S U B M I S S I O N
Senate Select Committee into the Abbott Government’s Budget Cuts on Friday 12 December 2014
Quentin Dempster – appearing as a private individual
VANDALISING THE ABC
- Following is a list of impacts which I have assembled from available sources. I can add to it as more information comes to hand. The committee already has the benefit of formal statements of impacts from the ABC (and SBS) and their claimed justifications. This list is to help the committee understand and put into perspective the audience impact through the reduction of production resources, journalists and program makers not always frankly stated by ABC management. The ABC has said that 300 staff are to be terminated immediately with a further 100 through restructuring operations over 2015.
- Radio Australia – GONE ARE:-
- Phil Kafcaloudes and Mornings (2 hours of live programming to the Pacific weekdays)
- Asia Pacific weekdays
- Asia Review weekends
- Reduced daily news bulletins
- Loss of network entirely in western Pacific island nations including the Marshall Islands, Pauru, Marianas, Kiribas and the Cook Islands
- RA’s shortwave service to Myanmar (via Singapore) to be shut down end of December
- Language services cut to one person per service resulting in no continuous news service
- Loss of dedicated language programs to Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Myanmar, Vietnam and PNG
- Australia Network/Australia Plus television – GONE ARE:-
- No longer a 24 hour channel. Built around a six hour block of programming repeated across the day.
- One hour nightly news program ‘The World’ reduced to 30 minutes
- Business Today weekdays with Whitney Fitzsimmons
- Pacific Sports 360 – dedicated sports review program for the Pacific
- Fashion Asia
- Around 650 rebroadcasters for the Australia Network service reduced to about 50 rebroadcasters in India, Asia and the Pacific, mostly delivered through a limited and encrypted satellite service
- Loss of untold Direct-to-home viewers across Asia, particularly in Thailand, who can no longer access our signal straight off the satellite due to encryption.
- Asia Pacific News Centre (check updated information from ABC management) – GONE ARE:-
- Loss of APNC correspondents in Delhi, Jakarta, Beijing, the Pacific and parliament House Canberra. Total journalist and production staff made redundant as a direct result of the termination of the ABC/DFAT contract: 73.
- Foreign Correspondent reduced to 22 x 30 minute episodes starting in mid-April. Catalyst the ABC’s television science show will be severely cut. Catalyst will fill the 8 pm Tuesday slot for 10 weeks from February, March and early April, and then, when Foreign Correspondent finishes its Catalyst will come back for 11 more shots. Result: Destroyed production momentum for both programs, audience confusion. After Catalyst’s first 10 week run the program staff will go into a producers’ pool for several months for so far unannounced production. We are expecting that if by 2016 Catalyst exists at all it will have been outsourced.
- ABC’s international bureaux. Staff ‘consultation’ is still underway. But going west to east around the world this is what we currently know:-
- London – a rare bright spot. The third reporter there (currently on local hire) will be upgraded to a full A-based position. And there should be more camera capacity. Currently the long time editor there also shoots PTC’s (pieces to camera) and overlay. But management wants to transform that into a full camera/editor position. That may mean the current editor will be terminated and a new locally hired person brought in.
- Moscow – Bureau officially closed more than a year ago. Long time fixer/translator should have been kept on. Awaiting confirmation of this.
- Middle East – ABC has realised belatedly that having all reporting resources in Jerusalem is not wise. New Arab world office will be established in Beirut – reporter, camera and locally hired fixer/Arabic translator. The second Middle East report will stay in Jerusalem and become a VJ (video journalist) with one local producer to help. Expecting office administrator and driver to be sacked.
- Nairobi – Has been VJ correspondent and will remain so. Hopefully the reporter has an officer, a fixer and some admin support.
- New Delhi – To become a home based VJ with local fixer/translator. The ABC has had a functioning office in Delhi for decades but now apparently the lucky correspondent is expected to cover the entirety of South Asia – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal etc (1.2billion people) from a back bedroom.
- Bangkok – similar to Delhi. Good functioning office will be scrapped. Home based VJ plus local. Excellent camera man will be offered fewer days per year.
- Jakarta – Meant to be a bigger ‘hub’ with second correspondent and second camera but with regional ‘fire reporter’ – immediate despatch to breaking stories thought by staff to be better coordinated from Bangkok than Jakarta.
- Beijing – also slated as bigger ‘hub’ two correspondents and two cameras but to cover Japan and Korea and region as required. This is not really an enhancement but more a replacement of the resources which existed when Australia Network was operating.
