ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie has denied the broadcaster’s chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici was “hung out to dry” when her controversial tax cuts analysis piece was taken down amid complaints from the Turnbull government.
Ms Guthrie and the ABC’s Head of Editorial Alan Sunderland were grilled about the controversy at a late-night Senate Estimates hearing on Tuesday.
The ABC boss also revealed that, aside from a 1000-word complaint letter from the Prime Minister’s Office, and separate complaints from the Treasurer and the Communications Minister, she had also been contacted by Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce and the Business Council of Australia about Ms Alberici’s article before it was taken down.
“I do not think at all that we have hung Ms Alberici out to dry,” Mr Guthrie told the hearing.
“We have been focused on making sure that we provide the adequate editorial and other support for Ms Alberici.”
Asked by Labor senator Kristina Keneally if she regretted that Ms Alberici’s reputation had “taken a hit” due to the ABC’s handling of the story, Ms Guthrie replied: “I don’t view that Ms Alberici has had a hit to her reputation at all.”
On February 14, the ABC published two articles by Ms Alberici, a news story about top companies failing to pay corporate tax that prominently mentioned Qantas, and an analysis piece critical of the case for company tax cuts.
Citing a breach of editorial standards, the news story was updated to provide more context, while the analysis article was taken down for eight days and was only republished after significant changes were made.
The controversy over the article and the broadcaster’s decision have spilled over into a political fight between the government and Labor over the Coalition’s plan to cut the corporate tax rate to 25 per cent.
During a heated exchange, Senator Keneally expressed frustration that Mr Sunderland was unable to answer questions about the controversy, such as listing the factual inaccuracies contained in the analysis piece, or saying when the ABC’s Head of News Gaven Morris had contacted Ms Alberici about her story.
Senator Keneally claimed Mr Morris had only contacted the reporter 11 hours after he had first raised concerns internally about the piece.
She also noted on the same day the article was published, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had slammed the piece in Parliament.
Asked if she would table correspondence from the Prime Minister’s office to the ABC, Ms Guthrie said she would take it on notice.
Mr Sunderland dismissed suggestions the complaints from the government, Mr Joyce or the Business Council influenced the ABC, saying the “timeline of which person complained” was not relevant.
“You haven’t satisfied yourself to find out what your news director or your deputy news director thought about the two articles that were published?” Senator Keneally asked Mr Sunderland.
He replied: “Of course I have. But as part of it I haven’t constructed a timeline of their phone call activities.”
Saying she was quoting from Ms Alberici’s original draft of the article, Senator Keneally asked Mr Sunderland to explain why particular changes had been made before the initial story was published.
“In terms of the precise wording, and at what stage the story was changed or edited in anyway … that level of detail I don’t have with me today,” Mr Sunderland said.
“Our review is looking at why a piece that we subsequently had problems with was published. The focus for us is looking at how our system failed.”
The New Daily revealed last week that lawyers were involved as the former Lateline presenter fought for her credibility, reputation and career to ensure the analysis was republished.