ABC foreign correspondents have been effectively confined to their base cities because the budget for travel  has run out.

The stricture was contained in a message sent out last week from the head of policy for news, Steve Alward, who admitted to Crikey this morning he had told correspondents that travel plans would be “looked at more closely than usual”  until the end of the financial year.

The edict is as a result of the enormous number of big international stories in the past few months. The revolutions in the Middle East, including the continuing civil war in Libya, the earthquakes in Christchurch and Japan have all stretched the budget beyond anyone’s imaginings or plans. And the big stories are not over yet.

But at the same time there is a perception among foreign correspondents that any spare cash that might have been lying around is being sopped up by ABC News 24 (a topic that is the subject  of a current FoI request by me, made under the YouCommNews model). ABC management vigorously denies this.

ABC management represented the move this morning as unsurprising and unremarkable, given we are approaching the end of the financial year. But there is a context.

The evident limitation on the ABC’s capacity comes at a sensitive time. Aunty is facing an attempt from Sky News to seize the contract for federal government-funded international television service the Australia Network. Tenders closed last Friday, and a decision on who will get the new contract is expected in the next month or so.

Meanwhile within the ABC, bitter jokes are being cracked about the fact that the bureaus now facing the greatest demands on their capacity — including Tokyo and the Middle East — are also those that were targeted in the John Turner review of foreign bureaus, that saw recommendations for facilities to be merged and reporters and support staff reassigned.

ABC wags are suggesting that where the ABC proposes cuts, newsworthy disasters follow. Given that Bangkok and Moscow were also targeted by Turner, some are suggesting that Putin must be about to be assassinated, or Thailand subject to rebellion or tsunami.

The irony of the current budget troubles is that late last year, ABC management told Crikey the bureau restructure was about boosting travel budgets to counter criticisms from correspondents that they did not have the time and resources to get out in the field.

When a deal with APTV on shared facilities fell over, the budget was strained, particularly since the new Afghanistan bureau was established, despite the anticipated savings not being made.

Meanwhile in Tokyo, the ABC’s lone correspondent Mark Willacy soldiers on in conditions beyond most of our imaginations, when most news programs acknowledge that ideally at least two people are needed.

Alward told Crikey this morning that Willacy would soon be given a break, and would be replaced with another single reporter and crew from Australia.

He said one of the products of the review of foreign bureaus had been a commitment to post as needed from Australia or elsewhere when big news broke. This had been done in the current crises.

What difference would the lack of travel budget make on viewers’ screens and radios? “I defy anyone to notice any difference at all,” Alward said. Reporters would still be working on assignments from base. Only travel away from base cities and base countries would be impacted.

Also in play is a long-running review of how ABC foreign correspondents are paid. The rumble from within the organisation is that the increased demands imposed by filing for extra platforms, including News 24, is making foreign postings less attractive, particularly for those older correspondents with families to consider.

Union sources suggest that a less-than-generous pay settlement might see only less-experienced and younger reporters putting up their hands for the hard and important overseas assignments. Alward indicated that an announcement on the pay review could be expected soon.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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