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.