The ABC has been quietly conducting a year-long review of the way it staffs and positions its network of more than a dozen foreign correspondents, the biggest network of journalists offshore of any media group in the country.

But the review is being done in secret; the correspondents haven’t been consulted at any stage, not even some senior executives in ABC TV news and current affairs in Sydney.

It could result in the closure of at least two, possibly more bureaus, a move that would be dressed up as less coverage masquerading as more.

The changes are part of a wholesale revamp of the way the ABC covers the rest of the world and designed to allow it to move to its planned 24-hours-a-day news coverage (and pay for the cost of doing so).

On top of this, there’s a $4 million budget hole to be filled in news and current affairs, with the management of the division and the ABC unwilling to ease back on the drive to set up a 24-hour news service to rival the privately-owned Sky News, which in turn is trying again to winkle the Asia-Pacific service (financed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) away from the national broadcaster.

As well, management of ABC TV is trying to grab control of Foreign Correspondent, the 8pm Tuesday program that has become a big success after being shifted to the current timeslot, regularly attracting 600,000 to more than 700,000 viewers in one of the week’s tougher slots.

ABC TV has been trying for years to grab Australian Story, 8pm Mondays. Success with Foreign Correspondent would see pressure return for Australian Story to move.

To cut costs and save the $4 million, the management of ABC news and current affairs is investigating what’s known at the highest levels of the broadcaster as hubbing.

That would involve three major hubs established around the world where correspondents would be based and be sent to cover major stories. The places under consideration include Bangkok for Asia, London for Europe and Washington for the Americas.

The ABC could also do hub coverage of New Zealand, the Pacific and PNG from Australia and cut one of the current three bureaus and correspondents, at a nice cost saving.

If the ABC is able to do this in the northern hemisphere, it will close at least two bureaus: Moscow and one in Asia: perhaps Japan (known as North Asia). China and India (South Asia ) are considered to be very important for the ABC’s image offshore and in Australia.

But Johannesburg is, with Moscow, a prime candidate for closure. That would leave the ABC without a bureau anywhere on the African continent.

The ABC is trying to lift its profile in Asia to keep the Asia Pacific service from Sky. Closing China or India would be a self-defeating decision and against the way the Rudd Government is thinking.

Japan could be an easy option, but with the story that it can be covered from the Asian hub in Bangkok or from China, just as Moscow could be covered from the London hub.

The thinking is a mixture of penny-pinching and pressure on the new management group at ABC news and current affairs from Mark Scott and other senior managers.

The Asia pacific correspondents are ”cheap” hires as well. They are all young, supposed to be multi-tasking video journos, paid a pittance and given a flat sum (reportedly $10,000-$15,000 to set up bureaus and run them). They are effectively second-class foreign correspondents and ABC management seems to want the main ABC foreign correspondents to go that way as well.

Some at the top of the ABC point to the way international editor Peter Cave fills in for ABC correspondents if they are away, if the bureau is unfilled and a big story breaks, or if coverage of a big international story needs additional reporting resources.

As part of this new approach, the ABC has been trying to cut correspondents from travelling and reporting, to remaining in place and simply re-voicing BBC, APTN or Reuters stories, as the commercial networks do quite often.

In fact sources in ABC News in Sydney say a whole section in news is being set up to do just that and then use the re-voiced stories on ABC TV News, take grabs and turn them into packages for ABC Radio News and programs such as  AM and PM, and to cut costs.

This move has upset more and more journalists in Sydney who see it as the basis for a snag factory, designed to churn out pap to allow the ABC to claim that it is covering news 24 hours a day. It’s no different to what the commercial networks, or SBS do, and of course, Sky News.

At the same time, details of the ABC’s penny-pinching have emerged with the disclosure that two of the prime overseas postings, one in London and one in Washington, are not in the same position of other correspondents.

These positions are known as “local hires” and the people appointed to them are regarded as Poms or Yanks for the purposes of ABC accounting. That way all the on-costs are not included (They don’t get currency adjustments, nor do they get living-away allowances).

The people filling these positions are actually hired in Australia from within the ABC and then flown to Washington and London to work with other correspondents who have full benefits under Australian awards.

There have been at least three executives in the position overseeing international news operations. The latest is John Turner, a long-term ABC executive who is close to Ian Carroll, a former senior news executive and now the head of ABC innovation.

Turner is working closely with Kate Torney, the newish head of ABC news and current affairs.

For many in the ABC it will be a test for her and Scott to see how committed they are to old ABC ethos of trying to describe the world to Australians in Australian terms, and not trying to emulate Sky News here, CNN, the BBC or a newsagency such as AAP.

At the moment, it seems that the rush to construct a 24-7 newsagency operation inside the ABC remains the main driver.

Will we also see a corporate approach to measuring success in this area by paying bonuses and other payments to senior executives who deliver?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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