Sunday, 21 October 2018

‘You’re not invited’: ABC scandal lifts the veil on stupid politics

‘You’re not invited’: ABC scandal lifts the veil on stupid politics
29 Sep

This week Australia made a sharp segue from a national conversation about media interference in the politics, following the (latest) spill, to political interference in the media.


Uncommissioned character assessments from politicians are something every political journalist must deal with.

These conversations are unpleasant, sometimes funny, usually one-sided.

They make for good stories later.

They happen behind closed doors and on mobile phones, never on email or text, and while they might include corrections of fact, they are much more likely to be about emphasis, the inclusion of unflattering detail, the perception of bias.

They are a lot easier to shrug off when you know you have the full backing of your editorial hierarchy, all the way up to the board.

At the centre of the Justin Milne/ABC story is the perception he apparently had of what the government wanted.

He was hyper-aware of its gross displeasure with a couple of ABC journalists – political editor Andrew Probyn and chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici.

“They hate her,” Milne wrote of Alberici, apparently referring to the government.

And then: “Get rid of her”.

Speaking from New York, Turnbull has said that he never called for anyone’s sacking.

According to the chair of the ABC board, the government hated Emma Alberici.

According to the chair of the ABC board, the government hated Emma Alberici.

Photo: Narelle Autio

Interestingly, it is the same thing members of the News Corp media say when they defend against charges that Rupert Murdoch orders the ousting of prime ministers. They deny any such interference. They say Rupert never issues directives of that kind.

Sure, say the Murdoch critics, maybe he doesn’t say it so baldly.


But his editors must pick up a vibe, a feeling.

They must anticipate what Rupert wants, and fashion their political coverage to meet his desires as they perceive them.

It’s worth noting that Turnbull’s staff were well known for making constant complaints to the ABC newsroom about the journalists they thought were biased or wrong.

“How does this person still have a job?” was a common refrain, according to one press gallery stalwart.

It is commonplace for this sort of thing to go on between journalists/editors and politicians, but this week the veil has been lifted on how much of this lobbying happens behind closed doors, in a non-transparent process that happens in parallel to, but separately from, the official complaints channel.

In a time when trust in politicians, and democracy, are in crisis globally, this lack of probity is not just worrying, it’s self-sabotagingly stupid.

The Prime Minister discussed journalist Andrew Probyn with former ABC boss Michelle Guthrie.

The Prime Minister discussed journalist Andrew Probyn with former ABC boss Michelle Guthrie.

Photo: Supplied

Politicians should be working harder than ever to make sure due process is observed, complaints are made publicly and at arm’s length, that the business of government is happening right out in the open, where voters can see it, and judge it.

It should not happen at a bigwigs lunch before the AFL Grand Final. It should not happen in an off the record phone call. It should not happen in the over-reach of a chairman who, rightly or wrongly, fears the wrath of a prime minister.


Labor politicians are just as notorious for this kind of pressure. It’s hard to take seriously their protestations now.

But conservatives are supposed to be the great protectors of institutions, and of proper process.

Yet, consider the jettisoning of process that has happened under this Coalition government: then-immigration minister Peter Dutton intervenes (not improperly, but invisibly, at least to the public) in the granting of visas to au pairs. In one case he does so against the express advice of his department.

The government commissions a report on religious freedom, but refuses to release its findings publicly until the same time it legislates on its contents.

Illustration: Reg Lynch

Illustration: Reg Lynch

Photo: Fairfax Media

Nearly half a billion dollars in surprise funding is given to the Barrier Reef Foundation, without any tender process, in a private meeting between the foundation’s chair Anna Marsden, Prime Minister Turnbull, Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg and his departmental secretary.

The only probity of these decisions, so far, has come from journalists’ investigations.

No wonder politicians get so frothy about us.

Jacqueline is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.



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