No bad decisions ever go away.
The ABC board met this week to sign off on the $84 million worth of cuts that the Morrison government slipped into last year’s budget to start from July 1 this year.
Expect cuts to programming and to jobs.
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At the time of the budget, the cuts (imposed through a three-year freeze on the ABC’s funding) were dismissed as a self-indulgent slap at the public broadcaster (and a farewell gift to its ABC-hating News Corp supporters) by a dying government. The incoming Shorten Labor Government (remember that?) was expected to quickly overturn them.
ABC chair Ita Buttrose met with Morrison and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher this morning. The Australian helpfully speculated that she’s making “an impassioned plea” for more money, perhaps for the over-runs on bushfire coverage. But ABC insiders are playing it down.
The ABC seems stuck with the cuts — made worse by the blow-out in emergency broadcasts in this summer’s bushfires. The broadcaster topped the Nielsen ratings for digital news in January, both in unique visitors and in average time on site. But the costs of reporting teams on the ground and keeping regional and state-wide radio running over summer will have to be found somewhere.
Buttrose’s appointment by Morrison just 12 months ago was what’s come to be called a “captain’s pick” — Canberra bubble speak for “prime minister over-rules recommendation of expert committee in a #Scottyfrommarketing light-bulb moment”.
At the time, there was a bit of hopeful rumination that her contacts (including within perennial ABC critic News Corp) would act to ameliorate conservative hostility to the broadcaster.
Now, 12 months on, Morrison has been weakened and the hatred for the ABC from the resurgent right of the Liberal Party and their News Corp allies is stronger than ever. In both places, the ABC’s success in covering the bushfires actually counts against them, copping some of the blame for the fires putting climate action back on the agenda.
News Corp is annoyed by the ABC’s poaching of David Speers from Sky to present Insiders, and fuming at Paul Barry’s Media Watch critique of their climate change denialism (“full of journalistic deceit, misrepresentation and manipulation” says The Australian’s associate editor Chris Kenny).
The ABC tries to pacify News Corp (and the Liberal right) by programming their representatives onto television and radio talk panels, either as “balance” or as a pretence that News Corp is somehow just another normal news organisation. That can backfire, as Senator Jim Molan (“I’m not relying on evidence”) found on last week’s Q&A bushfire special.
There were mixed views within the ABC last November when Buttrose let it be known she was unimpressed with an all-women Q&A panel which was subsequently withdrawn from circulation after complaints about language and tone.
The ABC is said to have identified 200 jobs to go after bringing in external consultants. (About two-thirds of ABC expenditure is in salaries. As a rule of thumb, each ABC job can be estimated as costing an average $120,000 including on-costs). They’ll need to go before the end of June to meet next year’s budget.
Many of the jobs identified as surplus to requirements are thought to be in technical support, to be replaced by automation and by contracting out the work. But the bushfires have reinforced how important it is to have these resources within the corporation. That’s driving a rethink.
As always, the ABC is caught between thinning and axing — between slicing resources across the corporation and producing more or less the same with less, or closing programs and services outright.
It’s as much a political as an organisational decision: closing programs is more manageable for the organisation, but can be damaging politically, being read by the government as an attempt to bully them, as the ABC found in 2003 when its announced closures included school education program Behind the News.
While the ABC remains concerned about the influence the hostility of News Corp has over the government, things could be worse. In the UK, it’s been (probably mischievously) suggested that a Murdoch — Rupert’s daughter Elisabeth — could be appointed as the BBC’s new director general.