As the ABC’s News and Current Affairs division’s employees lobby to save programs from cutbacks in the current round of budget cuts instigated by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, some of those highly paid journalists and producers should keep a weather eye on what is happening in London at the BBC, where Panorama, the template long-form current affairs program, is about to be revamped completely.

The ABC and its news and current affairs staff have long claimed that programs such as Four Corners, Lateline and Q&A are locally developed ideas and deserve being retained because they provide an Australian perspective, which they do. But they are not uniquely Australian. Four Corners’ template was borrowed from Panorama. Lateline mimics a program of the same name on the ABC Network in the US (and on the Nine Network here). Q&A is based on the UK program, Question Time (which is actually produced for the BBC by a Wales-based independent production company called Mentorn Media, not done in-house as Q&A is).

But the BBC is cutting 415 jobs from its news and current affairs division. Net cuts will be just over 200 once new digital jobs and transfers are finalised. Perhaps the highest profile of the cuts have occurred to Panorama, the flagship program for the “Beeb” which is now being reduced to a rump of itself. Panorama started in 1953 and provided the inspiration for Four Corners and similar programs around the world.

In fact, it is interesting to chart the cuts made at the BBC — a report released three years ago this month claimed the BBC was cutting local news programs “to save Panorama”. By July of this year however, the number of job losses had grown to 415 and the scope had expanded to include Panorama.

According to UK media reports, including The Guardian, Panorama will “scale back its investigative journalism and feature more analysis and familiar faces such as Fiona Bruce following criticism of the corporation’s current affairs output and an exodus of senior staff”.

The Guardian reported:

“Uncertainty continues to surround Panorama, with acting editor Ceri Thomas having to reapply for the role and its four-strong team of reporters likely to remain until next spring, nearly a year after they were told they were being made redundant as part of a £48m cost-cutting package.”

The TV licence fee, which funds the BBC, was frozen in 2010 for the current funding period of six years. These cuts are part of that longer and wider program of budget reductions and funding changes in the hundreds of millions of pounds forced on the BBC by the decision. The BBC is a far larger and more dominating media beast in the UK market than the ABC is in Australia. It is an unfortunate irony that many media managements only focus on ratings, performance and costs when they are forced to during times of revenue strains or cuts. That applies to what the BBC is enduring and what the ABC is about to undergo (for good or bad).

The message for ABC staff is that nothing should be exempt from examination in good times or bad. Change happens and has to be accommodated, even when it involves iconic programs like Lateline and Four Corners. The forces at work in the media are generally operating faster on print media than on electronic forms, but they will not go away. The ABC has to look at itself to see if it is using public money efficiently. No one should be exempt, and to claim otherwise, as some of those campaigning from inside the ABC have done over Lateline, is no different to what we have seen from rent-seekers (unions and companies) claiming exemption from tariff cuts and other withdrawals of assistance. And if the cuts are not to be made in News and Current Affairs, where else should they be made?

The ABC’s charter is aimed at all Australians, not just the employees (especially the highly remunerated) of the News and Current Affairs division. ABC TV and ABC Radio are just as important. Ratings are not everything for a public broadcaster, but they do provide a view of what the audience likes and doesn’t like. The luvvies and others in ABC News and Current Affairs shouldn’t get too precious about cutbacks, after all, they will get no sympathy from print journalists who have been in the firing line for years.

Peter Fray

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