Thier ABC

The Unusually Coy Ms Milligan and Her ABC

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

12 comments
  • ChrisPer

    The Press Freedom Medal is clearly celebrating the freedom to write defamatory lies without penalty;
    7-Nil.
    Again
    Good to know.

  • brandee

    This is a comprehensive analysis of ABC’s recent unsatisfactory use of government funds. It is an appropriate opportunity for the Minister of Communications, Paul Fletcher. to ask for resignations from David Anderson, Ita Buttrose, or Board members.
    Also where is the voice of the Prime Minister who insisted on the removal of the head of Australia Post when she appropriately awarded staff bonuses that were only one tenth the amount inappropriately gifted by the ABC to Ms Milligan.
    Let us all call out the lack of responsible leadership by the Minister and by the Prime Minister!

  • call it out

    The pic says it all.
    Milligan gets the press freedom medal.
    Cardinal Pell, the innocent target of her work, gets 404 days in solitary confinement.
    Where is the accountability?

  • Searcher

    The ABC has long been refractory to reform as a public body. Privatisation is the obvious remedy. Good article by Barclay McGain.

  • STD

    The ABC being the bottom of the pork barrel .
    The Australian press Council’s Soviet freedom medallion.

  • bomber49

    If a Australia Post’s CEO head rolled because of 4 watched why isn’t Anderson’s job up for applications?

  • Lo

    But give three well performing executives a $5000 watch each and you’ll pay with your job and your reputation.

  • Lawrie Ayres

    Some call for the privatisation of the ABC but that would allow an elected Labor government the ability to start funding it again. After all the ALP/Green coalition enjoy the fact that conservative voters fund their media arm and would like to keep that boondoggle going. No. The only solution is the stopping of funding and the sale of all it’s assets. Scorched earth.

  • en passant

    Hard to explain why we squander so much money on such a useless (and indeed) malicoius enterprise.

  • Clive Bond

    They are running constant admiring features on Aborigines for some time now. I would suggest it is a campaign for a Voice in Parliament referendum and a treaty to screw large amounts of money out of the taxpayers who fund the ABC.

  • Lewis P Buckingham

    So many emails, so little time.
    In a corporate structure there would be only a few.
    ‘I wish to advise that the board has considered your request and you are required to contact Spender Spender and Spender, Solicitor with a view to putting up a robust defense of our position.’
    Reply ‘Thank you Obi-Wan,for your sage advice and mentoring.’
    However with 160 emails things did not go quite to plan for Milligan.
    In the air of wonderment, one wonders at what stage of grief the ABC and she have reached in ‘processing’ the Pell case.
    Originally it was denial.
    We did nothing wrong, our reporters acted fairly.
    Then came bargaining,
    Well, we are the voice of the people, they trust us,we have to ventilate these things and report them fearlessly and without favour.
    OK, he had a Cardinal, that just makes him more accountable to us.
    Then came the obstructive behaviour.
    We are a model litigant, Pell was the easy meat because he was not going to bite back, so we had a free ride.
    The taxpayers through the courts paid anyway, so no problem.
    We have to support out senior and qualified journalists as they just go about doing their job.
    But then Pell did not go away, the news cycle did, but not Pell.
    Like some unfortunate street person.
    Then other litigants decided there was a case for the ABC to answer, in their own cases.
    No problem Obi has spoken , we defend our journalists, they are vital to the organisation.
    Then the lead journalist decides to ‘go it alone for the team’.
    Her cry,
    ‘But what have you always told me Obi-Wan, don’t try, DO.
    Be fearless the Force will be with you.
    Come to my aid Obi_Wan, you are my only hope’
    But Obi has meditated on all things and it is revealed that Resurrection is needed, a new way of loving and living, the ABC defends its own, whatever they do.
    But it took 160 emails to convince him.
    That’s some reporter.

  • STD

    Oh dear, she’s indicative of ‘the MSM’, illigan

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