Auditor-General unable to assess ABC decision on legal fees

Auditor-General finds no documented advice on the appropriateness of ABC’s decision to pay legal costs on behalf of reporter Louise Milligan.

The Auditor-General has concluded he was unable “to form a view on the appropriateness” of the ABC’s decision to pay damages and legal costs on behalf of Four Corners reporter Louise Milligan.

Auditor-General Grant Hehir said the ABC had advised him its decision to pay Milligan’s personal legal costs “was a business decision of the ABC, and the ABC was under no express legal obligation to meet these costs”.

The Age reports $200,000 in legal costs while The Australian refers to “more than $150,000 in legal fees and damages.”

Milligan was sued by federal Liberal MP Andrew Laming over a series of tweets where she incorrectly accused Mr Laming of “upskirting”.

“The ABC advised the business decision placed the ABC in a better position to facilitate a swift resolution to the Dr Laming proceedings and to assist the progress of the separate legal proceedings,” Mr Hehir wrote in a letter from the Australian National Audit Office responding to an investigation request instigated by Senator Eric Abetz.

“To the ANAO’s knowledge there is no documented advice which was prepared to support the appropriateness of the decision to meet the costs of an employee.”

He said it was the duty of the ABC board or its delegates to ensure the proper use of public resources by balancing the perceived business advantages against the financial costs. But in the absence “of any ABC policy, precedent, or process in place for this payment,” he was unable to assess the ABC’s decision in line with the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013.

“Given the available information, I do not believe I would be able to form a view on the appropriateness of this decision,” Mr Hehir wrote.

Senator Abetz said it was “wholly inappropriate” for the ABC to pay for the legal costs of a staff member who made remarks in their private capacity.

In August ABC said it decided to pay Ms Milligan’s costs due to particular and exceptional circumstances. It has since revised its social media policy for employees.

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