The Morrison government is confronting the ABC board over the Four Corners’ “Inside the Canberra Bubble” expose, demanding chair Ita Buttrose answer 15 questions about the program within 14 days.
The program featured Rachelle Miller, a former staffer to minister Alan Tudge, saying she’d had an affair with him, and also alleging minister Christian Porter, now attorney-general, was seen cuddling a staffer of another minister in a Canberra bar in 2017. Porter denied the claim.
The complaint, sent from Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, is the latest in a series over the years from the Coalition.
Buttrose, who was appointed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, strongly defended the ABC in a recent speech, describing it as “one of the lynchpins of our democratic society. It is not designed to make those under scrutiny feel comfortable. It exists to provide checks and balances and hold those in power to account, and as such it is the voice, and therefore the embodiment, of Australian democracy”.
Fletcher refers to evidence given to a Senate committee by ABC managing director David Anderson last month. He said at the time, “the chair has seen the program and supports the decision to publish it”. He was giving evidence hours before the program aired.
In his letter, Fletcher asks why the board considers it appropriate to compromise the privacy of the ministers by dealing extensively with aspects of their personal lives in the way the program did.
He also questions the failure to report denials by the woman in the bar of the alleged nature of that incident and of any relationship with Porter. (Porter has said the woman denied off the record to Four Corners the characterisation of the bar incident.)
Fletcher asks why the board judges the personal lives of politicians newsworthy.
“Does the board consider that it is consistent with the duty of impartiality that the program deals with allegations solely against Liberal MPs? Does the board say that there are no such relationships involving Labor, Green or independent politicians?” he asks.
“Why should an objective observer not conclude that the program evidenced clear bias against the Liberal Party, with this bias evident in the choice of persons interviewed, the making of specific allegations in the face of clear factual denials, and the fact that the program failed to investigate or report on conduct engaged in by Labor, Greens or independent politicians?”
Miller had lodged a formal with the Department of Finance about her treatment while working for Tudge and subsequently, when she worked for Michaelia Cash.
Below is the full list of Fletcher’s questions:
- Why does the board consider it is appropriate that the privacy of the attorney-general and minister Tudge (the ministers) should be compromised by the way in which the program deals extensively with aspects of their personal lives? How is this consistent with the stated importance of respect for privacy in the code of practice, including whether intrusion into private lives was proportionate in the circumstances?
- How is it consistent with the code of practice’s reference to fair treatment and impartiality for the ABC to include in the program extensive materials regarding conduct over a quarter of a century ago by someone who was then a university student and even a school student?
- The managing director told the Senate committee that all relevant information had been provided to the ministers who were the subject of the program. Is the board satisfied that this statement is true? What inquiries did the managing director make before making that statement?
- Does the board consider it is consistent with the duty of accuracy and impartiality and the principle of fair and honest dealing that the program failed to report that the woman the subject of the alleged incident in the Public Bar and the subject of the alleged relationship with the attorney-general denied both these allegations to those preparing the program?
- In light of these denials by the woman, does the board believe it was appropriate for the program to present statements by Senator [Sarah] Hanson-Young as purportedly corroborating Ms Miller’s allegations?
- On what basis did the program determine that the claims concerned the same woman? Should the ABC have asked the woman whether she had spoken to Senator Hanson-Young? If the ABC did not ask this of the woman, does the board consider this to be consistent with its duties relating to accuracy and impartiality and the principle of fair and honest dealing?
- Why does the board consider it appropriate and in the public interest that this woman’s privacy should be compromised by this program? How is the program, and the allegations contained within it, consistent with the stated importance of respect for privacy in the code of practice?
- Why, in the judgement of the board, are the personal lives of politicians newsworthy?
- If the board’s answer to the previous question is that the ministerial code makes it so, then: a. which of the conduct alleged in the program does it say breached the ministerial code? b. what is the relevance to the ministerial code of the allegations extensively made in the program concerning conduct by the attorney-general at several stages of his life before he became a minister?
- Why in the judgement of the board is the existence of a consensual relationship between a politician and a staff member that occurred prior to the introduction of the ministerial code considered newsworthy?
- Does the board consider that it is consistent with the duty of impartiality that the program deals with allegations solely against Liberal MPs? Does the board say that there are no such relationships involving Labor, Green or independent politicians?
- How is it consistent with the duty of impartiality that the program did not disclose to viewers the strong political affiliations, opposed to the Liberal Party, of some of those who commented, including a lawyer long aligned with the labour movement, Mr Josh Bornstein and a former candidate for Labor preselection, Ms Jo Dyer?
- How is it consistent with the duty of impartiality that the mix of those interviewed for the program was overwhelmingly weighted towards those either politically hostile towards the Liberal Party or personally hostile towards or motivated by animus against the ministers?
- Why should an objective observer not conclude that the program evidenced clear bias against the Liberal Party, with this bias evident in the choice of persons interviewed, the making of specific allegations in the face of clear factual denials, and the fact that the program failed to investigate or report on conduct engaged in by Labor, Greens or independent politicians?
- 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?