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Environment and Communications References Committee
05/03/2019
Allegations of political interference in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

CHESHER, Mr Matthew, Director, Legal and Policy, Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance

MURPHY, Mr Paul, Chief Executive, Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance

[14:48]

CHAIR: Good afternoon, gentlemen. Information about parliamentary privilege and protection of witnesses has been given to you. I welcome you to give us an opening statement.

Senator KENEALLY: Before you begin, I just declare that I am a member of the MEAA, for the record.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Keneally. No pressure, Mr Murphy!

Senator KENEALLY: As I evaluate my membership dues!

Mr Murphy : At the outset, I'd like to thank the committee for accepting our submission and inviting us along to address it today. I do have a brief opening statement, and I'm happy to provide a copy of it for the assistance of Hansard.

CHAIR: Thank you. And thank you for waiting as well.

Mr Murphy : No problem. The MEAA expressed grave concerns with the conduct of the former ABC chair, Mr Milne, at the time his views concerning senior ABC editorial staff were publicly aired, shortly before his and Ms Guthrie's departure from the corporation. MEAA and its members abhor selective and/or politically motivated interventions by senior ABC personnel. We are dismayed by members of the political class continually undermining the ABC by sniping, carping and punishing the ABC, and by encouraging dissent towards the corporation, ordering meritless inquiries, cutting funds and, on occasion, stacking its board. For the record, MEAA submits that complaints concerning editorial staff or perceived institutional bias should be aired and considered in an orderly and dispassionate manner where the principles of procedural fairness are observed. There should be no room for senior ABC officers to prosecute complaints outside of such processes.

In our submission, we didn't seek to further canvass the events of September last year. We believe that this inquiry should focus on the systems that enabled those events to occur and on measures to ensure that board selection processes are sound and are not polluted by political interference. We concentrated our comments on terms of reference (c), (d) and (e). For the reasons set out in our submission, we make a total of 12 recommendations, and those are in three main areas: firstly, strengthening the independent selection process for board positions, removing political considerations from them and making them more transparent; secondly, replacing ad hoc and seemingly endless efficiency reviews with set, fixed term reviews based on consistent criteria and introducing independent external advice to guide triennial funding decisions; and, thirdly, reviewing the existing internal complaints handling processes.

On the first point around board appointments, we believe the initiative to establish an independent selection process some years ago for the ABC board was a good one, reflecting the need for the public to have confidence that board members would be selected based on merit and be capable of defending the independence and integrity of their public broadcaster. Multiple recent examples of the minister bypassing that process have, in our submission, produced a board not best fit to fulfil its duties. The perception of political favouritism in any appointment undermines public confidence, and, to be honest, the perception we have is that the minister of the day views the independent selection process as little more than an obstacle course to be overcome before making the appointment that they desire. In our submission, legislation should be amended so that no future appointments can be made outside of proper consideration and recommendation by the independent nomination panel.

We also make recommendations regarding board composition, specifically to extend the ban on former political officeholders being appointed to the board and to bar them from appointment to the independent nomination panel. We also recommend specifying that at least half the board should have experience in journalism or broadcasting, and for the creation also of an additional staff elected board position.

On funding, we note that since 2014 the ABC has faced funding cuts of more than $350 million and the resulting loss of hundreds of jobs. On one analysis, referred to in our submission, Australia invests 34 per cent less per person in public broadcasting than is the average figure for comparable democracies. Our submission notes that the ABC has been subject to no less than 16 efficiency reviews in the last 20 years. These reviews are often perceived as being driven by political considerations.

No-one argues the ABC should not be subject to efficiency reviews. Like all public institutions, it must be accountable for the use of public money. But reviews should be on a regular cycle, rather than being announced ad hoc, and should be conducted on consistent and transparent criteria. With regard to triennial funding, in our submission the engagement of independent advisers to assist government in assessing appropriate funding levels would be of great benefit.

And finally, in relation to the complaints processes, we have fielded several complaints from ABC personnel about the manner in which the ABC's Audience and Consumer Affairs unit deals with complaints. The ACA fielded 26,850 complaints in 2017. It examines all manner of complaints, from subtitling errors to claims of bias in reporting. Of those complaints, 120 were upheld in 2017. On occasion, it receives multiple complaints from business and community organisations that allege an ingrained bias against their interests. A number of cases where such bias has been alleged have seen the ACA arrive at preliminary and sometimes final findings about bias without first providing allegations to the editorial staff member concerned. MEAA submits that the ABC's complaints system must inform relevant staff of editorial complaints without fail. In addition, the person whose behaviour is complained about must have the ability to respond directly to the allegation before a preliminary or final decision is made. Anything less is a denial of natural justice and actually serves to undermine the integrity of the complaints process itself. Thank you.

