Simple as ABC – a public radio/TV licence

 

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Chart: ABC annual report 2016-2017

At first glance, Treasurer Scott Morrison’s plan to slash $83.7 million from the ABC operating budget seems mean-spirited. At second glance, when he tells reporters ‘everyone has to live within their means’, it still seems mean-spirited.

The Budget proposal comes at a critical time for the ABC, which has been dealing with cumulative cuts of $254 million since 2014.

The Federal Treasurer, having painted the picture large, sent a hospital pass to Finance Minister Mathias Cormann to handle the outrage. Mr Cormann defended the decision to freeze indexation for three years (which amounts to $83.7 million), saying that all taxpayer-funded organisations have to find efficiencies.

The national broadcaster has been tightening its belt so much there is no room left for another notch. Managing director Michelle Guthrie sent an email to all staff saying as much, which she amplified in a press release. Ms Guthrie said the impact of the decision could not be absorbed by efficiency measures alone, as the ABC had already achieved significant productivity gains in response to past budget cuts.

She referred to Budget measures starting in 2014 with a 20% cut to the operating budget. The ABC was told to slash $254 million from its operating budget within five years. The broadcaster began to make cuts which were expected to save $207 million in 2015.

Jobs were lost, through natural attrition or redundancy, and the ABC also started reviewing its property portfolio and transmission network. As I have written previously, there was a general hubbub of protestation about this, circa November 2014.

“Petitioners were petitioning, GetUp was getting up, the ABC Friends group was lobbying and raising funds. They should have seen it coming,” I wrote.

A graph in the ABC’s latest annual report (above) shows how its operational budget has waxed and waned, dropping 28% from 1985-1986 to 2017-2018. As the graph indicates, the ABC has weathered some very lean years, particularly 1997-1998, under John Howard and Peter Costello.

The ABC annual report says 2017–18 was the third year to reflect previously announced Government-funding reductions. As part of the ABC/SBS Additional Efficiency Savings measure, there was a year on year increase of $7.7 million in the cut to the ABC’s base funding, bringing the total decrease in base funding to $55.2 million per annum.

This week Ms Guthrie said the ABC was continuing to implement various savings initiatives to address funding cuts, comprising efficiency savings in support functions and transmission (to cover the previously budgeted reduction of $12.5 million required in 2018–19).

Back to the drawing board, then.

Ms Guthrie said the decision came at a critical time for the ABC, as it starts triennial funding negotiations with the Government.

“The ABC is now more important than ever, given the impact of overseas players in the local media industry and the critical role the ABC plays as Australia’s most trusted source of news, analysis and investigative journalism.”

There is also a risk that the Enhanced Newsgathering initiative will not be renewed (at a cost of $43 million). The ABC acknowledges a decision on this funding is yet to be made by the Government. Considering the hullabaloo that followed economic reporter Emma Alberici’s analysis of the government’s plan to cut corporate tax rates, these financial constraints must be seen as ideological and punitive.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said the ABC was “one of the pet hates of the Liberal Party”, and it’s hard to disagree.

“Because the ABC occasionally asks questions of the government they’re going to wind back $83 million,” he told the ABC.

But Finance Minister Mathias Cormann says the ABC will still receive $3.2 billion over those three years.

“This is effectively equivalent to the efficiency dividend that applies to nearly all other government taxpayer-funded organisations,” he added.

One of the early victims of successive budget cuts was the ABC Fact Check Unit, which was closed down in May 2016. ABC news director Gaven Morris said at the time “Unfortunately, having a standalone unit is no longer viable in the current climate.”

In March 2017, however, the unit was revived as a joint venture between RMIT University and the ABC. The unit’s brief, as it was before, is to ‘test and adjudicate on the accuracy of claims made by politicians, public figures, advocacy groups and institutions engaged in public debate’.

Which governments taxed us the most?

You may have seen an infographic on social media which the Fact Check Unit verified. It shows which governments taxed us the most, spanning the years between Whitlam and Turnbull. Tax as a percentage of GDP peaked in the Howard years at 23.5%. The Whitlam years averaged 19.4%. The Abbott/Turnbull years thus far average 21.7%. Interestingly, the turbulent years of Rudd/Gillard/Rudd averaged 20.9%.

