Under fire: Ita Buttrose goes into battle for ABC independence

Nov 18, 2021
ABC chair Ita Buttrose, with Scott Morrison
Prime Minister Scott Morrison appointed Ita Buttrose as ABC chair in 2019. (Image: AAP/Dan Himbrechts)

For the current government “the enemy” appears to be anyone trying to hold that government to account — and right now, that’s the ABC.

Her statement was explicit.

“The fact that these powers [legal responsibility for the gathering and presentation of accurate and impartial news and information] are given to the board, not to the government of the day, is a key pillar of the ABC’s operational independence.”

In complaining about a preemptive inquiry initiated by a government-controlled Senate communications committee chaired by Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg, ABC chair Ita Buttrose has put herself in the firing line.

Buttrose, then 77, was hand-picked by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in February 2019 to take the chair of the ABC, sidestepping the ABC Act’s requirement for a prior merit selection process for ABC and SBS directorships.

She accepted the job after one of the biggest political and boardroom boilovers in the ABC’s history.

In one week in September 2018, the then ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie was sacked by her board and, following leaked emails alleging political interference involving ABC journalists said to be hated by the Turnbull government, the then chairman, Justin Milne, felt obliged to resign to clear the air.

The Buttrose appointment was considered by Canberra observers to be an effort by Morrison, then the new prime minister, to diffuse or neutralise the ABC as a hot button election issue. This seemed to work through the 2019 federal election which resulted in the Morrison government’s re-election.

Since taking statutory responsibility for the ABC in 2019 Buttrose, an experienced publisher herself having edited metropolitan newspapers for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and national magazines for the late Kerry Packer’s PBL, has overseen highly contentious ABC investigative content. She did not commission this content.

It emerged from the ABC’s long standing editorial system of following up substantive tip offs from viewers, whistleblowers, complainants and informants in both the private and public sectors.

The new chair walked straight into controversy: an Australian Federal Police raid on the ABC’s Ultimo offices in pursuit of the identity of the ABC’s informants for its coverage of alleged Afghanistan war crimes.

The day before, the AFP had upended the Canberra home and personal possessions of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst in pursuit of incriminating evidence and the identity of her informant for her earlier published story exposing Home Affairs and Defence Department emails proposing domestic cyber surveillance of Australian citizens.

The brutality of the search left Smethurst traumatised but in the aftermath Buttrose joined News Corp’s Australasian chairman, Michael Miller, Nine Entertainment CEO Hugh Marks and all Australian mainstream media in a “Your Right to Know” campaign with legal challenges to the High Court to push back against security agency and police over-reach threatening freedom of the press in Australia. The raids made world headlines.

At each ABC board meeting directors receive reports from the ABC’s legal department about defamation actions, police inquiries and all litigation where the corporation is to be held liable for any and all of its broadcast content.

As a publisher in her past life Buttrose had sometimes found herself in court being held to account for content she had approved for publication.

Now at the ABC, Buttrose found herself back in the management and governance thicket of contentious media publication.

At the ABC her publisher’s responsibility soon included the documentary series Revelationbroadcast in March 2020, which alleged the Australian Catholic Church’s Cardinal George Pell was an opportunistic child molester.

While Pell, in a statement, rejected the evidence of on-camera complainants and witnesses he did not sue the ABC over Revelation. Pell was acquitted seven-nil by the High Court in April 2020 of a criminal charge of sexual assault of two boys from 1996 and 1997. He had been convicted by a Victorian jury and jailed on the charge, and was released from prison when the decision was overturned.

This acquittal was seized upon by ABC critics and claimed to be evidence of a secular ideological agenda by the ABC in all its coverage of Pell and the Catholic Church. This ignored the historic findings of the combined state, territory and federal Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse which exposed Australia-wide systemic cover-up of child abuse, not just within the Catholic Church.

The royal commission was established after the ABC’s Lateline program exposed NSW police cover-up of child sex abuse within the Maitland-Newcastle diocese with the courageous help of a serving police officer Peter Fox.

In November 2020 the ABC’s Four Corners broadcast “Inside The Canberra Bubble which, through eye-witness complainants, alleged two government ministers had behaved inappropriately with women in social gatherings.

The program, reported by Louise Milligan, enraged the Liberal Party as examples of similar misbehaviour by players from other political parties were not canvassed. But the program helped to expose a culture of bullying, misogyny and sexism inside Parliament House.

This culture was later further exposed by News Corp journalist Samantha Maiden when she reported the rape allegations of political staffer Brittany Higgins.

In February 2021, Milligan wrote an online article published on the ABC News website reporting complaints from friends of a deceased woman alleging historic rape by a then unnamed but current federal cabinet minister.

In extraordinary scenes, the then attorney-general Christian Porter named himself as the cabinet minister at the centre of those claims, and Four Corners followed up with “Bursting the Canberra Bubble”, broadcast in March 2021.

“It never happened,” Porter said. Police had not laid charges as there was insufficient probative evidence. Porter sued the ABC for defamation over the online article, but the dispute was settled out of court without any payment of damages but with the ABC reaffirming its reporting did not presume guilt.

In June 2021 Four Corners broadcast “The Great Awakening, a family divided by QAnon“, which explored Morrison’s friendship with a follower of the far-right QAnon movement. Morrison denied any undue influence from any personal association and although politically controversial (with the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation acknowledging 40 per cent of its resources were having to be deployed to monitor white supremacist extremism including QAnon) there has been no reported ongoing security concern involving the current prime minister.

