The ABC boardroom is starting to look a little like a Liberal cabinet meeting, and not just because it’s been plagued by a series of coups, counter-coups and press leaks. Also like a Liberal cabinet, the ABC’s board is stacked with friends of big business: former representatives for News Corp, the Minerals Council of Australia and investment bankers.
In the latest twist, these corporate heavyweights have had to scramble to replace disgraced board chair Justin Milne after allegations of “political interference” in the journalism of the public broadcaster.
Milne resigned as chair after leaked emails revealed he tried to have journalist Emma Alberici – who covered the scandalous revelations about big businesses that pay no tax – sacked to appease Turnbull.
Leaked emails show that Milne took a hands-on approach to the public broadcaster’s political line. He attempted to “get rid” of Alberici, have political editor Andrew Probyn “shot” and tried to stop youth radio station Triple J moving its Hottest 100 countdown away from Australia Day.
His actions are particularly egregious given that, as Alberici has pointed out on ABC radio, another company that he is chairperson of – MYOB Group – was one of those listed by Alberici as guilty of tax avoidance.
But what most of us would consider a blatant conflict of interest is, to these types, simply good networking and business acumen. Use your positions on boards to protect your pecuniary interests and look out for your big business mates.
And your political friends. Milne was acting not only in his own interests but also those of his mate Malcolm Turnbull, whose government reportedly “hate” Alberici. What’s a little political interference between friends? After all, that’s why Turnbull greenlit his mate’s appointment in the first place.
It’s why Howard appointed climate change denier Maurice Newman and “privatise the ABC” Janet Albrechtsen, and the Turnbull government appointed Peter Costello’s mate Joseph Gersh and the profoundly unqualified Vanessa Guthrie, chair of Minerals Australia.
When Milne became chair of the ABC board in 2017, Turnbull was following in a long tradition of “jobs for the mates”.
Milne and Turnbull had been business partners and buddies back in the halcyon days of 1999, when Turnbull made $57 million selling OzEmail a few years before the dotcom crash. Milne then moved on to an executive position at Telstra during the years of privatisation, before sitting on the board of the National Broadband Network. Perhaps it was the colossal debacle of the NBN that most recommended Milne to the Liberals as a potential ABC chair.
The public is justifiably outraged that the ABC chair has been threatening staff for writing articles on corporate tax evasion and criticising the government. But we shouldn’t be shocked. After all, the ABC Board, like all corporate boardrooms, is stacked with rich, right wing representatives of the major businesses of Australian capitalism. It’s largely unaccountable and lacking in independence, not through mismanagement, but by design – at best it represents the sensible centre of neoliberal orthodoxy, at worst Coalition ideologues who would happily sell the public broadcaster for parts.
Direct and indirect censorship of the national broadcaster is something both Liberal and Labor governments have had a hand in – from Bob Hawke trying to sack 7:30 Report journalists for their coverage of the First Gulf War, to Abbott banning cabinet ministers from appearing on Q&A after claims of “sedition”.
It’s significant that the board gave Milne the boot only after hundreds of ABC staff in multiple cities rallied and passed motions calling on him to resign.
Collective action by ABC workers can have some impact in pushing back against right wing attacks. But the problem isn’t just that the prime minister feels comfortable calling an ABC boss to have an article pulled or journalist sacked. The larger problem is they usually don’t have to ask.