ABC News channel presenter Joe O'Brien (Image: ABC)

One of the main conclusions of the ABC and SBS efficiency review by Peter Tonagh and Richard Bean, which the government does its best to pretend never happened, is that the national broadcasters need to focus on their core business.

Rather than fragmenting their diminishing funding trying to cover as many different functions as possible, the reviewers argued, the broadcasters’ boards should:

… clearly identify those areas of content that are at the core of their charter obligations and ensure that they are adequately funded. Where necessary to protect and grow those core areas, the ABC and SBS should reconsider expenditure in other content areas with the goal of stopping expenditure where necessary to reinvest in the core.

ABC and SBS supporters would respond that the government should ensure the broadcasters are fully funded to achieve their charters, something unlikely to happen any time soon. There are persistent rumours that the government is preparing another funding cut for at least the ABC in the forthcoming budget.

Although the ABC endured massive funding cuts in the first two years of the Howard government, it received additional funding for regional services in 2001, was paid to provide an international broadcasting service and received more funding in the later Howard years.

The current period of underfunding, beginning in 2014 when Tony Abbott broke an explicit election promise not to cut ABC and SBS funding, is thus now the longest the broadcaster has faced in recent times, and looks set to continue for close to decade at a minimum.

Given the colossal challenge posed to Australian media by online services, it is also the worst timed funding cut in the corporation’s history.

The difficulty of Tonagh and Bean’s recommendation — and one they acknowledge and explore — is determining exactly what the ABC’s “core” role is, given an extraordinarily broad charter that requires “innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard” — with the extra layer of trying to work out which mix of platforms will best enable the charter to be met.

One clear option they recommend is to replace the ABC’s three terrestrial broadcast multi channels with a single second channel that will, in conjunction with the main channel, provide a core of news, children’s content and Australian content available via broadcast and other services provided online rather than via terrestrial broadcasting.

This would mean the end of the ABC’s little-watched news channel, which is an expensive distraction of resources from core news and current affairs programming. The much-criticised ABC Life is also described by the review as “further distant from the core than other content such as independent agenda-setting journalism”.

Beyond that, what constitutes “core” becomes a matter for subjective assessment by the ABC board.

The board recently approved a five year plan that addresses, if not what is a core ABC service, then where the board wants to focus into the 2020s (there have been many ABC plans of course, but this was the first five-year one).

In addition to addressing traditional questions about the balance of different ABC functions, the plan has to address a changing media environment as a result not merely of the switch to digital platforms but the woes of the commercial media.

As the plan notes, “a steady decline in local news from commercial providers accelerated with the impact of COVID-19, leaving many communities without a local news service”.

That reflects the charter’s requirement that the ABC operate “as part of the Australian broadcasting system consisting of national, commercial and community sectors” — the ABC board must assess the media environment while interpreting its charter.

Herein lies a problem, though.

A steady decline in local news from commercial providers accelerated with the impact of COVID-19, leaving many communities without a local news service. The ABC may be required to focus more resources on local coverage and supporting a diversity of outlets in the local news ecosystem.

This is an unexceptionable statement — regional media outlets are closing by the score. The ABC already has a strong regional radio network; it will be needed to fill a growing gap in services in regional and remote communities.

Except that “focus more resources” when the Liberal Party is cutting ABC funding means taking resources from already straitened divisions elsewhere.

In a comparable period 20 years ago, when the Howard government was concerned about media services in the bush amid a wave of consolidation and networking that significantly reduced commercial radio content available to regional communities, it gave the ABC nearly $20 million a year in extra funding to help reduce the developing gap.

Not now, of course. So which ABC services should be cut so there can be a stronger regional ABC to replace shuttered local newspapers? Everyone has a least-favourite part of the ABC they want shut because they never use it. But good luck getting consensus on what that is.

Worse, the ABC faces exactly the same regional news scenario across its other primary functions. Commercial television licensees, all of whom face significant financial difficulties, are pushing for a cut to or removal of local content production requirements and children content requirements, with one network announcing it would cease complying with content quotas.

Both commercial television licensees and newspapers are are sacking journalists, editors and producers.

An approach to the role of the ABC that assumes it should expand to address the gaps left by a shrinking commercial media rapidly becomes unviable in the absence of additional funding, let alone at a time of shrinking funding.

The ABC can’t increase its regional presence, offset the commercial television decline in Australian and children’s content and strengthen its news and current affairs at the same time.

The five-year plan does explicitly commit to the broader Tonagh/Bean approach of giving up quantity for quality, promising to “reduce the volume of content produced in various categories to ensure more resources are available for the best and most distinctive in each”.

No mention, alas, of dumping the ABC news channel. Indeed, no specifics at all. The plan says the ABC will be “reducing content that doesn’t perform well for its intended audience”, building “a stronger and more strategic ABC iview catalogue”, delivering “stronger podcasts”, helping more people discover Australian content and “aligning commissioning decisions more closely with audience data and insights”.

What that translates into in content terms, however, is anyone’s guess, which is presumably why it was written that way.

Tomorrow: going beyond “bad news” at the ABC

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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