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Media

Jul 29, 2016

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It’s hard to remember a less auspicious debut for an ABC managing director than that managed by Michelle Guthrie at a News Corp event yesterday.

The first speech or public outing by the new MD of Australia’s most important and most trusted institutions — not to mention the recipient of $1 billion a year in taxpayer funding even after Malcolm Turnbull slashed its budget — is usually a major event pored over by ABC staff, media rivals, supporters of the ABC and the wider public for indications of where the new leader wants to take one of the core components of Australian civic life. Look no further than the impact of this week’s Four Corners to see that the ABC is fundamental to how Australia conducts public policy.

Guthrie chose not to do that in her address to yesterday’s “Creative Country” event, put on by The Australian. “Many of you would like me to use my first speech since becoming managing director of the ABC to lay out a masterplan for change, I will resist the temptation,” she said. Well, that’s fair enough — perhaps the ritual of the MD dramatically emerging from “purdah”, as Jonathan Shier put it after his 100 days of initial silence in 2000, is overdone.

Instead, Guthrie offered a series of series of observations so anodyne as to seem like an inspirational calendar fell into a corporate-speak generator. “Without great acts of innovation and the wonderful, creative sparks that ignite them, the world we inhabit would be a quite different,” she told her unfortunate audience. One of the differences would be “there would be no Sydney Opera House.” “My job is to unleash and channel our creativity.” “You must continually re-examine your strategies and your assumptions”. “The ABC must focus on what it does best”, which included “empowering an energised and diverse workplace”.

The speech also had Friends of the ABC types carefully parsing it for hints of commercialisation, and Guthrie appeared to be guilty of thoughtcrime on that front, talking about partnering with the private sector, which “offers potential new revenue streams to fund new content investment”. She was quick to offer reassurance on that, however, noting “the ABC’s strategies in relation to revenue and partnering will be done fully in accordance with the ABC’s legislative obligations and in line with community expectations”.

But Guthrie’s speech stuck more closely to one of the traditions of the ABC — trying to appeal to the government of the day. At a time when the Howard government was trying to demonstrate greater interest in regional Australia to combat One Nation, Shier cannily emphasised the ABC’s strong local radio network and its capacity to expand local programming in regional communities, and secured nearly $20 million a year in additional funding in 2001, just a few years after the Coalition had savagely slashed the ABC’s budget.

Mark Scott tried a similar approach. Noting Kevin Rudd’s diplomatic ambitions, Scott portrayed the ABC as a crucial tool of Australia’s “soft power” diplomacy and called for more funding for international broadcasting in 2009, getting accused along the way of trying to appeal to Rudd’s vanity. Ironically, Shier had not wanted the ABC to return to international broadcasting, and had to be strongly encouraged by the Howard government when it re-established Australia’s international TV service in 2000; even more ironically, Rudd later led a process as foreign minister to strip the ABC of the international broadcasting contract in favour of Sky.

Now Guthrie has chosen for her first speech a forum notable in two ways. In what looks to have been an effort to curb the incessant News Corp campaign against the ABC, Guthrie chose an event hosted by The Australian for her first speech, and gave a junior journalist at that outlet a copy of her speech ahead of it. If Guthrie thinks that playing nice with the Murdoch press is going to elicit a similar response, she’s in for a rude shock. News Corp’s beef with the ABC is nothing to do with ideology (hard data shows the ABC is far more balanced and far more trusted than any Murdoch outlet) and everything to do with the fact that the ABC beats the Murdoch family’s outlets in virtually every area where they compete head to head. News, literally, wants to destroy the ABC because it’s a competitor, a competitor offering free content and a competitor that regularly beats them.

The alternative explanation is that, as a former News Corp executive herself, Guthrie simply instinctively gravitated to it, or that she wants to be personally insulated from News Corp’s war with the ABC in a way that Mark Scott never was. Good luck there.

More significant is the News Corp forum Guthrie chose: Creative Country: the business of innovation. Let’s leave aside a loss-making, heavily subsidised dinosaur outlet run by tax dodgers talking about innovation. Guthrie is doing exactly what Shier and Scott did — trying to appeal to the perceived interests of the government of the day. Guthrie spent most of the speech talking about innovation and disruption, so much so you almost expected her to declare there had never been a more exciting time to be a broadcaster.

