Senate inquiry into ABC suspended after Labor and Greens motion gets cross-bench support

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<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

A government-led inquiry branded “political interference” by ABC chair Ita Buttrose has been voted down by Labor and the Greens in the Senate.

Last week the prime minister, Scott Morrison, backed a Senate inquiry into the public broadcaster’s handling of complaints after extraordinary pushback from Buttrose, and rejected suggestions the ABC had been singled out for special treatment.

It had been set up by the environment and communications legislation committee’s Liberal chair Andrew Bragg who announced a snap inquiry into complaints handling by the ABC and SBS, to report by 28 February.

But the ABC board had already commissioned an independent review of the public broadcaster’s editorial self-regulatory system and complaints handling, headed by Prof John McMillan, a former commonwealth and New South Wales ombudsman and Jim Carroll, a former head of SBS and Ten news.

Last week Greens media and communications spokesperson, Sarah Hanson-Young, said the inquiry was a backdoor process to attack and undermine the independence of the ABC, and foreshadowed a move to suspend it until an external ABC review is finished.

On Tuesday a Greens and Labor motion was backed by the cross bench and the inquiry was suspended.

“This inquiry was a partisan attempt to use the legislation committee to undermine the independence of the public broadcaster,” Hanson-Young said.

“It was another tactic in a long line of attacks from the Liberals and Nationals who have spent eight years trying to crush the ABC.

“An independent review of the ABC’s complaints system is under way. A senate inquiry established outside of normal processes and running in parallel was inappropriate. It is nothing more than political interference by the Morrison government.”

Bragg said he was disappointed and the motion was “a backward step for our democracy”.

“The parliamentary privilege attached to Senate submissions means people can say what they like without the threat of expensive and protracted legal action,” Bragg said.

“It sets a terrible precedent for the Senate to close public access, especially where more than a dozen submissions have already been received as evidence.”

Editorial complaints at the ABC are examined by five members of a complaints-handling unit called Audience and Consumer Affairs.

Related: Labor pledges funding boost to safeguard Australian public broadcasters from ‘arbitrary’ interference

ABC editorial director, Craig McMurtrie, has explained the unit is at arm’s length from the editorial division and reports regularly to the ABC board.

“Complaints about content represent a fraction of all ABC output, but every one of them is taken seriously,” McMurtrie said.

“Where mistakes are made there are written apologies to complainants, on-air and online corrections, revisions to published content with explanatory editors notes, staff are counselled or other disciplinary action taken and further training is provided.”

The ABC welcomed the vote of the Senate “to defend the ABC’s independence and suspend the communications legislation committee Inquiry,” an ABC spokesperson said.

“The ABC will now continue with the independent review of the complaints system commissioned by the board in October.”

The ABC said an issues paper will be released shortly for public comment.

On Wednesday morning the government backed away from a last minute request by Liberal senator Gerard Rennick to recommit the vote.

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