With Kim Williams the ABC’s next chair, the broadcaster is struggling with a no-confidence motion against its managing director and an unfair dismissal case that questions the independence of editorial leaders. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The conf lict at the ABC: ‘A masterclass in what not to do’

Presenter and journalist Antoinette Lattouf.
Presenter and journalist Antoinette Lattouf.
Credit: Peter Morris

Not long before Christmas, three days into a casual five-day contract to host ABC Radio Sydney’s morning program, Antoinette Lattouf was sacked by the public broadcaster for breaching, it said, an instruction not to post anything controversial on social media. On Instagram, on December 19, Lattouf had shared a statement from Human Rights Watch that accused the Israel Defense Forces of using the starvation of civilians as an instrument of war. It was an allegation on which the ABC had itself reported.

ABC management became aware of the post on December 20, and Chris Oliver-Taylor, the head of the content division – the one Lattouf was contracted to and distinct from the broadcaster’s news division – concluded the reposting constituted a wilful breach. The dispute has metastasised since.

Lattouf filed an application with the Fair Work Commission, in which she said the ABC had unlawfully dismissed her on the grounds of political expression. She later amended this to also include racial discrimination. In its defence filing, the ABC said Lattouf’s application was “fundamentally and entirely misconceived”. Earlier this month, mediation between the two parties dissolved. “Mediation failed, and we’re now at the stage of jurisdictional challenge,” Lattouf’s lawyer, Josh Bornstein, tells The Saturday Paper. “The ABC is now arguing that it didn’t ‘sack’ Lattouf, and therefore there can’t be an unlawful sacking.

“They originally filed documents that they had sacked her on the 20th of December, in the middle of a week-long stint, and a week later they filed a revised defence saying they in fact didn’t terminate her employment at all. The contract was simply allowed to expire two days later.

“It’s an attempt to knock the case out at an early stage. It’s very strange that they would admit to having terminated employment initially, and now do a backflip.

“It’s certainly contrary to our position. And that’s the debate that will be determined by the Fair Work Commission on a day in March.”

Chris Oliver-Taylor declined to comment to The Saturday Paper, saying: “So sorry, nothing I can say, the matter is a legal issue so I just have to leave it to the courts and let it play out as it will.”

Matters became vastly more contentious, and internally disruptive, when, on January 16, the Nine newspapers published leaked messages sent from within a group chat of Lawyers for Israel. The group had lobbied the ABC’s chair, Ita Buttrose, and its managing director, David Anderson, for the dismissal of Lattouf, whom they considered unprofessionally biased. The group received a letter from Buttrose on the morning of Lattouf’s dismissal, which read: “I have forwarded your email on to Chris Oliver-Taylor, the ABC’s chief content officer, who is dealing with this matter.”

In conversations with several ABC staff this week, there were two distinct interpretations of the lobbying attempt. Some saw the strong suggestion that the ABC’s management was improperly influenced by the group. Others said Buttrose’s response seemed merely perfunctory: the ABC is daily bombarded with complaints, many of them vexatious or “unhinged”, and polite, mollifying responses are frequently made.

There remains no evidence that the agitations of the Lawyers for Israel group determined Lattouf’s fate, or that the ABC board was improperly influenced. “Ultimately, all will be revealed when we ask the court to compel production of documents and when witnesses give evidence,” Bornstein says. “At the moment what we know is that within an hour of being told she was doing a great job, she was suddenly sacked and the reason given was a single post that replicated news that had been broadcast on ABC NewsRadio. That doesn’t make any sense.

“Why was it done with such speed? At the same time, we have insight into the dark arts of cancelling an employee. The lawyers seemed to know she’d be gone before she does. They seem to be saying we have very good access to Ita and to Anderson,” he says, referring to ABC managing director David Anderson. “All we can do is piece the jigsaw puzzle together as best we can, but it’s a reasonable inference to make at the moment from what we’ve seen that this lobbying campaign had a very significant effect and led to a sudden change of approach by the ABC and a humiliating exit for my client. John Lyons has drawn the same conclusion.”

Lyons is an experienced ABC journalist who has been covering the Gaza war from Israel and who spoke at a meeting of ABC union staff on Monday where a no-confidence motion in David Anderson was endorsed 125-3. “When I read those WhatsApp messages, for the first time ever, and hopefully the last time ever, I felt embarrassed to work for the ABC,” Lyons was reported as saying at the meeting. “I was embarrassed that a group of 156 lawyers could laugh at how easy it was to manipulate the ABC.”

Following the union meeting, the ABC board called an emergency meeting that resulted in unanimous support for Anderson. Subsequent to that, Ita Buttrose issued a fierce and unequivocal defence of the managing director. “David Anderson has always beena strong supporter of the independence of the ABC and its journalists,” she said. “He has encouraged them to report without fear or favour and has never weakly surrendered to criticism as some critics have alleged.

“The ABC regularly receives, and responds to, complaints from individuals or organisations and the assumption that either the managing director as editor-in-chief or I would be influenced by any sort of lobbying pressure is quite simply wrong.”

