Former ABC chairman Justin Milne told a Triple J staffer the ABC would be “burned at the stake” if it moved the date of the Hottest 100 countdown, because the change would anger Malcolm Turnbull, a Senate hearing has been told.
The direct warning from Mr Milne was confirmed in evidence on Tuesday to a Senate inquiry into political interference and the national broadcaster.
Triple J content manager Ollie Wards told the inquiry the meeting was attended by Mr Milne and sacked ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie – despite earlier claims from Ms Guthrie that Mr Milne spoke to staff “without consulting her”.
Ms Guthrie is accused of saying little during the exchanges and not interrupting when Mr Milne issued the warning about moving the Hottest 100 countdown from Australia Day, despite later claiming the conversation was “wholly inappropriate” and she had not been consulted.
On Tuesday, Mr Wards said in 2017 he received an urgent call to go to Mr Milne’s office, where he was told the idea of moving the traditional countdown from January 26 was “‘too controversial”.
“Malcolm will call me and tell me I’m crazy,” Mr Wards claimed Mr Milne said.
Mr Wards said Mr Milne also told him to “take one for the team” and raised the potential impact of any fallout on Project Jetstream, a multimillion-dollar technology upgrade.
Mr Wards recalled the meeting as highly unusual – so much so that he remembered what he was wearing on the day.
“I remember when I was walking to Level 14, thinking, ‘this is quite unusual’,” he said.
“I was really nervous about it at the time. I remember what I was wearing. I was wearing Nike high-tops and a ripped denim jacket. I kind of thought, you wouldn’t normally wear that to a meeting of the MD and the chairman.”
Earlier, the inquiry also heard from ABC board members that some had been concerned Mr Milne was “overstepping the mark”. This had been communicated directly to him by one board member.
Acting ABC chair Kirstin Ferguson told the inquiry that Ms Guthrie left the broadcaster with a $911,117 termination package, not $800,000 as previously reported. She was terminated “without cause” on advice of law firm Clayton Utz.
There are unconfirmed reports Ms Guthrie secured an additional $500,000 to drop her unfair dismissal case against the ABC, taking her total termination payout to over $1.4 million.
The picture that emerged from ABC board members’ evidence at the inquiry on Tuesday confirmed that the board had issues with both Ms Guthrie and Mr Milne.
ABC staff representative Jane Connors said the dossier that Ms Guthrie later sent to the board suggesting political interference and claiming inappropriate behaviour reinforced her concerns about her suitability for the role.
Non-executive board member Vanessa Guthrie said she made a “risk-based” assessment that the managing director should be terminated and she was “shocked” by her claims of political interference after it became clear her job was on the line.
But Dr Guthrie (who is not related to the former MD) said she was also concerned about Mr Milne.
“We had two problems on our hands. The problems were being conflated,” she said.
But there were many discussions in the weeks and months leading to September where it was surprising to us and certainly to me to have those allegations revealed so late in the piece by the managing director.”
Dr Guthrie told the Senate inquiry that she raised her concerns that Mr Milne was overstepping his role as chairman by jumping directly into day-to-day management matters.
Another board member, Jane Connors, agreed she held concerns about both Ms Guthrie, who was sacked, and Mr Milne, who agreed to resign in the furore that followed.
Labor Senator Kristina Keneally also asked if ABC board “completely missed” tensions between Justin Milne and Michelle Guthrie.
Dr Ferguson said “no”.