Simple as ABC – a public radio/TV licence


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:


Simple as ABC Part 2

ABC HQ South Bank Brisbane

If journalists tend to have a universal blind-spot, it is their inability or disinclination to follow up on a story. When it comes to writing about budget cuts at the ABC, I plead guilty to said offence.

It is almost two years since I wrote about the Federal Government’s edict to the national broadcaster to trim $254 million – 20% of its then $1.22 billion operating budget – over five years. The media in general was having lots to say about this in November 2014. Petitioners were petitioning, GetUp was getting up; the ABCFriends group was lobbying and raising funds. They should have seen it coming.

A Senate Estimates hearing in February 2014 asked ABC managing director Mark Scott a hypothetical: if, given funding cuts, could he guarantee he would not have to cut services to regional Australia.

Scott said inter alia that nothing would be spared from that kind of review, and he could give no guarantee that any services would be spared, including rural services.

“But I am not expecting that, because a clear commitment was given to maintain the ABC’s funding.

The above was gleaned by what is known in the trade as fact-checking, also a reminder that the ABC’s renowned fact-checking unit was one of the casualties of the internal review that followed. We turn to the ABC itself to report on this story, because that is what bloggers do – they research and cite the work of others. Not that we’d suggest the axing was an ideological ploy, but it was Kevin Rudd’s government who provided $60 million over three years to fund ‘‘enhanced newsgathering services”. In the May 2016 budget, this funding was cut to $41.4 million over the next three years.

If you have faith in my calculations, this means the ABC has to trim $2.039 million a year from its ‘enhanced newsgathering’ budget over the next three years. This is when managers start eyeing their underlings, looking for value for money, identifying functions they could live without.

The end result is redundancies – that is, abolishing positions or roles and making people who occupy them eligible for a payout.

ABC redundancy payments totalled $9.33 million in the year to June 2015 (annual report, notes to the accounts P.172)

In 30 or so years working in the Australian media, inevitably I know people who work for (or used to work for) the ABC. Not so many decades ago it was a job for life and I know a few who have survived under successive managerial identities (the latter known by some as ‘carpet strollers’). But the Liberal government’s insistence that Mark Scott cut that very large number from his operating budget has, over the last two years, seen redundancies, early retirements, centralisation of news and the scrapping of high-profile units like The Drum and the ABC Fact Checking Unit and the closure of ABC Shops.

If you did not know what the unit did, it included checking the accuracy of politicians’ public comments, tracking election promises, along with other historical and statistical investigations. Labour-intensive work, naturally. But despite being shortlisted for a Walkley Award in 2014, the ABC Fact Check team was chopped.

As ABC news director Gaven Morris said in May, Unfortunately, having a standalone unit is no longer viable in the current climate.”

As it happened, The Conversation, an online news and commentary portal operated and funded by Australian universities and its readers, started its own fact-checking unit.

There has been a paucity of follow-up stories on the closure of the ABC Fact Checking Unit since the story broke in mid-May. The Australian had a stab at globalising the story, citing Duke University’s censuses of international fact-checking units. More than 100 sites are operating in 37 countries, Duke said. The Australian implied we are falling behind.

My photographer/author mate Giulio Saggin was one of the casualties of the ABC cutbacks, with his position as ABC online photo editor made redundant, along with two other positions at the Brisbane headquarters. He’d held the job since 2007. Fortunately, Giulio is versatile and has been free-lancing long enough to cope with its feast or famine cycles. The redundancy coincided with the launch of his third book – a manual, if you like, for free-lance photo-journalists.

What might worry ABC fans more is speculation that ABC Classic FM may be in danger of more cuts and structural changes.

Former Senator Margaret Reynolds has already started an ABCFriends campaign.

One of the key issues with the ABC is the perception, rightly or wrongly, that it caters to intellectual snobs. This attitude can be encapsulated in two observations I made in my 2014 piece.

