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The ABC’s funding crisis

May 14, 2020 • 14m 32s

ABC staff are revealing the pressure they are under as the public broadcaster absorbs huge budget cuts. Today, Mike Seccombe on the role the ABC plays during a national crisis and the future of the national broadcaster.

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The ABC’s funding crisis

223 • May 14, 2020

The ABC’s funding crisis

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

ABC staff are revealing the pressure they are under as the public broadcaster absorbs budget cuts amounting to more than 100 million dollars a year.

Today: Mike Seccombe, on the role the ABC plays during a national crisis… and the future of the national broadcaster.

**

RUBY:

Mike, how are ABC management handling the funding cuts the organisation is facing?

MIKE:

Well, in February, David Anderson, the managing director, and the chair of the ABC, Ita Buttrose, went to Canberra to seek relief from the government's funding cuts and they came away empty-handed. Then in March, Anderson was scheduled to announce a five year response to the latest round of funding cuts, which is expected to cost a couple of hundred jobs and also involve major changes in operations and programming.

RUBY:

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent

MIKE:

The Coronavirus, however, has prompted sort of a stay of execution in this case. So his announcement has now been postponed until July. And as one senior ABC journalist, you know, somewhat bitterly put it to me. Obviously, you don't want to be telling people they're losing their jobs via Zoom conference. And another one even more bitterly said, well, come July, they're going to say, well, you've all done very well, but then you're going to be sacked.

RUBY:

Right - so staffing cuts have been put on hold.. but they will come… just after the ABC has gotten through the pandemic. What do we know about how the community has been responding to the ABC’s coverage over the past few months?

MIKE:

Well, it sounds like a marketing slogan when you say it, and it's almost a cliche because we've heard it before, but in times of national crisis, Australians turn to the national broadcaster. I mean, that's just always been true, but it's never been more profoundly true than it has in the past six months. First came the bushfire crisis, when the ABC's network of regional reporters distinguished themselves not just reporting the disaster as it unfolded, but also warning those in harm's way.

Archival tape -- ABC reporter:

Tonight we have reporters covering the major fire grounds from Sydney all the way up the coast to near the Queensland border...

MIKE:

As Ita Buttrose said last week, the ABC saved lives.

Archival tape -- ABC reporter:

Behind me you can see that these power poles which caught alight are now being put out - they’re the only thing that was between that fire front and these homes

MIKE:

And then, of course, came the Coronavirus, which has seen news consumption among a very concerned and isolated populace go up overall.

Archival tape -- ABC reporter:

Hello I’m Jeremy Fernandez and welcome to our special live stream to answer your questions about the Covid-19 crisis...

MIKE:

In January, the ABC became the number one website in the country, overtaking news.com.au, the Murdoch Online offering. And in the most recent figures for March, the audience was up to fifteen point two million, which was, you know, an enormous gain. People have turned to the ABC, which, you know, in one sense is unsurprising. On another level, though, it's remarkable that the ABC has been doing so well through these crises because it's been working while grievously wounded.

RUBY:

Tell me what you mean by that.

MIKE:

Well, since the current government came to power in 2014, the national broadcaster has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in funding and about 1000 jobs. And its content has suffered as a result. I mean, Lateline has gone state-based versions of 7.30 on Fridays have gone. The flagship radio current affairs programs, The World Today and PM have been halved in length. Staffing at the various political bureaus around the country has been slashed. You know, the list of cuts goes on and on and it keeps coming.

RUBY:

I was at the ABC for seven years and I remember a lot of those cuts. But it's not just the ABC that's been having a difficult time for the past few years, it's the media industry as a whole that that's been struggling.
Oh, yeah. Over the past decade or so, the media industry has lost its main source of revenue, which is advertising, which has gone online. And of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has just radically worsened this already dire advertising situation. So ad revenues have just dried up. And as a result, scores of publications have either suspended operations or just gone out of business entirely.

Last month, the Morrison government announced it would provide around $100 million in relief to commercial TV, regional radio and newspapers. And it also suspended the Australian content quotas for this year and possibly next, which saved the network some money, but at the cost of those content producers. So the government has certainly recognised the crisis in terms of the commercial media

RUBY:

And that extra funding will be a big help to the commercial networks, but the ABC hasn't received any of that support, right?

MIKE:

No, that's right. Despite a lack of funding and these exceptional times, they've not got anything extra - in fact, there are further cuts planned. Only last month, there were further program changes being raised at a meeting between ABC management and representatives of the journalists union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. Out of that came a confidential briefing prepared by the union reps - which I got a hold of - which itemised several concerns around further programming cuts, including: the dropping of the Friday evening edition of The Business, the decision to run best-of - in inverted commas - episodes of the arts program The Mix, and also to turn the Saturday edition of AM, the current affairs radio flagship program, into sort of a highlights package of the week stories.

And the other thing that also came out of the meeting was the fact that there will be a great number of changes to rostering and shifts, which will continue to and I'm quoting here, “continue to impact ongoing and casual staff as a result of the Covid-19 staffing practices changes.” So in other words, more is being required of the staff during the pandemic and subsequent to the pandemic, we're going to see still more cuts to ABC News and current affairs necessitated by funding reductions. So it's a pretty grim picture.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Mike, how much money has been cut from the ABC's budget over the past few years?

