SBS’ Dateline celebrated its 30th anniversary last month. But as its crew prepares for the year’s final episode, management is moving ahead with plans to dramatically downsize the show’s journalistic ambitions, one of Australia’s most experienced TV journalists claims.
In an astonishing piece penned for Crikey under his own name, Dateline’s supervising producer Allan Hogan has revealed what he describes as a plan to dismember the multicultural broadcaster’s flagship current affairs show. A veteran of current affairs television with 45 years’ experience in TV journalism, Hogan has been a reporter at Four Corners, a Washington correspondent for the ABC, and the presenter of 7.30 Queensland. In commercial television, he’s been the supervising producer of 60 Minutes and was the founding executive producer of the Nine Network’s Sunday current affairs program.
Hogan says that at a recent staff meeting, SBS news and current affairs boss Jim Carroll said Dateline would only receive enough funding to create 10 new stories in the first six months of the year. Dateline normally airs three stories in an hour-long program, so this is funding for just three full programs in six months, in a period during which 20 episodes of Dateline would normally air. Instead of airing original content, the plan is for Dateline to buy coverage from foreign networks, and to air repeats of previous stories.
SBS has no plan to axe the program, Hogan says. It merely intends to starve it of resources. Hogan wrote: “If this was simply a matter of belt tightening, it might be passed off as unpleasant and possibly necessary, but it’s more like the removal of the lower intestine, and the amputation of both legs.”
Crikey approached SBS with four questions this morning about the program’s future, and that of its staff, based on Hogan’s claims. An SBS spokesperson gave us a brief response: “There have been no decisions made about changes to Dateline. It will be up to the new executive producer to review the program at the close of this season, as is standard practice, and determine its look and feel going into 2015.”
In his piece, Hogan says that the changes to Dateline aren’t only due to SBS budget cuts, which the government is expected to announce shortly. Instead, he claims SBS management wants the program to be lighter in tone, “less about starving or oppressed people”, more about “positive entertaining stories that make for happy viewing”.
Most of Dateline’s staff are on rolling yearly contracts — some of them have been employed thus for over a decade. This employment arrangement means they do not qualify for many of the entitlements generally awarded to full-time employees. Hogan says the program’s staff are “confused and worried” about their future, and they do not know if they will be offered redundancy payments given many of them are not formally owed them. “That’s not the way the ABC deals with these situations, and it’s hard to see how SBS could get away with treating its staff so shabbily,” Hogan wrote.
Crikey asked SBS about the employment arrangements of the journalists on Dateline, and whether they would qualify for redundancies should the program be scaled back. SBS declined to comment on this point.
Dateline also recently lost executive producer Peter Charley. Charley, a former executive producer of the ABC’s Lateline, did not have his contract renewed when it ran out in August. He has been replaced by Bernadine Lim, a director and producer of 20 years’ experience who joined the program in 2014. Crikey has previously heard speculation about whether Charley left of his own volition, with some saying he was pushed. Hogan says the decision to leave the show was Charley’s: “Carroll apparently regarded Charley as responsible for whatever faults he saw with the program. Facing this lack of support Charley declined to renew his contract, believing it would be impossible to make an acceptable program with the resources available.”
Dateline’s reporters travel without a crew, operating their equipment and shooting their stories by themselves all over the world, with the help of local stringers. It’s a rare approach to global TV journalism, but despite operating without the same level of staffing as many similar programs, Dateline has a proud and successful history. Its journalists have won 18 Walkley Awards, including the prestigious Gold Walkley, of which only one is awarded each year. In 2006, the program revealed a second batch of photos and videos depicting the abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, a global exclusive that reverberated around the world, and in 2003, had a reporter sneak into the Nauru detention centre to report on conditions there amid a government-imposed media blackout. Through a continued focus on the region, the program has over several years unearthed many instances of human rights abuses in West Papua and East Timor, including the funding of pro-Indonesian militias in 2000, which won journalist Mark Davis a Gold Walkley.