News National Justin Milne says call to ‘get rid of’ Emma Alberici was a personal view, not a directive

Justin Milne says call to ‘get rid of’ Emma Alberici was a personal view, not a directive

Ms Guthrie followed Mr Milne to the stand - while the latter watched on. Photo: ABC News/Marco Catalano
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Former ABC chairman Justin Milne has insisted he was offering a personal view and not a directive when he told management it should “get rid of” journalist Emma Alberici.

He has also rejected claims he directed former managing director Michelle Guthrie to sack political editor Andrew Probyn.

Mr Milne and Ms Guthrie were the first witnesses to give evidence to a Senate committee investigating allegations of political interference within the national broadcaster.

The board sacked Ms Guthrie in September, and days later Mr Milne resigned amid accusations he interfered in the broadcaster’s editorial independence.

Ms Guthrie told the senators she felt her dismissal was “unlawful” and only happened after she raised concerns about Mr Milne.

“It is apparent to me that the trigger for my termination was that I made complaints, prior to the termination, about Mr Milne’s conduct towards me, including his attempts at editorial independence,” she said.

Mr Milne said he never let his personal views or relationships interfere with his actions as chairman and insisted he always acted in the best interest of the ABC.

He said his comments that the ABC needed to “get rid of” chief economics correspondent Alberici following a series of tax articles was just his opinion and “framed as such”.

“It was not a direction, it was not a command, it was not the result of any influence by any member of government.”

“It was my own personal view expressed in regrettably blunt language, I admit.

“That view was reached on the basis that Ms Alberici had published inaccurate articles, which did not conform with journalistic standards and it was my duty as chairperson and a member of the board to ensure that all news content was accurate and conformed to standards of objective journalism.”

In a written submission to the inquiry, Ms Guthrie said she had a “fundamental disagreement” with Mr Milne about stories written by Alberici.

Ms Guthrie said an email telling her to “get rid” of Alberici was “extremely inappropriate” and a “clear attempt to compromise editorial independence”.

Her written statement, released on Thursday, also said ABC News director Gaven Morris had to tell Mr Milne that contacting him with his concerns was “inappropriate” and that he needed to stop.

Ms Guthrie on Friday told the Senate Committee hearing that she “expressed concern” to Mr Morris that she thought he had done “the right thing” in telling Mr Milne to stop.

But Mr Milne told the hearing Mr Morris “never, ever said those words to me”.

Former ABC chairman Justin Milne appears before Senate estimates at Parliament House in Canberra on Friday. Photo: AAP

“He never complained to me about any conversation that I had with him,” Mr Milne said.

“On the contrary, he was encouraging of my input and the only input that I gave him was input that was designed to be helpful.”

Mr Milne said he qualified his conversations with Mr Morris “to make it clear they were not advice and not instructions” and the news director confirmed he understood that and encouraged more “collegial feedback” from the chairman.

He confirmed he spoke with Mr Morris about concerns the Government had with Alberici and Probyn.

“Nobody could be not aware of what the prime minister was feeling because the prime minister told all of Australia what he felt,” Mr Milne said.

Former chairman denies berating managing director

Ms Guthrie told Four Corners about a phone call with Mr Milne in which she claims he yelled at her, a conversation that she said left her close to tears and “shaky”.

She said the call followed a meeting with Mr Milne, Mr Turnbull and Communications Minister Mitch Fifield about an ABC push to secure $500 million for a digital infrastructure project called Jetstream.

In a screenshot taken on Friday, former ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie appears before Senate estimates at Parliament House in Canberra. Photo: AAP/Parliament of Australia

“I would describe that phone call as one of very few occasions where Ms Guthrie and I had a disagreement and it was an obvious disagreement,” Mr Milne told the Senate committee.

“I wouldn’t characterise it as heated, I wouldn’t characterise it as belligerent.

“Ms Guthrie is a very intelligent, well-trained, pretty eloquent lawyer who gives as good as she gets, and in the power structure I think that the CEO and the chair are pretty well on equal terms.

“So this was a robust conversation and the conversation was about funding for the ABC.”

Mr Milne told the Senate that call only related to the Jetstream project, but Ms Guthrie later contradicted his interpretation of the call.

“There absolutely was a conversation on the 15th of June at 4:00pm where he discussed Mr Probyn in a very aggressive and harassing manner,” Ms Guthrie said.

She later told senators she interpreted the call as the chairman risking the editorial independence of the broadcaster.

“The very suggestion of firing the chief political editor of the ABC in order to secure funding for Jetstream seemed to me to be the most incredible and ludicrous position,” Ms Guthrie said.

When senators told Ms Guthrie that Mr Milne had described her re-telling of the call as a “fabrication”, she rejected his interpretation and insisted “it absolutely happened”.

“That is absolutely not the case,” she said.

Ms Guthrie said she took a “file note” within a week of the call and agreed to submit it to the Senate as evidence.

A file note is often used in the legal profession as a way for lawyers to make detailed notes to keep a record of verbal discussions with clients.

‘I count him as a friend’: Milne’s relationship with Turnbull

Mr Milne and former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull have a long-standing friendship, having co-founded one of Australia’s earliest internet service providers.

Mr Turnbull, as communications minister, appointed Mr Milne to the NBN board in 2013. He later became ABC chairman when Mr Turnbull was prime minister in 2017.

When pressed about his relationship with Mr Turnbull, Mr Milne said he had visited Mr Turnbull’s home and attended Turnbull family events like birthdays and anniversaries.

“I count him as a friend, but he’s a very busy person who has many friends and many acquaintances,” he said.

“I wouldn’t put myself at the top of his tree. I’m just one of many people that he knows.”

Mr Milne refused to identify past and present staff members he spoke with prior to the board sacking Ms Guthrie.

“I talked to a number of her direct reports, I talked to people deeper in the organisation and I talked to people who had left the organisation,” he said.

Mr Milne said it would be inappropriate to identify publicly who he spoke with prior to Ms Guthrie’s removal.

“I’d say I spoke to, I’m going to guess, eight [people], but I think it would be disadvantageous to those people for me to name them.”

Mr Milne said he had not discussed Ms Guthrie’s leadership style with Mr Morris, who reports directly to the ABC managing director, prior to Ms Guthrie’s removal.

He said the head of ABC human resources “whose name immediately eludes me” and board members Vanessa Guthrie and Jane Connors, the staff-elected director, went with him when Ms Guthrie was told the board was terminating her contract.