So isn’t it satisfying to publish information like that and know it has been fact-checked and found to be factual? In this era where fake news and what I’d call ‘sponsored news’ leaves us with a skewed perspective, it is refreshing to see the ABC has found a new way to maintain standards.

There were some moments in the Federal Budget one could choose to laud; tax cuts, better reverse mortgage opportunities for pensioners and more funding for the homeless, albeit dependent on State contributions. But there was no respite for people on NewStart and no real plan to address housing affordability.

And, as the Climate Council pointed out, there was nothing at all in the Budget to address climate change – the words were not even mentioned.

For perspective, take a moment to think about the Federal Treasurer’s $50 million plan to redevelop the Meeting Place Precinct in Botany Bay (including a $3 million statue of Captain James Cook). Yes, it’s in Mr Morrison’s electorate, but surely that’s a side issue, Leigh?

If I may revisit an idea from Simple as ABC in 2014, the budgetary travails of the ABC and the ideology motivating it could simply be avoided. All it would take is an annual public radio/TV licence; $35 per household per year would (now) raise about $300 million. If the government of the day would guarantee indexed funding of $1 billion a year, the ABC could plan, rebuild and restore quality for the long-term.

Let’s be reminded that we all paid a radio licence from 1920 and continued doing so until colour TV was introduced in the early 1970s. Not every household in Australia would be happy about paying this licence fee. Some would see it as subsidising those dangerous lefties and bleeding hearts at the ABC and SBS.

But something radical needs to happen, to arrest the decline in quality (e.g. ABC online), restore transmission to remote areas (try getting an ABC station on your car radio when travelling in country areas-Ed.) and ensure money can be found for important investigations.

Every week since 1961 the award-winning Four Corners has continued to unearth important stories. Investigative journalism is an expensive business which requires reliable funding and a relatively free hand.

If we want more important stories like the live sheep export scandal, the solution is simple as ABC: We need to consistently fund the national broadcaster and guarantee its editorial independence.

Further reading: Mr Denmore thinks the media should boycott the Budget Lockup:

http://bobwords.com.au/simple-abc/

http://bobwords.com.au/simple-abc-part-2/

 

Censorship, guns and the right to arm bears

 

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This image is classified (S) for satire under FOMM’s censorship guidelines

I was idly wondering if I should have a go at George Christensen for pulling that silly, anti-greenies gun stunt at the firing range but self censorship kicked in. What if he knows where I live? I blanched. The process known in journalism school as ‘self censorship by osmosis’ still kicks in, even 18 years down the track.

You may have assumed I was about to jump into the very deep pool of acrimonious discourse about mass shootings, guns and gun control. Actually, no, there are enough rabid views out there from one side and the other. Perhaps you will have seen Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s repost of the kind of vile trolling one can attract by advocating for the environment (if not, don’t bother looking it up – Ed.)

Instead, I thought we should look at a worrisome instance of censorship; where a respected economic analyst/journalist had an article taken down by the national broadcaster, the ABC. Emma Alberice’s reasoned piece about corporate tax cuts was removed by ABC management, reportedly after complaints from on high about its alleged lack of impartiality. Alberice’s article argues there is no case for a corporate tax cut when one in five of Australia’s top companies don’t pay any tax.

After public criticism, the ABC deflected cries of ‘censorship’ saying removing the analysis and an accompanying news story were ‘entirely due to concerns about Ms Alberici’s compliance with ABC editorial policies that differentiate analysis from opinion’.

The analysis has since been scrutinised by experts and given the seal of approval. It has even been re-posted at a public affairs website owned by the eminent Australian, John Menadue, AO. You may recall Menadue. He started his working life as private secretary to Gough Whitlam (1960-67), before forging a career in the private sector then returning to public service in the mid-1970s. He has since led a distinguished career in both public and private life, most notably as an Australian diplomat.

Mr Denmore, one of Australia’s more incisive commentators on media and economics, wrote this in Alberici’s defence:

Mr Denmore (the pseuydonym of a former finance journalist), sees this issue as plain old-fashioned censorship.