It’s a half-smart strategy: appealing to the interests of the government can be a useful way of securing additional funding or perhaps simply curbing political hostility. And to this day there are additional ABC Local Radio services in the bush that wouldn’t be there except for Shier’s smarts (and the support he got from then-communications minister Richard Alston). But it gives the government of the day a subtle influence over the strategic direction of the ABC that politicians shouldn’t have.

Federal

May 3, 2016

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There will be some tentative sighs of relief at Ultimo today, with the government continuing its base funding for the ABC of $3.1 billion over the next three years. But a 2013-14 addition, the $20 million-a-year “enhanced newsgathering” funding, has been slashed by almost a third, meaning some job losses are likely.

The enhanced newsgathering funding was an initiative of the 2013-14 budget and was due to expire this year. It is tied funding, meaning it has to be allocated for a specific purpose, and it went towards employing the ABC’s national reporting team, ABC Fact Check and more journalists for regional Australia. Instead of the $20 million a year promised by the Rudd-Gillard government, the Turnbull government has committed to $13.7 million this year, $13.8 million in 2017-18 and $14.1 million in 2018-19.

The $20 million a year represented 10% of the ABC’s total news budget, and former boss Mark Scott made it clear that if all of the funding were not renewed there would be job losses to come. He told the Press Club earlier this year that “significant cuts to jobs and programming” would follow if the enhanced newsgathering budget were stripped away or cut.

Just how many jobs are on the line? The ABC would not put a number on it when Crikey asked, but in answer to a Senate estimates question on notice, Aunty said 106 people were employed with the enhanced newsgathering funding in the 2015-16 financial year. Less than half of these are based in Melbourne or Sydney.

In addition to its enhanced newsgathering funding, the ABC requested an additional $30 million to expand its news operations in rural Australia. That funding request was not granted, but the 2016-17 budget papers make it clear what the priorities for the continuation of the enhanced newsgathering budget should be:

“The Government will also extend a terminating 2013-14 Budget measure to support local news and current affairs services, particularly services located outside of capital cities.”

The cut to the enhanced newsgathering funding will be a blow, but many within the public broadcaster feared it would be far worse. The horror 2014 budget slashed 1% of Aunty’s base funding, with another 4% cut in November 2014. The then-Abbott government kyboshed the Australia Network and forced the ABC to undergo a painful cost-cutting round, leading to the infamous “Hunger Games” redundancy pools. With the enhanced newsgathering funding due to expire and no promise of renewal from the Turnbull government, the prospect of even more pain loomed.

“If [the enhanced newsgathering funding] is not renewed, it would represent the third substantial cut to the ABC’s budget since the Coalition government was elected on a platform not to cut the budget,” Scott told the Press Club earlier this year.

The Turnbull government has also maintained SBS’ base funding, with the multicultural broadcaster to receive $271.9 million in 2016-17, $269.8 million in 2017-18 and $272.4 million in 2018-19. SBS has been given a $6.9 million sweetener in 2016-17 to replace money the broadcaster had been expected to be able to raise itself through the passage of the ad averaging bill. The bill would have allowed SBS to average out the number of ads it showed throughout the day, allowing more advertising in prime time. That legislative change would have allowed SBS to make up some of the revenue the government had cut in previous budgets — then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull said he expected SBS to be able to raise $28.5 million over five years due to ad averaging.

But much to everyone’s surprise, the bill failed to pass the Senate, with former Palmer United (now independent) Senator Glenn Lazarus joining with Labor and the Greens to vote against it. The government gave SBS a one-off grant of $4.1 million in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, but it promised no forward funding. Now the government has committed to another $6.9 million in the upcoming financial year to lessen the blow of losing the money that would have come in through ad averaging.

It’s not giving up on the ad averaging bill, though — particularly with a double dissolution looming to wipe out independents like Lazarus. The budget papers say the $6.9 million will “replace revenue that could not be raised due to the delayed passage of legislation”.

Comments & corrections

May 2, 2016

5 comments

Grow some spine, do some maths

Harry Wallace writes: Re. “The real backbone of the economy (hint: it’s not mining)” (Friday). What joy Ben Oquist must have living in Camelot where earning income is unnecessary. If backbone means support then mining definitely is the major support of our living standards.

Just as for personal finances, the budget and for Australia’s business with the rest of the world, income/earnings is critical. Got more, can spend more! Of course Australia has to date worked in reverse with international finances — spending more, earning less. The ABS Cat 5302.0 (available for free online) shows that in the 2015 calendar year Australia “spent” $75.1 billion more than was “earned”. The early indications for 2016 are depressing – that income will be even less but expenditure will be more.

