Australia public TV chief quits over political scandal

Australia public TV chief quits over political scandal

Former ABC chairman Justin Milne leaves the ABC studios after resigning in Sydney on September 27, 2018. Reuters

Australia's much-loved public broadcaster scrambled to safeguard its hard-won reputation for impartiality on Thursday, forcing out a chairman accused of intervening in news coverage to please the government.

Top executive Justin Milne told the ABC he would step down, after the institution's board held crisis talks in Sydney and the government announced an inquiry into his actions.

According to leaked emails, Milne unsuccessfully pressed for the sacking of two senior reporters over coverage that did not please his friend, Malcolm Turnbull, then the prime minister of the current centre-right government.

Milne on Thursday told the ABC the crisis had been a "firestorm" and said he "wanted to provide a release valve".

The almost century-old Australian Broadcasting Corporation is incredibly popular Down Under, with polls showing it is not just the most trusted news organisation in the country, but also seen as a national treasure.

ABC journalists demanded Milne go on when the revelations became public on Wednesday.

Initially, the Liberal Party-led government stopped short of publicly forcing that move, announcing that its Department of Communications would conduct an inquiry "to establish the facts in these matters".

After appearing to be on the fence, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the ABC and Milne had "made the right call" in changing leadership.

"Time for the ABC to resume normal transmission, both independently and without bias. That is what Australia's taxpayers pay for and deserve," he said.

Acting centre-left opposition leader Tanya Plibersek demanded an independent investigation into what happened.

"The ABC is not the propaganda arm of the Liberal party of Australia. It is our national broadcaster. Australians love their ABC. They are, rightly, very protective of its integrity and independence."

Milne did not directly address the allegations in a written statement, but insisted the board had worked to ensure the independence, interests and continued funding of the organisation.

Around 70% of Australians want a strong ABC, despite government spending cuts and daily withering criticism from its commercial rivals -- who baulk at what they see as unfair competition from the taxpayer-funded behemoth.

The current crisis began with the unceremonious ouster earlier this week of ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie, reportedly pushed out by Milne due to her poor relations with Canberra and a range of internal managerial missteps.

But her departure was followed by a wave of alarming leaks about Milne's conduct and his closeness with the Liberal government.

The tumult has prompted handwringing about the future of the public broadcaster and raised questions about whether the board should be replaced wholesale.

It has also prompted questions about the ramifications of Australia's bareknuckle politics, with its frequent backstabbing.

"It's about a civic culture that is slowly falling apart: a political class with fewer civic boundaries, less concerned with the independence of institutions, and a muscular intolerance of dissent," politics lecturer Waleed Aly wrote.

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