The ABC chair, Ita Buttrose, has accused the Morrison government of political interference and attempting to intimidate the public broadcaster after the Senate established an inquiry into the ABC’s complaints handling process.
Buttrose, in a blistering statement, called on the upper house to act to “defend the independence of the ABC” by passing a motion to terminate or suspend the government inquiry until an independent process commissioned by the ABC Board last month has been completed.
The government inquiry was announced last week after the ABC’s complaints division told Fox News it had not upheld any of the complaints made in a lengthy submission about a Four Corners program on Fox News aired in August.
“This is an act of political interference designed to intimidate the ABC and mute its role as this country’s most trusted source of public interest journalism,” Buttrose said in a statement on Sunday.
“Any incursion of this kind into the ABC’s independence should be seen by Australians for what it is: an attempt to weaken the community’s trust in the public broadcaster.
“If politicians determine the operation of the national broadcaster’s complaints system, they can influence what is reported by the ABC.”
The Labor opposition criticised the “wasteful and duplicative inquiry” as “yet another attempt at political interference from this government”.
“Meanwhile, the Morrison-Joyce government has overseen funding cuts to the ABC, misled the public about these cuts, attacked the ABC board in response to a Four Corners investigation, and failed to act on the recommendations of two inquiries into press freedom in the wake of AFP raids on journalists at the ABC and News,” Labor’s communications spokesperson, Michelle Rowland, said.
In her strongest statement as chair, Buttrose said the inquiry, set up by Liberal senator Andrew Bragg on Thursday, “appears to be a blatant attempt to usurp the role of the ABC board and undermine the operational independence of the ABC”.
“As senator Bragg is aware, in October the ABC Board initiated an independent review of the ABC’s complaints system by two eminent experts, Prof John McMillan, former commonwealth and NSW ombudsman and Jim Carroll, former SBS director – news and current affairs. The terms of reference for the review are comprehensive and wide-ranging.”
Buttrose said the power to develop codes of practice for the ABC lay with the board, not the government, and that was a key pillar of the ABC’s editorial independence.
Bragg announced the inquiry into the complaints handling arrangements of the ABC and SBS three weeks after the ABC established an external review and after he had been interviewed by reviewers about his concerns.
“Instead of respecting the integrity of this process, the Senate committee under the leadership of senator Bragg has decided to initiate a parallel process,” Buttrose said.
“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.
“A fundamental democratic principle underpinning the ABC has been its independence from interference by those motivated by political outcomes.
“Politicians, like all citizens, are welcome to criticise anything they find wrong or objectionable that is published by the ABC, but they cannot be allowed to tell the ABC what it may or may not say.
“Transparency and accountability are important, and the Senate committee performs a vital role. The ABC attends Senate estimates hearings on multiple occasions every year and answers hundreds of questions on notice.”
It is the second time in 12 months the ABC has accused the Morrison government of political interference.
In December 2020, Buttrose accused the government of a pattern of behaviour which “smacks of political interference” and earlier warned of an escalating campaign targeting the public broadcaster. She labelled claims it pushed agendas and campaigns against free enterprise as “malicious garbage”.
She also threw her support behind a media freedom act and declared 2019’s Australian federal police raids “clearly designed to intimidate”.
Buttrose accused the Morrison government of using News Corp Australia to attack its journalism last year after the Australian was briefed about a series of government questions for the broadcaster before the ABC received them.
After Four Corners spoke to former Fox News insiders who claimed the right-wing channel became a propaganda outlet for the former president under the watch of Rupert Murdoch himself, News Corp went on the offensive, publishing 45 articles attacking the public broadcaster in two days.
“The episode clearly violates the basic tenets of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s published standards by exhibiting bias and a failure to maintain any level of impartiality in the presentation of news and information,” a Fox News spokesperson said at the time.
Bragg told Sky News Australia the ABC complaints system was akin to a kid “marking their own homework”.
“At the moment if you lodge a complaint with the ABC it’s not dealt with by an independent person,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s a bit like Dracula and the blood bank. They basically mark their own homework.”
Bragg suggested a “litany” of people were unhappy with the ABC including veterans, multicultural communities and Jewish groups.
Bragg told Guardian Australia a parliamentary review was necessary because there had been “extensive community concern over a number of programs and posts and the associated complaints handling”.
He denied the ABC review was external even though the board appointed two independent experts to undertake it.
“It is not an external review, it’s an internal review and I believe the Senate inquiry will be a stronger mechanism,” he said.