Of the $251 billion earned last year from goods exports, the largest category was minerals/ores which brought in $72.1 billion — miles ahead of any other category including education. Minerals, coal and fuels and gold all totalled 60% of total goods earnings. Our biggest renewable export category, rural, only brought in $45 billion (18%) which was not even enough to pay for the $52 billion spent on imported cars and fuel. A car imported at $40,000 costs about 720,000 kgs of exported iron ore.

Ben Oquist is right in pointing out that health care employment has grown. It is a “spender” dependent primarily on mining to pay for the medical equipment, drugs, cars, fuel and other essential imported goods and services it needs. In 2015 Australia “spent” $351 billion on such goods & services. The difference between this and the earnings was funded by selling assets such as companies and farms to and by borrowing heavily from foreigners, thus leaving an increased burden for children and grandchildren to service — highly immoral by my standards.

The backbone of my businesses has always been the “earners”, not the “spenders” — but I don’t live in Camelot. Nor do I think Malcolm Turnbull is Moses able to produce innovative manna from Heaven! International business is tough work where the earners are the heroes and we desperately need many more heroes!

So I reverse Ben Oquist’s theory and state reality as “the backbone of Australia is a minority of workers, mainly miners, who generate the international income that Australia needs (well, most of it – the rest is borrowed!) to keep us all with a great standard of living”.

On Mark Scott

Nic Maclellan writes: Re. “Making a Mark: the ABC says goodbye to a transformative leader” (yesterday). Myriam Robin’s comprehensive review of Mark Scott’s tenure at the ABC missed one disaster: the cancellation of the contract for Australia Network TV, and the collateral damage to Radio Australia. The integration of TV, radio and digital services under ABC International led to significant damage to Radio Australia when the Abbott government cancelled the $250 million TV contract at short notice. Dozens of experienced RA staff were lost, gutting services to the Pacific islands that are much more reliant on radio than audiences in urban Asia (many rural villagers in Melanesia don’t have electricity, let alone broadband, to stream ABC content — a reality some digital enthusiasts in the ABC rarely seem to acknowledge!)

 

Journalism

Apr 29, 2016

5 comments

No one expected Mark Scott to become the ABC’s managing director in 2006. And when the news was announced, few thought it a good choice. In The Australian, P.P. McGuinness said the former Sydney Morning Herald education editor had “risen without a trace”. At his former paper, Scott drew fire for “refusing to state his position on whether there should be advertising on the ABC”.

“The main reaction from staff today has been: Mark who?” said another piece, quoting an unnamed “ABC executive”. In The Daily Telegraph, Michael Bodey wrote the ABC board was “underwhelmed” with the quality of candidates for the position. Perhaps the kindest thing one could find in the papers upon Scott’s appointment was the sentiment that surely anyone would be better than Jonathan Shier, whose controversial 19 months in the top job ended five years before Scott’s appointment.

Ten years later, the sentiment greeting Scott’s retirement (he leaves the building today) could not be more different. Scott’s been hailed a visionary who set the ABC up for the 21st century. His success in taking the ABC digital is acknowledged by critics and supporters of the public broadcaster. The only disagreement seems to be about whether the ABC’s direction under Scott is a good thing.

Speaking to Crikey earlier this month, Scott said he never expected he would serve two terms when he was appointed.

“For the first six or seven years, there was a sense of getting strategic direction around digital. There was opportunity for expansion — things we needed to fix …

“What then happened was we ran into headwinds. There was a prospect of significant funding cuts. And I felt that, having driven a lot of the expansion, it was my responsibility to stay around and see the ABC through that funding transition.”

The last three years, Scott says, have been some of his hardest. Good people who see public broadcasting as their vocation have been let go. Still, Scott says he has no regrets about leaving now: “It’s the right time — I’ve given it the best shot.”

Scott today presides over an ABC more dynamic, more digital and more competitive with commercial rivals than the one he inherited. His legacy has benefited, says former ABC board member and presenter Quentin Dempster, by the election of a Labor government in 2007.

“It’s much easier to manage up than to manage down. He brokered funds into additional content and helped secure the ABC’s transition to digital.”

“[Former managing directors] David Hill, Brian Johns, Jonathan Shier, Russell Balding, all had to manage the joint with no guarantee of improving resources.”

Julianne Schultz, who served a term with Scott on the ABC’s board, and earlier was an ABC executive, agrees. She says with the shift to Labor in 2007, “the attitude to the ABC relaxed quite a bit”. “He was very fortunate there was a government prepared to give them money.”

