A federal Liberal Senator has asked the Auditor-General to examine the ABC’s decision to pay the defamation costs of star reporter Louise Milligan after she was sued by Federal Liberal MP Andrew Laming over a series of tweets alleging he had taken an “upskirting” photo of a woman.
Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, a vocal critic of the public broadcaster, wrote to the Auditor-General Grant Hehir this week requesting he review the “appropriateness” of the $79,000 damages plus legal costs paid by the ABC to Dr Laming to settle the case.
The broadcaster was not a party to the suit, with Dr Laming suing Milligan over tweets she made from her personal account that suggested he had admitted to the criminal offence of taking an “upskirting” photo of a woman’s underwear.
Dr Laming took a photo of a 29-year-old woman without her knowledge, while she was in a pose that exposed her underwear at the top of denim shorts. Dr Laming says the woman was in a kneeling position and the photo was “completely dignified”. The woman’s co-worker confronted Dr Laming and demanded he immediately delete the photo. The woman made a formal complaint to police but a charge could not be laid as there was “no evidence to indicate a criminal offence”.
Dr Laming claimed he was defamed by the false accusations that he took a photo “under her skirt” and committed the crime of “upskirting”.
Senator Abetz said the ABC had failed to explain why it had indemnified the reporter when the defamation case was unrelated to her reporting.
“The ABC’s attempt to justify these substantial costs and damages payment to their own ‘ABC luvvies’ from public funds has clearly failed the public opinion test,” Mr Abetz said. “It is now time to test the legality and appropriateness of these substantial payments of taxpayer funds for private purposes. I have therefore written to the Auditor-General seeking his determination.” The ABC declined to comment.
Milligan agreed to pay Dr Laming $79,000 in damages plus legal costs in early August. While the national broadcaster did not publish the tweets and was not sued by Dr Laming, the national broadcaster decided to cover Milligan’s costs, citing “particular and exceptional circumstances”.
Prior to the settlement, ABC boss David Anderson warned employees that they were legally accountable for their personal social media accounts. He also said they could face disciplinary action under the ABC Code of Conduct for their posts, but there is no suggestion at the time that Milligan is or was facing such action.