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Judith Neilson Institute head says events spiralling ‘out of control’ as independent directors quit

The philanthropist Judith Neilson has taken control of the $100m journalism institute she set up at arm’s length four years ago, after independent directors walked out en masse and leaked emails warned the organisation was spiralling “out of control”.

Staff and the media beneficiaries of the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas were left in shock by the departure of the directors amid uncertainty about what the institute’s new mission to promote “social change journalism” would mean.

The executive director of the institute, Mark Ryan, had the support of the independent directors but is unlikely to survive the upheaval.

On Tuesday the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald published a leaked email from Ryan to members of an international advisory council for the organisation, asking them to sign a letter to Neilson expressing concerns about its future.

“Those I spoke to late last week felt it was worth appealing to the patron before events spiralled out of control,” Ryan wrote. “Unfortunately, that ship has well and truly sailed.”

He attached another email from the American journalist Bruce Shapiro, an advisory council member, expressing “grave concern for the future of this crucial project” and alarm at “internal developments”, referring to the resignation of the directors.

Guardian Australia has confirmed the email is genuine. It is understood it was signed by four of the 12 members of the advisory council.

The chief executive officer of Neilson’s family office, Simon Freeman, told Guardian Australia Neilson wanted to move the organisation “in a slightly different direction”.

“Judith recognises the effort of what’s come to date, but has decided that she wants to move in a slightly different direction, which is more focused on social change journalism,” Freeman said.

Sources close to the organisation, who declined to speak on the record, said Neilson was keen to provide “proactive support for journalism that drives social change”, more in line with her support of various charities working in areas of slavery, homelessness, children’s health, affordable housing, climate change and food scarcity.

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It is understood Neilson, who is currently overseas, 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 sent an email to staff on Tuesday with more detail about the new direction, which he said would be a “more direct and pragmatic focus on such areas as investigative journalism, photojournalism, grassroots media and enhancing access to quality journalism for those with diverse backgrounds”.

Freeman was appointed to the board after the four independent directors quit, leaving only two directors, both of whom represent Neilson’s interests.

The directors who quit were the former New South Wales chief justice James Spigelman, the Australian’s editor-at large, Paul Kelly, Free TV chief Bridget Fair and the former chief executive of the State Library of Victoria Kate Torney.

Neilson also wants to bring the governance of the institute more in line with her other projects, which have a non-independent board.

To 30 June 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.

Neilson, the billionaire owner of the White Rabbit art gallery in the Sydney suburb of Chippendale, announced in 2018 she would fund a $100m institute for journalism that would be independently run and would work with media organisations and journalism schools.

The institute has supported journalism by providing education, events and grants. Decisions made about what projects were funded were made based on criteria and determined by the institute and the board. Guardian Australia, like other media organistions, has had several projects funded by the institute, including the Pacific Project.

When she created the institute, Neilson said she supported “evidence-based journalism and the pursuit of truth in an increasingly complicated and confusing world”.

“I am delighted to support the establishment of this Institute and I will look to experienced journalists and other experts to manage and guide its work,” she said in 2018.

“I know that traditional forms of journalism are going through massive change and Australian journalism and intellectual life needs a shot in the arm.”