Communications Minister Paul Fletcher and ABC Chair Ita Buttrose (Images: AAP/Alex Murray, AAP/Lukas Coch)

As dozens more journalists and producers walked out the door last week , part of an exodus of 250 staff, the ABC was quietly hiring a fresh pool of talent.

The broadcaster has ads out for a dozen jobs for back-end developers, front-end developers, engineers, software developers and other digital experts as it thrusts into an IT-led future.

It’s the new era of public broadcasting, one where, the ABC told Inq, it would require staff “with new skills that are in high demand, especially in information technology”. For the moment concepts like editorial independence are looking a little analogue. 

Eighteen months after being appointed ABC chair as a prime minister’s captain’s pick, Ita Buttrose has a monumental job to stop the organisation’s decline.

Morrison hired Buttrose with the most flattering of words: “Australians trust Ita. I trust Ita. And that’s why I have asked her to take on this role,” he said. Since that golden February day in 2019 — Ita was “honoured”, she said — it’s all gone south.

And now there’s a new level of cold intent. The government will give nothing, despite the ABC pouring massive resources into covering the bushfires and despite the hundreds of employees who find themselves out on the streets in a recession.

It has also cut the ABC out of its fee-for-news demand from Google and Facebook on the grounds it is funded by government not advertising revenue, meanwhile ensuring the Murdoch and Nine organisations are paid — another inventive turn of the screw. 

So what should Ita do?

“I would like to see Ita now start to take the case for the proper funding of the ABC to the Australian community,” Maxine McKew, former high-profile ABC journalist and former member of the Rudd government, told Inq.

McKew says she was “part of the cheer squad” when Buttrose was appointed. The decision was “inspired” because Buttrose was one of the most trusted figures in Australia. 

“Ita did the right thing when she publicly called out [Communications Minister] Paul Fletcher when he denied there’d been budget cuts,” McKew said, referring to reports Buttrose had “lashed” Fletcher over the cuts of some $84 million this year. Buttrose had also accused Fletcher of lying.

But McKew believes it’s time for Buttrose to go public to push the ABC’s case with “a consistent and well-argued campaign about what’s at stake”.

“Ita is an absolute terrier for the public interest,” she says. “She demonstrated that in the 1980s when she was asked to lead the AIDS campaign in order to promote public health. The issue now is the health of our democracy which requires a robust ABC.” 

President of the NSW and ACT Friends of the ABC Professor Ed Davis says Buttrose spoke to the group and left it in no doubt of her “deep commitment” to a well-funded ABC.

“We do see her going in hard and she does a lot, presumably, that we don’t see,” he says. “I am deeply concerned at how incredibly influential the IPA [Institute of Public Affairs] and News Corporation are on this government, and they are brazen in their desire to see an emasculated ABC.”

The 19-year war of attrition

The Coalition’s war of attrition on the ABC has carried on for 19 of the past 25 years — it started when the Howard government was elected. Some government members have been there for the long haul, including serial complainant Eric Abetz and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.

These long-haul ideologues also include Fletcher. He was a staffer to Howard-era communications minister Richard Alston, the Victorian senator who launched a sustained years-long attack on the ABC from the mid ’90s.

Alston infamously compiled a dossier claiming 68 instances of anti-American bias by the influential current affairs radio program AM during its coverage of the 2003 US-led invasion of  Iraq. It zeroed in on individual words used by reporters. Was “crisis” justified? “Catastrophe”? Was it really “tens of thousands” who demonstrated in Gaza? 

Alston’s strategy triggered a complaints process that became a bog for reporters and executives and set the template for how to place the ABC under siege.

Fletcher is a party lifer. Now 55, he joined the Young Liberals at 16. He trained as a lawyer but has found his true home at the intersection of hard-right politics and business.

His instinct, he told the parliament in his first speech, was for “open markets, free competition and as little state interference as possible”.

Seven Network’s commercial director Bruce McWilliam was a referee for Fletcher’s preselection when a seat was found for him on Sydney’s north shore in 2009. McWilliam is an old mate of Turnbull. Fletcher served as parliamentary secretary to Turnbull when he was communications minister. Circles within circles.  

Fletcher took up office in May last year, three months after Buttrose’s ABC appointment. Her appointment had calmed the ABC after it imploded in 2018. But plenty of unexploded ordnance was carried over, principally its digital transformation — a large piece of infrastructure which it needs to connect to its audiences, but which the government refuses to fund.

