The ABC is attempting to hose down anger over mooted changes to foreign reporting bureaus, but staff are deeply sceptical about sharing resources with a commercial news organisation and fewer opportunities for original field reporting.

ABC News foreign correspondents fear the changes will further stretch resources and continue a trend to “reduce us to talking heads” to feed the new around-the-clock beast, ABC News 24. Those Crikey spoke to say they haven’t been properly consulted despite the cuts being, they say, a fait accompli.

ABC management is assuring foreign bureaus there are no cuts to expenditure on international reporting or the number of correspondents. The broadcaster announced yesterday it would open a new bureau in Kabul to cover the Afghanistan conflict and neighbouring Pakistan.

But the minimum 12-month commitment to Kabul will come at a cost in other locations. Bureau support staff — producers, researchers and administration roles — will be cut and some bureaus will share offices and resources with APTN, the television arm of Association Press.

ABC News director Kate Torney has departed for briefings with bureau staff. ABC communications director Michael Millett dismisses talk of an “assassination tour”, describing the changes — after a two-year review into international reporting structures — as a “balancing act” to direct resources to where they are best used while freeing up correspondents to “spend more time on the road”.

No decision has been made on which staff will be cut, Millett insists. Some of the savings will be redirected into boosting travel budgets.

But foreign staff question when they will have time to spend it. One reporter talked of the “phenomenal strain” on foreign bureaus to file original news and current affairs reports while contributing to the 24-hour news channel.

“There’s no understanding of the huge amount of logistical work that goes into covering the basics,” said one source. Office managers, researchers and producers help co-ordinate TV shoots and negotiate access in often dysfunctional environments and any cuts to these staff will put a further strain on the ability to file original reports, they said.

“On paper it looks good, with the same number of correspondents. But you’re drastically reducing their effectiveness,” the source said.

“The problem is we don’t know. They’re going around sacking people, then making an announcement.

“There’s no process of consultation with people who have actually done it. If they want us to all go down the News 24 route and reduce us all to talking heads, then that’s fine, but you have to articulate that. To be going around doing this and then saying that they’re going to have some level of consultation and debate once it’s done, that’s extraordinary.”

There is lingering resentment from some ABC journalists over the establishment of continuous news operations and other changes they say have damaged the international reporting brand. Staff have been forced to “drink the Kool-Aid” on ABC News 24 despite the impact on reporting: “What happened to quality? What happened to original reporting?”

Another reporter told Crikey: “All correspondents will tell you they’re doing less original reporting than ever.” They say Torney, promoted from the Melbourne-based Australia Network operation, favours the same sort of model with an “emphasis on talking heads”.

Others are concerned by, as one reporter put it, “jumping into bed” with APTN. They say it amounts to “effectively outsourcing” ABC News functions, and question whether the organisation can properly support ABC journalists when major stories break given how many other clients they serve.

Millett says sharing offices is nothing new — the Tokyo bureau works out of local broadcaster NHK and Auckland operations are housed in TVNZ. “Handled properly,” he told Crikey, “they deliver benefits and advantages, not compromises.

“We won’t be sitting in a corner relying on the existing resources of APTN, we will be establishing a properly resourced and staffed bureau in their buildings — and keep in mind this is only happening in two or three locations where it makes sense to do that.”

It’s unclear which bureaus will be merged; arrangements are being worked through with APTN, says Millett. Crikey understands the broadcaster’s largest foreign posting in Washington DC will be left untouched by the changes. The structure of the new Kabul base is still being drafted.

Peter Fray

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