Still, the funds were far from guaranteed, says Labor Senator Stephen Conroy. He was communications minister for over half of Scott’s term (and shadow communications minister when Scott was appointed). He says in 2006, the ABC suffered from a lack of supporters in Canberra.

“To his credit, Mark and [former ABC chairman] Maurice Newman spent years tromping through the corridors of Parliament, talking to everybody and building up a constituency inside the building.”

“They did a great job. They were very clever and targeted in how they did that,” said Conroy.

In a sense, the ABC’s true enemy in Canberra isn’t those who thrive on culture wars, but the bean-counters at the Department of Finance. There’s a heavy reluctance within Finance to give any money at all to the ABC. Any managing director who intends to overcome this has to make allies of those on the Expenditure Review Committee, who are willing to fight for the broadcaster.

Scott was very effective at this, Conroy says.

“Mark worked incredibly hard behind the scenes. He articulately and persuasively argued his case for funding. He was able to put meat on the bone. He had really specific ideas.

“I had a couple of meetings with [then-prime minister] Kevin Rudd, Mark and advisers. Mark pitched a whole bunch of ideas about digital transformation. He came up with a phrase about ‘digital town squares’ that captured Kevin’s imagination, and as a result the prime minister became an advocate in the expenditure review committee.”

Scott saw ways to marry his own ideas of where the ABC needed to go to the priorities of the government. The result was more funding, and the ABC’s continuing relevance in the media consumption of Australians.

Sometimes, this hasn’t worked out so smoothly. In 2012, the ABC was given $20 million in tied funding to go into regional and specialised news production. It employed more than 100 journalists, but now, that funding is running out. One could argue a willingness to ask for ABC funding for specific things, rather than arguing for a broad rise in ABC funding, gets the ABC into these kinds of difficulties.

On the expiring news grant, Scott says the ABC only found out it was a four-year grant on budget night; he thinks the ABC was a victim of the need for a surplus a few years out. But he defends the concept of tied funding. “Some argued early on we should never ask the government to do anything, just ask for more money for ABC. I always thought a very difficult rule. We tried to frame budget requests in terms of it being beneficial for ABC audiences, for the public broadcaster, but also that met some broader need as well.”

As a result of such funding requests, the ABC under Scott got funding (announced by the Howard government but delivered under Rudd) for a children’s channel, for increased drama production, and for the aforementioned news-gathering grant. But many of the ABC’s best digital innovations — ABC iview, ABC News 24 — were funded through internally sourced savings from existing production budgets. When Scott couldn’t get the money for the ABC’s digital future specifically, he squeezed other parts of the budget to find it.

This is a tricky proposition to manage, and has, at various times, led to resentment within the ABC’s staff. Were it not for Scott, it’s not clear the ABC would have driven as hard and heavily into online as it did. It’s online presence might also look very different, says Dempster.

The ABC Act‘s prohibition against advertising only prohibits advertising in traditional broadcast media. There was nothing stopping the ABC from putting advertising online, as it does to today on ABC websites catering to those outside Australia.

“His real test was his decision to prohibit advertising on ABC online,” Dempster said. “He resisted pressure from ABC directors who wanted to exploit commercially the success of ABC online. He gets a big tick from me on that.”

It’s telling praise of Scott, but the man himself hoses down the suggestion, saying it was “not a way we seriously investigated going. And I think that was the right thing.”

Asked to nominate what were, for him, highlights, Scott points to the ABC’s transition to a digital broadcaster. “There were people who were sceptical [the ABC could do it],” he said. “There was a feeling that it was a conservative organisation, one whose staff were averse to change. I think we proved that was not the case.”

“I’m proud of the efforts of ABC staff to save money and reinvest without any government funding. News 24 and iview had no extra funding, and are services used by millions of Australians each week.”

Though the ABC has expanded, Scott says quality has not suffered. “Some of the drama that we’ve done — The Slap, Redfern Now, Secret River — hold up amongst the best drama the ABC’s ever produced. Programs like Four Corners are in a golden era. We’re breaking more news than ever before …

“If we’d just done new tech, but not kept quality, it wouldn’t be a competing proposition. If you created News 24 without the best news service in the country to power it, it wouldn’t be as compelling.”

Schultz says while there’s no doubt Scott’s main focus has been in digital transformation, it’s worth considering the softer aspects of his tenure, particularly his dealings with staff.

