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ABC board not consulted over decision to cover journalist’s legal costs

The ABC has been forced to defend its decision to pay legal costs for journalist Louise Milligan in a defamation case brought by backbencher Andrew Laming.

In August, Ms Milligan agreed to pay Dr Laming $79,000 plus costs for a series of tweets posted in March, which he alleged were defamatory.

Dr Laming was cleared of any criminal offence related to the allegations in April.

ABC Managing Director David Andersen told a Senate estimates committee he alone made the decision to pay the costs and the board was not consulted.

“I made that decision on the 25th of May,” Mr Anderson said on Tuesday.

“This matter did come up before the board on the ninth of June. The circumstances by which we provided an indemnity to Ms Milligan were explained.”

The managing director said the decision to pay the legal costs was made based on legal advice that the ABC could be “vicariously liable” for Ms Milligan’s tweets and the risk of being joined to proceedings.

“The potential for the agency to be joined in proceedings and the potential financial exposure to the ABC, unless we created common interest privilege to hold off those proceedings, and to be able to settle them as fast as we could,” Mr Anderson said.

Mr Anderson confirmed the costs for the defamation case has totalled $184,000 so far.

He indicated further costs could be possible.

Camera IconThe managing director said he made the decision to cover Ms Milligan’s legal costs. NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage Credit: News Corp Australia

On Monday evening, Australian National Audit Office officials were quizzed about their decision not to investigate the ABC for paying Ms Milligan’s legal costs in the matter.

In a letter to Senator Eric Abetz, Auditor-General Grant Hehir said he was unable to judge the appropriateness of the decision because there was no policy or precedent for it.

Mr Hehir told the estimates hearing that since there were no documents related to the decision, the ANAO could only make a decision based on the testimony of the ABC.

The lack of documentation, the auditor-general said, was not usual.

“Normally you’d have an expectation that they would document those decisions … that’s something you’d expect to see.”

Asked if the decision was appropriate, Mr Hehir said it was “hard to say without evidence one way or the other”.

“Not being able to form an opinion is a reasonably strong statement from that perspective.”

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