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The long-running practice of stacking the ABC board with politically partisan appointees has come under renewed criticism after the rancorous departures of Justin Milne and Michelle Guthrie. By Mike Seccombe.

ABC board stacking rife

Former ABC chairman Justin Milne.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

Asked to nominate when governments began stacking the board of the ABC, Quentin Dempster chooses the year of its establishment.

“The stack has been going on since 1932,” the former staff-appointed board member says. “We have to stop the stack.”

Dempster says there have been attempts to exert political pressure on the national broadcaster forever. “They just can’t help themselves,” he says.

Pressure is brought to bear in all sorts of ways, but the principal one is the stacking of the board with political partisans. The most recent example, leading to the resignation of Malcolm Turnbull’s friend and former business associate Justin Milne, is exceptional mostly because of a rare conjunction of events: Milne’s blatancy in putting in writing his demand for the removal of reporter Emma Alberici because the government “fricken hate her”, and the bitterness of the sacked managing director Michelle Guthrie, who brought Milne’s demand to light.

The sordid details of the dysfunction at the top of the ABC have since been well ventilated, and will no doubt be further ventilated in the inevitable Senate inquiry – along with a departmental inquiry and an external inquiry commissioned by the board. But the underlying issue is the most important one, which is the political stacking of the ABC.

Both sides of politics have done it, and via that mechanism of the stack, both sides have sought the removal of unfavoured journalists. There are many examples, but let’s look at one, involving Labor.

Back in January 1991, at the time of the first Gulf War, the ABC’s The 7.30 Report became “The Gulf Report”, presented by four of the broadcaster’s finest: Chris Masters and Jonathan Holmes, reporting on the “war of weapons”, Geraldine Doogue doing the “war of words” and the late Andrew Olle anchoring the whole thing.

The Labor government of the time was unhappy with the tenor of the presentation. Prime minister Bob Hawke denounced the ABC for broadcasting analysis of the war that was “loaded, biased and disgraceful”. Immense political pressure was brought to bear via Labor’s hand-picked managing director, David Hill, on the then controller of TV news and current affairs, Peter Manning.

As Doogue would later recall: “Towards the end of January, with tempers running high, Peter Manning told me that after a meeting with the prime minister, David Hill made it clear he wanted both Andrew Olle and me removed from ‘The Gulf Report’: sacked, by any other name, made the public scapegoats.”

They were saved, she wrote, because Manning put his job on the line. He “refused to move against me or Andrew, in effect daring David Hill to risk sparking a huge row by removing him”.

The case resonated this week among ABC staff. It was helped along by fresh quotes from Hill, speaking on Media Watch. “I’m not singling out the Coalition government,” Hill said, “because Labor has been just as guilty. When it comes to the crunch they cannot resist the opportunity of stacking the ABC board with like philosophical minds.”

A lot of the troops were “very pissed off”, as one senior staff member said, that Hill, a perpetrator, had been allowed to present himself as a dispassionate commentator.

Both political sides have meddled. And no matter who does it, meddling is resented by the ABC’s journalistic staff.

That said, few reasonable commentators would dispute that the stack has been more aggressively practised by the conservative side. Labor appointees tended to support the notion of an independent public broadcaster and came with relevant skills; the conservative ones, often, came without that philosophical commitment.

As the veteran political journalist and commentator Mungo MacCallum put it this week: “The most blatant stack was when John Howard gave directorships to lunar-right luminaries Janet Albrechtsen, Keith Windschuttle and Ron Brunton – all had less qualifications for the job than even Turnbull’s cronies, but were regarded (by Howard) as reliable zealots in the crusade.”

Other names could be added. Dempster nominates Maurice Newman, who served two stints on the ABC board. The first was truncated after evidence came to light of his partisan political interference. A leaked boardroom memo, from Newman to then chairman Donald McDonald, referred to a meeting he’d had with an adviser to a former Liberal communications minister, in which they had discussed the idea of setting up an external bias monitor to examine the output of journalists.

The staff-appointed director at the time, Ramona Koval, called out Newman. He quit, and the government promptly abolished the position of staff-appointed director.

Newman wasn’t gone for long, though. In 2006, he was reappointed to the board, only this time as chairman, and brought with him his belief that climate change was not real. He argued that ABC reporting on the subject was evidence of “groupthink” among journalists.