Senator STORER: Thank you very much for the input and comprehensive analysis of some of the key issues. You've characterised the independent nomination panel process as—was it a hurdle to be crossed?

Mr Murphy : An obstacle course.

Senator STORER: An obstacle course, yes. This process has ever been so, since it was introduced in 2012—is that correct?

Mr Murphy : I think that's correct. I don't know if 'loophole' is the correct word to use, but the way the legislation is designed gives the government of the day the opportunity to bypass the independent selection process and, in our view, you either have an independent selection process or you don't. That's why we would recommend closing that capacity and ensuring that all appointments are dealt with through the independent selection process.

Senator STORER: The process we have at the ABC, is it best practice in comparison to other national broadcasters? Are you aware of how other international broadcasters go about it?

Mr Murphy : I don't have a comparison to give you, sorry.

Senator STORER: You request that all director candidates possess a demonstrated commitment to public broadcasting. Whilst admirable, isn't that somewhat limiting in terms of the range of backgrounds and skills that a board needs to manage a large corporation?

Mr Murphy : No, we wouldn't necessarily see it that way. A demonstrated commitment to public broadcasting, in our view, doesn't mean that would be your only experience or your sole approach to media. In our view, it would certainly exclude people with a history of public statements attacking public broadcasting. We certainly would have the view that it's not appropriate to have people hostile to the ABC serving on the ABC board. It's also our view that the introduction of commercial corporate culture to too great an extent is not something that's necessarily desirable in a public institution.

Senator STORER: I might jump to the complaints process. To summarise, is your point that there have been 26,000 complaints made and that very few are upheld? Are you commending the ABC in terms of its actual bias versus perhaps the criticism from some areas that it is biased?

Mr Murphy : The ABC has an internal complaints process. It's not surprising, as a public broadcaster, that it receives a high level of complaints, and it needs to deal with them. Our main concern that we raised there is that there are concerns raised with us by our members that the principles of natural justice aren't being applied. There's a concern that complaints aren't being properly triaged as they come into the ABC. A particular concern that we raise our instances where the journalist who produced stories subject to a complaint is not contacted or consulted about the complaint before a decision is made in relation to it. To us, it seems to be completely contrary to any proper principles.

Senator STORER: This is the main point you're making and it's in line with staff morale and the general disposition of staff at the ABC?

Mr Murphy : Yes.

Senator STORER: To another point: the perceived political bias. How does Mr Morris's testimony just now, about his comfortableness with direct discussions of the chair with him on issues, knowing that the chair is declaring himself a conduit to the government, sit with the MEAA in terms of the process within the ABC?

Mr Murphy : Our fundamental concern is that producing quality public interest journalism is a very difficult exercise at times. By its very nature, it tends to be subject to a great deal of criticism, complaint and pressure from vested interest groups in relation to any particular story. Given how difficult it is, any sense that senior management within the ABC are actually amplifying complaints rather than shielding journalists from them is problematic. I entirely agree with Mr Morris that it would be fanciful to think that any media organisation or, indeed, any public broadcaster would not be subject to pressure and complaint. That's something that the ABC has quite clearly experienced across governments of all political persuasions.

Senator STORER: I've noted some of the survey comments received by you which said:

ABC staff ... "begun to jump at shadows, play safe and self-censor due to the unrelenting pressure of how we do our jobs".

Senior editorial staff "acquiesce" and do not support ABC journalists.

Senior editorial staff "are part of the pre-emptive buckle".

These are comments you put in your submission. Are they the MEAA's viewpoint or are you just reporting?

Mr Murphy : Those are comments that came directly from our members in response to the confidential survey that we undertook in the course of putting this submission together. They shouldn't be interpreted as being directed at Mr Morris. It's reflective of the atmosphere that ABC staff have been operating in in recent years, with any number of examples of extremely hostile comments directed towards the ABC by members of the government and other federal politicians. It's reflective of that environment and the environment of the extreme funding cuts that they've had to endure on a continuing basis.

