Australia

ABC crisis: Kirstin Ferguson 'honoured' to step in as acting chair

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Dr Kirstin Ferguson will act as chairperson of the ABC until a permanent replacement is chosen.

Former Air Force officer and experienced company director Dr Kirstin Ferguson has been appointed deputy chair of the ABC board and will act as the interim chair effective from today.

Communications Minister Mitch Fifield confirmed Dr Ferguson's appointment, saying the government's recommendation has been accepted by the Governor-General.

"I congratulate Dr Ferguson on her appointment and look forward to her continued contribution to the ABC," he said.

"Dr Ferguson brings exceptional business and leadership experience to the role and a deep understanding of the ABC, having served on the Board as a non-executive director since November 2015."

Dr Ferguson steps up to the leadership position after the extraordinary events of the last week, which saw the two most powerful leaders at the national broadcaster leave their roles.

She told ABC News the role was a "massive responsibility" that she was "honoured" to take on. She said her focus would be on "protecting" the ABC's independence. 

"I don't have a relationship with government. I am focused only on the ABC and independence," she said. 

Responding to calls for a broader flushing out of the board, as has been advocated by the Greens, Dr Ferguson said that was "not the right answer right now" and would not be in the best interests of the ABC. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has nominated ABC director, Kirstin Ferguson to take on the role of acting chair following Justin Milne’s resignation.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has nominated ABC director, Kirstin Ferguson to take on the role of acting chair following Justin Milne’s resignation.
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The appointment comes as the Communications department launches an inquiry into allegations of political interference at the ABC, questioning whether outgoing chair Justin Milne pushed for the sackings of senior journalists to appease the Coalition government. 

The full text of an email Mr Milne sent the broadcaster’s management conveying the government’s “hatred” of senior reporter Emma Alberici has surfaced in the media, not long after Mr Milne claimed he had been taken out of context.

Parts of the letter were published earlier in the week and dramatically escalated the leadership crisis at the ABC, culminating in Mr Milne’s resignation.

Former ABC chairman Justin Milne says he resigned to ease pressure on the ABC.
Former ABC chairman Justin Milne says he resigned to ease pressure on the ABC.

Mr Milne defended the leaked comments in an extensive TV interview on Thursday evening, claiming he had been “taken out of context”.

“It's a piece of an email, taken out of context, in a conversation, which was a confidential conversation, and a conversation that you'd expect should be had,” Mr Milne said.

But not long after the interview went to air, the Sydney Morning Herald published what it claimed was the full text, having been “read” the material by someone who “witnessed” sacked managing director Michelle Guthrie presenting it to the board last week.

Emma Alberici was the focus of a series of emails from the ABC chairman.
Emma Alberici was the focus of a series of emails from the ABC chairman.
ABC

The text reads:

“After two glasses of red of course there's an agenda. They fricken hate her. She keeps sticking it to them with a clear bias against them. We clear her as ok. We r tarred with her brush. I just think it's simple. Get rid of her. My view is we need to save the corporation not Emma. There is no g'tee they will lose the next election [sic].”

The ABC has now lost both its managing director, Michelle Guthrie, and the chairman of its board, Justin Milne, in an unprecedented crisis at the national broadcaster. The rest of the board is under ongoing pressure, with some calling for further sackings.  

The head of the Communications department is now conducting an investigation to determine whether Mr Milne’s interventions were a consequence of political pressure from the government.

Communications minister Mitch Fifield said he expected the inquiry to report back within “days, not weeks”.

ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie was sacked this week.
ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie was sacked this week.
AAP

Labor and the Greens insist the resignation of Mr Milne is not the end of the matter and are pushing for an additional Senate inquiry.

“By no means does Labor consider that this is the end of the matter. The government might like to think that this is business as usual and everyone should just get on with their lives but, quite frankly, I think this government has seriously underestimated the level of public disquiet,” Labor’s Michelle Rowland said.

Both the government and the outgoing chairman have consistently denied any direct pressure for the sackings of journalists.

“There was absolutely no interference in the independence of the ABC  by the government. Nobody from the government has ever rung me and told me what to do in relation to the ABC,” Mr Milne said.

“Nobody ever told me to hire anybody, fire anybody or do anything else.”

HOW THE ABC CRISIS UNFOLDED:

Monday, September 24:

* ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie is sacked by the broadcaster's board, who claimed it was "not in the best interests" of the broadcaster for her to continue in the role. She was halfway through a five-year contract.

* ABC chairman Justin Milne says Ms Guthrie's relationship with the government was a factor but there had been no government pressure.

* David Anderson, a 30-year ABC veteran, is appointed acting managing director while a formal search for a replacement begins.

* Ms Guthrie says she is considering her legal options.

Tuesday, September 25:

* Both sides of politics say they expect more will be revealed about Ms Guthrie's sacking, with Labor eager to investigate the subject at Senate estimates.

Wednesday, September 26:

* A news report emerges alleging Mr Milne had told Ms Guthrie to fire ABC chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici after former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull complained about her reporting.

* Communications Minister Mitch Fifield says his department secretary will hold an inquiry into the matter and report as soon as possible. Labor and the Greens say they will pursue a Senate inquiry.

* A further news report accuses Mr Milne of asking for ABC political editor Andrew Probyn to be fired. It's alleged Mr Milne told Ms Guthrie "you just have to shoot him".

Thursday, September 27:

* Pressure mounts on the chairman to resign as Mr Turnbull and Mr Fifield say they have never called for anyone at the ABC to be fired.

* The ABC board meets in the morning without Mr Milne before asking the chairman to step aside. He resigns.

* Mr Milne denies claims he called for journalists to be sacked, saying the leaked confidential emails were taken out of context.

Friday, September 28:

* Prime Minister Scott Morrison announces ABC board member Dr Kirstin Ferguson has been recommended to take over as acting chair.

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