Senate inquiry into ABC complaints on knife edge as advocate backs review

The fate of Senator Andrew Bragg’s inquiry into the way the ABC and SBS handle complaints will be decided in a matter of days, with two independent senators and the Labor Party signalling they would support a motion by the Greens to terminate it.

But Dhanya Mani, a campaigner against misconduct towards women, backed the inquiry, saying it would be a better alternative to the ABC’s independent review.

ABC chairwoman Ita Buttrose has accused Senator Andrew Bragg of political interference of the broadcaster after he sought a Senate inquiry into the ABC’s complaints processes. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen/James Brickwood

“It just feels to me like the very function and way that these inquiries operate is an attempt to silence individuals because there’s never a genuine attempt to actually investigate what that organisation has done wrong and make reparations for the harm that’s been caused,” Ms Mani, who has felt mistreated by the ABC’s complaints process, said.

ABC chair Ita Buttrose accused the Morrison government of political interference last week after Senator Bragg announced he would conduct an inquiry into the way complaints were handled. Ms Buttrose called on the Senate to suspend or terminate the inquiry until a separate independent review, which has been commissioned by the ABC board, was complete.

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young is expected to give notice of a motion on Monday to direct Senator Bragg’s committee to discontinue its inquiry into the ABC and SBS immediately. “The independent review into the ABC’s complaints-handling process that is already under way must be allowed to go ahead without political interference or attacks,” Senator Hanson-Young said.

“The ABC is already subjected to scrutiny of the Parliament, and politicians, like the public, are free to criticise the public broadcaster.

“But let’s be clear, this Senate inquiry, run at this time, set up outside normal processes and controlled by the government, is designed as a witch-hunt.”

Senator Hanson-Young did not respond directly to Ms Mani’s comments.

Independent senators Jacqui Lambie and Rex Patrick told this masthead they were likely to support the motion. “The senator is minded to support the Greens’ motion on the basis that politicians should not be determining the internal processes of the ABC,” a spokesman for Senator Lambie said.

Senator Patrick said: “If a motion is moved to shut it [Senator Bragg’s inquiry] down, I will support it on the basis that there is already an independent inquiry under way.”

Centre Alliance senator Stirling Griff said he would look at the motion when it was introduced on Monday and indicated he saw some merit in both sides’ positions.

“I appreciate the view that ABC should be able to run their independent inquiry first, but every parliamentary committee has the right to instigate their inquiry and I cannot recall any time during my term that a committee-instigated inquiry was killed off,” he said.

Labor’s communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland said it was considering its options, but described the inquiry as “wasteful”.

“The ABC doesn’t always get it right and is committed to continuous improvement which is why the ABC has independent review mechanisms and why the law provides for any complainant who considers the ABC’s response to be inadequate to make a complaint to the ACMA about the matter,” Ms Rowland said. “It is also why the ABC Board commissioned its own, independent review into the ABC complaints handling process which was on foot well before Senator Bragg launched his own wasteful and duplicative inquiry.”

Senator Bragg is expected to have the support of One Nation despite the party potentially withholding legislative votes in protest against mandatory vaccine rules. Two Coalition senators are also withholding votes on legislation over vaccine policy. However, Senator Hanson-Young’s motion is not legislation.

Complaints about the ABC’s editorial coverage are currently handled by the audience and consumer affairs division. If a complainant is unhappy with the outcome, it is referred to the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Complaints about conduct on social media are handled by the manager of the accused.

Dhanya Mani is a sexual assault survivor and former Liberal staffer who was furious at the way the ABC handled her complaint against Louise Milligan.Credit:Rhett Wyman

Earlier this year, the ABC decided that a complaint from Ms Mani, founder of advocacy organisation Kate’s List, was outside the remit of its consumer affairs and audience division because it related to a tweet from high-profile reporter Louise Milligan, rather than official ABC content. Ms Milligan’s boss, Four Corners executive producer Sally Neighbour, also dismissed Ms Mani’s complaint and the fact that the post was on social media left her unable to appeal to the media watchdog.

“It felt like a very, very tokenistic response,” Ms Mani said of the ABC’s handling of her complaint.

Ms Mani is now so sceptical of the broadcaster’s processes that she is unsure whether she will participate in its review. She said the Senate process offered a greater opportunity for people to give their views under the protection of parliamentary privilege.

Ms Mani said the tweet that prompted her to complain to the ABC suggested – without naming her – that she had not been a true friend to Kate, the late woman who accused former Attorney-General Christian Porter of raping her in 1988. Ms Mani had become friends with Kate after revealing her story as the survivor of an alleged sexual assault.

The tweet followed Ms Mani’s criticisms of the ABC’s coverage of Kate’s story and, in her view, betrayed confidential discussions she had had with Ms Milligan. Mr Porter has repeatedly denied the allegations against him.

An ABC spokesperson reiterated that the national broadcaster was conducting an independent review of its system. “The terms of reference for the review are comprehensive and wide-ranging,” the spokesperson said.

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