SBS yesterday told almost all the staff employed by Dateline that it would not need their services next year, as the multicultural broadcaster continues its radical shake-up of the program.

Almost all the program’s video journalists were yesterday told their current involvement with the program would not continue in 2015. Also leaving are almost all the show’s researchers and producers, as the 25-strong team is trimmed to only a handful of positions.

The program’s staff have been on tenterhooks for eight weeks, after being told the program’s budget would be smaller in 2015 and warned there might not be room for all of them in the new program. Tensions escalated dramatically after supervising producer Allan Hogan penned a piece for Crikey last week that was fiercely critical of management’s plans for the program (he was fired on Monday afternoon). Hogan’s piece led to the program’s remaining staff being hauled into a fiery meeting with news and current affairs chief Jim Carroll and others on Monday, where they were told Hogan’s piece was very commercially damaging to the broadcaster, and that writing it had been an act of extraordinary disloyalty. Crikey has heard from numerous sources that Carroll demanded to know who agreed with Hogan. The gathered staff were also told those who continued with the program next year would be required to pledge their loyalty to its new direction, and that deep cuts would be made to the program in anticipation of federal budget cuts.

The following day, the program’s staff were called into meetings with Carroll, SBS human resources and the show’s new executive producer, Bernadine Lim. Staff had been anticipating a stiff talking to, but instead, most were told they would not have their contracts renewed for 2015. Some were offered the chance to do one or two stories for the program next year, earning them a few thousand dollars. But compared to the $100,000-plus contracts many of them had been employed on, this represented a dramatic drop in income. “The offer was so unattractive I don’t think management expected anyone to take it,” an outgoing staff member told Crikey this morning.

Crikey understands on the way out are celebrated reporters like Nick Lazaredes, David O’Shea, and Nick Olle (currently a supervising producer -it’ll be the second time in a year he parts ways with an employer, after his previous employer, The Global Mail, went bust). It is believed Gold Walkley winner Mark Davis is still in negotiations, while host Anjali Rao has already resigned (she told Crikey yesterday her leaving had nothing to do with the changes at the program).

Asked to speculate on whether their firing had been a result of Hogan’s article or whether it had likely already been planned, several sources told Crikey today they believed the program was always due for a radical shake-up. The plan for Dateline next year, Crikey understands, is for it to be a commissioning house for international current affairs reporting. Staff were also told the program would be trimmed to half an hour in 2015, instead of its current hour-long weekly slot.

In an email sent to staff just after noon, Carroll confirmed the program would be trimmed to half an hour in 2015:

Dateline will relaunch in 2015 as a 30 minute, presenter-less program with an increased number of single issue or single event documentaries and original content across the entire season.  It will remain focussed on international current affairs and continue its strong commitment to in-depth investigative journalism. The Tuesday 9.30pm timeslot will remain unchanged. The 30 minute format was trialled during the Tour de France with encouraging results.  We believe it better fits evolving audience preferences and aligns Dateline with programming trends in both domestic and international markets.”

As a result of this, Carroll wrote, the team was being restructured. Asked about the staff turnover this morning, an SBS spokesperson said: “A number of Dateline staff are unaffected by the changes and will continue on in 2015 as usual. Some Dateline staff are freelancers who have elected to pursue other opportunities unrelated to the changes at Dateline, some staff have elected not to renew their contracts, and others were engaged on contracts which were due to expire at the end of the year.”

Because of their yearly contracts — some staff have been on such contracts for over 10 years — Crikey understands almost none of the Dateline staff qualify for redundancy. Their contracts also include gag clauses, which have meant many were reluctant to speak to Crikey on the record. SBS sources were today mourning the loss of talent from the program, which sources said added up to over 100 years’ experience in operating in hostile environments. Dateline’s video journalists work alone — hiring local fixers as they cross the globe in search of their 10 or so stories a year for the program. However, they have in the past been aided by the specialist knowledge of people like Dateline‘s production manager, who is understood to have resigned yesterday.

SBS insiders were this morning fearing what the loss of experience would mean for the safety of Dateline’s freelancers in the future. In the past, reporters haven’t always been given sufficient flak jackets for them and their local fixers in conflict situations, and upon their return, have often not been offered conselling for trauma and the like. “It’s always been run on the smell of an oil rag, but frankly it’s pure luck somebody hasn’t been killed yet,” one reporter told Crikey this morning. “I’m not saying it would have been Dateline’s fault, but when you’re out there alone and not given proper protection, it’s pretty tough.” In 2004, John Martinkus was captured in Iraq while filming a story for Datelinehe was subsequently released.

In public statements, SBS managing director Michael Ebeid has said the budget for Dateline would not be cut. SBS insiders this morning told Crikey it already has been, beginning in August, when $400,000 was taken out of the program’s budget, with another $400,000 coming out in the six months to June 2015. Crikey understands as a result of federal budget cuts, Carroll has been asked to find $2 million in savings from his budget, of which a significant amount has already come from Dateline.

In further comments to Crikey, an SBS spokesperson said the program had gone through a number of evolutions over its 30-year history. “The future is about building on its reputation for journalistic integrity.” Next year, the 30-minute format will facilitate “a full commitment to investigative journalism and rigour, telling ground-breaking and compelling stories in effective ways; stories which inform, inspire and are relevant to all Australians”.

Peter Fray

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