Former ABC chair and Turnbull tech buddy Justin Milne had pushed the case for a far-reaching project called Jetstream. It had an estimated cost of $500 million but no plan attached and was dumped at the end of 2018 along with Milne.

At the same time another Turnbull appointee, the tech-and-data-driven media business investor Peter Tonagh, was at work on another “efficiency” review. Tonagh, fresh from running Foxtel, concluded that a whole-of-ABC digital transformation was needed.

Labor’s communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland told Inq that Milne and the ABC board were right that its IT systems needed to be “substantially upgraded” but that Fletcher had done little.

“Nearly 18 months in we’ve got no principles, no roadmap, no timeframe,” she says. “The only bit of public policy we’ve seen on the ABC is the regional and rural bill still before the parliament. It’s listed every fortnight but never comes on for debate.”

Turmoil is good news for some 

A new direction means — hey presto — new skills. As the ABC told Inq: “Continuous training will be necessary in every role as staff are required to adapt to new technologies and processes. This, in turn, will place greater demand on the need for effective and ongoing change management.”  

Consultants may be in for a bonanza. The BBC spent just on $200 million with Siemens consultants before it abandoned its first attempt at digital transformation. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation — with a charter similar to the ABC’s — has been given additional government funding of $150 million a year for the next several years, to make up for previous cuts and to implement its transformation.

The problem for the ABC is that the Morrison government will not pay for the digital overhaul even though it is as fundamental to broadcasting now as transmission towers once were.

How much money is involved? The ABC won’t say. It also won’t detail what needs to be done. But the zero sum game imposed on the ABC means that every dollar spent on digital transformation is a dollar less on ABC production.

Former senior ABC editorial executive Alan Sunderland says digital transformation carries the additional risk of commercialising productions. 

“The number of digital platforms the ABC has to reach to get to its audience is expanding,” he says. “And this means the ABC is at risk of having its content on third-party platforms which the ABC cannot control.”

Sunderland cited the example of YouTube which might want to place advertising around ABC children’s content. Digital platforms might refuse to carry ABC content if advertising wasn’t allowed. Alternatively its editorial decisions might be influenced by the need to produce income-generating content.

The ABC has tried different survival techniques over the past 25 years. It has used Insiders as a vehicle to bring Murdoch media opponents like Gerard Henderson and Greg Sheridan into the tent. Q&A serves a similar purpose.

Come election time it measures — to the minute — the broadcast time given to the major parties to head off bias accusations. It has hired senior political reporters Laura Tingle, Andrew Probyn and David Speers from outside the ABC. And it has produced the soft-focus Kitchen Cabinet.

It has also invited the fringe, anti-regulation ideologues of the IPA on to its panel programs, giving them space to pontificate on issues way beyond their remit. And it has handed entire radio programs to conservative figures Amanda Vanstone and Tom Switzer.

But there are complaints from inside the ABC of self-censorship by gun-shy editorial executives wary of the inevitable government complaint or Murdoch attack. 

University of Melbourne journalism academic Denis Muller has revealed that the ABC asked him to water down his criticism of the National Party’s Barnaby Joyce in a piece he was asked to write on a $150,000 fee paid for an exclusive interview with Joyce and his partner Vikki Campion. Muller told Inq it was time the ABC defended its journalism, rather than buckle.

Appeasement clearly has not worked. Last week the exodus of senior staff continued. In this climate, experienced staff are an endangered species — not because they rock the boat but because they are a cost burden, with superannuation, holiday pay etc. Look out for a more “agile” workforce of contract workers and part-timers. 

And Communications Minister Paul Fletcher? What happened to all that talk of trust? Fletcher’s office told Inq that the minister “enjoys a good working relationship” with Buttrose and ABC managing director David Anderson and that he “engages with them regularly.” Neither Buttrose nor Anderson were available to speak to Inq.

The ABC is making the public case that what it does matters because of the very real threat to democracy posed by the proliferation of misinformation. Tell that to the Morrison government.

As one senior departee told Inq: the Murdoch agenda isn’t ideological — it’s commercial. The worse it gets for the ABC the better it gets for the Murdoch media and, presumably, the Morrison government.

What should Ita Buttrose do to stop the rot? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.