- Tokyo – A big loser. Close down the office in the main government broadcaster NHK – where ABC currently gets access to news bulletins and feeds, although rent is ‘cheap’. BBC apparently has spent 15 years trying to get back into the building. New arrangements: home based VJ plus local fixer/translator. Under Japanese law it will be very expensive to have locals including excellent local hire camera operator made redundant. The process of closing down is expected to take most of 2015. Tokyo decision is viewed by ABC staff and international correspondents as short sighted.
- Port Moresby – Already VJ. Has separate office from home in one compound, plus local fixer. Correspondent often has to waste several days a week doing admin because ABC News will not hire someone to help.
- Auckland – Closed and with it a lot of good South Pacific coverage as well as NZ material. ABC has had a visible TVNZ office for many years of great value to Australia’s engagement with the Kiwis: a single correspondent with VJ capacity but access to professional TV NZ crews. Highly productive and comparatively inexpensive:
- Washington – Staff do not believe claim by News managers that they are creating ‘major multi-platform hubs’ in London and Washington by July 2015. The truth is Washington DC is being down sized with one fewer reporter and likely to lose its long time editor (who occasionally shoots footage and interviews). One of two camera operators (an Australian on local hire conditions) has reportedly been told that his current contract is too generous and to stay he will have to take a pay cut.
- Radio National
RN is cutting deeper than the cut the network was asked to deliver ($350K) as part of the Government’s budget cuts in order to invest in a digital future.
- Five specialist feature programs to go (Hindsight, Encounter, Poetica, Into The Music, 360documentaries) to be replaced by a generalist 4x28min feature slot. 9 out of 18 producers to lose their jobs.
- Increase in the freelance budget of the Features area – a clear casualisation of the workforce.
- Bush Telegraph cut – loss of 6 jobs
- By Design and RN First Bite to go and replaced by less resourced program covering similar content areas – dumbing down the network.
- The Religion Unit to lose 4 producers as part of the restructure of RN Features, these 4 producers are in the pool of 18 producers mentioned above.
- A new program to be presented by Tom Switzer
- Background Briefing to lose half a position in Canberra but to gain a FT position in Melbourne – no consultation about this decision.
- A new junior reporter position established in Perth to work across the network.
- Four new digital producer positions created – this is where the investment in the digital future comes in.
- One position to go in the RN Admin team – 2 people in a pool to be reduced to one.
Overall 22 potential redundancies at the network and the creation of 8 new jobs.
The impact on religion and its format coverage on the ABC is of particularly distressing concern. Please see an open letter to ABC chairman James Spigelman AC QC from 30 of Australia’s religious leaders covering the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu communities. Signatories include Melbourne’s Anglican Archbishop Dr Philip Freier, the Grand Mufti of Australia, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, the Uniting Church’s President of the National Assembly, Professor Andrew Dutney, plus leaders of multiple Christian denominations, Jewish and Hindu organisations. The open letter said:
“We write to you because we believe that the ABC has a particularly important role in presenting religion both in its own right and as an integral part of modern Australia, thanks to the high-quality specialist religion programming provided by both television and radio. We believe the faith and values we hold will always occupy a central part in the formation of our Australian national identity. Further, an understanding of religion plays a crucial part in grasping today’s ever more complex social and political developments both in Australi9a and internationally. It has never been more important for Australians to have access to content that builds a deeper understanding of the role of faith in the lives of individuals or society, as demonstrated in last month’s G20 interfaith summit”.
- In reality, the proposed changes mean a reduction in Religion Unit staff from 10.5 full and permanent positions to 6. This is a loss of 43%. The media has quoted a loss of 70% of below the line production budget i.e. the amount of budget available after salaries. This is correct. The majority of this budget has been spent on artist fees (i.e. freelance producers).
- The removal of the religion feature producers from the Unit with its attendant support and extended networks and specialist knowledge base across different religious, faith and multi-cultural minority communities was not at any point prior to the announcement on Monday Nov 24 discussed with those responsible for managing Religion. On the contrary when further consultation was requested Religion was told that there would be opportunity for further discussion about the future of religion on RN once the scale of government cuts was known. Clearly there was no intent to have any discussion since the ‘proposed’ changes and cuts were all handed down (as if at the flick of a switch) less than two working days after the government announced its cuts.
- Significantly the religion unit’s remit stems from the job description of the EP Religion, ABC Radio. It has a remit to serve the ABC Radio division and more widely across the ABC. The Executive Producer’s leadership of programming is to be in consultation with Network Managers. It was with immense surprise and shock that the proposed changes were presented effectively fait accompli and an hour later to 4four of the Unit (those primarily deployed at present on the production of the existing RN feature, Encounter).
- The rationale given by Michael mason, the new Director of Radio behind the proposed formation of a features unit (to encompass existing RN Arts features and Encounter, the religion feature) is to pool staff and resource for “greater program efficiency and program cohesion” – this is an existing modus operandi for the Religion Unit to the benefit of six programmes, nine hours across four Radio networks; in the devising of several cross-network and cross-divisional projects which have been applauded by RN, by the Radio Division and by Television: it having even been noted that Religion have been seen to be providing the model for the way the ABC should work in the future.
- The religion Unit contends that its staff are not attached to individual programs (work records support this). Religion also contends that RN management and indeed Radio Division management should not be nominating these producers as features producers.
- It is further contended that if the line management of people and editorial is removed from the Religion Unit, the producers selected from the pool based on their specialisation as well as feature making skills will soon lose that specialisation without the support, cross-fertilisation and development of ideas that comes from the way the Unit works together.
- Religion is also concerned about the inability it will have to move staff around between programs, to give other producers opportunities to produce in the feature and documentary form and to use the skills of the staff to be removed from the Unit to the benefit of the other five programs in the Unit, to ‘renew and refresh’ in the parlance of RN, to give things a good shake up. This goes to the heart of Religion’s ability to manage people and their careers to motivate, inspire and challenge them and to use all the skills available to the widest possible benefit of the ABC.
- The job of the EP for ABC TV’s Compass has been axed. This means there is no editorial head of religion in TV. Compass will now be supervised by a general commissioning editor.
- Songs of Praise is to be discontinued. Leaving Compass as television’s only commitment to religion.
- Christmas Carols and Readings which was previously part of ABC TV’s Christmas offering was dropped last year and reportedly Head of Programming ABC1 and ABC 2 has said that he would not schedule it into the future ‘unless he was told to do so’. In short: ABC axes Christmas Carols. This has left ABC TV with no reflection of Christmas as a religious festival anywhere in the schedule.
- At the Movies
Although Margaret Pomerantz and David Stratten have voluntarily now left the ABC it is significant to note that the ABC will not be developing replacement talent or continuing a program which has successfully engaged audiences for decades. Again the qualitative difference in this format was the intellectual depth and honesty used to engage viewers in this most powerful art form. Its added value was its critical exposure of Australian feature length movies and their comparison with those produced elsewhere in the world. The loss of this format is a tragedy for Australian audiences and the local film industry.
- Classic FM
The loss to the ABC and Australia seems to concentrate within Classic FM and new music genres: the loss of NMUL and Jazz outlets from the free to air Classic FM network being examples, along with the prospect of losing “to the God who sings” as a result of cuts to the Religion unit. The cuts to Classic FM will result in a significant loss of a specialist craft and skill base – a loss of more than 300 years of massed experience. The cuts have been concentrated in two branches with 50% of existing staff going from both Perth and Adelaide. In spite of a proclaimed new ‘model’ of parity in numbers between engineers and producers in each branch (i.e. two engineers equals two producers) the sole producer position in Perth has been abolished. Perth is the hardest branch in the ABC to support by relief staff (potentially from either Melbourne or Sydney) because of travel times. Classic FM staff have identified inaccuracies and errors in the Lewis review which to date have not been corrected by ABC management. As a consequence the credibility of the current changes has been undermined with only the barest of new ‘structure’ plan provided for discussion.
- ABC domestic news and current affairs. GONE are:-
- 30 Friday night state shows which have existed in this timeslot since 2001. Loss of local TV current affairs in NSW, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia, Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. This is a major blow to the ABC’s engagement with audiences at a local level around Australia. There is a qualitative difference in the ABC’s coverage of politics, issues, and state services in this format (studio interviews with premiers and ministers plus investigative pieces) – education, health, law and order, environment, planning, social equity and multi-party corruption. The removal of these programs in New South Wales and Queensland at this time when state elections are due in early 2015 is passing strange editorially.
