A top-secret email chain is the latest twist in the “defamatory tweet” saga involving an ABC journalist, an Australian politician and a hefty legal bill. It poses the question: What does it mean to be a public broadcaster? And what good is a public broadcaster if it can’t be trusted to meet the baseline standard of integrity—transparency?
Despite facing a freedom of information request, the ABC has this week opted to withhold from the public eye 161 emails exchanged between its CEO and controversial reporter Louise Milligan. In May, former Commonwealth Attorney-General Christian Porter levelled defamation charges at the ABC regarding an article penned by Ms Milligan involving allegations of rape. Irrespective of one’s opinion on defamation laws or the innocence of the alleged perpetrator, Ms Milligan’s legal defence—which amounted to $780,000 and was covered by the ABC—certainly raised eyebrows among the general public.
Only months later, the journalist was again in hot water, this time for a defamatory tweet published to Ms Milligan’s personal Twitter during non-working hours regarding Coalition MP Andrew Laming. Refusing to apologise and settle the claim outside of court, Ms Milligan’s stubbornness meant Aussie taxpayers were again left to absorb the $200,000 legal bill on her behalf, alongside a further $79,000 paid out to Dr Laming.
ABC CEO David Anderson announced in August the public broadcaster would cover Ms Milligan’s $1+ million in legal fees, citing “particular and exceptional circumstances”. Exactly what he meant by this has remained a mystery as, when dragged before a Senate Estimates committee, Mr Anderson refused to elaborate. In other words, the “public” broadcaster chose to remain private.
Earlier this month, Auditor-General Grant Hehir conducted a review of the ABC’s process, finding it was “under no legal obligation” to cover Ms Milligan’s legal bill and deeming it a “business decision”. Since when were taxpayer-funded organisations free to make unprecedented business decisions without public oversight and without an explicit rationale?
“Business decisions” are made by business owners because they have a financial stake in all decisions along with associated risks involving any course of action. In the absence of public scrutiny, Mr Anderson has no financial stake and therefore no financial risk in devising his decision to meet these costs. Taxpayers do but, seemingly in Mr Anderson’s eyes, have no horse in the race.
The disconnect between the public and its broadcaster was encapsulated this week when the ABC chose to withhold the emails between ABC executives and Ms Milligan about the payouts to Dr Laming. Newscorp journalists’ attempts to obtain the emails have been futile, despite approaching the ABC in order to understand the rationale for the decision. The Daily Telegraph was merely provided with blacked-out email chains and heavily redacted documents, despite lodging a freedom of information request. All this presents the key question: What is it the ABC would rather us not see? What is it trying to hide? At a time when politicians are scrutinised by the likes of the Independent Commission Against Corruption and the Crime and Corruption Commission, there seems to be a lack of supervision for unelected public servants.
While embracing its public funding, the ABC is trying to have the best of both worlds: it wants to lap up the never-ending stream of public funds while enjoying the privacy and fiat power of a commercial entity. Under these conditions, taxpayers lose out. If the ABC would prefer to circumvent public scrutiny, privatisation is the only way forward.
Barclay McGain is an economics researcher at the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance