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Media

Sep 30, 2014

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Stymying Rundle. Seasoned researchers obliged to use News Corp’s “Newstext” search portal for the News Ltd archives have long believed that the interface could not get any worse. It is poorly designed, with the search request form having to be re-completed from scratch if anything is changed, and no facility to sort the items returned by relevance, length or anything but date, it is disastrous. But it has excelled itself with the latest reorganisation, in which an article search in The Australian will return up to 20 different versions of the same story —  separately listing the same item from seven different state and territory editions of the paper, and the first or second edition of each. Since each search returns only 200 items per search, it is nearly impossible to get an accurate picture of reportage on a popular topic. Thus, a search for, say, “Bill Shorten” over a three-month period will turn up several thousand articles. Amazingly, they did not write that much about ol’ Bill — the hundred or so pieces that mention him are sorted into innumerable sub-editions. It is brilliant, it is a research prevention device, and could only have been brought to you by News Corp, those savvy folks who b(r)ought you Myspace. Fix, for godssake. — Guy Rundle   

Saving LatelineA public petition calling on the ABC’s board and Malcolm Turnbull to keep Lateline has gathered an astonishing 35,000 signatures in less than 24 hours. Started by former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes and supported by the Community and Public Sector Union and Friends of the ABC, it says the broadcaster’s current affairs coverage is crucial to keeping an eye on politicians.

“A strong democracy requires a strong media … Don’t let our national broadcaster’s current affairs face the chopping block.”

It dovetails with another petition also being presented to the ABC board on the issue by the organisation’s current affairs staff.

Perhaps it’s no wonder the petition has found such fertile support — today’s Essential poll shows it’s a serious concern to nearly 25% of the population, though, perhaps unsurprisingly, Coalition voters aren’t as fussed.

Of those polled by Essential, 53% express concern about cuts to the ABC’s news and current affairs programming, including 25% who said they were “very concerned”, while 39% said they weren’t concerned. But a majority of Coalition voters were relaxed: 34% of Coalition voters were concerned but 57% said they weren’t. Concern was a little softer among Other/PUP voters but still 57%-39%. — Myriam Robin and Bernard Keane

Watching the ABC from Laos (Pt 2). On Friday, we brought you the observation’s of one of Crikey‘s Laos-based readers who happens to be an avid ABC watcher. Well, the Australia Network has been turned off, and he’s kindly emailed again with what he’s able to watch now on Australia Plus, the ABC’s replacement service. “I woke this morning here in Laos, switched on the channel formerly showing Australia Network, and found to my delight that Australia Plus was showing the news.” This was followed by Giggle and Hoot, no doubt a relief to some parents out there. Mind you, he notes, a narrow range of programs seems to be on loop. “Better than repeats of Home and Away but surely there’s more to show than only three hours of talent on loop,” he said.

Not all expats are so lucky — viewers in Cambodia don’t have the service yet, and those in Thailand need a cable package to watch it, according to posts on the Australia Plus Facebook page. If you find yourself overseas with a hankering for the ABC, your best bet may be to stream it online. — Myriam Robin

Front page of the day. Protesters clash with police in Hong Kong.

Media

Sep 26, 2014

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Vale Australia Network. At midnight on Saturday, the ABC’s Australia Network will switch off. After it airs the AFL grand final, it’s gone. It lost funding in the last budget, and the ABC has already laid off or reassigned most of its dedicated journalists, staff and producers.

Through Australia Plus, the ABC will still broadcast Australian content (though nothing specifically produced for the purpose) into many Asian countries. One Crikey reader who lives in Laos wondered how he’d go on watching the ABC now. Subscription TV service TrueVisions, according to the ABC, will be airing Australia Plus, but as our tipster noted, TrueVisions made no mention of its Australian content on its website. He’ll be channel-surfing come Sunday to try to find Insiders.

Interestingly, it seems the Australia Network is still airing ads for next week’s shows. Casual viewers enticed to tune in next week may be disappointed.

The Australia Network transmits a curious blend of news and current affairs, sport and Australian drama and entertainment (think Home and Away and The Block) into 46 countries. Seen as a soft-diplomacy tool, it was funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The tender process to run it in 2011 was controversially rejigged by the previous government as it appeared DFAT was about to award the contract to Sky. It went to the ABC instead, and then, this government entirely abolished the network in the past federal budget. The ABC told Crikey in February the network was beamed into 40 million homes across the Asia-Pacific, giving it a potential viewership of 131 million. A 2010 report into who watched it by the Lowy Institute found it had 7 million viewers a month. — Myriam Robin

How Londoners reckon we talk. A journalist passed on this media release (sorry, “bodgy unsolicited pitch”) he was sent …

 “G’day David.

Please forgive the bodgy unsolicited pitch, but I’m writing from London, England, to quickly tell you about an Australian cobber of mine whose amazing TRUE story of what happened to him in the Philippines after leaving Surfers Paradise (which involves President Ferdinand Marcos, murder, stolen treasure and gold bullion deals) is taking to Kickstarter to help raise funds to finally get the story told. It’s a ripper …

Would you like to help a fellow Aussie tell his amazing story to the world? If so, bonzer. If not, ask yourself why… and do it anyway. Give it a bur …

Essentially, we’re looking for some publicity to drive people to the Kickstarter page before time runs out and the campaign is cactus. I’m not a professional PR bloke (no, seriously), I’m just helping a mate out, and I’d be incredibly grateful for any type of coverage we can get.

As Bruce of Bondi used to say … if you can’t hold on, don’t let go!”

We’ll, um, “let go”. Though we’re not really sure what any of this means. — Myriam Robin

Alam and family consider suing Fairfax. Following on from yesterday’s debacle on the front pages of the Fairfax metro papers, the publisher has apologised again in its print editions. A slightly extended statement now also reads: “We are reviewing and changing our internal processes to ensure such a mistake is not repeated.”

The man who was misidentified as dead alleged jihadist Numan Haider spoke to several media outlets yesterday about his experiences. Abu Bakar Alam told the ABC’s Lateline he was “scared and terrified” following the front pages. He told Fairfax-owned 3AW the photo, taken at an engagement party, was never uploaded to Facebook, where Fairfax’s captions yesterday said the image came from. His family is considering legal action, he says.

“I know that people are going to recognise me, and they might harm me and my family,” Alam said. “The apology doesn’t — it’s not going to get that reputation that we had within the community [back]. We’ve had a good one. We haven’t had a bad name.”

Speaking to 3AW yesterday, The Age‘s editor-in-chief Andrew Holden said: “We got our wires crossed.”

“We basically got the wrong [photo] … It’s a terrible mistake and that’s why we’ve had no hesitation in apologising for it.”

Alam’s grandfather was killed in a bomb blast near Kabul in 2006 when he went back to Afghanistan to govern a province known to be very dangerous, the Herald Sun has reported. — Myriam Robin

Video of the day. SBS chases the ratings …

Journalism

Sep 3, 2014

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ABC veteran Jim Middleton is leaving the ABC, having accepted a redundancy after 44 years at the public broadcaster.

As tributes flowed in for the ABC host, who before his current role as the face of the ABC’s Asia Pacific Service had spent 20 years as the ABC’s chief political correspondent, Middleton told Crikey the ABC had tried to keep him on, but his family circumstances meant he couldn’t practically take up the proposal. Middleton leaves as one of several dozen staffers axed as part of the loss of the Australia Network contract, which include veterans such as respected Asia-Pacific reporter Sean Dorney and the ABC’s Asia editor Catherine McGrath, who it was revealed yesterday was also leaving the ABC after 25 years with the broadcaster.

Continue reading “‘A bereavement’ for the ABC as Jim Middleton takes redundancy”

Media

Jul 16, 2014

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Radio nowhere. The first casualties from the ABC’s decision to axe its English-language division of Radio Australia have begun to trickle in. Radio Australia morning show host Phil Kafcaloudes has announced on Facebook that his show has been dumped after nine years on air, and AsiaPacific host Sen Lam has also lost his current affairs show. Kafcaloudes’ Facebook post reads:

“So sorry to announce that my show and my wonderful team have been cut as a result of the cuts to Australia Network. After many years and much learning and caring by the ABC, we will be leaving. My Radio Australia Morning Show finishes up its 9 year run, during which time we have had some wonderful experiences and built friendships in our audience. So to you Mendricks Angat in PNG, Suorsdey Richter, from Phnom Penh, Jon F. Morgan in Siem Reap, Robin in Honiara, John in California, and the many others, it has been great speaking with you every morning. My thoughts also go to my good friend Sen Lam, who has also lost his premier current affairs show, AsiaPacific. To other people affected, like our music producer Kim Taylor, and the fabulous technical off-siders like Jill Scanlon, I will miss our round-tables and insights. This is especially regrettable given that the Fiji and Solomon Islands elections are coming up. We were looking forward to giving our audiences the kind of information they don’t always get from their own media. There are many broken hearts today in Radio Australia and Australia Network TV. But it’s been an honour, good friends. Phil xx”

Radio Australia and Australia Network Canberra correspondent Karen Barlow has also been shown the door, and in a recent tweet she draws attention to colleagues Stephanie March (India correspondent), Del Irani (Talk About It presenter), Helen Brown (Indonesia correspondent), Auskar Surbakti (Asia-Pacific correspondent) and Girish Sawlani (international correspondent) …

Karen Barlow

Radio Australia will continue to be streamed 24/7 online, despite the loss of many of its journalists. The Australia Network will be replaced by a six-hour regional broadcast into the Pacific, for which content will be sourced from other ABC programs and the ABC’s syndication partners.

The hatreds we forgot. Yesterday we published a list of 50 things The Australian loves to hate — one for every glorious year the august organ has been with us. But, with rising horror as the day wore on, we realised there were many, many things we had missed! Worse was the fact that everyone took the list to be ordered — in all honesty, we just slapped it together. Here are some of the names that should have been on there. Neil Chenoweth, who for decades has been tormenting the Oz and News Corp, was clearly a glaring omission. From a February editorial: “Fairfax Media chief executive Greg Hywood needs to act now to salvage the reputation of The Australian Financial Review in the business community before it is completely shredded by the deranged output of senior reporter Neil Chenoweth.” And what of a certain environmental crusader, Tim Flannery? Or law professor Larissa Behrendt, who was accused in the pages of the Australian (and in other News Corp papers) of playing up her Aboriginal background? Point being, there’s plenty of names to go around, and we’re very sorry we missed some big ones!

Reporting on death. Indigenous group Deadly Vibe issued a statement last night about the death of founder Gavin Jones:

“The family of Gavin Jones requests that all media do not speculate on the circumstances regarding his passing.

“At this difficult time, they ask that theirs and Gavin’s privacy be respected.”

Most media reports of his death included details about the organisation’s recent funding cut, with the federal government withdrawing funding worth as much as $400,000. The Guardian mentioned the fact that the government had withdrawn funding, but the headline made no link between the two: “Deadly Awards founder Gavin Jones has died aged 47”. The article is a fairly straight obituary.

But Fairfax was much more explicit, heavily implying that Jones took his own life because of the funding cuts. The headline on The Age and Sydney Morning Herald is now “Deadly Awards founder Gavin Jones dies after funding cut“, but a Google search reveals the link was even more explicit in the original headline …

The lead of the article also very clearly implies the death was related to the funding cut:

“The Aboriginal founder of the Deadly Awards, the annual celebration of indigenous achievement, was shattered last month when he learnt that he would lose federal funding worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Gavin Jones, 47, was found dead on his farm at Goulburn on Saturday. While his family did not want to discuss the nature of his death, they and his friends were aware of his devastation at the loss of funding affecting his ventures, which had spawned radio and television productions, the national Deadly Vibe magazine, the annual Deadly Awards, sport, dance and hip-hop events, and much more.”

The Smage article also lists the numbers for Lifeline and Mensline at the bottom, which The Guardian (and The Conversation, the ABC, ArtsHub and Yahoo News) do not.

Abramson: I was fired. Recently sacked New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson has given an interesting interview to Cosmopolitian on how she thinks women in power should deal with being under attack. First things first, she doesn’t mind you saying she’s fired:

“Is it hard to say I was fired? No. I’ve said it about 20 times, and it’s not. I was in fact insistent that that be publicly clear because I was not ashamed of that. And I don’t think young women — it’s hard, I know — they should not feel stigmatized if they are fired. Especially in this economy people are fired right and left for arbitrary reasons, and there are sometimes forces beyond your control.”

Video of the day. Another ear worm from “Weird Al”, with guest appearances from Jack Black, Aisha Tyler, Eric Stonestreet, Kristen Schaal and Margaret Cho …

Tacky

Media

Jul 15, 2014

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The ABC yesterday informed staff in its Southbank Melbourne headquarters that up to 80 of them would be made redundant. The redundancies will be forced — divisions are being cleared out, and while the union says staff targeted for the chop will be able to argue for their redeployment based on set criteria, the default setting is that they will be shown the door.

According to the Community and Public Sector Union, this will affect 34 people in the Melbourne-based Asia Pacific News Centre, and another 46 in the ABC’s international division, who will be made redundant two weeks from now. The entire English-language division of Radio Australia will go, and there will be reduced staffing across all language programs.

It’s unlikely most Australians will notice. With the exception of ABC News24’s The World, which has lost its correspondents and been cut from one hour to a half-hour program, no local programs are affected. Insiders say there was already relatively little collaboration between the journalists in Radio Australia and the domestic stations. The impact will be quarantined.

The redundancies are the result of the loss of the Australia Network contract, and come a week after the ABC finalised the circumstances around the contract’s loss with DFAT. The redundancies don’t appear to be inspired by the other cut to the ABC in the federal budget (a funding cut of 1%). So staff are bracing for more to come. A broader reshuffle, likely accompanied by further job losses, is expected in late July or August. Crikey understands the ABC is currently in negotiations with Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s office about the further savings identified in the Lewis Review, which could see funding cut further. Many within the Coalition are gunning for a 4% cut — a figure widely quoted in the News Corp press.

But any further cuts are unlikely to impact the international division as much as the loss of the Australia Network. That’s slashed 60% of the budget the ABC allocates to its international division. As the dust settles, staff are questioning how the ABC could meet its international obligations as outlined in its charter in section 6-1-b, which requires the ABC to “transmit” to countries outside Australia a mixture of news, current affairs, entertainment and “cultural enrichment”.

The loss of the Australia Network stripped more than $200 million from the ABC budget over 10 years — all of this would have otherwise gone to international broadcasting. Quentin Dempster, the host of 7.30 NSW and former staff-elected ABC board member, described the loss of the Australia Network as “vandalism of the national interest” when he spoke to Crikey today.

“Some insiders have speculated that the ABC’s redundancies are forced because it doesn’t want to lose staff who produce for television.”

“The government has made it clear it wants propaganda to be broadcast into the region rather than audiences there actually seeing  Australian journalism, analysis and programming contribute to a robust,  informed and engaged  liberal democracy resonating through the region,” he told Crikey. “The remnants of the ABC’s international broadcasting effort will be weakened as a consequence. Regional partnerships built up over years have been destroyed.”

ABC management has been speaking of how to meet its charter obligations after the loss of the Network. Some insiders have speculated that the ABC’s redundancies are forced because it doesn’t want to lose staff who produce for television. ABC News24 can be digitally streamed into Asia.

Speaking to Crikey this morning, ABC International spokesman John Woodward stressed the ABC would continue to broadcast into the region, despite a cut in funding forcing some changes. “The new, reduced model has been designed to meet to the best of our ability the audiences that we know have an interest in Australia … through radio, through a limited television offering, and through digital means.”

According to the CPSU, here’s what will remain of the ABC’s international broadcasting. Radio Australia will continue to be streamed 24/7, despite the loss of many of its journalists. The Australia Network will be replaced by a six-hour regional broadcast into the Pacific, for which content will be sourced from other ABC programs and the ABC’s syndication partners. Australia Plus, the online portal for ABC content accessible internationally, will remain as is.

Some have speculated that after the loss of the Australia Network, ABC News24 could be broadcast in its place. But Crikey understands this would be too expensive — the main cost of running the Australia Network has always been the transponders into the region rather than the cost of the journalism.

That leaves the internet. Even before the loss of the Australia Network contract, Woodward says the ABC was looking at digital broadcasting, particularly in Asia, where he says that’s where the audience is moving anyway. “Our research into audience behaviour shows mobile particularly being used to access our content. Mobile offers us one of the best opportunities [to be an international broadcaster], and it’s getting stronger, not weaker”.

The redundancies are, as always, an attempt to do more with less. The ABC, Woodward says, is now in the process of talking to staff and the union about how to meet its international obligations. “Certainly with a reduction in funds, there’s a reduction in services,” he says. “But we are working as hard as we possibly can to maintain as much of our audience connections, our partnerships and syndication that we possibly can. We have very strong partnerships throughout Asia … and we will continue to work those partners and leverage them as well as we can.”

Some insiders were pessimistic. As one veteran pointed out, the ABC’s charter obligations have been pursued with varying degrees of vigour. “The charter hasn’t been stuck to in the past — it can be easily disregarded,” one said.

Journalism

Jul 14, 2014

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Around 80 staff will be made redundant from the ABC, the Commonwealth Public Sector Union and an ABC spokesman have confirmed, however this figure may decrease once redeployment options are explored.

A Radio Australia staff member told Crikey 25 editorial jobs will go, while seven people in operations will also be sacked. Staff have been told that this will include the entire English-language division of Radio Australia, which the CPSU has confirmed. All casuals and contract staff will be dropped. Asked if this number of redundancies would have a large impact on Radio Australia, a staff member told Crikey they amounted to “gutting” the network. It’s understood just 30 staff will be retained in the division, with cuts in content expected. Flagship program The World will be reduced to a half-hour program.

In ABC International, another 46 jobs are going. Staff have been told the Australia Network may stop broadcasting earlier than September.

In a statement, CPSU president Michael Tull said the government had put the ABC in an impossible position, but slammed the forced redundancies he claimed the ABC was forcing on its workers.

“This is an appalling way to treat hardworking staff as they who won’t have a say in whether they get to keep their jobs. We don’t accept the process of forced redundancies and we believe the ABC is in breach of its industrial obligations and we are considering the next step,” he said.

“Worse still there may be more job losses to come which will wreck morale among staff and will be bad news for Australians who expect quality services from the ABC.”

“This is all part of the Abbott Government’s plan to attack and neuter the ABC. Cutting the Australia Network on the basis that it wasn’t providing value for money was always a fig leaf. The first casualties in this Government’s war on the ABC are the staff who have less than a fortnight before they are sacked.”

Earlier, an ABC spokesman told Crikey around 80 jobs were expected to go as a result of the changes to international broadcasting, which follow on from the funding cuts contained in the budget. These jobs are mainly expected to come from the Asia-Pacific News Centre in Melbourne and from ABC International. “The basic point of what is happening now is we had a substantial hit to our budget,” the spokesman said. “We’ve still got a charter obligation to be an international broadcaster — we’re working out how to best spend that money to do that, the details of which will be relayed to staff today.”

It was a message echoed to staff in an email from ABC managing director Mark Scott, who wrote at 2pm today that any decisions on how funding cuts affected staff had “taken longer than expected… because of financial and logistical complications surrounding the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s exist from the [Australia Network] contract.”

Last week, the ABC agreed with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the conditions surrounding the end of its contract to provide the Australia Network only one year into a 10-year agreement.

“With those matters only just clarified, [News boss Kate Torney] and [ABC International boss Lynley Marshall] and their teams have worked hard to craft a proposed new model for international services. Difficult decisions need to be made, with the funding envelope for international services reduced from $35 million to $15 million,” Scott wrote. “The ABC remains committed to fulfilling its charter by delivering a converged service for overseas audience, but this will inevitably involve changes and reduced staffing levels. Consultations with staff have commenced today regarding the proposed changes. These discussions will ultimately determine the final shape of the new service and the timing of the switch-off of the AN television service.

“It is a very difficult time for those who have been providing services for our international networks and we will provide the best support we can while making the changes required to fulfil our charter with the new, smaller budget.”

Crikey is still uncertain about how the ABC’s charter obligations to be an international broadcaster will be met. The Australia Network will shut down in September, or earlier, and the ABC has prepared an alternate plan to be revealed to staff today on how to cover off its international obligation, believed to involve beefing up the international coverage on ABC News 24.

ABC staff have feared foreign bureaux would suffer as a result of the funding cuts since the budget was announced. The ABC’s budget for foreign coverage has shrunk to $15 million from its previous $35 million after the loss of the $20-million-a-year Australian Network contract. Speaking to Crikey shortly after the budget, ABC managing director Mark Scott said everything was on the table as the network considered how to deliver on its charter obligations with less money to do so.

Film & TV

Jun 4, 2014

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The ABC axe is about to fall.

First up: targeted redundancies within the 108 full-time and part-time staff employed to service the ABC’s now-terminated Australia Network contract. ABC managing director Mark Scott was handed a letter giving 90 days’ notice of the termination of the contract from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on budget night, May 13.

The mindless destruction for the national interest, with no announced alternative from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, has indicated to public broadcasters the ideological hostility to public broadcasting from within elements of the Australian Liberal Party.

Bishop gave an insight into her resentment of the ABC’s editorial independence in international broadcasting in a speech she delivered to Chatham House in London on March 4:

“My question is whether or not there is an inherent conflict in having the ABC contracted to deliver Australian government messages into the region. We’ve had conflict writ large when it comes to the issue of asylum seekers and the issue of the Snowden allegations. The ABC is a news organisation and perfectly entitled to report how it wishes into the region on those two contentious issues. But under a soft-power diplomacy contract, it’s meant to be delivering a positive image of Australia into the region.”

The BBC has been a beacon in liberal democratic broadcasting, including coverage of highly contentious issues to its worldwide audiences. Audiences everywhere see political dissent within the United Kingdom confronting  and sometimes embarrassing UK authority. Rather than damaging UK foreign policy, it has been a resonating bonus for democratic ideals and separation-of-powers institutional strength within national borders.

That was the ABC’s ambition for international broadcasting in the region, particularly the developing democracy of Indonesia and engagement with China. The ABC is a vital link to the outside world for the peoples of the Pacific, and its English-language educational services are a hit.

With 3.3 billion mobile phone users in Asia, the ABC has the quality and ethical content to wire Australia into Asia as never before. Bishop has delivered a hammer blow to the momentum the taxpayer investment was building. She wants Australian government propaganda; such is the shallowness of her thinking.

Now the ABC board under chairman James Spigelman is having to determine the future of its international broadcasting, including the still-relevant Radio Australia, without the benefit of funds derived through the Australia Network contract.

The board is expected to make a commitment to press on, particularly with the re-broadcast partnerships built up over the last 10 years. But inevitably there will be downsizing, including targeted redundancy from among the 43 skilled production and reporting staff from the Asia-Pacific news centre in Melbourne.

The board is expected to re-shape the entire ABC in the coming weeks under cover of the cuts announced in the budget. Alleged “friend” Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has put the boot in to the ABC in recent speeches about “efficiency”, with the coercive lever that the 1% cut is but a “down payment”. Further targeted and voluntary redundancies of public broadcasters are coming with an expectation that Scott will seize the opportunity to further casualise and nationalise the ABC’s now declining 4600 full-time equivalent workforce. With more than half the ABC staff working in Sydney, the ABC is already Sydney-centric. While lip service will be paid to regionalism and localism, these structures are expensive and therefore dispensable in any reprioritised ABC to reflect Scott’s ambition that its future will be in concentrated digital services — text, audio and video.

And what of SBS? There’s still no chairman of this public broadcaster following the unceremonious  dumping of Joseph Skrzynski at the reported insistence of the Prime Minister in March. It is leaderless and also now faces a downsizing and reshaping. The failure of the Abbott government to find a chairman is further evidence of ideological hostility. An ABC-SBS merger would destroy SBS at a time when its multilingual services are needed more than ever. Removing the five-minutes-per-hour cap on SBS TV advertising will make SBS Australia’s fourth free-to-air fully commercial channel. Wonder what the board of Channel Ten thinks about that?

Memo to Liberal Party MPs: don’t fall for Murdoch press propaganda however much you think it helps you in the adversarial game of Australian politics. The ABC was created by the Lyons Coalition government in 1932, supported by one R. G. Menzies, then a Victorian MP. The ABC is part of the institutional strength and robustness of Australian democracy. Get into bed with Murdoch and you sell your souls.

Federal

May 21, 2014

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The Australia Network, the ABC’s international television service, has been in the Coalition’s sights — and, not coincidentally, in the Murdoch press’ sights — since 2011. That was when the Gillard government awarded the ABC a 10-year contract to deliver international TV, bringing a definitive conclusion to a ludicrously mismanaged tender process.

So it came as no surprise when the Abbott government axed the network in the budget. The decision came despite the fact that the ABC Act requires the national broadcaster to transmit news, current affairs, entertainment and cultural programs “to countries outside Australia” in order to “encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs” and “enable Australian citizens living or travelling outside Australia to obtain information about Australian affairs and Australian attitudes on world affairs”.

The government hasn’t proposed changes to the act to remove this requirement; rather, it has removed the financial means for the ABC to fulfil this role in television. It would obviously have been more honest and proper to seek a change in the ABC legislation rather than attempting to bypass parliament by administrative fiat.

The budget decision is the culmination of a sorry sequence of events. In his last great gift to the Coalition as foreign minister, Kevin Rudd decided to open the tender process for the international broadcaster to commercial broadcasters. With a single exception, no other country that broadcasts internationally outsources its service to the private sector. The exception was Australia under the Howard government. In July 1996, within months of its election and without warning, the government announced the intended privatisation of Australia Television, as it was then called. The decision, made without any preparatory work by any section of the bureaucracy, came as a complete shock to ABC management.

When a decision was announced in July 1997, Kerry Stokes’ Seven Network was the successful tenderer. But three years later Seven stopped the service because it couldn’t make a profit. When foreign minister Alexander Downer called for a fresh round of tenders, the ABC was not among the applicants. To his credit, Downer approached the national broadcaster, and it was ultimately awarded the contract.

But the idea of outsourcing international broadcasting was not dead. In Rudd’s tender process, the ABC faced competition from Sky News, whose owners are the same Seven Network that bailed out in the late ’90s, and Rupert Murdoch, who in 1994 had removed the BBC’s news from his pay TV offering in China in order to please the Beijing regime.

Rudd’s assessment team preferred the Sky tender. Cabinet asked it to reconsider, and again it opted for Sky. (Its grounds for doing so have been kept secret under commercial-in-confidence provisions.) The Gillard cabinet intervened, handing carriage of the tender to communications minister Senator Stephen Conroy; then, seeking to lock in the national broadcaster’s position, it added a provision under which only the ABC or its associated companies could provide government-funded international services. As a result, amending legislation will be needed to allow Sky or any other commercial broadcaster to participate in a new tender process.

Sky News, which has become a valuable part of the Australian news mix, had every reason to feel aggrieved by Labor’s follies, and received a payment from the government as compensation.

The grounds on which Rudd’s committee decided in favour of Sky should now be made public. We might discover, for example, that some provisions were loaded against the ABC. It may be that one condition was for the tenderer to provide extra funds from elsewhere, but if the ABC diverted funding from elsewhere in its budget it would contravene its governing legislation. Similarly, the ABC would be wary of arrangements with other broadcasters that might compromise its editorial independence. We don’t know if such considerations were a factor, and that leaves a hole at the centre of this important episode.

But the botched process was clearly a turning point in Coalition attitudes. According to Prime Minister Tony Abbott:

“We’ve had for a long time very serious issues about the Australia Network tender process. Twice the tender process gave that particular operation to someone other than the ABC, and then, because of leadership problems inside the government, the decision was changed. And the Audit Office itself has said that the whole thing was badly done.”

It isn’t clear that the Australia Network could have done anything to redeem itself in the eyes of the new government. In 2014, the ABC won the most extensive access afforded to any Western broadcaster in China, with the Australia Network to be made available to the entire Chinese population. But even such an unprecedented achievement counted for nought.

*Read the rest of this article at Inside Story

Tips and rumours

May 21, 2014

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From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

Meetings but no news: ABC staff nervous. On Monday, the executives of ABC International held a meeting to discuss what to do with the network’s international coverage in the wake of the budget, a tipster told Crikey. But it’s not yet clear to the journalists at Aunty what the outcome of this meeting was. As the ABC scrambles to plug the holes left by $10 million in budget cuts in addition to the more than $20 million it will lose as a result of the closure of the Australia Network, Crikey understands few concrete outcomes have been passed down to journalists, with the impression being that management is reluctant to rule things in or out until it knows what cuts the network will face in coming months.

When announcing a 1% budget cut to the ABC and SBS, the government described it as a “down payment on further efficiencies”, which has been interpreted as meaning more cuts are on the way. Many journalists and programs were funded in part by the Australia Network contract and partly by the broader ABC budget. Many of the Australia Network’s most high-profile programs also air on News 24. There is a deadline for deciding whom and what to save, though. The network shuts down in 82 days.

Who’s the ‘Sharrimarkson’ editing Joye? After reading Australian media editor Sharri Markson’s article on economist Christopher Joye’s Wikipedia page on Monday (Markson says Joye has edited it himself more than 30 times), we decided to have a look for ourselves. On Sunday, a line had been added by a user called none other than “Sharrimarkson”. The line noted Markson’s coverage, and made reference to her article in the Oz about the Wikipedia page …

Does Markson also edit Wikipedia to include references to herself? The addition was made before the relevant issue of the Oz was even printed, so surely it couldn’t have been made by a casual reader. We initially assumed it was Markson who made the edit under her own name, but she denies it. She told us she had been furious when she discovered it and immediately assumed Joye had written it after getting off the phone with her. But Joye also denies adding the line and says he told several people Markson was writing about him. It’s a curious state of affairs.

Come to the doctor! It’s free! Got a text from your doctor lately along these lines …?

