Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Statements by Senators

Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Beijing Winter Olympics

1:09 pm

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | Hansard source

Today, the ABC has again shown it is incapable of responsibly spending taxpayers' money. The ABC has been raised with a silver spoon in hand and now the self-entitled beast has once again shown that, in its eyes, it is above the government, the legal system and its funders, the taxpayer. The ABC, once again, has taken its position within the Australian community and tried to push its own agenda, disregarding any obligation of impartiality.

But today a strong message has been sent which I hope Ita Buttrose and David Anderson hear loud and clear. In June, I wrote to the ABC chair about widely-held concerns over the ABC spending taxpayer funds to cover the legal expenses of Louise Milligan's defence against legal action commenced by the member for Bowman. It is not the first time Ms Milligan has used her platform at the ABC to post a series of tweets in what, at best, can only be described as unprofessional conduct. My letter asked Ita Buttrose why the publicly funded ABC was footing the bill for Milligan's legal costs, despite Louise Milligan admitting that the tweets were not made in a work capacity as an ABC journalist. This begs the question as to why the ABC would pay the legal fees of an employee's actions as a private citizen. On the flipside, Andrew Laming, the member for Bowman, paid his costs out of his own pocket. In response, the ABC's managing director, David Anderson, refused to address the specific concerns of mine due to the ongoing legal proceedings. Well, those legal proceedings concluded this morning.

I am pleased to inform the Senate that Mr Laming and Ms Milligan's dispute has been resolved by consent orders. But, unfortunately for the Australian taxpayer, Louise Milligan has agreed to pay $80,000 to Andrew Laming to compensate him and also pay his legal costs—an admission of liability. The $80,000 do not include her own legal fees to date, which are still to be covered by the ABC, with the taxpayer effectively playing sugar daddy. I quote the member for Bowman's brief statement. He said:

My case is an example of how a false allegation can be quickly and widely disseminated over social media by persons who have no direct/personal knowledge of what actually happened ...

I condemn the actions of supposed investigative journalists, media personalities and political identities using social media to make unwanted attacks of this nature.

It wasn't just Ms Milligan. The member for Bowman also welcomed public apologies from culprits who have used their position in the Australian community to defame him, including Senator Hanson-Young, Senator Murray Watt, Derryn Hinch and Queensland state Labor MP Don Brown. I also question the conduct of Senator Keneally, who has appropriately deleted a tweet regarding this matter but is yet to apologise to the member for Bowman. In light of today's judgement, I suggest Senator Keneally reconsider her position on contrition posthaste or start transferring her assets into someone else's name.

Despite the significance of today's judgement, I am unsure that this will make a difference to mitigate wilful character assassination in the absence of facts. Twitter is the preferred platform of the ABC vigilante crusaders. While these smart alecs believe their words attack those of us on the Right, ironically their sneering tweets billboard their own intolerance. Surprisingly, I'm happy for the ABC staff to keep attacking us deplorables as their sniping shines a light on their partisan hypocrisy, but I don't want the taxpayers paying their legal costs. Where ABC identities—not in the course of their job, I stress—defame or libel people, they personally should pay the legal costs and any damages. I do support and will always support legal protection for journalists engaged in the noble art of the fourth estate, but, if they say it, they should pay for it. The national broadcaster should not be a taxpayer funded law firm, wasting money defending witless, feckless, partisan personal views that are expressed on the allegedly personal but surprisingly professional social media accounts of staff.

The only excuse the ABC could offer in a statement earlier today was that it 'decided to pay Ms Milligan's costs in this matter' due to 'particular and exceptional circumstances'. I'll repeat that: 'particular and exceptional circumstances'. But it didn't explain what those particular and exceptional circumstances were. The statement also said that Ms Milligan's posts were made 'in good faith'. It is a shame that one of the ABC's self-acclaimed leading investigative journalists could get it so wrong, make defaming allegations and then hide behind a claim that they were made 'in good faith', with little regard for the effect of such statements when they are wrong. Many would say that this is wilful carelessness and the ABC is complicit in this behaviour due to agreeing to pay Ms Milligan's legal fees.

By continuing to pay Louise Milligan's legal fees for a personal post, the ABC is directly subverting its obligation to impartiality, which it has recently tried to uphold in a new social media policy. In an email from David Anderson to all staff, sent earlier this week, he states: 'What is separately created and posted on personal social media accounts is editorially and legally the responsibility of the owner of the accounts.' David Anderson concedes that Ms Milligan's posts are the responsibility of Ms Milligan and therefore is distancing the ABC from the private posts of ABC employees. It begs the question of why the Australian taxpayer is paying Ms Milligan's legal bill, a question that remains unanswered.

David Anderson's email also recommends that staff remove reference to the ABC from their social media accounts and provide disclaimers that the accounts are their personal views. It is worth noting that Ms Milligan's Twitter handle has no such disclaimer and still references the ABC and its Four Corners program, a move which can only be described as flagrantly ignoring the instructions of the managing director—the same managing director who made the decision for the taxpayer to foot her legal bill for personal posts.

Today I've written to David Anderson calling on him to clarify what the 'particular and exceptional circumstances' are behind the reason for paying Ms Milligan's legal costs, given that the conduct occurred on her private social media, and whether this payment remains appropriate in light of the changes to the ABC's social media policy. If so, I encourage the ABC to release the criteria for determining what personal conduct falls within these circumstances, to adequately inform the taxpayer of what other expenses they may be expected to pay for.

Earlier this week I, along with colleagues, co-signed a letter calling for a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. The reason for the diplomatic boycott is the serious abuses of human rights occurring in China, particularly to the one million ethnic Uighurs suffering in detention camps. The situation there is increasingly being labelled by human rights organisations, research institutes and national parliaments as genocide. We should not let the 2022 Winter Olympics be the modern 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The diplomatic boycott would not involve athletes or those directly involved with Australians competing in the games. Such a boycott would be unfair to those who've trained so hard to compete in the games. Nor should a government ever tell its athletes where they can and cannot compete. But I call upon all colleagues and I call upon the government to support a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics being held in Communist China.


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