He concludes that Alberice was merely offering insights, which have got the nod from some serious-headed economists, as ‘uncomfortable truths’, which those in high government office and boardrooms found too confronting.

Now, a week later, the ABC has reinstated* Emma Alberici’s analysis, albeit with some passages removed. As former ABC journalist Quentin Dempster reported in The New Daily, the author and her lawyers negotiated an agreed form of words for the reposted analysis.

The removal of Alberici’s original analysis coincided with a planned US visit by a high-level delegation of Australian business and government leaders.  The latest advocate of global  of ‘trickle-down economics’,+ President Donald Trump, will meet with PM Malcolm Turnbull today. No doubt Mal will be taking notes on the US president’s ‘open for business’ approach of slashing corporate tax rates from 35% to 21%. Australia’s more modest proposal, which is currently blocked in the Senate, is to reduce the corporate tax rate from 30% to 25%, over a decade.

+A term attributed to American comedian Will Rogers, who used the term derisively, as did later opponents of President Reagan’s ‘Reaganomics’.

The nation’s top business leaders, under the umbrella of the Business Council of Australia, will also meet with US governors and top-level US company executives. Australian State Premiers, including Queensland’s Annastasia Palaszczuk, will also attend.

Business Council head Jennifer Westacott told the Sydney Morning Herald she feels that Australian business is “in the weeds of politics” and

“Meanwhile in the US they’re getting on with it.”

Westacott and Council members support the Australian corporate tax cut proposal as the only policy that can deliver jobs and growth.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten is taking the hard line – a corporate tax cut cannot help ordinary people, at a time when companies are using tax havens and keeping wages low. Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen admits there is a case for company tax cuts, but said the LNP’s plan is unaffordable when the budget is in deficit.

The attempt to gag debate on this subject is, however, more worrying than the toadying going on in Washington. Australia ranks 19th in an international survey of countries judged on press freedoms. Reporters without Borders (RSF) maintains the list of 180 countries, many of whom oppress the media in far more serious ways than plain old censorship.

Australian media freedoms pursued by stealth

At first glance, 19th from 180 sounds good, but Australia has some issues, not the least of which is concentration of media ownership. The risk of self censorship is high, given the lack of job opportunities elsewhere. The 2017 survey notes that new laws in 2015 provide for prison sentences for whistleblowers who disclose information about defence matters, conditions in refugee centres or operations by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization.

I sometimes fret about a FOMM I wrote before these laws were introduced – an eyewitness account of US Marine movements after a chance encounter at a Northern Territory roadhouse.

“Aw shucks, we all just stopped to use the latrine, Ma’am.”

There’s more: a new telecommunications law has opened the door for surveillance of the metadata of journalists’ communications. Federal police raids on Labor Party parliamentarians in 2016 violated the confidentiality of sources. The Reporters without Borders report says the latter showed that authorities were “more concerned about silencing the messengers than addressing the issues of concern to the public that had been raised by their revelations”.

Meanwhile, a new draft national security bill seeks to restrict foreign interference in politics and national security. It contains secrecy and espionage provisions that could result in journalists being sent to prison for five years just for being in possession of sensitive information.

Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, called the draft bill “oppressive and ill-conceived”.

“If this bill were passed, journalists receiving sensitive information they had not sought would automatically be in violation of the law. If this law had existed in the United States in 1974, the Watergate scandal would never have come to light.”

The free-wheeling nature of social media ensures that dissenting discourse does not stay banned for very long, though often exposed to a much smaller audience.

You may censor me, but never my T-shirts

I suppose now you want me to explain the relevance of the Right to Arm Bears T-shirt, eh? This now threadbare item was bought from a tourist shop on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls in 2010. I have been trying to find and purchase a replacement online. The manufacturer (Gildan) has similar T-shirts but none as fetching as the grumpy-looking bears wearing hunting jackets.

Wearing a shirt that makes a political point, however ironically, is an individual’s right in a free country to express an opinion. In my case it succinctly states my position on American gun laws, just as another T-shirt bought from a stall at Woodford, depicting a full-masted, 17th century sailboat (”Boat People”) says a lot about my attitude to refugees. Perhaps I should replace it with a Save the ABC shirt. Seems like the ABC needs all the friends it can find.

