The ABC is bracing for what could be its third budget cut since the election of the Coalition government in 2013.

At the start of last week, the executives of its news division (which include the executive producers of flagship programs) met with management and were told to begin making contingency plans for what could be cut, should the triennial funding round outcomes (to be released in this year’s budget) not include the renewal of a $20 million-a-year “enhanced newsgathering” grant the Rudd government gave Aunty in its final budget. The money was tied funding — meaning it had to be allocated to areas specified by the government — and went to setting up the ABC’s national reporting team, ABC Fact Check, and the employment of more journalists in regional Australia.

The ABC has declined to say what scale of cuts to jobs or programs could result at this stage, and Crikey understands the plans are still being devised. There is a possibility the government will continue providing the ABC with some of the funding, if not all of it, in which case contingency plans would be adjusted accordingly. But earlier redundancy programs may give some guide to the effect of a $20 million cut. In 2014, when the government cut $50 million a year from the ABC budget, the ABC cut 400 staff.

The ABC has been talking with increasing urgency in public forums about the effects of the loss of funding.

Last week at the National Press Club, outgoing managing director Mark Scott spoke about the funding and the “significant cuts to jobs and programming” the ABC would be forced to make should the funding be removed (most in the media, Crikey included, were too dazzled by the prospect of a merger with SBS to take much note of Scott’s other comments).

“Nearly three years ago, the Gillard government allocated an additional $20 million per annum to the ABC to support enhanced news services, acknowledging the industry’s loss of specialist reporting staff, the importance of local digital content and declining news investment in regions.”

This money now represents 10% of the ABC’s total budget for news, Scott said.”If it is not renewed, it would represent the third substantial cut to the ABC’s budget since the Coalition government was elected on a platform not to cut the budget.”

abcfundingcuts

A table from the ABC’s submission showing the cuts to its budget since the election of the Abbott government

Earlier, in a submission to the regional broadcasting inquiry being conducted in the House of Representatives, Aunty noted the “further financial pressures” placed on it by the termination of the “enhanced newsgathering” grant:

“Enhanced Newsgathering funds have been used to provide ongoing audience benefits, including state-based online news sites; regional video journalists and camera crews; new bureaux in Geelong, Parramatta and Ipswich; and specialist reporters. It is impossible for the Corporation to maintain the same level of output, particularly in the News Division, with an effective 10% cut to its annual operating budget.”

As well as asking for the continuation of existing tied funding, the ABC has also requested a new $25 million to $30 million to fund further news operations in regional Australia. Scott has argued this is the one sure thing the government can control that would ensure those in regional Australia have access to reliable news services. While the success or otherwise of the ABC’s requests won’t be known until budget night, at this stage, the public broadcaster is preparing to be denied.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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