Without a television network, are you still an international broadcaster? The ABC has a plan, but after absorbing 80 redundancies, some insiders are sceptical.
The ABC yesterday informed staff in its Southbank Melbourne headquarters that up to 80 of them would be made redundant. The redundancies will be forced — divisions are being cleared out, and while the union says staff targeted for the chop will be able to argue for their redeployment based on set criteria, the default setting is that they will be shown the door.
According to the Community and Public Sector Union, this will affect 34 people in the Melbourne-based Asia Pacific News Centre, and another 46 in the ABC’s international division, who will be made redundant two weeks from now. The entire English-language division of Radio Australia will go, and there will be reduced staffing across all language programs.
It’s unlikely most Australians will notice. With the exception of ABC News24’s The World, which has lost its correspondents and been cut from one hour to a half-hour program, no local programs are affected. Insiders say there was already relatively little collaboration between the journalists in Radio Australia and the domestic stations. The impact will be quarantined.
The redundancies are the result of the loss of the Australia Network contract, and come a week after the ABC finalised the circumstances around the contract’s loss with DFAT. The redundancies don’t appear to be inspired by the other cut to the ABC in the federal budget (a funding cut of 1%). So staff are bracing for more to come. A broader reshuffle, likely accompanied by further job losses, is expected in late July or August. Crikey understands the ABC is currently in negotiations with Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s office about the further savings identified in the Lewis Review, which could see funding cut further. Many within the Coalition are gunning for a 4% cut — a figure widely quoted in the News Corp press.
But any further cuts are unlikely to impact the international division as much as the loss of the Australia Network. That’s slashed 60% of the budget the ABC allocates to its international division. As the dust settles, staff are questioning how the ABC could meet its international obligations as outlined in its charter in section 6-1-b, which requires the ABC to “transmit” to countries outside Australia a mixture of news, current affairs, entertainment and “cultural enrichment”.
The loss of the Australia Network stripped more than $200 million from the ABC budget over 10 years — all of this would have otherwise gone to international broadcasting. Quentin Dempster, the host of 7.30 NSW and former staff-elected ABC board member, described the loss of the Australia Network as “vandalism of the national interest” when he spoke to Crikey today.
“Some insiders have speculated that the ABC’s redundancies are forced because it doesn’t want to lose staff who produce for television.”
“The government has made it clear it wants propaganda to be broadcast into the region rather than audiences there actually seeing Australian journalism, analysis and programming contribute to a robust, informed and engaged liberal democracy resonating through the region,” he told Crikey. “The remnants of the ABC’s international broadcasting effort will be weakened as a consequence. Regional partnerships built up over years have been destroyed.”
ABC management has been speaking of how to meet its charter obligations after the loss of the Network. Some insiders have speculated that the ABC’s redundancies are forced because it doesn’t want to lose staff who produce for television. ABC News24 can be digitally streamed into Asia.
Speaking to Crikey this morning, ABC International spokesman John Woodward stressed the ABC would continue to broadcast into the region, despite a cut in funding forcing some changes. “The new, reduced model has been designed to meet to the best of our ability the audiences that we know have an interest in Australia … through radio, through a limited television offering, and through digital means.”
According to the CPSU, here’s what will remain of the ABC’s international broadcasting. Radio Australia will continue to be streamed 24/7, despite the loss of many of its journalists. The Australia Network will be replaced by a six-hour regional broadcast into the Pacific, for which content will be sourced from other ABC programs and the ABC’s syndication partners. Australia Plus, the online portal for ABC content accessible internationally, will remain as is.
Some have speculated that after the loss of the Australia Network, ABC News24 could be broadcast in its place. But Crikey understands this would be too expensive — the main cost of running the Australia Network has always been the transponders into the region rather than the cost of the journalism.
That leaves the internet. Even before the loss of the Australia Network contract, Woodward says the ABC was looking at digital broadcasting, particularly in Asia, where he says that’s where the audience is moving anyway. “Our research into audience behaviour shows mobile particularly being used to access our content. Mobile offers us one of the best opportunities [to be an international broadcaster], and it’s getting stronger, not weaker”.
The redundancies are, as always, an attempt to do more with less. The ABC, Woodward says, is now in the process of talking to staff and the union about how to meet its international obligations. “Certainly with a reduction in funds, there’s a reduction in services,” he says. “But we are working as hard as we possibly can to maintain as much of our audience connections, our partnerships and syndication that we possibly can. We have very strong partnerships throughout Asia … and we will continue to work those partners and leverage them as well as we can.”
Some insiders were pessimistic. As one veteran pointed out, the ABC’s charter obligations have been pursued with varying degrees of vigour. “The charter hasn’t been stuck to in the past — it can be easily disregarded,” one said.