*Read Emma Alberici’s revised analysis here:

More on press freedom.

Keeping Cabinet secrets safe

Keeping-Cabinet-Secrets
Keeping Cabinet secrets, image by Ricky Lynch

Zounds, it’s only the ninth day of February and some records have been set, including the biggest ever accidental leaking of Cabinet secrets. In un-related news, the weather bureau said last Saturday (the 3rd) was the coldest February day in 100 years. We didn’t have a fire on because we had no dry wood, but some Hinterland folks were better organised. BOM said it was 18 degrees but with the rain, fog and all-day and all night drizzle, it felt like 16.

Our New Zealand, Canadian and UK friends and relatives would no doubt scoff at 16-18 degrees being described as chilly. But this is the sub tropics after all, and a week earlier we were enduring temperatures in the mid-30s.

Although it was comparatively balmy in Canberra last weekend (25/10, 27/14), the atmosphere was decidedly chillier. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull turned up for the ABC’s Insiders programme on Sunday vowing that “heads would roll” over the accidental disposal of two filing cabinets full of Cabinet secrets.

The cabinets went to a Canberra second hand office furniture store and were purchased by a citizen who later drilled them open. The (Parliamentary) Cabinet papers dating back 10 years, many marked Top Secret or AUSTEO (Australian Eyes Only), were handed to the ABC. The national broadcaster published nine stories based on the Cabinet secrets over the following days before explaining how they came into the broadcaster’s possession. The ABC deemed some material too sensitive for publication because of national security issues.

In the meantime, Australia’s spy agency ASIO visited ABC headquarters in Sydney and Brisbane and negotiated secure storage for the documents and eventually reclaimed the Cabinet secrets.

Patrick Weller, Griffith University’s Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, judged that the use of the papers by the ABC seemed random. “The ABC was probably aware they had limited time to play the story before it became public and everyone else jumped aboard,” he wrote in The Conversation.

“The story was more about the filing cabinets than the cabinet papers, about the carelessness rather than the content,” Prof. Weller said.

Prof. Weller argued that the leaking of (historical) Cabinet papers is not such a disaster for governments in that they are often time specific, advising about matters long forgotten and maybe even now seen as minor incidents.

As the rules go, historical Cabinet papers are made available after 30 years; once a year in January we get to see another batch. They make for interesting reading if you are a historian or a political academic, but rarely anything more than that. Prof Weller says most Cabinet papers could be released within five years. Only a few would matter.

International eyes on sloppy Aussies

Nevertheless, the story caught the attention of the world’s media and Australia’s international allies – the US, Canada, the UK and New Zealand. The Washington Post commissioned a piece from Australian writer Richard Glover, who pithily summarised the Cabinet secrets affair as “Deep Drawers”.

As Glover observed, the key problem with the sale of unchecked government furniture is that anyone could have bought them, then handed their contents to a foreign agent or government.

He quoted Andrew Wilkie, a former intelligence analyst now sitting MP: “It sends a signal to our intelligence partners and allies that Australia might not be trustworthy when it comes to sharing information and intelligence with us.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Sunday the “shocking failure” would be fully investigated and the people responsible held accountable.

The idea that public servants, entrusted with highly confidential documents, would put them in a safe, lock the safe, lose the keys, and then sell the safe without checking what was in it – it beggars belief,” he told Insiders

It’s not just governments. Forbes magazine guest writer Mark Emery, director of a document management company, cited examples of big organisations mishandling confidential data. They included paper documents from four hospitals in Massachusetts found un-shredded in a public dumping facility. Another hospital in the same state admitted that personal records of 800,000 people were “missing”.

In Dallas, Texas, prisoners on parole were allowed to work off community service hours by sorting and shredding confidential documents, such as birth certificates and medical records. The practice was scrapped in 2012.

Richard Glover mentions similar circumstances in the 1990s when diplomatic bags were sent to be laundered at Wandsworth prison in the UK. In 1991, Canada’s diplomatic bags (full of top-secret NATO documents)  were mistakenly sent there too, and went missing soon after.