“Hopefully they will axe Upper Middle Bogan and It’s a Date” I wrote, intellectual snobbery exposed for all to see. So I was wrong. It’s a date is into season two this year and season three of Upper Middle Bogan starts in October. ABC management appears to appealing more to the mainstream, putting up with shots across the bow from those who find such shows cringe worthy.

In 2014-2015, the top ABC episodes by peak viewing were headed by the Asian Cup Australia v Korea (2.137 million people watched a game of soccer), followed by Sydney’s New Year Fireworks (at midnight), 2.075 million.

Of the top 20 TV shows commanding an audience of 1.32 million or more, only three could be described as news and current affairs. Q&A, despite a huge social media profile, did not make that list.

So people prefer New Tricks, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries or Dr Who? Well, TV is escapism at best, so why the hell not?

Whatever else ABC management tinkers with next, they ought not to rock the boat too hard with Radio National or Local ABC Radio, lifeline to people in the bush and those with vision impairment.

I attended the funeral of an old mate last year; he’d struggled with various levels of blindness for the previous 20 years or so. His son told me his Dad had a radio of one kind or another in every room in the house, even the laundry. They were all tuned to radio national.

Vision Australia estimates there are 357,000 people who are either blind or have low vision. For many of these people, radio is literally the only way they can keep in touch with what’s going on in the world.

I don’t actively listen to radio in the house, but I’m always tuned in when driving. I’ve made about 20 trips to Brisbane and back these past two months and it has become apparent what I am missing by not having RN on at home. This apparently makes me one of the 17 million Australians the ABC reaches across all platforms.

The ABC’s new managing director, Michelle Guthrie, a corporate lawyer with experience working for News Ltd and Google, has an ambitious target: she wants to increase the ABC’s reach from 71% to 100%. Just how she will do that remains to be seen, but as Margaret Simons writes in The Monthly, one of the early pointers is an internal memo that states Guthrie wants 80% of the budget spent on content and only 20% on administration.

Carpet strollers beware.





Guarding the treasure trove

Buses Commonwealth Games 1982 Photo by Bob Wilson

There’s an archive box in the downstairs cupboard full of black and white negatives. There’s also a proof sheet of 24 photos, presumably from one of the 36 negative folders in the box. I can tell by examining the proof with an eyeglass they date from my years as a rural reporter/photographer in the Lockyer Valley, circa 1980s. There are other random photos, some with information on the back, like the photo (left) of Brisbane council buses waiting on Kessells Road to take punters home from the Commonwealth Games in 1982. Others are a complete guessing game.

Why the hell do I keep these, I ask myself every time the subject comes up: one, I don’t know anyone who has a darkroom;  two, if I did, it would not be equipped to print black and white negatives; three, who really gives a fig?

We lapsed Methodists say ‘toss’ or ‘fig’ when we actually mean something more explicit, you know? But let’s look into this further, whether anyone gives a figgy toss.

The value of hoarding

The documentary Finding Vivian Maier is a stark reminder of the historic value of artistic expression and what could have been lost forever. Maier, an impoverished nanny with an obsessive passion for street photography, died in obscurity. But her legend lives on, thanks to the curiosity and hard work of US film-maker John Maloof.

Maloof pursued Maier’s work after buying a metal box full of negatives from a Chicago auction house in 2007. He set off on a quest to acquire Maier’s unpublished work; more than 100,000 negatives, 700 undeveloped rolls of colour film and many 8mm and 16mm movies. The entire collection has since been digitised so Maier’s work photographing people in the streets of New York and Chicago in the latter half of the 20th century has come to the attention of a wider audience.

Meanwhile in Australia…

If you listen to Radio National, which some FOMM readers do on a daily basis, you may have heard Phillip Adams, historian Tim Sherratt and Peter FitzSimons talking about Trove. Journalists, writers, academics, historians and incurably curious people will know about Trove, the National Library of Australia’s digital archive. You have to sign up to get the best of the database, but it is free and 70,000 people dig into it every day.

