ABC staff remain in the dark about the true cost and opportunities of Michelle Guthrie’s plan for a radical reshaping of the national broadcaster.

Flattening the ABC’s bureaucracy is long overdue, and cutting middle management to fund new content is a great headline for Guthrie trying to recover from repeated missteps in her first 10 months as the ABC’s managing director.

The $50 million content fund announced yesterday includes a promise of up to 80 new editorial jobs in regional and remote Australia, at the cost of about 20% of management, and efficiencies in the news and television divisions.

However, the CPSU’s ABC section secretary Sinddy Ealy said the union expected many more than the announced 150-200 job cuts from the ABC as part of the restructure. “There are definitely more cuts planned,” Ealy said. “And these cuts are taking place in the bigger context of budget cuts delivered in 2014. There is already an environment where people are doing more with less across the board.”

[ABC to cut 200 staff by June]

ABC staff are, of course, happy to hear of any investment in content, but there are concerns among journalists about the impact of the restructure.

“In practical terms there’s not much argument amongst the staff over middle managers being cut and those savings going to content making,” one newsroom insider told Crikey. “Mark Scott was a very good MD on many fronts, but the one thing he didn’t tackle was the bureaucracy.”

The content fund will be open to pitches for ideas from all staff across the organisation, with funding to be allocated based on an assessment by Guthrie and the directors of the audience, news, radio and television divisions.

In announcing the fund to ABC staff yesterday, Guthrie said the fund was “contestable and open for business”.

“We need big ideas, fresh thinking and a willingness to take risks. The fund enables us to respond with flexibility and speed to shifting audience trends and to extend our reach and engagement,” she said.

Guthrie used the example of a strong lead-in program to the flagship 7pm news bulletins as an idea she would be keen on.

But our insider says it is disappointing there wasn’t any mention of funding allocated specifically to news and current affairs, given the devastating cuts the division has been through in the last two years.

“We took a big hit. A lot of journalists got retrenched because the government cut the budget in 2014, and with this considerable pool, you’ll have new areas with teams where they have resources to dream up projects, whereas in news and current affairs, where people are sprinting to get work done, you don’t have the same time.

“I get the principle of breaking down the silos, but that pool could be taken up by non-journalists in the organisation,” he said.

Under the new structure, the number of main divisions at the ABC will be reduced from 14 to eight.

One concern our newsroom insider has with that restructure is that the legal department will shift into the finance division.

“In practice that may mean nothing, but if it meant that you had legal reporting to the head of finance and if there was any pressure being put on legal to take tougher decisions around legalling stories, that could be a concern,” he said. “It’s not clear, but editorially for investigative journalism we rely on good lawyers, which we have at the ABC, to do a good job for us to get contentious stories across the line. So that might raise some potential concerns.”

In some divisions of the ABC, there have been up to seven layers of management, with some managers having only one, two or three people reporting to them.

Staff-elected board member Matt Peacock told Crikey yesterday the shake-up of the many layers of bureaucracy was needed at the public broadcaster.

“Michelle Guthrie has said she wants to cut out new layers of management and backhouse staff we don’t need and put more resources into getting new programs and employing new staff. How could you not support that?” Peacock said.

“We’ve had years and years of bad news, now it’s time to start moving in another direction and start growing things. It’s always difficult when people are losing their jobs, but if you had to put it to me which job should we sacrifice, content making or management, I’d say management.”

While the funding for content has generally been recognised as a good thing, the consequences of cuts to support staff are also causing some concern among journos.

In an email to staff yesterday afternoon, the ABC’s director of news Gaven Morris said cuts in news operations and support were to meet the ongoing demands of the 2014 budget cuts, and 49 positions would be cut (none of these would be editorial, but they could include camera operators, sound recordists and other operations staff), resulting in 42 redundancies.

RMIT senior lecturer Dr Alexandra Wake, a former ABC broadcaster, said the restructure looked positive on the surface, but the importance of support staff to a high-quality project shouldn’t be underestimated.

“Overall journalists within the ABC are very excited by the creation of new jobs and the emphasis on creating new content. My concern will be that the devil is always in the detail, which we don’t have,” Wake said.

“I’m concerned the cuts to back office staff will make it difficult on content producers … if someone’s spending an hour doing their expenses instead of reporting, I’m not sure the efficiency is there. You can’t forget that back office jobs are there to back people up.”

[Rundle: how (and why) to save the ABC]

University of Sydney senior lecturer Dr Fiona Martin is an expert in public broadcasting in Australia. She was cautiously optimistic about the restructure.

“[Michelle Guthrie] has said for some time she wants to cut from some parts of the ABC … I’m sympathetic to that. Some areas of the ABC are a little management heavy.

“I’m excited to see a greater focus on regional and rural content making … It’s a distinctive and important strategy.

“[But I’m] worried that there’s no mention of content funds for Radio National, science, drama and arts programming.”

Martin, who is also a former ABC radio broadcaster, said the success of the restructure for the public broadcaster would depend on where in management the cuts were made.

“Middle management is a safe target, but coordination roles that work across networks, I would hope would not go. Sharing more programs across the ABC is an excellent idea,” she said.

Peter Fray

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