Mistakes happen, in business, in government and in our private lives. Who has not sent a sensitive email intended for one person to many people? The digital data system is just as prone to this kind of mishap as the traditional paper file system.

When computers first started becoming dominant in business (in the 1990s), we were sold the myth of the “paperless office”. Twenty years later, even a micro-business like mine goes through a couple of reams of paper per month. Most people I know who run any kind of consulting business buy a shredder and keep it working (don’t forget to take staples out first!)

Last year in Sydney and Melbourne there were reports of medical files and legal papers found dumped in unlocked kerbside recycling bins. When stories like this make it into the media, they should at least make individuals aware of the need for safeguarding sensitive information.

In the 1980s, I’d been court reporting in a country city for several years. I always archived my jumbo-size reporters’ notebooks – filled on both sides with untidy scrawl – a mix of shorthand and my unique form of notetaking. The second time we moved house, I looked at the four archive boxes full of musty notebooks and decided I had to get rid of them.

I found a waste recycling firm which offered “secure disposal”. They dropped off a big wheelie bin at my place, the lid secured with chains and a padlock. Once I’d filled it up, I called the firm and they picked up the bin. The firm assured me the notebooks would be “burned or pulped”. This exercise cost $75, but what a salve for my conscience. The majority of matters heard in court never make it into the news or are briefly summarised. More importantly, magistrates and judges may decide to supress reporting. There was an example of a district court trial where I took copious notes only to find out that the defendants’ and plaintiffs’ names could not be published. Later a blanket ban was issued and we couldn’t print anything. Notwithstanding, a good court reporter will write everything down – better to have too much than not enough.

So that’s why I was feeling suitably smug, all these years later, when the strange case of “Deep Drawers” hit the news. It’s hard enough to keep secrets secret in the era of digital ‘cloud’ storage, super hackers and whistle-blowers. But Richard Glover’s oblique reference to “Deep Throat” (nickname of the Watergate source), nevertheless reminds us that if we want to discard sensitive paper files, dispose of them as I did.

If that was all a little heavy for an early autumn Friday, here’s a few songs about February to help you cope with the cold (or the heat).

The list did not include February, a poignant tune by Dar Williams, but here it is anyway.

 

Trump, Clinton and the third candidate

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Aussie tourist poses outside Trump World Tower, Manhattan. Photo by Laurel Wilson

Who, except Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, would want to be leader of a nation today? The manic, 24/7 pressure of life in the top job makes old men (and women) out of youthful candidates in no time. At home, we saw the pressure tell in quick succession on Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and now Malcolm Turnbull, who no longer resembles the debonair bon vivant who aspired to high political station. In the US, Barack Obama’s eight years in the job is etched into his face.

Yet the aspirant leaders keep coming. Hillary wants the top job, even though she saw what it did to her husband, not to mention Monica Lewinsky, these days engaged in anti-bullying campaigns.

Donald Trump wants to make America great again (though no-one has yet proven when the US was ever great). Former Australian PM Tony Abbott was cited (from afar), telling high-ranking people overseas he planned to make a leadership comeback. Whether he did or didn’t say this, on his return, Abbott and Turnbull clashed jousting sticks in the House, prompting gasps and gossip amongst Canberra lobbyists.

Who’d be a world leader? US presidents get asked to make awful decisions, to wit Harry Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities in 1945, killing between 130,000 and 226,000 people. Harry didn’t drop the bombs, but it was his head that nodded when the generals asked him if they should.

Even Australian Prime Ministers are asked to make unpalatable decisions which may come back to haunt future generations. Bob Menzies bowed to pressure from Great Britain, who wanted to test atomic bombs in Australia’s western desert. After all, they could hardly do it in Manchester or Liverpool. People would have complained.

Some impressions of this seldom-scrutinised period in our history are captured in Collisions, an 18-minute multimedia film by Lynette Wallworth. The Monthly’s Quentin Sprague reviewed the ‘immersive’ film which premiered in Adelaide and is playing as a ‘virtual reality experience’ at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image until mid-January. Nyarra Nyarri Morgan, a young man in the 1950s when he witnessed the mushroom cloud above the desert, recalls its impact: “the surrounding waterholes boiled and kangaroos fell to the ground under a drifting blanket of ash.”  Later, when people became sick after eating the fallen kangaroos, they mused: “What god would do such a thing.”