Through all this Buttrose, as chair of the ABC board, has had to take responsibility with her fellow directors (all but the staff-elected director appointed by the current Coalition government) and all bound by the ABC Act and charter to maintain independence from government.

But Buttrose found herself subjected to personal vilification by Liberal Party notables, with Victorian Liberal Michael Kroger calling for her resignation, declaring that she had lost control of the ABC and that she clearly was suffering “Stockholm syndrome” having been “captured by the ABC collective”. Kroger claimed that Four Corners was always “throwing acid in the face of the Liberal Party”.

This ignored the history of the ABC’s exposure journalism including allegations by NSW stipendiary magistrates of perversion of justice in the Labor Wran era of NSW politics in the 1980s.

It ignored the ABC’s blanket coverage, along with Sydney Morning Herald journalist Kate McClymont and the NSW ICAC, which exposed Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid and then minister Ian Macdonald in corruption involving a lucrative coal exploration licence. The ABC’s prime time coverage was significant in discrediting the NSW Labor Party, once known as “Sussex Street”, with that state’s voters.

As the ABC current affairs journalist leading that coverage I once received a Christmas card from then state Liberal president, Arthur Sinodinos AO and state director Mark Neeham: “Keep up the good work”. The Liberal-National Coalition parties benefited politically from that coverage, won a landslide victory in 2011,  nd have held power in NSW ever since. State incumbency has helped the Liberal Party build its federal constituencies in western Sydney.

While the ABC has a charter obligation to report to a high ethical standard through its code of conduct and in adherence to the ABC Act requirement for objective journalism, it now appears that the Liberal and National parties do not and will not accept that they must expect to be held to account, particularly when they are in government.

This is now a long-term problem for the ABC. While many Liberals and Nationals will privately acknowledge the ABC’s institutional contribution to Australia’s free media in a liberal democracy, they are reluctant to speak publicly in the ABC’s support, for fear of being vilified as “turncoats” by News Corp outlets in the contemporary battle for political power.

The ABC’s current relationship with the government has been hostile to say the least through all this, in spite of the institution having reached the highest levels of audience trust and engagement in its 90 year history, mainly through the 2019-20 climate change bushfires and the need for accurate information and analysis in the public health crisis — the COVID19 pandemic.

In the digital revolution the ABC has achieved a significant demographic transition from older Australians to youngsters now accessing ABC content on their devices. This has been achieved in spite of operational defunding of 10 per cent since the election of the Abbott government in 2013.

Buttrose was acutely aware of the government’s hostility through a threatening letter she received from Communications Minister Paul Fletcher in December last year.

The letter demanded answers by December 15 to 14 questions alleging governance failings by Buttrose and her board arising from the Four Corners Canberra Bubble report. Portentously the letter threatened Buttrose and the board with dismissal: “Why should an objective observer not conclude that the program demonstrates a failure by the board in its duty under Section 8 of the ABC Act to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information by the ABC is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism.”

Buttrose publicly defended the board’s oversight of ABC journalism and Four Corners but neither she nor the minister released the ABC’s written response to that letter.

There has been no statement from the minister accepting the board’s response or acknowledging that the ABC has a role in Australia’s media in holding government and its ministers to account.

Ever since that episode neither Buttrose nor the ABC’s managing director David Anderson have been able to get an assurance of future funding certainty for the ABC beyond the current appropriation which ends on June 30 next year.

While the board appointed external experts to review the documentary series Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire  following complaints and noted the withdrawal from iView of another crime documentary Juanita: A Family Mystery after producers acknowledged a credibility problem with a key informant, it also moved to review its complaints handling protocols.

The ABC has had a well-staffed complaints handling unit external to editorial line management since the abolition of the Independent Complaints Review Panel after a 2009 review by then ABC chairman Maurice Newman and then editorial director Paul Chadwick.

The unit has the power to enforce corrections and clarifications or take down content adjudicated, sometimes with great anguish by affected content creators, to have failed the ABC’s editorial standards.

The board appointed former Commonwealth and NSW ombudsman John McMillan AO and former SBS news director Jim Carroll to review complaints handling.

It was Bragg’s reportedly unilateral action in setting up his government controlled Senate committee inquiry which has provoked Buttrose and the ABC board to publicly object.

Perhaps the recent history of the ABC board’s adherence to the ABC Act to govern the organisation independently of government canvassed here will help to explain Buttrose’s “duty bound” determination:

“This review is well underway and members of Parliament, including Senator Bragg, have already been interviewed as part of the review process. An issues paper will be released shortly and the review will then be seeking public submissions. The review will be rigorous and thorough and its findings will be released by the ABC board in April 2022.

“Instead of respecting the integrity of this process, the Senate committee under the leadership of Senator Bragg has decided to initiate a parallel process. I will leave it to Senator Bragg to explain his motives but the impact of this action is clear. As chair of the ABC board I am duty bound to call out any action that seeks to undermine the independence of the national broadcaster”.

In the context of the current battle for political power in Australia with the pending federal election it appears Buttrose and her directors are not prepared to allow Bragg to mount a smear or harassment campaign against the ABC under cover of what they judge to be a politically motivated and preemptive complaints handling inquiry.

She has appealed to the Liberal Party by saying the ABC is accessible for complaints and is not “the enemy”.

But when it comes to accountability of the current government “the enemy” appears to be anyone trying to hold that government to account.

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