Former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes once commanded the attention of the nation’s journalists each and every week, but it seems not even he can secure an audience with the ABC board.

ABC supporters gathered in their hundreds outside the network’s Ultimo headquarters this morning in order to send a message to the board, meeting inside. They also wanted to deliver a petition signed by over 50,000 people calling on the board to not cut programs like Lateline, the state editions of the 7.30 Report, and a host of radio current affairs and news programs.

After giving a fiery speech, saying the ABC was being forced to cut what it did best, Holmes went inside the building, hoping to be let into the board meeting to present the petition. He came out shortly after and told the crowd that, despite his insistence, he was told the board wouldn’t divert from their agenda to allow him to address them for a few minutes.

Some ABC insiders this morning expected the board, whose meeting is expected to last all day, would sign off on which programs could face the axe. But most consider an announcement to be some way off, as it would be dependent on the size of funding cuts decided upon by the government’s expenditure review committee.

Former ABC staff-elected board member and host of the New South Wales edition of 7.30 Quentin Dempster told those gathered that he wished he could say the “torture” of not knowing for sure would be over today, “but I can’t. It’s mental health week, and I’ve asked the board to stop this cruelty to dedicated program makers immediately.”

Dempster says he expects the board, in consultation with the government, would halve the ABC’s multi-channels to save on transmission costs. He says the ABC could merge ABC3 with ABC1, while shutting down ABC2. He said in his speech:

“SBS2 is also expected to be shut down. Our managing director, Mark Scott, has outlined his strategy, which to me looks like taking the opportunity for organisational change without consultation with the public, particular audiences and stakeholders under cover of funding cuts. To secure the ABC’s future he says we must reallocate resources from output which ‘skews old’ to reinvest in content to meet ‘explosive’ demand for content which ‘skews young’ — people who access the ABC through mobiles and tablets.”

Dempster says content identified as “skewing old” includes local radio, Classic FM, NewsRadio and Radio National. He then ran through what he described as “informed speculation sourced from concerned management and staff”, which included further reductions in Classic FM live broadcasts, cutting The World Today in half, shortening radio news bulletins, and removing camera crews from the organisation’s foreign bureaux (a move Dempster says would leave foreign correspondents in greater danger).

“ABC management is also dubious the savings of $70 million could be achieved without cutting into programming … “

“The deletion of free-to-air channels for the Australian people is not back-office,” he said. “Channels, programs and services are not back office. These are not operational savings driven by efficiency.”

Dempster’s comments appear to take aim at the the government’s planned cuts to the ABC budget, which Communications Minister Turnbull has always insisted could be achieved through back-office efficiencies with no need to cut programs or services.

In a blog post yesterday, Turnbull distanced himself from programming decisions like cutting Lateline (or popular children’s program Peppa Pig), which he said weren’t necessary:

“A few months ago we were being told that any cut to the ABC’s budget would be the end of Peppa [Pig]. Well that threat was always a joke — no government, no management would ever take on the 3-year-olds of Australia (not to speak of their parents). But now, rather more seriously it would seem, Peppa has been replaced by Tony Jones and Lateline, apparently the next victim of foreshadowed cuts to the ABC budget … “

Turnbull said the Lewis review into the ABC found ample capacity to achieve savings without cutting programming:

“However it is always going to be a matter for the ABC itself to determine whether programmes should be continued or not. Everyone will have an opinion, as many do on the apparently foreshadowed changes to Lateline. After all, as Bruce Gyngell told me many years ago, everybody thinks they’re a programmer.

“All broadcasters will make changes to their schedule from time to time and the ABC is no different.

“But it is wrong to attempt to draw a link between budget cuts, back office savings and decisions made by management about programming. Suggestions that popular programmes or services are at risk because of Budget savings are not credible. The savings sought from the ABC are not of a scale that will require reductions in programme expenditure. The ABC may choose to cut programming rather than tackle back office and administrative costs — but that’s the ABC’s call.”

The Lewis review in ABC and SBS efficiency reportedly found savings of $70 million a year could be made through greater back-office efficiencies at the ABC. But as Crikey reported in August, some within the government are pushing for cuts of around $100 million to the ABC’s budget. ABC management is also dubious the savings of $70 million could be achieved without cutting into programming, as not all the recommendations in the Lewis review can be implemented at the same time.

Peter Fray

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