MUNGO MACCALLUM. Turnbull’s cronies.

That’s what happens when you make a captain’s pick, choose your mates to fill important jobs because … well, basically because they are your mates.

We have often been told that Malcolm Turnbull didn’t really have mates – associates, contacts, acquaintances and plenty of them, but few if any intimates beyond his immediate family.

However Justin Milne was probably the nearest thing around to a Turnbull crony. The two had been colleagues of a kind in the Ozemail days and had remained on relative close terms ever since, so it seemed logical for the Prime Minister of the day to bump his friend up to one of the most sensitive jobs available – chairman of the ABC board.

Milne was essentially a businessman, with no discernible experience in journalism or broadcasting, but obviously this did not matter – after all, six of the other seven members of the board, all appointed by the coalition government came from much the same background.

Only the staff elected director, Jane Connors, had hands on knowledge of the media, and in particular the special needs and demands of running Aunty’s nephews and nieces, and apart from being hopelessly outnumbered by the bean counters, she was seldom brought into their main interest – which, it has since transpired, was placating a hostile government.

Apparently this was Milne’s principal preoccupation – that, and securing money for his pet project, digitising the ABC, which meant the two obsessions dove-tailed very neatly. This was what he really meant by saving the national broadcaster – it had nothing to do with the separation of powers between him and his managing director, and where there was conflict, he did not hesitate to throw her under the bus.

The logic seemed to be that after all, Turnbull had given him the job, so by definition Turnbull was his superior, and thus his word was law. Of course he never said anything directly – of course. And of course Rupert Murdoch does not tell his editors what to do. He doesn’t have to – from the moment they are appointed they know precisely what is expected from the their paymaster., and so it was for Justin Milne.

If Turnbull doesn’t like journalists like Emma Alberici and Andrew Probyn they have to go – get rid of her, shoot him. Turnbull may not have said so in so many words,, but Milne had no doubt what he meant. After all, the men were cronies.

And there was no need for telepathy when Milne discerned Triple J planned to move its Hottest Hundred away from Australia Day – he knew the Prime Minister would go ballistic. So the solution was simple – toss the crew overboard to save the ship, or at least the money for his precious Jetstream, which he apparently thought was the same thing.

Even Rupert Murdoch’s most assiduous allies in his feud against the ABC and all its works found this a bit much and vigorously bucketed Milne. A cynic might think they were more worried about saving the patron’s commercial interests from Jetstream, but at least they showed more sense than Milne himself, who still believes he did nothing wrong – he was acting in the best interests  of his corporation by sacrificing his journalists to suck up to Turnbull and Mitch Fifield.

This is not only clearly counter to the ABC’s charter – it would essentially make his own role redundant. After all, if the government is really to be the one in charge of the ABC, why not cut out the middleman and make Fifield chairman – and managing director and perhaps news director and why not throw in the job of weatherman as well.

And this is the nub of it: Milne acknowledges the ABC as a national broadcaster, but not a public broadcaster in the true sense. Like so many political players, he seems to conflate the public interest with the national interest, by which he means the  government’s interests.

Milne’s example and his fall was the most blatant and, let’s face it, stupid excess of cronyism over appointing the ABC board, but it was certainly not the first: governments from both sides have rewarded their supporters with what some see as a sinecure but others as a key weapon in the endless culture wars.

The most blatant stack was when John Howard gave directorships to  lunar right luminaries Janet Albrechtsen, Keith Windshuttle and Paul Brunton – all had less qualifications for the job than even Turnbull’s cronies, but were regarded (by Howard) as reliable zealots in the crusade. The last Labor government tried to break the cycle by setting up a selection panel to appoint board members on merit, but once the coalition got back Tony Abbott stacked the selection panel, even resurrecting the appalling Albrechtsen.

And this is where, and why, we are stuck today. So what next? The new acting chair, air force officer turned real estate mogul Kirstin Ferguson was only available for interview by the ABC and refused to tell it anything anyway. The remaining board members have circled the wagons and are saying nothing either. Mitch Fifield has – or, we are assured, soon will – initiate a departmental inquiry designed to absolve the government of any taint. A more credible senate inquiry is foreshadowed, but will have to wait till parliament resumes, which Fifield and Morrison fervently hope will take the issue off the boil.

And in The Australian, the fulltime ABC basher Chris Kenny told his gullible readers that of course the ABC was a Green-left nest of parasites but Godfather Rupert has nothing to do with Newscorps relentless campaign against it – and, never one to let the facts spoil a good vendetta, Kenny signally failed to mention that Rupert has always seen the ABC as a hated rival to his commercial interests – especially Fox News.

Which leads to a serious dilemma: the mad right, including the Liberal machine as well as its paid propaganda arm the Institute of Public Affairs, wants the ABC privatised. But that would put it in direct competition with the commercials for advertising revenue, to the detriment of, among others, Fox.

Fortunately Morrison and Fifield realise that the voters would never stand for that, so will, presumably, pursue their war of attrition, slowly starving the public broadcaster to death. And of course the first step will be the appointment of a new chairman. Another Justin Milne is unlikely – you only get one like him in a lifetime. But there must be plenty of other willing cronies around.

Watch this space. Watch it on the ABC when you still can. The war is not over yet.


Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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5 Responses to MUNGO MACCALLUM. Turnbull’s cronies.

  1. Avatar Julie Anne Baratta says:

    What has happened to my favourite on-line political commentary post?

  2. Avatar Rosemary O'Grady says:

    ‘Missus’ is a dead giveaway.

  3. Avatar David Allison says:

    What’s wrong with the most recent PM taking on the ABC job, he’s had some journalistic experience as well as government. Mr. Abbott could be his off-sider, having a similar work experience. Problem solved, job recruitment agency bypassed.

  4. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    This LNP Fifield/Turnbull – jobs-for-mates – it’s surely criminal! Can anyone explain why not – if not? It’s as bad as energy prices, the banks and financial institution rorting, the Royal Commission on child sex abuse – all institutions protected for as long as possible by the LNP uglies. Why are the pathways not tracked back to who appointed whom – which politicians re-worked the laws – and then have them all charged and locked up – to really send a message!

  5. Avatar Kim Wingerei says:

    I worked under Justin at Ozemail. He was competent, but seen as aloof. Turnbull had no involvement in the operations and his mates there were the reclusive Sean Howard and Trevor Kennedy. Milne did a very good job at Telstra, but I suspect his aloofness may have been one reason he never got the top job there. When Turnbull set out to ruin the NBN for political gain, he listened to nobody within the company and there is no reason to believe Milne supported the change of strategy either; anyone in the Telco industry would agree it was fundamentally flawed. Overall, I doubt that Milne and Turnbull are all that close as we are led to believe. Nevertheless, Milne was clearly a poor choice for ABC chairman, regardless of who picked him.

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