ABC TV in 2014 will have no reflection of Christmas as a religious festival anywhere in its schedule, outgoing 7.30 NSW host Quentin Dempster has said in a submission to the Senate on the impact of the ABC cuts.

“Christmas Carols and Readings which was previously part of ABC TV’s Christmas offering was dropped last year and reportedly [the] head of programming [for] ABC1 and ABC2 has said that he would not schedule it into the future ‘unless he was told to do so’,” Dempster, who was made redundant two weeks ago, wrote in his submission. “In short: ABC axes Christmas carols.”

Dempster’s 18-page submission, which he spoke about in the Senate on Friday, is the most thorough accounting of the changes at the ABC that has appeared publicly to date. Division by division, Dempster lays out exactly what he understands is being changed as a result of budget cuts, and devotes significant space to the downsizing of the ABC’s religious coverage. He says the religion unit will be reduced from 10.5 full-time staff to just six, thus losing 43% of its staffing. This, Dempster  claims, will be compounded by a 70% loss of the unit’s production budget — that is, money left over to commission and spend on content after salaries are paid out.

Dempster claims staff within the religion unit were given no chance to consult on these changes: “It was with immense surprise and shock that the proposed changes were presented effectively fait accompli.” The rationale given by head of radio Michael Mason, Dempster writes, is that the pooling of religion’s staff and resources within the broader radio division would allow for greater efficiency and cohesion across the ABC’s teams. Currently, the ABC’s religion unit’s staff are not attached to particular programs, and Dempster fears the downsizing of the unit will limit their ability to move around between programs.

On ABC TV, the role of executive producer for Compass has also been axed, Dempster says. “This means there is no editorial head of religion in TV. Compass will now be supervised by a general commissioning editor.”

Dempster’s submission comes as ABC acting director of people Alan Sunderland (until recently head of editorial policy) assured staff trapped in redundancy pools that no one who didn’t want to leave the ABC would be forced to do so before Christmas. In an email sent to staffers (and obtained by Crikey), Sunderland acknowledges the preference of ABC staff for redundancies to be voluntary, but says the ABC “needs to have a mix of direct redundancies and skills-based pools to properly plan for the future”.

As Christmas approaches, Sunderland writes, ABC staff deserve certainty, and so the ABC is moving ahead with its redundancy arrangements accordingly:

“If we don’t proceed now, a significant number of ABC staff will go into Christmas still not knowing if they are individually affected by our proposals for change or not.

“So the primary purpose of this update is to let you know that we will now be moving to progress the pools over the next few days. Managers will be applying the selection criteria and carrying out assessments, to advise those staff in the pools who have been identified as potentially redundant by the middle of next week.”

Staff were encouraged to raise whether they wanted to take a redundancy but were told this would not guarantee they would get one. Those facing redundancy who wish to stay will have the process stretched out into January, in order to allow time for them to “work through their options, and to continue consultation where necessary”.

Peter Fray

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