The Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas (JNI) has dismissed the remaining members of its international advisory council ahead of a review of the not-for-profit which has now been stripped of its founding board, expert journalism panel and management.
The billionaire philanthropist funded the institute to the tune of $100m in 2018, but blindsided the organization earlier this year by announcing she wanted to take it in a different direction.
The chief executive officer of the Judith Neilson Foundation, Simon Freeman, said it made sense to dissolve the panel while an internal review of the JNI’s direction is undertaken.
“A number of the advisory council members have indicated they may be interested in continuing to work with us,” Freeman told Guardian Australia on Friday.
In June, Neilson took control after four independent directors – the former New South Wales chief justice James Spigelman, the Australian’s editor-at-large, Paul Kelly, the chief executive of Free TV, Bridget Fair, and Kate Torney, the former chief executive of the State Library – walked out en masse.
Staff and media beneficiaries remain perplexed about what the institute’s new mission to promote “social change journalism” means.
The executive director, Mark Ryan, formally exited the institute last week saying he was considering legal action.
“To date, no coherent rationale has been provided for what was a totally unnecessary disruption to the institute and its hard-working staff,” Ryan said in an email to council members.
“I remain unable to provide a full account of the behavior of the patron and have no intention of responding to the many media requests I’ve received to provide my version of events.
“I’m advised by Australia’s preeminent employment law firm Clayton Utz that I have strong grounds to pursue an adverse action claim and I’m reserving my rights in that regard.”
Neilson recently arrived back in the country after an extended overseas trip. Her daughter Ella Beau joined the JNI board, along with Neilson’s lawyer, Daniel Appleby, after the resignation of the independent directors.
Sources say Neilson wants to become more personally involved in the activities of the institute and for it to focus more on the consumers of journalism rather than the producers, including non-English speaking communities and those in regional areas.
Freeman told the advisory council members, who included Australians Tom Switzer, Catherine Liddle, Richard McGregor and Antoinette Lattouf, their services were no longer needed because JNI was taking a “different approach”.
In an email seen by Guardian Australia, Freeman added that Neilson “remains committed to the future of JNI.”
JNI once described the council, who include Kyle Pope, the editor-in-chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, as “a group of eminent figures in journalism from around the world” appointed to advise the “independent, non-partisan institution ”.
“As JNI embarks upon its new direction we would hope that you remain friends of the institute and remain open to the possibility of working together in the future,” Freeman said. “Judith and the board acknowledges and appreciates your contribution in establishing the Institute and bringing it to its present position.”
JNI has funded several projects for large and small media outlets, including Nine newspapers and Guardian Australia. It has also organized events and education.
Until mid-2021, the institute had distributed $2.5m in grants and had a total expenditure of $7.7m, according to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.