The chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has stepped down amid allegations that he ordered the firing of journalists deemed too critical of the government.
Justin Milne resigned his post as the head of the independent, government-funded network after “his board turned against him and staff threatened to walk off the job,” The Sydney Morning Herald reports.
In May, Milne reportedly emailed ABC’s managing director, Michelle Guthrie, insisting that Emma Alberici, the network’s chief economics correspondent, be fired after complaints about her coverage from then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
“They [the government] hate her,” Milne reportedly wrote.
“We are tarred with her brush. I think it’s simple. Get rid of her,” Milne wrote to Guthrie, according to Fairfax Media. “We need to save the ABC – not Emma. There is no guarantee they [Turnbull’s Coalition] will lose the next election.”
Milne and Turnbull, who was ousted amid inter-party wrangling in August, are described by Australian media as “long-term [friends].”
Separately, another publisher reports that Milne had also ordered the firing of ABC’s political editor, Andrew Probyn, due to government criticism.
Guthrie reportedly resisted pressure to get rid of the two journalists.
Turnbull, who has been living in New York since being forced to resign as prime minister, said he had complained about the two journalists, but never asked for their dismissal, according to The Associated Press.
“The bottom line is I’ve never called for anybody to be fired,” he told reporters in New York. “My concern has been on the accuracy and impartiality of reporting.”
On Thursday, Milne, a former executive at Australian telecom giant Telstra, described the recent reports as a “firestorm” and said he decided to quit because he “wanted to provide a release valve” for the network.
However, he has denied any wrongdoing. Asked Thursday in an interview with ABC if his resignation was an acknowledgement of a failure to protect the network’s independence, Milne responded: “Absolutely 100 percent not.”
“In fact I feel that the interests of the ABC have always been uppermost in my mind,” he said.
“There was absolutely no interference in the independence of the ABC by the Government,” he insisted in the interview. “Nobody from the Government has ever rung me and told me what to do in relation to the ABC.”
The day before his resignations, Milne fired Guthrie, ABC’s first female managing director, saying that the board of directors had determined it was in the network’s best interests to let her go.
Guthrie said her termination was not justified and that she was considering legal options. “At all times I have promoted the ABC’s importance to the community, including having to defend and protect the ABC’s independence,” she said, according to ABC.
According to the AP, “The conservative coalition has long complained of a leftist bias in ABC reporting. But center-left governments have also complained of unbalanced reporting in the past.”
Australia’s new prime minister, Scott Morrison, tweeted on Thursday that the decision by Milne to step down was “the right call.”
Speaking with reporters earlier, Morrison described the allegations against Milne as “very concerning,” according to the AP.
However, he added, “the idea that the government has somehow got some list and is telling the ABC who should work there and who shouldn’t – that’s complete rubbish.”