Harry Truman recalls approving the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a biography written by his daughter, Margaret Truman, Harry’s decision to over-rule the general who believed the Japanese would surrender under the onslaught of conventional bombs, was aimed at saving Japanese and American lives. Almost 80,000 died after the firebombing of Tokyo, part of a planned programme of incendiary bombing.

“It was not an easy decision to make,” Truman said. “I did not like the weapon. But I had no qualms if in the long run millions of lives could be saved.”

After a successful testing in New Mexico, Truman approved the bombing of four targets – Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata and Nagasaki

Given the history, you do wonder about people like Donald Trump, a self-described multi-billionaire who has no material need, apparently, to live in the White House. There are bigger and better mansions and easier jobs than making America great again, or even for the first time.

Why would he want to be the one with the power to pick up the red telephone? There is no guarantee either that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t pick up the red phone.

The media is making much of the Clinton-v-Trump clash, mostly ignoring a third candidate, Libertarian Gary Johnson and his running mate Bill Weld. Johnson and Weld say they have a master plan to sneak the presidency from under the noses of Trump and Clinton.

The Washington Times reported on Monday the pair say they can change history and win the election through a combination of quirky political circumstances, voting variables and polling inaccuracies. Polling data shows Johnson and Weld have greater support in 20 states than the margin between the Republican and the Democrat, neither of whom will find it easy to snare the necessary 270 votes. One or two states could determine the outcome.

Former Republican adviser Bill Whalen agrees there is a scenario where neither Hilary Clinton nor Donald Trump wins the presidency. He told ABC Radio’s Eleanor Hall on Wednesday much hinged on the outcome in Utah, where candidate Evan McMullen has snared enough votes to win that state. It could be that the House of Representatives will decide who is best suited to the Oval Office: Trump could be deemed ‘unsuitable’ and Clinton’s election risky, as it could spark a constitutional crisis if a Federal investigation finds against her. Enter stage left, Evan McMullen, an inscrutable former CIA operative who has a theoretical chance at the White House.

Here is yet another reason to cite The Simpsons. “Citizen Kang(season 8), still rules as the best piss-take of the two-party political system. Homer is abducted by aliens Kang and Kodos who demand he takes them to his leader. When Homer explains about the (1996) election, the aliens kidnap presidential candidates Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, placing them in suspended animation and assuming their forms through “bio-duplication.” The one-eyed aliens plan to ensure one of them will become the next leader succeeds, despite their alienating habits of walking hand in hand, drooling green slime and talking in robotic voices (“Klin-ton”). Kang is subsequently elected, enslaving humanity into building a giant ray gun, to be aimed at an un-specified planet:

Meanwhile, the global media obsession with Trump vs Clinton, which promises to continue until January, provides perfect cover for our conniving government, which seems intent on homogenising the arts and making sure people who tried to get to Australia by boat go (somewhere else), and never return. Comedian Lucy Valentine suggested they should make this law retrospective to 1788.

Of lesser significance, maybe, but mean-spirited nevertheless, Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced cuts to student loan funding for 57 creative arts diploma courses including circus, screen acting, stained glass, art therapy and jewellery. Additionally, the government capped loans for creative diplomas to $10,000 compared to $15,000 for agriculture and engineering.

Birmingham said the changes were made to focus on courses which would ‘benefit Australia economically in the 21st century’.

“Currently there are far too many courses that are being subsidised that are used simply to boost enrolments, or provide “lifestyle” choices, but don’t lead to work.”

Predictably, this decision brought forth a torrent of commentary on social media, ranging from reasoned debate to outright vitriol.

This issue, however, has slipped behind the international smokescreen which is the US presidential election campaign; a litany of (alleged) lies and counter-lies, insults and counter insults, accusations of defamation and one lawyer’s letter, published in the New York Times, which is very much worth reading.

If Donald Trump does not win the election, he has promised to sue everyone who has accused him of behaviour unbecoming of a US presidential candidate. It will be a long list.

He should probably just go back to building high-rise towers, hotels and golf courses and making money. He claims to be pretty good at that.