Malcolm Turnbull will urge the ABC board to strip managing director Mark Scott of his self-imposed role as “editor-in-chief”, as he announced the budget cuts to both public broadcasters.

The Communications Minister confirmed the ABC budget will be slashed by $254 million over the next four years — or 2.6% of its $5.5 billion budget — while SBS will lose $25.2 million (1.7%) over the period.

Total savings to the budget — including the 1% efficiency “down payment” already applied to the ABC — will amount to $308 million over the five years.

The broadcasters must now decide how they will make the savings; the ABC is expected to make announcements next week. Turnbull said blaming the government for any programming changes would be “cowardly”, as efficiencies could be found in back-office functions.

“The ABC management know that they can meet these savings without reducing the resources available to programming — furthermore, they know that the government and their board know too,” he said.

In a surprise announcement, Turnbull revealed he would also use a legislative right to offer “formal advice on operational and financial matters” to both boards. Turnbull will ask for:

  • An editor-in-chief to be appointed separate from the managing director and answering directly to the board;
  • An independent chief financial officer appointed with responsibility for the resources and cost base of the ABC;
  • More transparency on budgets relating to charter obligations “providing more granular detail”;
  • More co-operation between the ABC and SBS to maximise efficiency; and
  • The boards to set out each year steps taken to meet statutory obligations on ensuring accurate and impartial journalism standards.

“The government does not and should never have any control over the news and current affairs of the ABC or SBS. Mr [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s model of media management is no more admirable than his foreign policy,” Turnbull said. “But their boards are responsible for their objectivity and accuracy. I have on occasions heard directors say ‘they do not want to get involved’. Well if they do not want to get involved they should resign.”

In a nod to long-time critics of the ABC’s editorial decisions, including from within his own party room, Turnbull says Scott doesn’t have the time or ability to manage the ABC’s news content day-to-day and shouldn’t have the editor-in-chief title.

“It creates the impression that the managing director is directly in charge of ABC news and current affairs, which he is not, and given the wide range of his responsibilities, could not be,” he said.

“The board should expect the head of news and current affairs, like the CFO, to report directly to the board as well as to the managing director thus enabling the board to discharge its statutory obligation referred to below.”

The CFO role is currently filled by chief operating officer David Pendleton. Turnbull says the ABC “should have a qualified CFO who reports directly to the board as well as the CEO and is fearlessly independent, ensuring that the management and board understand precisely where and how funds are being spent and what everything costs”.

“This advice must be considered by the boards but can, of course, be ignored,” he said. “Importantly it would be a very transparent way of providing advice to the broadcasters on matters that do not affect their independence.”

*This article was originally published at The Mandarin

Peter Fray

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