg announced last week a review into the “complaints handling arrangements” at the ABC and SBS.
He claimed “complaints are not being seriously addressed and this is undermining the organisation”, alleging the broadcasters were not doing enough to “swiftly resolve” any “mistakes”.
The ABC last month commissioned an independent review of complaints handling and editorial policies, including training, remedies and transparency.
It came after sustained public complaints from state and federal politicians about ABC reporting on its Ghost Train series, which made a historical allegation about former New South Wales premier Neville Wran, and ABC investigations into alleged sexual misconduct and assault issues in politics.
Senator Bragg said his committee’s inquiry would “examine the adequacy of the existing arrangements to provide a framework that is accessible, responsive, efficient, accountable and fit for purpose”.
Labor’s shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland last week slammed the move as “wasteful and duplicative”, and “another attempt at political interference from this government.”
But in a withering statement on Sunday, Ms Buttrose – who was selected by the Coalition government as ABC chair in early 2019 – went even further.
Ms Buttrose accused Senator Bragg’s inquiry of undermining the ABC’s independence.
“Once again, an elected representative has chosen to threaten the ABC’s independence at the expense of the integrity of this irreplaceable public service,” Ms Buttrose said.
“Any incursion of this kind into the ABC’s independence should be seen by Australians for what it is: An attempt to weaken the community’s trust in the public broadcaster.”
She belted the Senate inquiry as “a blatant attempt to usurp the role of the ABC board and undermine the operational independence of the ABC”, saying only the board was able to set internal policies.
“The fact that these powers are given to the board, not to the government of the day, is a key pillar of the ABC’s operational independence,” Ms Buttrose said.
Alan Sunderland, former editorial director of the ABC, described the statement as “one of the strongest statements I can recall seeing by an ABC chair”.
Ms Buttrose said the independent review already under way would soon release an issues paper and invite public submissions, with a final report scheduled for April.
“Instead of respecting the integrity of this process, the Senate Committee under the leadership of Senator Bragg has decided to initiate a parallel process. I will leave it to Senator Bragg to explain his motives, but the impact of this action is clear,” she said.
A spokesperson for Senator Bragg declined to comment on Ms Buttrose’s statement when approached by The New Daily.
However, he was quoted by the Nine newspapers as saying his inquiry was “certainly not a partisan or politically motivated exercise” but instead “a run-of-the-mill Senate inquiry”.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, the Senate committee’s deputy chair, said she would move for the inquiry to be halted.
She described it as a “witch hunt” and an “abuse of process”.
“This is a partisan attempt to use the Legislation Committee to undermine the independence of the public broadcaster,” Senator Hanson-Young said.
“Independence of our public broadcaster is an essential part of our Australian democracy. It shouldn’t be up to politicians to dictate what the ABC can and cannot report on.”
Ms Buttrose called on the Senate to “terminate or suspend” its inquiry.
“Politicians, like all citizens, are welcome to criticise anything they find wrong or objectionable that is published by the ABC, but they cannot be allowed to tell the ABC what it may or may not say,” she said.