News National Turnbull’s mate discovers governance not as easy as ABC

Turnbull’s mate discovers governance not as easy as ABC

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Justin Milne with then-environment minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2007. Photo: AAP
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Revelations that ABC chairman Justin Milne may have directed former managing director Michelle Guthrie to sack a senior reporter ought to raise governance questions of high consequence for Milne and his directors.

Even a Wiggle would know that a chairman should never ‘lean into’ the ‘CEO/MD’ space and direct them to hire or fire any individual. Worse, in this case, is that the pressure to have senior reporter Emma Alberici removed seems to have come directly from Canberra – either the communications minister (responsible for the ABC) or the former prime minister himself or both.

This raises an obvious dilemma for Mr Milne. Does he confirm there was political pressure and admit his part in the folly or does he attempt to defend his position and say any decision to encourage an ‘outcome’ with regard to Alberici was entirely his own decision?

Either way, it’s a terrible look for the ABC chairman.

Taxpayers have every right to expect he might actually understand the basics of good governance. They might concurrently expect that at least one of Milne’s directors might put their hand up and say that what is alleged was entirely inappropriate.

Everything about the ABC is just plain weird. I was a young reporter there for six years back in the 1980s. It was a strange place then, but much stranger now.

Take relationships, for example.

Whether it’s the relationship between the federal government and the board, between management and the board, management and staff, presenters and the audience, between ABC news and current affairs and competitor platforms, between common sense and what actually goes on within the corporation.

Long-standing claims that it’s the staff that actually runs the corporation certainly have some validity. The ferocious utterances of high-profile ABC identities over the sacking of Ms Guthrie lend weight to the view that senior staff, with access to microphones, wield considerable influence.

Additionally, staff are represented on the board much in the way students might be represented on a university council.

The tasks facing the directors of the ABC are considerable. Their most important role, above keeping the corporation solvent, is to ensure independence from government and from interference, from whatever source. The central unanswered question is: Did the board act consistently with preserving independence?

It is not at all clear that the incumbent directors have the requisite skills to uphold standards of governance or to ensure the ABC delivers to its own charter.

The appointment of directors is so shrouded in political interference – who would know whether appropriate appointments are being made (consistent with the requirements of a complex, national organisation) or whether political relationships hold sway over who gets the nod.

It’s widely known the so-called advisory panel that advises the government on appointments is a joke and nobody takes the slightest notice of its conclusions.

There appears to be a rush to the ‘high moral ground’ among staff and senior management under way. It’s a crowded plateau within the ABC. Mud thrown in the ABC’s direction is usually and indignantly given the skilful boomerang treatment.

It needs to operate as a corporation and it needs to adhere to the standards expected of corporations. The fact that it spends annually more than one billion of our dollars merely underscores the need for the highest standards of governance and integrity.

Many people have much to explain about their respective roles in the current leadership shambles at the corporation. Not least is former chairman James Spigelman AC QC, who appointed Ms Guthrie, and the current chairman, Justin Milne, who is accused of following orders from Canberra over staff preferences.

What is certain is that the chair and the board have created a governance mess of sizeable proportions. In so doing they have made a circus of ‘your’ ABC.

John Simpson is a member of council at Monash University and a former ABC staff member.

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