Between 1994 to 2006, 10 of 50 women working at an ABC site in the inner-Brisbane suburb of Toowong were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer — a rate six times that of the general population in Brisbane. According to a 2007 Medical Journal of Australia paper, no causal factor for the highly elevated rate of breast cancer was discovered. But Scott, then early in his tenure, made the decision to close the site down and build a new one in Brisbane, allaying the concerns of its staff.

“He moved very quickly to shut down the Brisbane office and look after the people who’d been affected,” Schultz said. “That sent a really good signal to the staff: that he was focused on the reality of working there. I think that set the tone early on.”

It was “tough and demanding,” Scott says about the cluster. “Our staff were heroic in responding to challenge.”

Of course, there are critics of Scott. And not all have come from News Corp. The ABC’s expanded role remains an open question, even within some parts of the organisation. When the ABC launched The Drum in 2010, part of its push into analysis and opinion online, it was accused by Eric Beecher (the owner of Crikey) of having pulled its tanks up on our lawn. One can look at this as a beltway issue, of more interest to media owners than the public, who are well-served by a more robust ABC. But if there is a benefit to a diverse, vibrant commercial media, the fact that the ABC makes it harder for commercial outlets to monetise their content, through either subscriptions or advertising, could, in the long run, prove bad for democracy.

Asked on Media Watch recently about the ABC’s push into online, and its effect on commercial operators, Scott said the ABC doesn’t compete with commercial outlets for advertising. It inarguably does compete for readership by providing a free alternative — which matters for those trying to convince readers to take out subscriptions.

Scott has argued the ABC’s move into analysis online and through other mediums is an important diversity measure. But this is another area of common ABC criticism.

Shortly after becoming MD, Scott made the highly unusual decision of using the Sydney Institute as the site of his first major public appearance, which he used to announce beefed-up editorial policies with a focus on balance. The Sydney Institute is led by executive director Gerard Henderson, who has built a side career in criticism of the media and in particular the ABC (his Media Watch Dog column runs in The Australian).

Many people who loved the ABC, Scott said in 2006, nonetheless felt it has “issues with balance and fairness”.

“I am committed to addressing this issue because I think the organisation has been, at times, too defensive in the face of such criticism,” he said. It’s easy to take comfort in things like Newspoll rankings that show most Australians trust the ABC, but reflexive dismissal is “unwise” and not in the broadcaster’s “best interests”. He announced a new position, that of director of editorial policies, who would report directly to him and “will be able to provide independent advice”. While the speech was a characteristic defence of the ABC’s role in society, it did also leave room for, and give validity to, much of the criticism of those like Henderson.

Today, Henderson believes Scott has failed in what he set for himself and the ABC during that address. The test, Henderson told Crikey, was the type of person he’d choose to appoint to the key position of director of editorial policy. The person chosen was Paul Chadwick, a distinguished lawyer and journalist who, at one time, worked at The Age. 

Henderson says he has nothing against Chadwick, but believes the former Victorian privacy commissioner came from a similar mould to those who went to work for the ABC already. “The minute [Chadwick’s appointment] happened, I realised it was all over,” Henderson said.

The problem, Henderson says, is that Scott never got himself directly involved in important or controversial editorial appointments. Given this, Henderson cannot understand how Scott could call himself “editor-in-chief”.

“My criticism is he’s never run the place. It’s run by various little groups who run their own thing. The editor-in-chief doesn’t really get into anything. And they promote their own and move their own, and Scott never got involved in those crucial decisions.”

(Dempster, who shares little in common with Henderson, also has a concern about the ABC’s editorial choices under Scott. “I was distressed by the ABC’s treatment of Nick Ross,” he said, referring to the ABC’s former technology editor who claims he was sidelined and prevented from writing about the NBN after Turnbull raised objections about his analysis. “The ABC’s dodged accountability on that,” Dempster said, adding that he doesn’t think we’ve gotten to the bottom of the issue.)

Scott grows clearly impatient when Crikey puts Henderson’s criticism to him; it seems one he’s heard often before.

“We have taken advantage of digital media to put more voices to air, host more debates, to have a detailed discussion of a broader range of perspectives than ABC ever did. We have worked assiduously to review and make sure we cover a broad range of issues that are important to Australians everywhere, and that we’re not narrow in our content. We remain very vigilant.”

But are the ABC’s leading voices too often inner-city liberals who do not reflect the breadth of Australian political perspectives? Some, like Fairfax columnist (and former Media Watch host) Jonathan Holmes, have made that argument. “The evidence doesn’t back that up,” Scott said, pointing to the fact that the ABC puts people like Eoin Cameron to air. (The recently retired Perth host was a Liberal party politician.)