Jonathan Holmes, a former ABC journalist and now chair of the ABC Alumni group, says he hopes lobbying did not influence ABC management, but says it is not easy to say. “One of the things that needs to be clarified is the role of Ita Buttrose in all of this,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “Some of the alumni find it difficult to accept that the executives of the content division – whose expertise is in drama, commercial radio, and they’re not as accustomed to those in news divisions with this kind of controversy – we find it hard to believe that they would have taken this decision without the urging of those higher up.”

Holmes says that if the ABC was concerned about Lattouf’s personal political expressions potentially inviting controversy about the ABC’s impartiality, then they had ample evidence of her “vocal social media presence about Gaza” to review before employing her. That said, the “precipitate” cause for her removal – the reposting of the Human Rights Watch statement – appears to Holmes as hugely disproportionate.

On Wednesday, in his first interview as the incoming chair, replacing Ita Buttrose, Kim Williams addressed the Lattouf dispute and John Lyons’ comments. The view of the former News Corp chief executive was different to that of the incumbent he is about to replace. “Certainly, those comments were made in a fairly spirited manner by a very senior and well-respected journalist,” he said of Lyons’ comments. “I think one would be erring if one didn’t listen closely to that feedback.”

ABC staff mused to The Saturday Paper this may represent a genuinely different view about conflict resolution and criticism, or it may simply be Williams’s wise decision to distinguish himself from inherited disputes.

The ABC is an enormous organisation, and the country’s largest employer of journalists. As such, it is perhaps foolish to generalise about culture or attitudes. However, in several conversations with ABC staff this week, one could sense the outlines of a generational dispute – one made more acute through the prism of covering the Gaza war. “It’s a very risk-averse and oppressive environment,” one ABC reporter told The Saturday Paper. “It’s not an environment for young or mid-career journalists. It feels to me that there’s an entrenched standard and culture that inhibits young journalists from thriving. By this, I mean a lack of trust in them pursuing things they’re interested in. And it’s hard to square this with a ‘digital-first’ culture. Those reading news and pieces online are decreasing. All the time we hear of declining traffic. It’s hard to move forward on this if younger journalists’ interests and talents aren’t listened to or supported.”

The reporter had listened, with excitement, to Kim Williams’s first interview, in which the incoming chair confessed he considered parts of the ABC “bland”. “I don’t disagree,” the reporter said. “Especially when it comes to art and culture. It’s stuck in a mould – old-school newspaper brain. We have decreasing traffic. It’s always down. But let’s keep doing the same thing? It doesn’t make sense. And I never saw or heard a strategy meeting, there’s been no guiding light. At least Williams has an opinion and it was refreshing to hear.”

Others found support in different elements of Williams’s public statements this week. One staff member referenced his line about the ABC’s charter – in which Williams said it was “often invoked, but rarely read” – and suggested it was too easy for some to see restrictions on their freedom of speech but much harder for them to see how the ABC’s legislative obligations to impartiality and the importance of its public perception might prescribe behaviour.

“There’s a generational gap,” Holmes said, adding he was speaking personally and not on behalf of the ABC Alumni group. “I was at a writers festival panel hosted by Bob Carr about freedom of expression, and he asked [7.30 host] Sarah Ferguson if she would be able to cover the Voice referendum impartially. And Sarah said, ‘Yes, absolutely, it’s in my DNA.’ But she said there are those at the ABC that don’t accept objectivity. It’s a serious debate across all media. Is there one truth, or different truths? If you want diversity, should that not mean people appointed as Aboriginal affairs correspondents, say, bring their own perceptions? It’s sticky ground.”

One difficulty is the evolution of social media. Fifteen years ago, then managing director Mark Scott was praising Twitter and encouraging the ABC’s journalists to join it. There was an outsized optimism about its powers – to find and share news, to engage with the public, to enhance individual and institutional profiles. Today, a staff member only half-jokingly suggests there’d be quite a few media executives around the world who, if it were legal, would love to prohibit all staff from ever using it again.

Another staff member noted the Israel–Hamas war had inflamed public passions considerably. They said it was likely that whatever the ABC did – especially given the difficulty of reporting on a place they’re prohibited from entering – the faith of some members of the public would diminish. They added that while Monday’s union vote of no-confidence and general staff discontent were significant, it was also true the ABC was perpetually under siege. There is rarely a reprieve from political condemnation, or a campaign in The Australian, or the hose of public complaint. Staff walkouts occurred last year, in regards to Stan Grant’s departure, after he said he was inadequately supported by management in the wake of the public’s racist abuse. Its previous managing director, Michelle Guthrie, was dumped by the board in contested circumstances, while her chair, Justin Milne, resigned days later following allegations he had encouraged the sacking of journalists whom the government “hated”.

If the ABC is under pressure in challenging times, it’s also rare that it isn’t. If there are internal debates about objectivity, social media use and how to address ailing traffic and an ageing demographic, then there is, at least, some consensus about the handling of the Lattouf dispute: “A masterclass in what not to do.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 27, 2024 as "The conf lict at the ABC: ‘A masterclass in what not to do’".

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