'I have no intention' of sacking ABC chair Ita Buttrose, minister says

Paul Fletcher says he is within rights to expect a ‘serious and substantive’ response from Buttrose over Four Corners story into Christian Porter and Alan Tudge

The federal communications minister says he has “no intention” of sacking ABC chair Ita Buttrose but expects a “serious and substantive” response to his concerns about the Four Corners investigation into two government ministers.

Paul Fletcher used an interview with the ABC on Sunday to declare he was well within his rights to seek answers from Buttrose about the program that focused on Christian Porter and Alan Tudge while denying he was attempting to pressure the board for political reasons.

Fletcher expressed confidence in the way Buttrose was operating in her role, saying “she is one of the most eminent media figures in Australia and she has a challenging and very important job”.

But while saying the national broadcaster had editorial independence from government, the minister added that the responsibility for what appeared on the ABC sat with Buttrose along with the board and management.

And Fletcher demurred when asked directly if he could withdraw that confidence or even sack her if he was not satisfied with the response, due on Monday.

“I’m not going to get into that,” Fletcher told the ABC’s Insiders program.

Pressed to give an assurance that he was not going to sack the ABC chair, Fletcher said: “I certainly have no intention of sacking the chair of the ABC. She does an important job.”

Two weeks ago Fletcher wrote to Buttrose – whom the government appointed in 2019 – to ask a series of questions about the Four Corners program that alleged inappropriate conduct by two ministers, including whether it met the standards of accurate and impartial journalism.

In the letter – which Fletcher posted to Twitter on 1 December – the minister asked: “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?”

Today I have written to ABC Chair Ita Buttrose with questions concerning the Four Corners program “Inside the Canberra Bubble” that was broadcast on 9 November 2020. pic.twitter.com/7acqFpdAL4

— Paul Fletcher (@PaulFletcherMP) November 30, 2020

On Sunday Fletcher refused to commit to releasing Buttrose’s response to the public and defended his request for answers.

He said the ABC received more than $1bn of public money each year to carry out its functions and it was “entirely appropriate” that as minister with responsibility of the ABC that he should ask the board and the chair such questions.

“When I receive her response, I will give it the careful consideration that it deserves, and I do expect a serious and substantive response from one of the most serious and substantive figures in the Australian media landscape,” he said.

Fletcher said he disagreed with the claim that his actions appeared to be an attempt to pressure the board over a story that embarrassed his political mates. He said he had expectations regarding the performance of the boards and organisations within his portfolio, and he was entitled to ask questions.

The ABC had been under attack from the government over Inside the Canberra Bubble even before it aired in early October.

The executive producer of Four Corners, Sally Neighbour, said “extreme and unrelenting” political pressure had been applied before the screening, and reporter Louise Milligan said pressure had been “applied by multiple representatives of government to ABC management”.

The government faces pressure from elements of the government backbench to take a tougher line on the ABC.

The outspoken conservative backbencher Craig Kelly told Guardian Australia on Sunday the concern “goes well beyond just this Four Corners program”.

“The ABC unquestionably leans left, both the content and presenters – and if it was a private organisation, there would be nothing wrong with that,” he said. “However, the ABC is funded by all Australian taxpayers and it has a charter to present a balance of opinions. This is it failing to do.”

Four Corners revealed that Malcolm Turnbull had confronted Porter in 2017 over allegations of inappropriate conduct with a young woman in a Canberra bar and warned him “the risk of compromise is very real”, but Porter has “categorically rejected” the depiction of interactions in the bar.

Tudge responded to the report of a consensual affair with a then staffer in 2017 by saying he regretted his actions “immensely and the hurt it caused my family”. His statement also said he regretted the hurt that the staffer, Rachelle Miller, had experienced.

Miller alleges she was humiliated and belittled over her work and has made an official complaint through the only avenue open to ministerial staff – the Department of Finance.

Contributor

Daniel Hurst

The GuardianTramp

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