“Some critics, frankly, their schtick is attacking the ABC. They do it in a predictable way. I never see evidence of great legwork. Some aren’t particularly fair.”

On the issue of reflecting the diverse concerns of the Australian public, the ABC under Scott and the current ABC chair, former judge Jim Spigelman, the ABC has introduced accountability measures above and beyond mandated under the ABC Act. Since 2013, for example, it’s been paying for outsiders to take turns reviewing a particular aspect of its coverage. The process has been controversial. The ABC does not always accept the criticisms of the reviews, while in the situations where it does, individual journalists can feel like they’ve been hung out to dry. And the reviews cost tens of thousands of dollars a pop; consultants to the ABC are never cheap. The ABC views the reviews as a useful exercise in gaining broad feedback on its programming from those outside the fold.

The end of Scott’s tenure has included three years of Coalition government, which has meant, in recent years, he’s been leading an ABC even more under attack. Several controversies over coverage erupted, like the ABC’s reporting with The Guardian on Australia’s border protection regime, and Q&A‘s five-week Zaky Mallah ordeal.

And did Scott handle the controversies well? Those Crikey spoke to had many different opinions on this, but many made the point that by so strongly advocating for the ABC, Scott gave it a base from which it could be easily defended.

“Mark was an articulate public advocate for public broadcasting, and he championed it in the face of significant criticism from both sides of politics and the ongoing daily attacks from News Limited publications,” said Conroy. “His demeanour, his calmness and his rigour allowed him to have a well-articulated defence.

“That’s not to say there weren’t mistakes made by individual journalists and individual shows. But he had a rigour that allowed the ABC to defend itself even when mistakes were made.”

In the UK, the BBC has also had to deal with a conservative government. But it has been cut far more savagely and in a far more structural way than has happened to the ABC. Perhaps Scott’s tireless public advocacy made it unpalatable for the Australian government to cut deeper.

Exclusive watch. Australia’s most pre-eminent news outlet can exclusively reveal that Channel Nine did, in fact, pay for the abduction of Sally Faulkner’s two children off the streets of Beirut. The paper has proof that no other outlet in Australia has, and that is why you should buy this particular paper …

beirut1

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Mark Scott blames govt for ABC’s Sydney focus. Does the ABC do enough for regional Australia, or is it too focused on Sydney? The latter has been a complaint leveled against the national broadcaster for years — and departing managing director Mark Scott says the government is to blame. Yes, the lion’s share of ABC content and news is created and produced at Ultimo (and outsourcing does not help this disparity), but Scott told ABC radio host Jon Faine that it was a budgetary reality:

“There’s no doubt that when you get a funding cut that one of the things you instinctively do is centralise so as to drive efficiencies, but we are looking to make the ABC into being as broad and as inclusive as possible.”

“I think we are conscious of trying to do more where we can around the country. I think we’re conscious of [the move to Sydney, but] we are constrained as well by the budget realities that we face.”

How the west was monopolised. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission had better polish off its media data and summon some courage — it is heading for clash with Australia’s two most powerful commercial media groups, the Murdoch clan’s News Corp Australia and the Seven West media and its controller, Kerry Stokes.

Media reported overnight that a plan by News to sell the sliding Sunday Times to Seven West Media moved a step closer yesterday when management briefed staff at the paper about secret plans. The story has been around for a year now, and if it happens, would give Stokes and Seven West the newspaper monopoly in Perth and much of Western Australia. Seven West already controls The West Australian and other publications. Seven West also controls the Seven Network, which is the dominant TV outlet in Perth and the rest of the state.

The future of the Sunday Times’ online website PerthNow under the merger is unknown. The West Australian has its own digital news site, which is stuck in a tight contract through a local joint venture with Yahoo 7.

In 2011, Stokes’ West Australian Newspapers Holdings bought Seven Media Group in a deal worth $4.1 billion, creating Seven West Media, which is now worth just $1.5 billion, with the difference being written off in a series of asset impairments by management and the board.

The ACCC would normally knock back a takeover, but News and Seven West will produce evidence (no doubt) showing how the likes of Google, Facebook, Ninemsn, BuzzFeed, etc, are taking their business and are the new competitors. Seven and Sky News (39% owned by 21st Century Fox, the other Murdoch clan company) between them control 66% of Sky News, the only local pay TV news operation. Seven and Sky and News are in talks about the future of Sky news on Foxtel after 2017. Will News buy Sky UK out of Sky News in Australia?

