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Les Miserables - Killing the ABC in a time of national emergency

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The ABC is rightly proud of the profound trust from audiences evident through the bushfire and pandemic national emergencies, but its paymaster, the Morrison government, has not responded to ABC Board pleas for respite from defunding. In this comprehensive article, Quentin Dempster discusses the fallout from ongoing staff and program losses, and serious challenges still facing the public broadcaster.

By Quentin Dempster/ 16 September 2020

Empty chairs at empty tables …where my friends will sing no more. (Les Miserables – the musical).

The departure of many of the ABC’s most experienced journalists, producers and presenters has immiserated the public broadcaster.

Eighty-six have gone or are going from newsrooms and current affairs programs in the latest round of budget cuts. They are among up to 250 staff made redundant as part of an ABC Board five-year restructure said to continue the ABC’s transformation to a digital content creator and distributor.

Many of the departed are in late career and are taking personal financial advantage of industry-standard redundancy packages based on years of service plus accumulated long service leave. But many also are in early or mid-career and, given the vaporisation of media jobs through both digital disruption and the COVID-19 pandemic, inevitably, will be lost to journalism and content creation forever.

Apart from the obliteration of invaluable corporate and journalistic memory, the restructure is not the end of the decline. The ABC’s operational defunding by the LNP government since the 2014 and 2017 federal budgets has forced the Board to strip locally made program and acquisition costs. For example, it has taken another $5 million from recurrent factual/entertainment programming. The ABC is unlikely to directly invest in commissioned documentaries in future, leaving all production costs to state and federal film commissions, production companies and lotteries funds, and would likely take only first release and some replay rights. The ABC’s drama budget, already at historic lows, will likewise be reliant on external investors who invariably have a commercial business plan based on pay TV sales or global distribution. This will severely limit the original or risky Australian drama stories or series that can be broadcast on the ABC. The ABC schedule is already flooded with acquired British murder mysteries.

On September 20 the 7.45am ABC radio news bulletin will end. Traditionally opened with the full Majestic Fanfare, this bulletin, a comprehensive rundown of the latest national and international news and timed 15 minutes before the top of the daily work clock, has been part of the aural palimpsest of Australia since the Second World War. Its announced end came as a shock to many Australians. The 7.45 bulletin’s termination was justified by the Board as too expensive at a time when busy Australians were accessing news instantaneously on their digital devices.

The ABC Board accepts that to fill the programming void in television it will have to rely on repeating more TV programs outside the still strategically important ‘prime time’. And apart from the high cost of original programming, both locally made and acquired, this reliance on endless repeats confirms it can no longer fulfil its Charter obligation for comprehensive broadcasting services across all genres while it still hopes to retain a substantial audience through clever prime time scheduling and promotion. On top of the re-prioritising necessitated by defunding, the TV prime time audience retention strategy is being implemented because Australians have taken up low cost video streaming services, Netflix, Stan, Prime, Apple TV, Disney etc with gusto over recent years. While the ABC’s iView has been a hit with audiences watching ABC-made and acquired programs at the viewer’s convenience, iView’s future success cannot be guaranteed without a critical mass of distinctive programs able to find an audience among the massive offerings of the video streamers, now also including SBS OnDemand with its very popular and free sub-titled movie catalogue. (SBS OnDemand breaks into movies at inconvenient times with ads to help cover its substantial operational costs).

Fallouts from the digital revolution

With the departure of experienced ABC staff there will be some recruitment and training for new jobs in digital platform content and distribution. The ABC is now advertising to fill 12 positions for platform and software developers and engineers. Just how this shapes the ABC’s programming in future remains to be seen, but because of the operational cost pressures to deliver the five-year plan, radio current affairs and the comparatively high costs of remaining specialist programs on Radio National are expected to be further reduced. There is talk of merging Radio National with News Radio as a future cost saving measure. There is also talk of closing a free to air TV channel to save on transmission costs. (ABCAlumni is planning a briefing paper on future free-to-air radio and television transmission strategies).

The Federal Government has refused to cover the costs of the ABC’s multi-platform digital transformation, leaving the Board with the headache of restructuring within already defunded budgets. This has necessitated the sacrifice of what is called ‘traditional’ programming.

With the loss of Lateline and the Friday night 7.30 local current affairs shows from 2014, the cost cutting expediency has been in current affairs. The latest casualty is The Business. Foreign Correspondent has fewer scheduled offerings, as does the human interest features program Australian Story. Gardening Australia, shifted to 7.30pm on Friday nights with an hour format, also has had to interpose repeat and acquired programs mid-year to cut costs.

A guide to ABC management’s thinking about the institution’s survival and future through the digital revolution comes with the ABC’s now consistent industry leadership in online platform distribution. Since the devastating bushfires of 2019-20 ABC online has raced ahead of its commercial rivals. By August 2020, audience pollster Nielsen calculated ABC News websites had an audience of 13,002,012, now well ahead (11,249,363) Daily Mail Australia (10,866,144) (10,316,528), 7News (9,903,280), (9,324,687), The Guardian (7,410,740), The Age (6,183,759), Australian Community Media Network (4,098,286) and The Australian (3,387,331).

If this industry leadership prevails it will be an historic structural change in audience appreciation of the ABC in Australian media. But the ABC’s success in online has been a red rag to a bull to the big local media players News Corp and Nine Entertainment, now incorporating the old Fairfax mastheads. ABC content is free to air and free to browse and view. News/Nine content is behind a subscriber pay wall while Nine TV remains free to air.

