ABC boss denies Senate request to name staff earning more than $235,000

ABC boss David Anderson is resisting a push by the Coalition to reveal the names of staff who are paid more than $235,000 a year, arguing it will breach the privacy of employees and expose them to abuse.

A Senate estimates hearing scrutinising the public broadcaster quickly became a tense affair on Tuesday morning, as Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson, a former ABC employee, used the opening minutes to press Anderson for details about highly paid staff.

ABC managing director David Anderson during the Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday, where has sought to claim public interest immunity over the disclosure of individuals’ salaries. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Henderson requested the name and title of each ABC employee, contractor and subcontractor earning more than $235,000, and a separate breakdown of the roles, gender, place of work, and remuneration band of ABC employees.

Anderson, the managing director of the public broadcaster, immediately sought to block the disclosure of such information by lodging a public interest immunity claim, saying: “I don’t believe it’s appropriate that we provide the information that you seek”.

He told the hearing the ABC already disclosed remuneration details in its annual report, which documented the number of employees across specific salary bands, but argued that further granular detail would identify individual employees.

He outlined four grounds for the basis of the public interest immunity claim that, if upheld by the Senate, will protect against the disclosure of the information, including that it would amount to an “unreasonable invasion of privacy” and would expose staff to “unwarranted public criticism or targeted online abuse”. He also claimed the information was “commercially sensitive and disclosure would damage the ABC’s commercial interests”.

Senator Sarah Henderson said she had witnessed “many examples of inefficiencies” during her nine-year stint at the ABC in the 1990s.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

During the exchange, Henderson said she had witnessed “many examples of inefficiencies” and “much waste” during her nine-year stint at the broadcaster in the 1990s and “I don’t have any cause to believe that things have improved very much”.

The hearing broke for a private meeting to discuss the immunity claim but reconvened a short time later with the issue unresolved. Labor chair Karen Grogan flagged the ABC would be recalled to appear at a follow-up hearing.

A separate fracas erupted a short time later over a speech Four Corners investigative reporter Louise Milligan gave to the ACT Women Lawyers Association in Canberra on October 21.

Henderson tabled a letter of complaint from ACT bar association president Rebecca Curran to the ACT WLA, which called Milligan’s speech “insensitive and polemical” and said members were left “deeply offended and distressed”.

The letter further alleged that Milligan “demonstrated no understanding of the difficult and vital work done by barristers of all genders” and stated she “seemed to encourage lawyers to run cases in the media and promoted misconceptions concerning the criminal justice system”.

Henderson, the Coalition’s communications spokeswoman, referring to the letter and media reports of the event by The Australian newspaper, asked Anderson: “Do you agree with what Ms Milligan has said in her speech, reportedly including condemning lawyers or criminal lawyers who defend those people who are charged with crimes such as sexual assault?”

Henderson alleged there was “one particular very concerning comment made reportedly by Ms Milligan [in which] she seemed to suggest that women when making allegations should always be believed” and suggested Milligan was bringing the ABC into disrepute.

Four Corners’ reporter Louise Milligan’ speech to an ACT legal event was the source of questioning in Senate estimates.

Anderson replied that he had not read the speech or attended the event, but a senior editorial manager had since reviewed her remarks and concluded there was “absolutely no problem with what Ms Milligan said on the day”.

He said the complaint had not been sent to the ABC, the event was not connected to the ABC, and Milligan had not been representing the broadcaster at the event.

Grogan repeatedly called the hearing to order and suspended proceedings multiple times to regain control.

As the fiery exchange unfolded, Milligan took to Twitter to allege that Senator Henderson’s claims were “completely fictitious. And the opposite of what I said in my speech”.

“This is the second time she has told something to parliament about me that is completely inaccurate. Rebecca Curran from the ACT Bar Association both thanked me for my speech and pitched me a story on the night,” Milligan tweeted.

“I challenge Senator Henderson to repeat these false claims outside parliament.”

Henderson and Liberal Senator James McGrath subsequently seized on the tweets to question whether they breached the ABC’s code of conduct.

Henderson labelled the tweets “disgraceful” and “prima facie defamatory”, and accused Milligan of “going rouge”.

Anderson agreed to review the tweets and respond at a later date but said the ABC was not editorially responsible for content published on people’s personal social media accounts.

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