The database contains over 473 million books, images, historic newspapers, maps, music, archives and more. But the ANL’s ability to keep up with the all-consuming job of digitising historic records is under threat. Budget cuts, or ‘efficiency dividends’ as PM Malcolm Turnbull is wont to call them, may stop Trove’s work in its tracks.

Adams pinpointed the key advantage of Trove is that historians spend less time searching for data and more time analysing.

“Trove has had a really profound impact on the nature of historical practice in Australia,” agreed Tim Sherratt, Associate Professor of Digital History at the University of Canberra

“All that stuff has always been there in dusty folders, but the revolution of Trove is to have it at your fingertips in two seconds flat. It’s a modern wonder”

Trove was launched in 2009 as a free archive resource and two years later won the Federal Government’s Excellence in eGovernment Award. The irony has apparently been lost on the Turnbull Government, which wants Australian cultural institutions to trim their budgets to save $20 million over four years. The NLA, the National Portrait Gallery, National Film and Sound Archive, and the National Gallery of Australia are among those which have to make some hard decisions.

Fairfax Media obtained a staff letter that said the NLA needed to find $4.4 million of savings by the end of 2017-2018. The Canberra Times said the letter warned that management would cease aggregating some Trove content unless fully funded to do so. Since we’re asking ‘who gives a toss,’ this story was picked up by a London newspaper.

If you’ve ever spent a day or two scanning old photos and documents to save as a permanent digital file, you will know what a labour-intensive job that is. But once it’s done, it’s done and so much easier for students and researchers.

For example, if you are a student or a writer on a mission to write about land rights in Australia, the NLA acquired the entire collection of Eddie Koiki Mabo’s personal papers in 1995.

There are many petitions, Facebook and Twitter campaigns circulating to convince the Minister for Communications and Arts, Senator Mitch Fifield, to #savetrove.

But getting back to who gives a figgy toss.

For all of the 70,000 visitors a day accessing Trove, there are another 21.06 million people who clearly do not feel the need to do so. Yet they benefit in a myriad of ways – tens of thousands of books, magazine articles, movies and TV and radio programmes generated each year which use Trove and other research resources.

If you go digging into the history of Vivien Maier, you’ll find she was a bit of a hoarder. Still, there’s bad hoarding and good hoarding, for example saving the Daily Sun’s film negative library for posterity.

The now-defunct newspaper’s laboriously pasted up paper files went to the tip, but luckily the images from a rare era of media independence in Brisbane (1982-1991) live on. Then there’s my kind of scattergun hoarding which yields images like this one, of a Toowoomba hail storm in the 1980s.

Toowoomba hail storm 1980s Photo by Bob Wilson

This might be a good time to point out that old photographs are not much use to anyone without relevant information written on the back. Like the photo in another box of a WWI regiment in front of an ivy covered building. I can identify my Grandfather front and centre, but that’s all I know.

Years from now, we’ll be grateful to the librarians, archivists and yes, hoarders, who helped save around 200 million newspaper articles and images, especially given the large numbers of publications which have closed their doors. I recently stumbled upon the Australian Newspaper History Group, curated by one of my former journalism lecturers, Rod Kirkpatrick, who has written six books about rural newspaper publishing. What is needed to save our information treasure trove (apart from government funding) is people like Kirkpatrick who care about history.

As for my own ‘trove,’ it has been winnowed out over the years, but there are still boxes full of colour prints (and negatives) and colour slides which need to be saved from the ravages of years in damp cupboards. I have scanned the best of the newspaper writing I did, but having digitised, still cannot bring myself to do a Charles Dickens and build a bonfire.

But hang on a bit. Perhaps we ageing baby boomers ought not to second-guess our kids and peremptorily throw out anything we perceive they would not want. When it comes to family photos, postcards, letters, articles, sentimental documents, all can be scanned and curated into media files.

Audio files and home movies can be compiled into a “best of” collection (good luck with that). Store it all on a portable hard drive and keep it in a metal box labelled: “The Best of Mum and Dad’s Memorabilia” (PG).

Someday your sons and daughters may be glad you did.