With the election of the Labor government in 2007 came the opportunity for a counter stack. But to its credit, the new government did not follow Howard’s lead in escalating the war. Instead, it looked for ways to stop, or at least ameliorate, the stack, considering a 2001 report by a Senate committee entitled “Above Board? Methods of appointment to the ABC Board”.

In 2009, Labor moved to apply the report’s principles to ABC board appointments. They were pretty simple: positions should be openly advertised, the applicants assessed by an independent panel and then further interviewed, and then the successful candidate would be publicly announced. The government also was intent on restoring a staff-appointed member to the ABC board.

The opposition was not happy.

On November 17, Nick Minchin, godfather of the Liberal Party’s hard right, then shadow minister for communications, got to his feet in the Senate to express his concerns. The Liberal Party, he made clear, was dead against allowing the workers any say in the ABC’s governance.

More relevantly, in light of the events of the past couple of weeks, he opposed the idea of implementing an arms-length process for choosing members of the ABC and SBS boards of directors.

“While the government is establishing a nomination panel for the appointment process, at the end of the day the scope remains for the minister and the prime minister to ignore panel nominations and appoint whoever they like.”

At the time it seemed like a warning. In retrospect, though, it looks more like a plan of action. The process Minchin warned of is exactly what happened.

It wasn’t Labor that did it. It was Mitch Fifield, communications minister in the Turnbull government. Almost as soon as he was given the portfolio three years ago, Fifield set about appointing people to the ABC board without regard to whether the nominations panel approved of them.

First there was Donny Walford, appointed without even being considered by the nomination panel.

Then came Vanessa Guthrie last February, chair of the Minerals Council of Australia. She was considered by the nomination panel but not recommended, then appointed nonetheless because, as Fifield’s press release said, she was “identified by the government as having the requisite skills to be a suitable appointment to the board”.

Those skills were never enumerated. But it’s noteworthy that the Minerals Council is one of Australia’s most influential lobby groups and a major political donor.

In May this year, Fifield appointed Joe Gersh, a Melbourne businessman and investment adviser, reportedly close to former treasurer Peter Costello, who was Fifield’s political mentor. Gersh has also served on the board of Gerard Henderson’s right-wing Sydney Institute for the past 15 years.

As it stands in the wake of Michelle Guthrie’s sacking, the current ABC board has only two members with any relevant expertise, neither of whom was appointed by Fifield. One is the staff-elected director, Jane Connors, who has a 25-year history with the corporation; the other is Peter Lewis, a former chief financial officer for Seven West Media, who was put there by Malcolm Turnbull.

The irony of Fifield’s behaviour is that it amounted to a stack on top of another stack, for the selection panel itself had been loaded up with partisans – the former Howard appointee to the ABC board, News Corp commentator Janet Albrechtsen, as well as a former deputy leader of the Liberal Party and trenchant ABC critic, Neil Brown, QC.

Their reaction to the meltdown in the ABC leadership has been one of the more interesting subtexts to the whole affair. Speaking to Fairfax, Brown launched an attack on Fifield, saying the minister had made “a fool of himself” by ignoring the panel’s advice, and called for the rest of the board to quit.

For her part, Albrechtsen raged in The Australian about the impossibility of ever bringing under control the leftists at the ABC. She wants it privatised. As does the Liberal Party’s federal council. As did Fifield, before he became minister and disavowed that view.

 As for the ABC’s staff, it is safe to say most of them do not want the board to resign or be sacked. They fear that would just allow further stacking by this government, given Prime Minister Scott Morrison has committed to no change in process for appointing the board.

There is a crack of light, however. Independent senator Tim Storer is preparing a private member’s bill that would go a long way towards stopping the stack.

It would build on the reforms instituted by Labor back in 2009, adding to the independent selection process a provision for consultation between the government and opposition of the day, in the hope of making appointments acceptable to both sides.

And where agreement was not reached, there would be a public inquiry into the reasons for the appointment.

His idea is not, as some reports have suggested, that Australia adopt a US-style confirmation process. Storer does not challenge the right of the executive to make appointments.

It is only to expose the process to open scrutiny, in the hope that would lead to more sensible, less partisan appointments, and diminish the possibility of imbroglios such as the one we’ve just witnessed.

It’s an eminently reasonable idea that encourages optimism. Experience, however, suggests the opposite, at least so long as this government has the numbers.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 6, 2018 as "Charges stacking up". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.