The merger would be allowed in the wake of the proposed media law changes by the federal government, which have now vanished in the move to a July 2 poll. If those changes had happened, ACCC approval might not have been needed. — Glenn Dyer

Not so friendly rivalry. A rival has tried to sabotage Channel Seven reporter Paul Dowsley’s interview …

pauldowsley

Front page of the day. 

purplerain

Media briefs

Apr 22, 2016

5 comments

Mark Scott blames govt for ABC’s Sydney focus. Does the ABC do enough for regional Australia, or is it too focused on Sydney? The latter has been a complaint leveled against the national broadcaster for years — and departing managing director Mark Scott says the government is to blame. Yes, the lion’s share of ABC content and news is created and produced at Ultimo (and outsourcing does not help this disparity), but Scott told ABC radio host Jon Faine that it was a budgetary reality:

“There’s no doubt that when you get a funding cut that one of the things you instinctively do is centralise so as to drive efficiencies, but we are looking to make the ABC into being as broad and as inclusive as possible.”

“I think we are conscious of trying to do more where we can around the country. I think we’re conscious of [the move to Sydney, but] we are constrained as well by the budget realities that we face.”

Paywall

Apr 14, 2016

5 comments

The ABC has said it doesn’t matter if it stops producing content in smaller states because they are well represented through the production companies the ABC uses to produce content. But a Crikey analysis has found that New South Wales gets the lion’s share of contracts — and as usual, South Australia and Tasmania are left with scraps.

When the ABC cut production in South Australia, managing director Mark Scott said in multiple forums that this wouldn’t signal the end of the ABC supporting film and television production work in Adelaide. For example, Scott told Senate estimates in December 2014 that the public broadcaster didn’t need internal production studios to make television.

He referred to an “extensive list” of work with production companies done in South Australia: 19 projects in the last three years (which would have been 2012-2014).

“We invested $8.6 million of ABC funding into that, but the total production value was $22.4 million. ANZAC Girls was a good example of that.

“Similarly, in Queensland, where we made Mabo and Parer’s War; in Western Australia, where we made The War That Changed Us, Flying Miners, The Dreamhouse and An Accidental Soldier — these are all projects that we can make around the country in partnership with the independent production sector, but they are just not programs that are being made by our in-house production team.”

Commissioning but not creating content allowed production houses to apply for funding from places like Screen Australia, which in-house television production was not allowed to do, Scott added.

However, a glance over the list of production companies the ABC has used in the past three years, as well as the states in which those companies did work, shows the list to be dominated by companies that operate in New South Wales. It appears film and television production companies gain as much from centralisation in Sydney as the ABC does.

Of the 208 production companies contracted by the ABC over the past three years, only 18 did any work in Tasmania, while 24 did some work in South Australia.

Meanwhile, of the total, three-quarters (154) did some or all of their work for the ABC in New South Wales, while 94 did some or all their work in Victoria (many companies did work in multiple states), an ABC answer to a question on notice posed by Senator Eric Abetz shows.

Only 35 companies did any work in Queensland (averaging out to just over 10 a year), while 34 did work in Western Australia. The figures for the territories were the lowest — 16 companies did work in the Northern Territory and another 14 in the ACT over the three years for which figures are provided.

The figures do not reveal how much work the companies did, nor how much was spent on the productions; the ABC cited commercial in confidence reasons for not revealing this information, which was requested. Because many companies worked in multiple states, it’s difficult to gauge the amount of work they did in the smaller states. For example, a company that worked in NSW and WA might have spent some time in Perth to gather material for a work largely put together in Sydney. Companies were far more likely to work entirely in one state if they were doing work in New South Wales or Victoria.

The ABC’s response also notes that while it seeks, as required by the ABC charter, to reflect the diversity of the nation, “it does not commission based on location”.

Tips and rumours

Mar 31, 2016

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Federal

Mar 24, 2016

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The New South Wales government is attempting to introduce measures to increase the pay rises available to top public servants to entice talent from the private sector, but top mandarins in federal departments and agencies are already taking home huge pay packets — in some instances, well above what actual MPs and ministers are earning. So who are the money men (and yes, they are all men) of Australia’s public service?

