ABC boss David Anderson defends broadcaster’s independence

ABC managing director David Anderson has launched a strong defence of the independence of the public broadcaster from government intervention, amid a deepening rift with the federal government over its political coverage.

Addressing the role of the ABC in a speech in Melbourne on Monday, Mr Anderson said it was “in no-one’s interest” to see any erosion of the ABC’s independence.

ABC managing director David Anderson at a Senate estimates hearing in November, where he defended the broadcaster’s reporting.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“Essential to the perception of the ABC’s independence and impartiality is the reality that we are independent and detached from government direction,” Mr Anderson said in the speech.

The arrangements for his address at La Trobe University on Monday were made in late January. But coincidentally, the speech was delivered hours after the public broadcaster was hit with a defamation lawsuit from federal Attorney-General Christian Porter over its reporting of a historical rape allegation against him.

In documents filed in the Federal Court, lawyers for Mr Porter alleged an online article, which did not name him, conveyed a series of false and defamatory claims about Mr Porter, including that he “brutally raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988”, when he was 17, and that this contributed to her taking her own life.

The defamation suit, which Mr Porter will personally fund, comes on top of the Morrison government’s outrage at the decision by the ABC’s Four Corners program to air allegations of sexist behaviour by Mr Porter dating back to his university days. The episode, titled “Inside the Canberra Bubble”, which aired in November, also exposed an extramarital affair between Population Minister Alan Tudge and his then-media adviser Rachelle Miller in 2017.

It prompted Communications Minister Paul Fletcher to issue a public letter to ABC chair Ita Buttrose demanding an explanation as to how the episode was in the public interest and complied with the ABC board’s obligations to ensure the broadcaster produced accurate and impartial journalism. Ms Buttrose’s response was never made public, but leaked reports revealed she regarded Mr Fletcher’s intervention as political interference.

Mr Anderson, in his speech, highlighted the ABC’s statutory protection of its independence.

“It is because we are independent, and we have a statutory obligation to impartiality, that Australians look to us to celebrate what it means to be Australian and to explore the tough issues that confront us all,” Mr Anderson said.

His speech also took aim at the government’s proposal in a communications policy green paper, released last year, to impose an Australian content quota on the ABC as “an incursion into its independence.”

“Setting a minimum level of expenditure for television production would reduce our flexibility to appropriately and independently allocate funds across all ABC activities, including news and regional services. It could set a precedent for further interventions in the allocation of the ABC’s budget,” he said.

Mr Anderson also warned the government’s stoush with Facebook on the news media bargaining code had served as a reminder that Australia needed to protect public interest journalism. He said Facebook’s decision to overturn its ban on news did not guarantee “that a large digital platform won’t turn its back on Australian users again at some point in the future, prioritising profits to shareholders overseas, above the needs of any Australian”.

“We must protect our independence in news and information and ensure that trusted and credible news is always easy to find and freely available to all. That is the ABC’s core role.”

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