MIKE:

Well, GetUp! released a report commissioned from the independent progressive think tank Per Capita - this I might add had nothing to do with the ABC; the ABC didn't know it was being done - and they drew together the publicly available data and calculated the cumulative cuts to the organisation from 2014 when this government came in until the end of the current triennial funding deal, which runs out in 2022 - It calculated a total loss of 783 million dollars in funding.

In March, Anderson gave very similar figures to a Senate estimates committee where he said the ABC will be absorbing cumulative budget cuts; 105.9 million dollars per annum.

So… it's big.

RUBY:

Mike, it's part of your reporting. You've been speaking to ABC staff. So what is your read on how people who are currently working there are going when they know that these further cuts are coming?

MIKE:

Well, I've got to say, I don't get the impression that morale is great. You give them credit for their professionalism - they're working all sorts of odd shifts to try and cover and doing it in the almost certain knowledge that, you know, come the end of the crisis, some of their jobs will disappear. So, you know, while Anderson's announcement on the funding cuts has been postponed, no one believes that it's gone away - I mean, they still see these things coming down the track.

So some of the staff I spoke to had a very dim view of the future. Some believed that there was actually a strategy to make people's work more difficult, unsustainable, such that they would leave. Instead of giving payouts to senior people, rostering them at odd hours till they left. Management, on the other hand, says the unpredictable rostering at the moment is a temporary thing. Once the crisis is passed, that will go by the by.

RUBY:

Mike, as you've said, the cuts to the ABC's budget go back a long time. Can you talk to me a bit about the political environment here and why you think the ABC's budget has been cut?

MIKE:

Well, there's a history to this, and it's very ideological. It was less than two years ago that an overwhelming majority of the Liberal Party's federal council affirmed that they did not want a national broadcaster at all. You know, they voted in favour of the ABC's privatisation. A lot of people on the right of politics just have a deep ideological objection to public broadcasting in general rather than commercial. And in particular, this belief that the ABC somehow, you know, works against them.

I mean, the Howard government, they were slashing away at the ABC funding. And at that stage, the chief of staff to the prime minister, John Howard, Grahame Morris, summed up his boss’ attitude by saying the ABC is our enemy, talking to our friends. Just before Tony Abbott won the 2013 election, he promised famously that there would be no cuts to ABC funding...

Archival tape -- Tony Abbott:

I trust everyone actually listened to what Joe Hockey has said last week and again this week: no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST, and, no cuts to the ABC or SBS.

MIKE:

And then, you know, in his first budget, $254 million was carved off the ABC.

RUBY:

Do you think the current situation changes anything? And that there is any chance the government will shift its approach on funding cuts?

MIKE:

Well, the importance to the ABC has certainly been apparent. Certainly, you know, the pressures on the broadcaster to perform have increased during the crisis. But I don't see that the government's attitude on the ABC has changed. And I don't think that the cuts that are in prospect are likely to be wound back. Scott Morrison said as much in parliament only in April.

Archival tape -- Tony Abbott:

Mr Speaker, the ABC is doing an excellent job and they'll continue doing that job with the resources that have been provided to them. Like all agencies and like all Australians, they will all do the best job they can with the resources they have available to them.

RUBY:

So not much hope of reprieve then…

MIKE:

I fear not. In fact, some of the people I spoke to are living in fear of further cuts, you know, given the dire state of the government finances post-Covid. And in some quarters conservative quarters, there seems to be a line of reasoning that holds that. You know, with commercial media doing so badly, the ABC should not be funded to further encroach on their audiences, which, you know, seems a bit backwards to me.

I think the reverse is probably true, that ABC News, drama, cultural broadcasting are actually more important than ever now because other sources aren't providing them. I actually think the ABC, as is a major contributor to Australia's social cohesion, and in the current circumstances it's a source of trustworthy information, it's I think, a big part of making Australia a more civilized country. It's a civilising force. And I think we should be looking after it somewhat better.

RUBY:

Mike, thanks so much for your time today.

MIKE:

Thank you so much for having me.

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RUBY:

Also in the news...

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly has announced that there have now been 6,975 cases of Covid-19 in Australia, but only 700 people are still sick.

That includes 13 new cases of Covid-19 in 24 hours. 50 people still in hospital, with 14 on ventilators.

**

In Victoria - more than 90 staff from a Melbourne McDonald's restaurant are being tested for Covid-19 after six people linked to the store contracted the virus.

The McDonald’s restaurant is the second recent cluster in Melbourne, following the Cedar Meats abattoir.

**

And the Commonwealth Bank is warning of a potential 32 per cent crash in house prices, in a worst-case "prolonged" economic downturn.

In its third-quarter trading update, the bank announced it had set aside $1.5 billion to cover potential losses from the impact of Covid-19.

**

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

ABC staff are revealing the pressure they are under as the public broadcaster absorbs budget cuts amounting to more than 100 million dollars a year. Today, Mike Seccombe on the role the ABC plays during a national crisis and the future of the national broadcaster.

Guest: National Correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

Hundreds facing the sack with ABC cuts in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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223: The ABC’s funding crisis