Directors quit at billionaire Judith Neilson’s journalism institute – Sydney Morning Herald


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Four independent directors of the biggest philanthropic journalism institute in the country abruptly resigned after its billionaire founder overhauled the way it operates and allocates funding.
Australian billionaire and philanthropist Judith Neilson, who founded the Judith Neilson Institute in 2018, plans to take charge of her creation as it “changes direction,” a decision which appears to contradict original plans to establish the not-for-profit as independent.
Billionaire philanthropist Judith Neilson is planning to become directly involved in her journalism institute.Credit:James Brickwood
Neilson’s move, announced last Tuesday in a conversation via email with the Institute’s directors – former NSW chief Justice James Spigelman, Paul Kelly, Bridget Fair and Kate Torney – prompted them to resign en masse, according to people familiar with the conversation. The Institute was unavailable for comment.
Media sources, who requested anonymity to speak freely about the matter, said Neilson’s new vision for the organisation is not yet finalised, but her involvement raises concerns about its independence.
Documents filed to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission last Wednesday confirm the removal of the four independent directors, including Spigelman, who was serving as chair.
There are still three directors on the board: secretary Simon Freeman (who is the chief financial officer of Neilson’s family office) and Edward Jewell-Tait.
The change casts doubt on the position of executive director Mark Ryan, who is also on the board and still with the company for the time being. The independent directors of the board were supportive of Ryan.
Neilson made headlines when she committed $100 million to creating the institute in 2018. It was established as an independent and non-partisan body to encourage quality journalism through education, grants, and by hosting events on topical issues. The institute pledged to collaborate with university journalism schools and news organisations to improve reporting on the region, as well as debating key policy issues facing Australia.
“Journalism doesn’t just need critics, it needs champions – people and institutions with the resources to help educate, encourage and connect journalists and their audience in pursuit of excellence,” Neilson said at the time. “Through targeted funding and education, we can strengthen Australian journalism and help restore faith in its central role in a healthy democracy.”
This masthead has used funding from the institute for individual projects and to hire journalists.
Based in a large complex in Chippendale, the institute has so far funded investigative journalism projects, international assignments, the creation of international bureaus and invested in the recruitment of First Nations journalists. But a source who worked in philanthropic circles said eyebrows were recently raised about the cost of the headquarters and the number of staff employed compared to its spending on journalism grants.
What the institute is planning to become is not decided, but sources said it will still support journalism.
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