As we suggested yesterday, medical centres are a little worried patients might think the federal government’s co-payment — a federal budget initiative opposition parties vow to block — has already started. For the record, a bulk-billing visit to the GP is still free. But three Crikey readers reported they’d received confirmations from their doctors. As one told us:

“They are quite disingenuous, because my first thought was that they wouldn’t apply the co-payment but didn’t indicate any timeline or that the co-payment wasn’t due until next year. Interesting marketing by rich doctors me thinks.”

A cracking good yarn. A Crikey stringer, keen to whip up some muffins, was startled to see this sign at Coles Elsternwick in Melbourne (other readers have seen similar signs in Woolworths) …

Spelling and grammatical errors aside — and Crikey’s pedants will have a field day with that sign — what’s going on with eggs? Well, half a million of Australia’s chickens were culled due to a bird flu breakout in Young, New South Wales, last October. Although many of the birds have now been “restocked”, Woolworths told Crikey there were still occasional shortages, especially during peak periods such as Easter. This is no yolking matter. How will we make our egg-cellent cakes?

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips to boss@crikey.com.au or use our guaranteed anonymous form

Australia

May 14, 2014

5 comments

The closure of the Australia Network will lead the ABC to review its entire international operations. The network’s foreign correspondents fear this will lead to the closure of some of its foreign bureaux, resulting in a loss of nuanced understanding of global events as well as greater dangers for staff who fly in and out of conflict zones.

Last night’s federal budget revealed that, from July 1, the ABC will be funded on $29 million a year less than current levels. Of this, $8.8 million will come from a 1% reduction in total funding, which also applies to SBS’ budget, totalling up to some $43.5 million from the two broadcasters over four years. The rest will come from the Australia Network, which the government is axing. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop last night said the network, awarded to the ABC for 10 years last year in controversial circumstances, had “failed to deliver a cost-effective vehicle” for soft diplomacy into the region.

ABC staff this morning are considering what this means for them. Few are optimistic. “There’s real concern among foreign correspondents that the ABC will use the loss of the Australia Network contract as cover to drastically cut its foreign bureaux,” a senior journalist told Crikey this morning.

Asked about the staff concerns, ABC managing director Mark Scott acknowledged some foreign-based journalists, though no bureaux in their entirety, were funded through the Australia Network contract. He told Crikey this morning the ABC’s entire delivery of international news had to be reconsidered as a result of the Australia Network’s axing.

“We will fight hard to provide as detailed and comprehensive foreign coverage as we can. But now, there’s less money available for that,” he said. “We need to look at how we deliver foreign services. But we also understand foreign bureaux are key to the ABC’s offering, particularly if you look at the decimation of commercial bureaux in television and print.”

The ABC’s charter requires it to be an international broadcaster. “As of yesterday, we had $35 million dedicated to that, and were doing it across radio, television and mobile. As of this morning we have $15 million to do that,” Scott said.

With $20 million less in international coverage, it’s almost certain that some of the journalists employed by the Australia Network will lose their jobs. But the significant cross-subsidies that exist between the network and the ABC’s broader operation makes it hard to quantify how many at this stage. It’s also why staff are so concerned about the broader impact on the ABC’s foreign coverage. “It impacts lots of people indirectly, not just in the [Asia-Pacific] region but around the world,” one said.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull last night said he was confident the 1% reduction in total funding for ABC and SBS could be met from back-room efficiencies, with little noticeable reduction in services and programs for the ABC audience. But Scott says it’s not up to the government to decide where funding cuts will come from. “Under the independence of the ABC, it’s a matter for the ABC board,” he said. “And it’s quite hard to find savings that won’t have any impact on services.”

The 1% reduction in funding has been described as a “down payment” on future cuts. Scott says he doesn’t know what shape these future cuts might take, and fears the ABC will not be able to fund new services like iView or News 24 in the future if any savings in one part of its operation have to be handed back to the government.

“The ABC without iView or News 24 is a weaker organisation,” he said. “As the government contemplates that for the future, they should reflect on the evidence that finds the ABC is the most trusted and respected broadcaster in the country … There’s no clamouring from the vast majority of the public to cut funding to the ABC.”

As well as the feared cuts to its foreign coverage, several other areas of the ABC are likely to be targeted for savings. Already facing the axe is the ABC’s online disability website Ramp Up, which will not have its funding renewed at the end of this financial year. Like the Australia Network, Ramp Up was funded discretely, and the budget revealed funding for the website would cease.

Scott describes editor Stella Young, who established the site over the past three years, as “a rare talent” in Australia. “We’re keen to find a way we can continue to service audiences interested in those issues,” he said.