In the corridors of Canberra it’s a common gripe of conservative politicians. If the ABC is so efficient, why are so many of its journalists in press conferences? Why can’t it be like Sky, whose few staff famously operate out of a shoebox of a studio in Parliament House?

But using figures released today, the ABC argues it’s not overstaffed at all, given what it does. The ABC has 56 staff based in Parliament House, of which 29 are “editorial” and the other 27 are “support positions”, which includes roles like directors, camera operators, editors and studio staff.

Its public disclosure of staffing levels is in response to a story in Monday’s Australian accusing the public broadcaster of “trying to hide details of the number of staff it employs in Canberra”, after a freedom-of-information request for the figures was knocked back because it didn’t actually match any specific documents that could be released.

An ABC spokesman told Crikey that characterisation couldn’t “be further from the truth”. “As with all of its workforce, the ABC is proud of the hard work done by its ACT and Canberra staff, their high productivity and the professionalism they bring to the service of our audiences in this vitally important area,” he said.

The figures released by the ABC today show it employs 172 staff in the ACT overall, who fill 160 full-time equivalent roles. These staff are evenly split between editorial and other support roles. Of the 172 staff, 116 work outside Parliament House for local and rural radio and television services.

The ABC says the 56 who do work in Parliament House are involved in producing:

“… hourly radio news bulletins, three daily radio current affairs programs, online news, TV news bulletins, ABC News 24, Radio National, Triple J, ABC Rural radio and online, 7.30 and Lateline. They also contribute to a  raft of other ABC programs, including Insiders, National Press Club addresses and ABC local radio stations across the country. The ABC hosts AM out of the parliamentary radio studios and Capital Hill and question time out of the television studio. In addition, they service ABC stations around the country, offering content for our state, regional and rural audiences not covered by any other media outlet.”

In order to compare the staffing levels of the ABC to commercial broadcasters, the spokesman said, you’d have to combine the figures of Sky News with a newspaper masthead and a network of radio stations.

The parliamentary press gallery publishes a list of members on its website, which was last updated in the first half of this year. A handful of the names on it only come to Canberra in sitting weeks, but the vast majority are based in Canberra full time. According to that list, News Corp has 32 press gallery members. Fairfax, whose properties include its radio network, has 43 (2 in radio). The TV stations had about a dozen people each, apart from Sky News, which gets by on just nine.

On this comparison, the ABC’s numbers don’t compare badly. But should the ABC, by virtue of being one organisation with so many properties, be able to achieve greater efficiencies of scale in Canberra than those available to the commercial publishers?

Crikey called up a few press gallery reporters for their thoughts. None thought the ABC was overstaffed given all that it does. But we did manage to coax out some grumblings. “Does the ABC get the absolute maximum value out of the reporters it has? I’m not sure,” one mused. “It seems to spend a lot of time following up other people’s stories. Which everyone does, of course. But with a rejig, maybe the ABC could break a few more.”

All agreed that as long as Liberal politicians are used to seeing two ABC reporters at their press conferences instead of just one, the issue is unlikely to go away.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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