SUBJECTS: Allegations regarding political interference at the ABC involving Chairman Justin Milne.
LAURA JAYES: Joining me now is the Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland. Michelle, good to see you. Twice in one week, there's plenty going on with the ABC. What do you know about Justin Milne's intervention and what do you want to know?
MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: I think the first thing we want to know, obviously, is what has been reported in the Fairfax media which is basically a report about alleged political interference and that the then Managing Director, Michelle Guthrie, was effectively asked or directed, in order to rid the organisation of a certain journalist. That's the overall question: political interference. And then it goes to the issues here of what did Mr Milne, as the Chairman, do in response to that if that sort of pressure was applied, and what obligations actually exist under the ABC Act, for the independence and integrity of the ABC to be maintained.
JAYES: Well, that's my question to you: political criticism, and government criticism of the ABC and pressure is one thing, but has Justin Milne done the wrong thing by capitulating to that pressure - has he breached the Charter?
ROWLAND: I think we've got to step through a few things there Laura. The first is establishing that this did in fact take place and that's what is being asserted in the reports that are out today. And secondly, what transpired in response to that pressure if that in fact occurred. And there are so many questions yet unanswered around this issue and again I just put the question out there: where is the Minister? The responsible Minister in this area should be ensuring that the public has confidence in our public broadcaster and actually has a response to some of these issues, or at least instigates some sort of fact finding in this matter because it is simply festering now.
JAYES: Okay, so what facts does Senator Fifield need to find - Minister Fifield - need to find and do you want to hear from Justin Milne? I mean, is it your view that he has to go now as Chairman?
ROWLAND: I'll go to your second point first. Justin Milne had a conversation with me this morning. I contacted him directly and put that article to him. I won't disclose all the details of that conversation other than to say that at the end of it, I was left with more questions than answers and what was not satisfied with the response. There has since been another statement put out by Justin Milne effectively saying that he’s not going to engage in running commentary on the issues of the day. With all respect, we are talking here about taxpayers’ money and an important institution in our democracy and the public deserves full and forthright answers - nothing less.
JAYES: Well, if those answers don't come, should he step aside?
ROWLAND: Well, certainly I think you have to consider what the alternative is. If we are not going to get those answers, and if the public's confidence and trust in the ABC continues to erode - I mean this story has been out there for more than 12 hours now, doing the rounds - then I certainly think we need to question whether his position is tenable. But the responsible Minister is effectively responsible for all these areas of administration of the law - has the independence of the ABC been upheld?
JAYES: Michelle, I have some more questions for you, so Michelle Rowland we'll get back to you in a moment. Let’s just go live to Sydney, let's just hear from Scott Morrison quickly.
JAYES: I'm speaking to the Shadow Minister, Michelle Rowland, she's here with me in the studio. Before we went to that media conference, you said that you did speak to Justin Milne this morning and you put questions to him. Some of his answers were unsatisfactory. Now, I don't expect you to betray every detail of this conversation, but what are some of those critical questions that he needs to answer adequately that he hasn't?
ROWLAND: It needs to go specifically to the issue of political interference, like, has that occurred under this government? We know that this government - be it under Tony Abbott, be it under Malcolm Turnbull and now under Scott Morrison - has attacked the ABC both financially and in an ideological sense. And that has been going on for some time, despite the fact that before the election, we all know that Tony Abbott promised no cuts to the ABC. We've seen a massive amount of staff redundancies and hundreds of millions of dollars cut from its budget. Put that to one side. We know now that there are allegations of political interference. Now, if those allegations are correct, that goes to the heart of why the ABC is so trusted - it's valued for its trust.
JAYES: But, Michelle Rowland, are you separating - or, are you conflating criticism and political interference as one thing? Where has the line crossed?
ROWLAND: No, I'm not conflating the political interference issues with the issues that we know to be fact. We know to be fact that this government has been attacking the ABC. It has been described as waging the biggest war on the ABC's independence in a generation. But here we have the issue of interference in the employment of a journalist and that is very serious.
JAYES: Yes, but why is that the government's fault? I mean, this is Justin Milne, the Chairman of the ABC Board interfering. So, on that basis, where is the evidence of political or government interference?
