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ABC chair's dire warnings about changing Australia Day countdown

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The ex-chair of the ABC told staff at radio station Triple J that activists who get ahead of public sentiment can be “burnt at the stake”, as they discussed moving their Hottest 100 countdown from Australia Day.

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Justin Milne expressed the sentiment at a meeting in October 2017, Triple J content cirector Ollie Wards has told a Senate inquiry into allegations of political interference at the ABC.

Wards says the meeting came after a year-long review into changing the date of the countdown which found most Triple J listeners were happy to have the date moved, and recommended the change occur.

Former managing director Michelle Guthrie was also at the meeting, along with ABC Radio director Michael Mason and Triple J manager Chris Scaddan.

Milne told the group the decision about whether to move the Hottest 100 from Australia Day would attract a backlash in the broader community.

“He said it’s our job to look after the interests of the whole ABC,” Wards told the inquiry by teleconference on Tuesday.

“Justin was talking about a book that he was reading to do with social change, and in that book it described about how activists who get out in front of public mood can end up – the words he used were ‘getting burnt at the stake’ – and that we wouldn’t want to be burnt at the stake.

“He was talking about Galileo, the astronomer, that he had gotten burnt at the stake for saying that the world was rotating around the sun.”

Milne also told the ABC staff, who pressed their case, that former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull wouldn’t be pleased by the change.

“He said: ‘Malcolm will call me and tell me I’m crazy’.”

Wards said he was surprised Ms Guthrie said little during the meeting, which left him feeling deflated after doing so much work on the issue.

“It seemed like the chair was just overriding things,” he said.

After the meeting, Triple J decided to keep pushing for the plan, which Wards was told was approved by ABC’s board by one vote.

He wouldn’t reveal who had informed him of the vote’s outcome.

The inquiry is investigating allegations of political interference, which emerged after the ABC’s board sacked Guthrie halfway through her five-year term in September.

Guthrie claimed then-chair Milne had encouraged her to fire journalists, after senior government figures had taken issue with them.

Milne denied the claims, but resigned as chair just days after Guthrie’s departure.

Earlier at the inquiry, ABC board directors said they weren’t aware Guthrie was concerned about attempts at interference until just days before she was fired.

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