The ABC will go back to the drawing board on its controversial changes to foreign reporting postings, with a deal to share facilities with the TV arm of Associated Press falling over.

ABC News manager Alan Sunderland has confirmed to Crikey the broadcaster’s cost-saving drive to merge facilities and reassign reporters and support staff will now be redrafted. But he insists staff complaints about the changes didn’t impact the decision to abandon the relationship with APTN.

Sunderland, the head of national programs, says APTN decided it could no longer accommodate the ABC News London bureau at its New Zealand House headquarters in Haymarket. With that arrangement central to the APTN deal, the ABC will walk away from plans to merge bureaux in Jerusalem, Moscow and Bangkok.

As Crikey reported last month, staff had expressed grave concerns about “jumping into bed” with APTN. One senior reporter said it was “effectively outsourcing” ABC News functions, questioning whether the organisation could properly support ABC journalists when major stories break given how many other clients they serve.

Consultations with staff are ongoing, Sunderland says, with reporters informed of the APTN situation in the last couple of days. London bureau staff had welcomed the move to better facilities, he says, insisting the decision is not a knee-jerk reaction to a staff revolt.

“Clearly we’re disappointed … the APTN deal was fantastic,” he said.

“The central London accommodation deal did not fall over or get cancelled or get withdrawn because of the views of staff.”

The lease on the ABC’s current West End digs expires in the second half of next year, forcing management to look for new facilities over the next few months.

New plans also have to be drawn up for other bureaux. APTN “might come back to us with something”, Sunderland says.

ABC News boss Kate Torney announced in November that bureaux in Jerusalem, London and Moscow would close and self-contained office space rented from APTN. The office in Bangkok was to be remodeled and shared with APTN, which was also to provide “some technical, infrastructure and administrative support” to ABC bureaux. Camera operators in Jerusalem and London were to be employed by APTN, meaning a “potential reduction in the number of support staff employed locally”.

The changes were largely built around opening a new bureau in Afghanistan, headed by Sally Sara in Kabul, from next year. The savings were also supposed to free up budget for travel, allowing correspondents to do more field reporting.

The Kabul post will go ahead, Sunderland said: “Nothing is endangering the Afghanistan bureau.” And savings will still be made through realigning reporters and support staff and moving the London office.

Middle East correspondent Anne Barker has been recalled from Jerusalem, with that post to be staffed by a single reporter (Ben Knight) and producer. Barker will eventually take up residence in New Delhi, replacing Sara once she moves to Kabul. The ABC has maintained there will be no net loss in correspondent positions, however producer positions or hours will still be cut.

One foreign correspondent told Crikey today staff were privately told the same reasons behind the APTN decision. While they welcomed the chance to rethink international reporting structures, the cuts remain a concern: “They’ve got to find the money somewhere.”

There is also lingering resentment from some ABC journalists over the establishment of ABC News 24. Staff complained to Crikey that broadcasting into the 24-hour news network left little time to leave the office and prepare original packages.

Peter Fray

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