ROWLAND: Well, this is the questioning to which we need answers. What is being proposed in the media reports we have seen is that this was essentially alleged to be pressure coming from the government to act in a certain way in relation to a journalist. And when that happens, that directly risks –
JAYES: But there is only evidence that Justin Milne did give that direction to Michelle Guthrie. Could this just be Justin Milne being too sensitive to criticism from the government either publicly or privately? There's a difference here between interference and criticism.
ROWLAND: Indeed, and Laura, if that is the case, then we should have a response to that.
JAYES: Okay, from Justin Milne and Mitch Fifield, you're saying?
ROWLAND: We should, we should. The public deserves that, not only from the Chairman whose responsibility is there within the legislation, but also the responsible Minister because he has purview of the ABC as our public broadcaster.
JAYES: This has become a real political fight: Labor versus the Coalition thing about who supports the ABC more or less. I personally - obviously I work for Sky News under the News Corp banner - and we had a situation a couple of months ago where there was political interference in Victoria, I would argue, about Jacinta Allen pulling down Sky News from train stations based on false information, to be honest. I didn't see Labor complaining about the political interference then. Is this a false equivalence, or is there some comparison here?
ROWLAND: No look, I can understand your criticism of that, and in fact that day when that story was breaking I actually went on Sky, and I made my views known about the certain individual who is not worth discussing, but we then moved on. In that sense, I can understand your criticism from that point of view, but the difference here of course Laura, is that we are talking about the ABC as a taxpayer funded institution. And I will always stand up for free speech, and yes, there are limitations to free speech in the law, including within legislation, including around defamation. And it is a very fine line between free speech and making sure that certain standards and certain norms are met, but I think the key difference here is we are talking about a taxpayer funded institution in the ABC.
JAYES: Fair enough, but just more broadly, any political interference in any media organisation, does that sit comfortably with you? Whether it comes via, for example, criticism from Labor about News Corps reporting could that be seen as political interference in free media?
ROWLAND: Well, I would always err on the side of ensuring that we have as free and as open a media as possible and that is certainly where the conundrum sometimes arises and that's why, quite frankly, regulators find it quite difficult to regulate in this area - when you look at issues such as taste and decency, when you look at matters such as cash for comment, for example. At the end of it, you've got to actually be able to say I want to ensure that we have a free and fair and open media. And I guess, again, the difference with the ABC is that it is not a state broadcaster, it is a public broadcaster.
JAYES: And we've just got through - and this is without notice, I'm seeing this for the first time as well - Mitch Fifield has sent out a statement: He said “From time to time, I have raised factual errors in ABC reporting but have always respected the legislated, operational and editorial independence of the ABC. I have never involved myself in staffing matters, nor am I aware of any member of government who has sought to do so. The operations of the ABC are entirely a matter for the Board and management of the ABC, which by law, the Minister does not have a role in. Questions about the ABC's Board and management are a matter for the ABC.” Does that clear things up from the Minister's point of view?
ROWLAND: I don't think that that answers the question that has been posed in the article today which is the genesis for all this, and that is that there is an allegation that political interference has occurred. Now, what the Minister states is of course fact, insofar as how the legislative structure operates and I don’t take any issue with that. But we do have very serious allegations here of political interference by government. Now, they need to be responded to. He has responded to them in terms of himself as a Minister, and to the best of his knowledge, as I heard you saying.
JAYES: Just to be clear, you don't regard political interference in raising factual errors in ABC reporting. Would you regard that as political interference?
ROWLAND: Well, anyone can raise issues of factual errors. The issue that has arisen in this particular circumstance is the allegation, basically, of a directive that a certain staff member needed to be sacked. That is the question.
JAYES: But the questions really lie with Justin Milne here, don't they? Why did he feel that political pressure?
ROWLAND: Well, this is exactly what we are seeking to find out.
JAYES: Okay, well we'll try and get those answers from Justin Milne because you're right, that statement really didn't address most of those issues this morning. Michelle Rowland, twice in one week, maybe we’ll speak to you tomorrow. Who knows?
JAYES: Thanks so much for your time. The Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland there.