We have often been told that Malcolm Turnbull didn’t really have mates – associates, contacts, acquaintances and plenty of them, but few if any intimates beyond his immediate family.
However Justin Milne was probably the nearest thing around to a Turnbull crony. The two had been colleagues of a kind in the Ozemail days and had remained on relatively close terms ever since, so it seemed logical for the prime minister of the day to bump his friend up to one of the most sensitive jobs available – chairman of the ABC board.
Milne was essentially a businessman, with no discernible experience in journalism or broadcasting, but obviously this did not matter – after all, six of the other seven members of the board, all appointed by the coalition government, came from much the same background.
Only the staff elected director, Jane Connors, had hands-on knowledge of the media, and in particular the special needs and demands of running Aunty’s nephews and nieces, and apart from being hopelessly outnumbered by the bean counters, she was seldom brought into their main interest – which, it has since transpired, was placating a hostile government.
Like so many political players, Milne seems to conflate the public interest with the national interest, by which he means the government’s interests.
Apparently this was Milne’s principal preoccupation – that, and securing money for his pet project, digitising the ABC, which meant the two obsessions dovetailed very neatly. This was what he really meant by saving the national broadcaster – it had nothing to do with the separation of powers between him and his managing director, and where there was conflict, he did not hesitate to throw her under the bus.
The logic seemed to be that after all, Turnbull had given him the job, so by definition Turnbull was his superior, and thus his word was law. Of course he never said anything directly – of course.
And of course Rupert Murdoch does not tell his editors what to do.
He doesn’t have to – from the moment they are appointed they know precisely what is expected by their paymaster. So it was for Justin Milne.
If Turnbull doesn’t like journalists like Emma Alberici and Andrew Probyn they have to go – get rid of her, shoot him. Turnbull may not have said so in so many words, but Milne had no doubt what he meant. After all, the men were cronies.
And there was no need for telepathy when Milne discerned Triple J planned to move its Hottest 100 away from Australia Day – he knew the prime minister would go ballistic. So the solution was simple – toss the crew overboard to save the ship, or at least the money for his precious Jetstream, which he apparently thought was the same thing.
Even Rupert Murdoch’s most assiduous allies in his feud against the ABC and all its works found this a bit much and vigorously bucketed Milne.
A cynic might think they were more worried about saving the patron’s commercial interests from Jetstream, but at least they showed more sense than Milne himself, who still believes he did nothing wrong – he was acting in the best interests of his corporation by sacrificing his journalists to suck up to Turnbull and Mitch Fifield.
This is not only clearly counter to the ABC’s charter; it would essentially make his own role redundant. After all, if the government is really to be the one in charge of the ABC, why not cut out the middleman and make Fifield chairman – and managing director and perhaps news director and why not throw in the job of weatherman as well.
And this is the nub of it: Milne acknowledges the ABC as a national broadcaster, but not a public broadcaster in the true sense.
Like so many political players, he seems to conflate the public interest with the national interest, by which he means the government’s interests.
Milne’s example and his fall was the most blatant and, let’s face it, stupid excess of cronyism in appointing the ABC board, but it was certainly not the first: governments from both sides have rewarded their supporters with what some see as a sinecure but others as a key weapon in the endless culture wars.
The most blatant stack was when John Howard gave directorships to lunar right luminaries Janet Albrechtsen, Keith Windshuttle and Paul Brunton – all had less qualification for the job than even Turnbull’s cronies, but were regarded (by Howard) as reliable zealots in the crusade.
The last Labor government tried to break the cycle by setting up a selection panel to appoint board members on merit, but once the coalition got back Tony Abbott stacked the selection panel, even resurrecting the appalling Albrechtsen.
And this is where, and why, we are stuck today. So what next? The new acting chair, air force officer turned real estate mogul Kirstin Ferguson, was only available for interview by the ABC and refused to tell it anything anyway.
The remaining board members have circled the wagons and are saying nothing either. Mitch Fifield has – or, we are assured, soon will – initiate a departmental inquiry designed to absolve the government of any taint.
A more credible senate inquiry is foreshadowed, but will have to wait till parliament resumes, which Fifield and Morrison fervently hope will take the issue off the boil.
And in The Australian, the fulltime ABC basher Chris Kenny told his gullible readers that of course the ABC was a Green-left nest of parasites but Godfather Rupert has nothing to do with Newscorp’s relentless campaign against it – and, never one to let the facts spoil a good vendetta, Kenny signally failed to mention that Rupert has always seen the ABC as a hated rival to his commercial interests – especially Fox News.
Which leads to a serious dilemma: the mad right, including the Liberal machine as well as its paid propaganda arm the Institute of Public Affairs, wants the ABC privatised.
But that would put it in direct competition with the commercials for advertising revenue, to the detriment of, among others, Fox.
Fortunately Morrison and Fifield realise that the voters would never stand for that, so they will, presumably, pursue their war of attrition, slowly starving the public broadcaster to death. And of course the first step will be the appointment of a new chairman. Another Justin Milne is unlikely – you only get one like him in a lifetime. But there must be plenty of other willing cronies around.
Watch this space. Watch it on the ABC while you still can.
The war is not over yet.