Ita’s call on ‘sex scandal’ story
ABC chair Ita Buttrose phoned the national broadcaster's managing director over an explosive Four Corners report detailing an alleged sex scandal involving Liberal Party figures before watching the program ahead of it going to air.
The ABC's managing director David Anderson has revealed that Ms Buttrose contacted him after another ABC board member had been contacted by a Morrison Government staffer to ask whether the story was in the "public interest".
It follows allegations that the Morrison Government applied "extreme and unrelenting" pressure over the story that included emails, calls and copying the ABC managing director into correspondence.
In evidence to Senate estimates, Mr Anderson revealed on Monday night that Ms Buttrose had watched the program and was also satisfied it was in the public interest.
"I can tell you that the chair Ita Buttrose phoned me, to let me know, that a ministerial staffer had phoned a member of the board,'' he said.
"I had already briefed the chair. The chair has seen the program and supports the decision to publish it.
"Our independence is absolutely intact. It's paramount. There is nothing that we received that dissuaded us or otherwise of publishing this story."
However, Mr Anderson said some of the contact to pressure the ABC was "problematic."
Mr Anderson also offered to "take on notice" whether Ms Buttrose had also been directly contacted by other Liberal Party figures over the investigation.
It follows allegations raised by Four Corners executive producer Sally Neighbour that the political pressure applied to the ABC had been "extreme and unrelenting".
"This is important, public interest journalism," Mr Anderson said.
"This program will raise important issues that hopefully will be addressed over time. I think this is an important program."
Under questioning from Labor Senator Murray Watt, Mr Anderson offered to provide on notice the documentation revealing the "individuals in question" who sent emails about the Four Corners program - if required.
"This is not what we would normally do," Mr Anderson said.
"Senator, it sounds like I need to table those emails. I will take that on notice."
Mr Anderson said the emails raised questions over whether the story was in the public interest but he denied that he regarded the emails as "threats" against the national broadcaster.
"I didn't see any direct threat in there," Mr Anderson said.
Mr Anderson revealed he received about "half a dozen emails" from Liberal ministers' offices questioning whether or not the Four Corners program was in the public interest.
"What I saw was someone claiming that the questions needed to be more specific, but the questions were quite specific," Mr Anderson said.
"This story started as something else. The genesis of this story was in regards to women during the pandemic. Four Corners were in touch with women who were in Parliament House.
"What people came to us with, was concern over a culture and a culture was considered to be a toxic culture, that was otherwise characterised as a 'women problem' and allegations that are serious allegations that sat in there.
"What that led to was the story that you will see tonight."
But the grilling of the ABC managing director then took a bizarre turn over the program that had not yet gone to air at the time, with Queensland Liberal Senator Amanda Stoker demanding to know whether any "blackmail" had been involved in negotiations over the program.
Ms Stoker also asked if there was bonk ban in place that precluded ABC staff having sex with each other. Mr Anderson said there was no comparable bonk ban but there were policies on sexual harassment.
"Are you satisfied that no attempts of blackmail were made in pursuit of this story," Ms Stoker asked the ABC managing director.
Mr Anderson replied he had no evidence to suggest this at all.
"Can you confirm that no threats, whether direct or veiled, were made to any individual?'' Senator Stoker then asked.
"If you learned of them, would there be consequences for the people involved, the journalists [who] were involved?"
Mr Anderson confirmed he had not received any direct emails from the Prime Minister's office about the program.
The Australian's Media Diary columnist Nick Tabakoff broke the story Monday morning that "emails have been fired off by the government to the ABC, addressing or copying-in the public broadcaster's managing director David Anderson, news chief Gaven Morris, Four Corners executive producer Sally Neighbour and researcher Lucy Carter" over the story.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the ABC had a duty to "uphold its charter" when asked if his office or other senior ministers had applied pressure over the issue.
"We would just expect that the ABC, always, that they would act in an independent and an unbiased … way," Mr Morrison said.
"If they are going to make inquiries I would think they would want to do them across the political spectrum.
"I more than supported it. I ensured that it continued," Mr Morrison said about the "bonk ban" that Mr Turnbull introduced.
But despite the complaints to the ABC, Mr Morrison conceded he had not seen the program.
"I am not in the habit of responding to allegations based on a program I haven't seen. I don't even know what's in it,'' he said.
Four Corners executive producer Sally Neighbour confirmed on Monday morning that political pressure had been applied.
"The political pressure applied to the ABC behind the scenes over this story has been extreme and unrelenting,'' she tweeted.
"All credit to the ABC's leadership for withstanding it. 'Inside the Canberra Bubble', tonight on #4Corners."
Earlier, the Senate estimates interrogation commenced with the ABC managing director being asked if he knew that the Northern Territory's chief minister's wife worked at the national broadcaster in Darwin.
"Yes, I think I was aware of that. Yep," Mr Anderson said.
He offered to "take on notice" finding out if the woman was given permission to "campaign" for her husband and was now back in the newsroom reporting on current affairs.
Originally published as Ita's call on 'sex scandal' story