This time last year, ABC chairman Donald McDonald acknowledged the organisation might have “put its head on the chopping block” by asking a hostile federal government to commission an independent review on the corporation’s efficiency and funding.

Nevertheless, he and managing director Russell Balding were confident that an independent review could only result in a recommendation of more money for the ABC – and now it looks as though their judgement might have been vindicated, at least in part.

Word is that the review, conducted by KPMG, has confirmed what the ABC has been claiming for years – that the organisation is both efficiently run and in need of more funding – but perhaps not all that much more.

Whether the report will result in government action is another thing. The Government is planning to make sure that the KPMG report is never released, so the public will never find out how much extra money the independent experts think Aunty should have.

The review team had a wide brief – to investigate both the total amount of ABC funding and also how the ABC used its money. ABC insiders fretted that this would allow the bean counters too much power to intervene in programming decisions.

As it turns out, the men and women in suits have been in evidence in ABC corridors over the last couple of months, but the main complaints are not of intervention, but superficiality. The review was slow to get underway due to the federal government taking a long time to commission it, and the KPMG people gave the impression of doing a once-over-lightly, straining to finish in time for the May budget debates. They seemed concerned more with issues like superannuation, staff tenure and the age of equipment, than the money needed to fund talent and put out quality programs. “I don’t know how they could have got a feel for the place in the time they had, or realised how dire things are,” said one senior program maker.

The report, presently in draft form, is expected to arrive on Minister Senator Helen Coonan’s desk within weeks. It will be considered as part of the May budget, together with the ABC’s own triennial funding submission, released last week, which pitched for an extra $38.4 million over three years. This, as the Australian Screen Directors’ Association has pointed out, is a much more modest proposal than the $250 million extra sought in 2003. The folk at KPMG pledged to work closely with ABC management, and so the KPMG figures and those in the ABC funding submission probably echo each other.

McDonald and Balding’s rationale for requesting the funding review was that submissions coming from the ABC itself were regarded by Cabinet in much the same way as spam. Or as Balding put it in June with uncharacteristic humour “You could be forgiven for thinking that a telephone in the hands of Russell Crowe gets better treatment than an ABC Triennial Funding submission.”

When Balding announced his departure from the ABC a few weeks ago, various commentators thought this might signal that his strategy to get more funding had failed. A mixed result might be closer to the mark.

But can the Government be trusted to heed the KPMG review’s findings? Senator Coonan’s office told Crikey the report would probably be considered “budget in confidence” and therefore never released. Her office claimed the report contained detailed information on the ABC, some of which would be considered commercial-in-confidence.

Meanwhile the Friends of the ABC, whose friendship has not always been welcomed by those at the top of the corporation, are complaining about how much the review cost. KPMG are to be paid $417,000 according to an answer to a question on notice by Opposition spokesman Senator Conroy.

But the real question is whether the funding review will indeed result in the ABC getting at least some of what it wants. If so, the Friends are hardly likely to grumble about what it cost.

Peter Fray

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