There will be some tentative sighs of relief at Ultimo today, with the government continuing its base funding for the ABC of $3.1 billion over the next three years. But a 2013-14 addition, the $20 million-a-year “enhanced newsgathering” funding, has been slashed by almost a third, meaning some job losses are likely.
The enhanced newsgathering funding was an initiative of the 2013-14 budget and was due to expire this year. It is tied funding, meaning it has to be allocated for a specific purpose, and it went towards employing the ABC’s national reporting team, ABC Fact Check and more journalists for regional Australia. Instead of the $20 million a year promised by the Rudd-Gillard government, the Turnbull government has committed to $13.7 million this year, $13.8 million in 2017-18 and $14.1 million in 2018-19.
The $20 million a year represented 10% of the ABC’s total news budget, and former boss Mark Scott made it clear that if all of the funding were not renewed there would be job losses to come. He told the Press Club earlier this year that “significant cuts to jobs and programming” would follow if the enhanced newsgathering budget were stripped away or cut.
Just how many jobs are on the line? The ABC would not put a number on it when Crikey asked, but in answer to a Senate estimates question on notice, Aunty said 106 people were employed with the enhanced newsgathering funding in the 2015-16 financial year. Less than half of these are based in Melbourne or Sydney.
In addition to its enhanced newsgathering funding, the ABC requested an additional $30 million to expand its news operations in rural Australia. That funding request was not granted, but the 2016-17 budget papers make it clear what the priorities for the continuation of the enhanced newsgathering budget should be:
“The Government will also extend a terminating 2013-14 Budget measure to support local news and current affairs services, particularly services located outside of capital cities.”
The cut to the enhanced newsgathering funding will be a blow, but many within the public broadcaster feared it would be far worse. The horror 2014 budget slashed 1% of Aunty’s base funding, with another 4% cut in November 2014. The then-Abbott government kyboshed the Australia Network and forced the ABC to undergo a painful cost-cutting round, leading to the infamous “Hunger Games” redundancy pools. With the enhanced newsgathering funding due to expire and no promise of renewal from the Turnbull government, the prospect of even more pain loomed.
“If [the enhanced newsgathering funding] 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,” Scott told the Press Club earlier this year.
The Turnbull government has also maintained SBS’ base funding, with the multicultural broadcaster to receive $271.9 million in 2016-17, $269.8 million in 2017-18 and $272.4 million in 2018-19. SBS has been given a $6.9 million sweetener in 2016-17 to replace money the broadcaster had been expected to be able to raise itself through the passage of the ad averaging bill. The bill would have allowed SBS to average out the number of ads it showed throughout the day, allowing more advertising in prime time. That legislative change would have allowed SBS to make up some of the revenue the government had cut in previous budgets — then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull said he expected SBS to be able to raise $28.5 million over five years due to ad averaging.
But much to everyone’s surprise, the bill failed to pass the Senate, with former Palmer United (now independent) Senator Glenn Lazarus joining with Labor and the Greens to vote against it. The government gave SBS a one-off grant of $4.1 million in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, but it promised no forward funding. Now the government has committed to another $6.9 million in the upcoming financial year to lessen the blow of losing the money that would have come in through ad averaging.
It’s not giving up on the ad averaging bill, though — particularly with a double dissolution looming to wipe out independents like Lazarus. The budget papers say the $6.9 million will “replace revenue that could not be raised due to the delayed passage of legislation”.