Mr Chesher : In conjunction with those funding cuts and the self-evident pressure that's been brought to bear on a very regular basis, ABC employees are not immune to the parliamentary environment of the last few years and the fact that there's been any number of inquiries—perhaps politically weaponised inquiries—into aspects of the conduct of ABC employees or areas. Just in the last 18 months, MEAA and its members have had cause to review three quite damaging pieces of draft legislation, none of which have passed, which I'm sure you're familiar with. There was the rural and regional advocacy bill, which seemed pleasant at face value but actually sought to command resources to a particular area in an environment where several hundred million dollars in funding had been withdrawn from the organisation. There was the enhanced transparency bill, which was about a BBC-type initiative—that went horribly, by the way—of disclosing salaries of organisational employees who earned above a certain threshold. And I think the least favourite among ABC employees was the fair and balanced bill of 2017, which I think has had a perfunctory second reading speech and gone no further. It's hard for an employee, in what is a charged environment, not to take note of what's happening from government, which is the principal shareholder and funder of the organisation.

Senator STORER: I note your graphs on funding, as you've just mentioned, and your opening statement. You believe in ABC employees engaging to have independent advisers to assess the triennial appropriations. Is that correct?

Mr Murphy : Yes.

Senator STORER: And you would advocate for stability of a longer period than the triennial funding?

Mr Chesher : Yes. As Mr Murphy and our submission pointed out, there have been 16 or 17 efficiency related reviews in relatively recent times. The idea, itself, of a set piece efficiency review over a regular and predictable interval comes from a former ABC executive, called Geoff Heriot, who, I think, has written extensively and sensibly and quite dispassionately about the ABC. In comparison to the last three to four years, where there have been two, I think, efficiency reviews, I think all parties would benefit and, frankly, be more immune from assertions and allegations of political bias if there were a process that was fixed in time and people could prepare in an orderly way and constructively.

CHAIR: Mr Murphy, your submission and a lot of concerns you've raised—your opening statement was quite strong. You're obviously quite worried about the public perception of the organisation and the actual pressure, whether imposed or felt by staff, this is having on the ABC to fulfil its charter and obligations to the Australian people. You've outlined a number of recommendations, and thank you for that because I think it's important for us to consider all of those. I imagine that this is a position you take regardless of who is in government.

Mr Murphy : That's absolutely correct, Chair, yes.

CHAIR: And that the need for a more hands-off approach should be a message sent right from the top of government.

Mr Murphy : Absolutely, yes. I agree with that completely. I think the submission from Denis Muller, at Melbourne university, to this inquiry provides quite an interesting summary and history, from the formation of the ABC through to now, in terms of the approach that different governments have taken to legislation and the question of independence.

CHAIR: Are you surprised at the response—were you here for the board members giving evidence?

Mr Murphy : No, I wasn't.

CHAIR: A number of the other board members, notwithstanding Dr Jane Connors—the staff rep—almost unanimously rejected the idea that staff would feel political pressure. Given what you have put in your submission and your staff survey, do you think it would be right to categorise them as 'out of touch'?

Mr Murphy : I don't know how they would form that view or how they would come to that view. There is no question, from our consultations with our members or for anyone observing the history of comments directed towards the ABC and its journalists in recent years by the government, that of course there is political pressure being brought to bear. These efficiency reviews and budget cuts, in our view, are another part of that. Having said that, it is a remarkable statement about the strength, quality and integrity of ABC staff that throughout all of this they have continued to produce journalism of the highest quality. The figures on public trust in the ABC remain at around 80 per cent, which, I think, is absolute credit to the work of the ABC staff. We saw in the events of September last year that was being done in spite of the board, not assisted by the board.

CHAIR: I want to turn your attention to this CPSU submission. In its submission, which I thought was quite interesting, the CPSU had feedback from ABC executives that they were adopting a new workplace bargaining policy because they did not want to upset the ABC's funding body. I am not sure if you have read through that submission?

Mr Murphy : I have. I don't specifically recall that comment but I do understand the context of it.

CHAIR: Have you had similar conversations along those lines?

Mr Murphy : My recollection—I stand to be corrected—was that both unions had discussions with ABC management at that time. It was our view that they weren't covered by the APS wage policy and it was a matter of some dispute. I was not directly involved in those discussions.

CHAIR: Is it alarming, do you think, that in negotiations with management about staff conditions and wages that it would be put that we would not want to upset the ABC's funding body, which, obviously, is the government?

