How good is
last night’s budget result for the ABC? It’s a bit like watching a dog that’s
been beaten given a reprieve. Sure, the dog is better off but it remains cowed,
and perhaps unduly grateful.

ABC Chairman
Donald McDonald and former Managing Director Russell Balding’s method
of behind scenes lobbying and not embarrassing the government in public
has been partly
vindicated. Senator Helen Coonan has also obviously had some wins
against the
Costello forces hostile to the ABC.

Crucially, the
ABC Board’s risky strategy of requesting
an independent review of ABC funding and efficiency – a move many saw as
putting the corporation’s head on the chopping block – has resulted in more
funding, though not more independence. All the substantial new funding is tied
to particular purposes. The devil will be in the detail of this, and today
nobody at the ABC seems to know that detail.

Quentin Dempster, recently elected to a
position on the board which he will never take up, says funding that is tied
will mean the ABC “will have more strings attached than a dangling
puppet. It appears the government doesn’t trust its own
government-appointed Board to spend the appropriation where it said it wanted
to in its triennial funding submission.”

Costello has
said he thought the ABC needed more money for drama. He is therefore not averse
to micro management of the national broadcaster. We are not holding our breath
for the day when he thinks it needs more money for, say, another Middle East correspondent.

Meanwhile Coonan’s
office tells Crikey the funding review requested by the ABC and conducted by
KPMG was “a useful exercise” and “very influential” in getting the extra
funding. But her office did not answer a key question. Has the budget met all
the recommendations for additional funding in the KPMG report? The indications are that it has not.

A leaked draft version of the KPMG audit
reportedly found that unless the ABC received an increase of $125 million over
three years in operational base funding above inflation, current ABC services
would have to be cut. In that context, the budget figures are a $37
million shortfall. Coonan’s office dismissed this leak as “a handwritten note”
and said it was unreliable, but there is no sign that the KPMG report will be
released so we can make our own assessment.

As McDonald has
said, the budget outcome – maintenance of core funding in real terms, plus
$88.2 million over three years in new funding – is the best in 20 years, but
that isn’t saying very much. The last 20 years have been a particularly grim.

The ABC’s
triennial funding submission asked for $60 million over three years to fund new
content. The Budget has given just half of this amount. As well, the
ABC asked for $41.7 million over three years to fund new content to motivate
digital television uptake. There is nothing in the budget that reflects this,
despite Coonan’s rhetoric about using the public broadcaster to drive digital
uptake. This means that despite the lifting of genre restrictions, ABC2 is
likely to remain largely a time-shifting and replay channel rather than an
innovative, groundbreaking new service. Its commercial competitors will be
breathing a sigh of relief. Compare this with the new directions taken by the BBC in England.

To sum up? The
beating has stopped, and we should all be grateful for that. It’s a shift in
government attitude. The risk is that we now have a more manageable dog.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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