While the pundits debate how much will be cut from the budgets of the public broadcasters by the government’s Expenditure Review Committee, one decision is certain: the SBS program Dateline in its present form is for the axe. Next Tuesday the last Dateline for 2014 will mark a watershed moment for the program that has run for 30 years, earning the praise of its peers and the respect of its loyal viewers.

Not that SBS is about to make that decision public. So far the broadcaster has kept it very quiet, but if pressed management will argue that in some form or another the program will still be on air next year. But planned budget cuts mean it can only be a shadow of its former self. This flies in the face of Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s guarantee that programs would not suffer as a result of the government’s imposed cuts.

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At a recent staff meeting news and current affairs chief Jim Carroll said there was only enough funding to cover 10 new stories in the remainder of the financial year to June 2015. On the basis of three stories in an hour-long program, that’s funding for just three programs over six months.

It seems that to avoid controversy the program will still be called Dateline but will consist mainly of “buy-ins” by foreign broadcasters and repeats of previous Dateline stories. Oh, and those 10 new stories will be scattered over something like 20 programs. The Dateline that has won a reputation for hard-hitting coverage of international affairs and has won scores of awards, including 18 Walkleys, will be no more.

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. And there’s something more insidious about the planned changes that has nothing to do with harsh budget cuts. It’s about a change in philosophy for the program.

On the occasions Carroll attends the weekly Dateline staff meeting, he successfully moderates his enthusiasm for most of its stories. The way he sees it, they too often seem to be about starving or oppressed people, or people doing terrible things to the environment, or political developments in countries we don’t care about. Carroll thinks the program needs to lighten up — more stories about pop culture, for example, positive entertaining stories that make for happy viewing. That would be absolutely fine if Dateline needed to chase ratings and SBS were a commercial broadcaster, but it isn’t. It’s a public broadcaster with different responsibilities.

And speaking of ratings, Dateline has an audience of just under a quarter of a million viewers — a figure basically unchanged over the past four years. It’s interesting to compare that with the 6.30 Monday-to-Friday SBS World News audience, which has headed steadily south (by 20%) over the last three years. And Dateline is broadcast at the particularly difficult timeslot of 9.30 on Tuesdays, while the news sits in early prime time. If SBS has a ratings problem, it’s not Dateline.

“Of course, any program can find more efficient ways to operate, but there’s not too much fat at Dateline.”

Obviously, not every Dateline story is a journalistic triumph.This year the program has broadcast over 100 stories; some have been outstanding, most have achieved a high professional standard, and very few could have been better told, or not told at all. It’s the same for every current affairs program, and Dateline’s batting average is as good as or better than most. Over the years the program has broadcast more than 4000 reports and investigations, including the desperate scenes following the Rwandan genocide, the haunting images of starving North Korean refugees and the shocking photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison. By any measure this is SBS at its best, and even if it sometimes falls short, it surely represents a core value of the SBS Charter.

Dateline is also an inexpensive international current affairs program. That’s because it relies on the talent and goodwill of its “VJs” — video journalists — who are journalists, sound recordists, camera operators, producers, talent wranglers and directors, all of which they have to handle simultaneously and alone. Their counterparts at other programs have dedicated professionals paid handsomely to travel with them to deal with each of these challenging tasks. That requires air tickets and accommodation for four travellers wherever they go, while Dateline manages with just one. Of course, any program can find more efficient ways to operate, but there’s not too much fat at Dateline. Apparently Carroll thinks there is. “Cheap and cheerful” might be his new mantra for the program.

And spare a thought for former executive producer Peter Charley. 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.

Carroll has announced the appointment of a new executive producer without advertising the position or seeking expressions of interest from the existing staff, or having any discussions about the changes he was or might be planning. It’s not that the new EP is without talent, enthusiasm and energy but the process of appointing her — and the forthcoming sackings — have been appallingly handled.

With less than a week until the last program, staff remain confused and worried about their futures. No formal announcement has yet been made about who will lose their jobs, or whether there will be any redundancy payments. Some are permanent staff, while others work on year-to-year contracts, some of which have been renewed continuously for more than 14 years. It seems that SBS might simply tell them their contracts have come to an end, so goodbye, and good luck. 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.

Carroll sent an email to staff saying he understood “this was a difficult time for the team and you want answers. We will provide them as soon as possible.” He’s away overseas at the moment but says he “will be continuing to work on the outcome and will meet with everyone on my return”. But what those answers might be — and what will happen to staff at the well-regarded program — are far from clear.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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