Mr Murphy : It is alarming. In the current climate, it is not surprising. It comes back to the point that we and others have made about the need for greater certainty, independence and transparency in the triennial funding process. There is no doubt, in our view, and this would be a view strongly shared by the CPSU, that one of the consequences in uncertainty of funding is an alarming explosion of casualisation of the workforce of the ABC, which is emerging as a major problem for newsrooms and for content makers.

CHAIR: I guess when you talk about things like investigative journalism, it is pretty hard to keep well-trained experienced investigative journalists if—

Mr Murphy : If they are being offered rolling contracts, it is certainly the case.

CHAIR: So the quality of those types of investigations, you think, will slide if that trend continues?

Mr Murphy : Our concern is that the ABC is funded in a way that its governance is established in a way to promote and support quality public interest journalism. As I said a moment ago, it's our view that the quality journalism that's been produced by ABC staff in recent years has been done in spite of the efforts of government and in spite of what was revealed last September to be major flaws in its governance.

CHAIR: In the evidence given this morning by a number of board directors, despite the former chair, Mr Milne, wanting the board to make a decision to override the decision of triple j to change the date and some other conversations that were had, members of the board expressed to us that they were unaware of the extent of his meddling—that's my word, not theirs—in the affairs of management and various different stories and productions. What's your response to that? To me it seemed extraordinary that they were unaware.

Mr Murphy : I guess I don't know the dynamics of the board or the manner in which Mr Milne went about those interventions. I guess it would be a difficult thing for staff to approach board members to express those concerns. That would be a difficult thing to do. I'd also say it probably reflects the lack of media and public broadcasting experience on the current board as well.

CHAIR: Yes. One of your recommendations is that at least half the board should have direct media and journalism experience. Aside from the staff rep, is there anyone on the board at the moment who has that type of experience?

Mr Murphy : I think from memory—

Mr Chesher : Mr Lewis does.

CHAIR: Mr Lewis, of course, yes.

Mr Murphy : But on the finance side of a media organisation.

CHAIR: Not the journalism side?

Mr Murphy : Not a journalist or a content maker, I think, from memory.

Mr Chesher : No. Two out of eight—well, three including the managing director.

CHAIR: What about the impact that this whole issue has had on the integrity of the ABC and the ability of staff to get on with their jobs? From talking to your members, what is the perception? Are people feeling more watched, closer than ever, or do they feel like they've turned a corner?

Mr Murphy : I think it's fair to say that there was an element of relief that these issues were actually brought out into the public domain and that a large part of the factors lying behind the pressure that staff had been feeling was revealed, was laid quite bare, for everyone to see. It presents, in our view and our members' view, an opportunity to do something positively to deal with those issues, to strengthen the independence of the ABC and to guarantee that into the future.

Senator KENEALLY: Thank you for being here today. When we spoke with the chair earlier, I asked them about steps that could be taken to ensure that the board were not put in a similar position again—that is, the position they described as having two crises at once, the crisis of the managing director and her performance and the crisis of the allegations of political interference that were being levelled against the chair. Many of the board members suggested that they weren't sure what steps would have been available to them. For example, could they go straight to the minister? Were there other things that they could have done?

Could you reflect briefly on two suggestions they made: ensuring (1) that there is always a deputy chair and (2) that the board should have a crisis management plan, which they didn't prior to this circumstance arising.

Mr Murphy : The concept of a deputy chair is sensible in a governance sense. I'm not completely certain how it would have assisted in that situation. I would have thought any board should have a discussion about significant threats to the organisation they could see as emerging in the future and have a plan in place to initiate if they encounter that situation. That's surely something any board should be doing in the normal course of its conduct.

Senator KENEALLY: The board members observed that the organisation, the ABC, has a crisis management plan, but they as a board did not have a separate plan, should their governance arrangements break down, which is perhaps the most charitable way to describe what has happened here. It surprised me that they didn't have such a plan. I'll just make that observation. The observation they made about a deputy chair was that it would have provided another person who could perhaps be a conduit to the government to step in and try to absolve dual crises of this nature. We need to think about recommendations. Your list is quite helpful, but I'm trying to tease out whether those recommendations also would at least merit considering. You seem to be suggesting they do.

Mr Murphy : Yes, and I share your view in relation to the crisis management plan. I'm surprised that you'd need a recommendation to do that, to be honest.

Senator KENEALLY: I don't have any other questions, Chair. Many of my questions were raised ably by you and Senator Storer.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Murphy and Mr Chesher. We will take a short break.

Proceedings suspended from 15:22 to 15 : 35