What sort of a joke is the management team at Your ABC, asks Crikey’s small screen expert Terry Television?

If anyone has any second thoughts about Your ABC and its ability to stuff things up completely, then this statement from managing director, Russell Balding, should provide the final confirmation.

It’s a direct reply to claims by Eric Abetz, the Liberal Senator for Tasmania and Federal Minister, who was reported late last week in the The Mercury as claiming that the decision to move Gardening Australia from Hobart to Melbourne was due to misadministration of special ‘regional’ grants money.

Talk about being behind the news, and I don’t mean the show big Russ at the ABC is breathing life back into after killing it off a year ago.

No, it’s the fact that the minister has obviously read Crikey and others who have reported that the decision to axe George Negus Tonight and shift Gardening Australia production to Melbourne (and move it from Friday to Saturday) was due to the sudden realisation that the money financing all of this was supposed to be paying for regional initiatives. That was under a deal struck in 2001 and renewed for three years in the May Federal Budget, a point everyone else seems to have neglected.

The Special Minister of State, having been asleep, was obviously awoken by the demonstration by Gardening Australia staff in Hobart last week when the ABC executive directly in charge of the decision, General factual programming head, Denise Eriksen, rolled into town.

The protest made The Mercury and the mainland papers, leading to this plea on Monday from host Peter Cundall.

Eric Abetz’s previous contribution to the story had been to suggest that Peter Cundall might be replaced by Nine Network star, Jamie Durie. But after the demo and the amplifications started appearing about the ABC’s mealy mouthed explanations, Eric leapt into print, once again, with the ABC management in his sights.

Well, a good idea, but he should have been treating the story more seriously from the start.

The combination of Eric’s barbs and Peter Cundall’s hang dog approach has taken its toll on the ABC and its management, led by managing director, Russell balding. This statement was put out on November 5 and then emailed on Monday.

It is not good reading from those wanting the ABC to be a competency-based organisation.

The most offensive and chilling phrase in Balding’s statement is this:

“Recent media reports stating that the ABC had made programming decisions for the weeknight 6.30pm television time slot and Gardening Australia based on funding considerations are false.”

“The ABC has made its programming decision based on sound editorial reasoning. It is designed to make more effective use of ABC resources and deliver an increase in television production to South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia. The source of funding has nothing whatsoever to do with the decision.”

Now if this is the case, why wasn’t this said so in this statement from the ABC in late October, two days after the axing of GNT and the moving of Gardening Australia were revealed.

This was full of rubbish with that wrong claim that Peter Cundall was “delighted” with the decision and an attempt to undermine George Negus’ credibility by implying that the ratings of GNT were inferior to repeats of British comedies last broadcast at 6.30pm back in 2001. That was inaccurate and the ABC should know better.

But this press release was memorable for the following statement from Sandra Levy, head of ABC TV:

ABC Director of Television Sandra Levy said “the objective of this decision is to provide quality regional content, produced by the regions, and presented by regional hosts, to show the diversity of Australia to all Australians.”

“The team on GNT has done a terrific job, and all the staff have been invited to work on the new programs. I know they will deliver wonderful new shows in 2005.”

Ha, taken together the two statements still do not answer the key question. Why was GNT axed and why was Gardening Australia shifted?

If the work on GNT was so wonderful and “terrific”, to quote la Levy, why was it axed? Oh, Russell Balding says it was “a programming decision taken on sound editorial reasoning”.

Hmm, Russ, baby, don’t give up the Managing director’s gig. As an editorial manager and spin doctor you’ll be issued with an F.

If it was “sound editorial reasoning” to axe a program that had improved its ratings (and not compared to those useless Pommie comedies, but on Australian derived programming before it that failed), such as George Negus Tonight, then what other programs will be killed off by the la Levy regime. 4 Corners, The 7.30 Report, The Glass House, Media Watch, Kath and Kim?

By any measurement, GNT and Gardening Australia had improved their performance this year. By any measurement! To claim otherwise as Mr Balding and Ms Levy seem to be attempting, is mendacity at its worst.

If the reasoning was “sound” and “editorial” as claimed by Balding, why wasn’t that said so in the original statement issued on October 28?

Instead a crude attempt was made to claim that Peter Cundall at Gardening Australia was “delighted”, and a bodgy comparison was attempted to discredit the ratings claim of George Negus.

The Balding statement was issued in direct response to Eric Abetz’s statements to The Mercury in Hobart. They are not good enough and not a reasonable justification.

Balding says the ABC’s handling of the National Interests Initiates program had recently been reviewed by the government and a decision made to continue the funding. That’s right, it was extended in the May Budget.

Now in that review, did anyone voice problems with the NII money funding George Negus? Or was there a subtle hint about the future flow of money should that situation continue?

Balding attempted to link his statement to a clarion call to protect its editorial independence. Well, no Russ, it’s all about the managerial competence of the people from you down in ABC management.

Meanwhile, the axed ABC history program Rewind had its best numbers on Sunday night, its last episode, with more than 595,000 people tuning in. It was delayed half an hour by the 90 minute length of the British murder cop thriller before it.

That was a pretty good effort.

No wonder Denise Eriksen and Sandra Levy are both trying to let it be known there could be a history program on the ABC next year.

Rewind EP Peter George’s execution has been postponed a week while he comes up with possible new ideas for a history program next year which he will not be associated with.

“Sound editorial reasoning”? Rubbish. That’s one commodity that has been in short supply at Your ABC in the past month or so.