Ongoing Government antipathy

While the ABC is obviously proud of the profound trust from audiences evident through the bushfire and pandemic national emergencies, its paymaster, the Morrison government, has not responded to ABC Board pleas for respite from defunding. Instead there has been ugly disputation with the ABC’s current Minister, Paul Fletcher. It is almost as if Mr Fletcher resents a taxpayer funded media entity like the ABC outstripping commercial players in online audience terms. The hostility was compounded when Minister Fletcher announced that both the ABC and SBS specifically would be excluded from any financial benefit from his government’s proposed new mandatory revenue sharing code from digital platforms Google and Facebook. This remains a contentious issue as ABC (and SBS) copyrighted content is deemed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to have a demonstrable monetary value to the tech giants.

There is also informed speculation that Minister Fletcher’s hostility is being driven by an agenda to amend the ABC Act at a calculated future time to change the current Charter’s legislated requirement for ‘comprehensive’ broadcasting services, replacing it with a requirement for only regional and rural services. The indicia of this intention may lie in the Minister’s proposed legislation to set up a regional and rural ABC advisory board. The ABC Board, arguing that regional and rural services remain a top priority, had not sought any such legislation. Like its exclusion from Google/Facebook revenue sharing, it was all Mr Fletcher’s own work.

Unprecedented staff ballot

In an all-staff email on September 11, ABC chair Ita Buttrose asked all ABC non-executive staff to vote Yes or No to their employer’s motion to defer a scheduled 2 percent pay rise from 1 October 2020 to 1 April 2021.

This wage pause would deliver $5 million in one-off savings in the 2021 financial year. “It will not assist the ABC to achieve the ongoing savings requirements of $41 million per annum by FY22. It will enable us, however, to make a significant investment in two of our most important functions: emergency broadcasting services and public interest journalism, which are both valued by the community.”

An email ballot of staff will be completed by September 29. If the pay deferral is rejected by ABC staff, as they are fairly entitled to do under their EBA, a full-scale attack is expected on them from ABC critics, particularly from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

In softening the blow of the Board’s unprecedented request, Ms Buttrose said MD David Anderson had declined his contracted salary increase and offered a 5 percent reduction in his pay for a set period. ABC directors had agreed to a 10 percent fee reduction for six months and senior executive bonuses had been deferred. The exact quantum benefit of these pay sacrifices from the MD and his executives has not yet been published to allow non-executive staff to determine the comparative equity of the Board’s request before they cast their vote. As a consequence of this deficiency there is resentment within the staff that senior management executives are already grossly overpaid, whereas there are now heavier workloads expected of all content creators. This ill feeling has been exacerbated by the understandable angst through the latest redundancy round and the ABC’s recent admission that it had exploitatively underpaid its casual employees for many years, costing the employer millions of dollars in capped backpay.

And in what looked like a trade-off in return for the Board’s decision to trigger the pay freeze, Ms Buttrose wrote this: “The Minister asked us to consider the current situation across the media industry and the challenges other media organisations face, along with the Australian community, due to the exceptional economic consequences caused by COVID-19. In recent correspondence, Mr Fletcher advised me that the ABC has the support of the government and our funding is stable and secure for the remainder of this triennium, through to June 2022”. Regrettably this correspondence between the Chair and the Minister has not been posted for all to see.

Stable and secure? We shall see if this claimed commitment is confirmed in the federal budget to be delivered by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg on October 6.

Radical change threatens Charter obligations

Even if ABC funding is ‘stable and secure’ until 2022, the ABC we once knew is undergoing radical change. As already noted, an audit of the ABC’s performance against the Charter ‘comprehensive’ obligations would undoubtedly conclude the ABC has been in breach of the Charter for many years.

In the 24-hour news cycle, particularly now with the success of ABCNews online, we could be looking at further sacrificial incursions into ‘traditional’ radio and television services such as the replacement of the state and territory produced 7 pm TV news with a consolidated nationally-presented hour-long news program with state and territory based ‘windows’ for localism. The Sunday night 40 minutes NewsSunday with its longer investigative and feature items may be a template of things to come. This would mean the end of the national 7.30 program and its incorporation into a one-hour composite news/current affairs program with news presenters doing the political and other interviews instead of ‘current affairs’ presenters and political editors.

The fear from this cost cutting and consolidation is that the ABC’s once dynamic ecosystem of competitive, even rivalrous, current affairs programs on radio and television, each vying to break new ground in storytelling and exposure, will be replaced with more mundane, reactive or superficial ‘churnalism’. While the ABC’s cross platform investigations unit and the flagship Four Corners continue to do compelling work, it is the loss of this ecosystem which draws attention to the danger. Such a change destroys a system which has developed the careers of courageous and resourceful editorial leaders through the news and current affairs program executive producer structure. End the ecosystem and you can also end up with less diversity of content and put an end to the ABC’s facilitation of the clash of ideas which better informs and engages the polity.

As more experienced professional staff now leave the ABC, the ABC Board and management are left to manage its decline, under cover of what is hoped to be a plausible five-year plan.

If you would like to contribute to the Alumni’s ongoing campaign in support of the ABC and public broadcasting, please contact us as [email protected]

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