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1. Bill Morrow In the 2014-15 financial year, the CEO of NBN took home a base salary of $2,281,217 plus almost $500,000 in bonuses. His total remuneration, according to NBN’s annual report, was around $3 million. The NBN boss is now the highest-paid public servant since Australia Post’s Ahmed Fahour waived his bonus. Morrow is paid significantly more than his predecessor in the role, Mike Quigley, whose base salary was $2 million without bonuses built into his contract. Before NBN, Morrow was in the private sector, as the CEO at Vodafone.

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2. Ahmed Fahour The controversial CEO of Australia Post was reportedly paid $1.75 million in 2014, after forgoing his bonus of between $2 million and $2.5 million. In 2012-13, when Fahour did take his bonus, he was paid $4.8 million, which had him among the top 40 paid executives in the country. While Australia Post’s annual report for the last financial year doesn’t break down the amounts paid to each director, the total amount is down on previous years. In 2013-14, the 17 senior executives and directors were remunerated a combined $16,177,703, while last year that figure was $13,469,424.

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3. Martin Parkinson From the start of this year, the secretary of Prime Minister & Cabinet moved up to earning $861,700 a year, making him the highest-paid secretary in the public service.

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4. John Fraser The secretary of Treasury is the second most well-paid secretary, at $840,810 a year. Other secretaries earn between $678,920 and $814,700 a year, as well as other allowances.

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5. Mark Scott The ABC’s outgoing managing director took home $823,613 in 2013-2014, but his replacement, Michelle Guthrie, will take home $900,000 a year. During the application process, the ABC applied to the Remuneration Tribunal for an increase for the next person in the job (although Guthrie’s pay is still way below what other CEOs in the commercial broadcasting sector take home).

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6. Larry Marshall The head of the CSIRO has been across the headlines recently with cuts to the climate change department of the organisation. His take-home pay, including bonuses, is up to $800,000. 

Media

Mar 4, 2016

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The ABC is bracing for what could be its third budget cut since the election of the Coalition government in 2013.

At the start of last week, the executives of its news division (which include the executive producers of flagship programs) met with management and were told to begin making contingency plans for what could be cut, should the triennial funding round outcomes (to be released in this year’s budget) not include the renewal of a $20 million-a-year “enhanced newsgathering” grant the Rudd government gave Aunty in its final budget. The money was tied funding — meaning it had to be allocated to areas specified by the government — and went to setting up the ABC’s national reporting team, ABC Fact Check, and the employment of more journalists in regional Australia.

The ABC has declined to say what scale of cuts to jobs or programs could result at this stage, and Crikey understands the plans are still being devised. There is a possibility the government will continue providing the ABC with some of the funding, if not all of it, in which case contingency plans would be adjusted accordingly. But earlier redundancy programs may give some guide to the effect of a $20 million cut. In 2014, when the government cut $50 million a year from the ABC budget, the ABC cut 400 staff.

The ABC has been talking with increasing urgency in public forums about the effects of the loss of funding.

Last week at the National Press Club, outgoing managing director Mark Scott spoke about the funding and the “significant cuts to jobs and programming” the ABC would be forced to make should the funding be removed (most in the media, Crikey included, were too dazzled by the prospect of a merger with SBS to take much note of Scott’s other comments).

“Nearly three years ago, the Gillard government allocated an additional $20 million per annum to the ABC to support enhanced news services, acknowledging the industry’s loss of specialist reporting staff, the importance of local digital content and declining news investment in regions.”

This money now represents 10% of the ABC’s total budget for news, Scott said.”If it is not renewed, it would represent the third substantial cut to the ABC’s budget since the Coalition government was elected on a platform not to cut the budget.”

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A table from the ABC’s submission showing the cuts to its budget since the election of the Abbott government

Earlier, in a submission to the regional broadcasting inquiry being conducted in the House of Representatives, Aunty noted the “further financial pressures” placed on it by the termination of the “enhanced newsgathering” grant:

“Enhanced Newsgathering funds have been used to provide ongoing audience benefits, including state-based online news sites; regional video journalists and camera crews; new bureaux in Geelong, Parramatta and Ipswich; and specialist reporters. It is impossible for the Corporation to maintain the same level of output, particularly in the News Division, with an effective 10% cut to its annual operating budget.”

As well as asking for the continuation of existing tied funding, the ABC has also requested a new $25 million to $30 million to fund further news operations in regional Australia. Scott has argued this is the one sure thing the government can control that would ensure those in regional Australia have access to reliable news services. While the success or otherwise of the ABC’s requests won’t be known until budget night, at this stage, the public broadcaster is preparing to be denied.