- The Business – Ticky Fullerton’s late night business and market review program is gone. Staff dispute management claims about audience figures for this program and are highly sceptical about the influence and effective business journalism to be delivered by 2 x 15 minute slots placed elsewhere in the News 24 schedule. Again the concern is one about the loss of a qualitative difference in format.
- Lateline – See ABC management explanation. Field reporting capacity for original investigative reports is being stripped out. Lateline has been a major force in ABC journalism, exposing major bungles in Commonwealth Government administration, failures in indigenous affairs and exposure of systemic cover-up in child sexual abuse – a precipitant to judicial inquiries at state and national levels. Staff see the loss of Lateline’s original reporting capacity particularly its role in government accountability to be a major blow to public broadcasting in Australia.
- Current affairs – will lose about 31 full time positions (26 editorial, 5 news operations).
- State news rooms – will lose around 30 full time positions (29 editorial, 1 news operations). Reduction in duration of radio news bulletins.
- Overall 100 editorial and support staff to be stripped from news and current affairs programming on radio and television.
- TV production South Australia and Western Australia
- The ending of TV production in SA and WA is expected to result in the reduction of a further 9 full time positions in SA and 10 in WA. The committee has been furnished with production impacts by others. The loss of the ABC’s remaining regional television production capacity outside Sydney and Melbourne confirms the strategic centralisation of ABC creative content production to Sydney and Melbourne. It is this issue which needs to be addressed by government in future consideration of the role and functions of the ABC and its taxpayer investment in the regions of Australia.
- It is apparent from an analysis of these impacts on the content produced by the ABC that those programs which require specialist skills, investigative journalism, studio based interviewing to add greater value to state and territory government accountability, distinctive international broadcasting from logistically supported in situ foreign correspondents, that the current cuts are vandalising the ABC and its role in our national life. The ABC has been judged by the public to be one of the most trusted institutions in Australia. It is trusted mainly because it is perceived by the public as independent of the government of the day. It is trusted because on occasions it is perceived by the public as having the capacity to call government to account. The impacts raise a distressing concern that ABC journalism through the digital revolution will be turned into ‘churnalism’ servicing the relentless demands of the 24 hour news cycle. ‘Churnalism’ is reactive coverage to drive traffic to ABC news online, tablet and mobile sites through rolling coverage to exploit immediate public interest. But journalism is more than ‘ambulance chasing’.
- The same quality concerns apply to all programming offered by the ABC. Since its foundation in 1932 the ABC has evolved uniquely without paid advertising. Public broadcasting has followed the ethos of Lord Reith (director general of the BBC 1927-38) to ‘educate, inform and entertain’. This ethos transcends delivery platforms. Reith fought United Kingdom executive government to establish the BBC’s independence but famously said of the broadcaster’s reason for being:
“He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for lower standards which he himself will then satisfy.”
The political context
- The Abbott Government has no mandate from the electorate to cut the budgets of either the ABC or SBS. The emerging deficit was well known to the political parties well before the September 2013 federal election. While the shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull noted the cost efficiency of the broadcasters could or would be reviewed in the context of likely deficit reduction policy, cuts of the magnitude now confronting the ABC and SBS were not forewarned. In a now famous statement on the eve of the 2013 election Tony Abbott said unequivocally and unconditionally that there would be no cuts to the ABC or SBS.
- Two months after the change of government Mr John Menadue, former CEO of News Corp. Australia and a former Secretary Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, noted in a prescient article Murdoch and Abbott vs ABC (19th December 2013):
Tony Abbott has a debt to repay to Rupert Murdoch for the extremely biased support he received in the last election. With the help of Senator Cory Bernadi, Tony Abbott is now following the Murdoch Media line in attacking the ABC. He is also following in the steps of the Howard Government that attempted, unsuccessfully, to bring the ABC to heel. During the Howard Government, Minister Richard Alston and Senator Santo Santoro led a concerted campaign against the ABC to force political compliance.
- While both Prime Minister Abbott and Communications Minister Turnbull now acknowledge that Mr Abbott’s pre-election commitment should not have been uttered and that the reduction to the broadcasters’ funding envelope from 2015 must proceed in the interests of deficit reduction, John Menadue’s observations help to establish the realpolitik here (politics based on realities and material needs rather than on morals or ideals). This is self evident in the government’s decision, announced by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, to terminate the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade contract with the ABC to provide international broadcasting services to the Asia Pacific region. While Minister Bishop can be expected to reject any suggestion that she has exercised her discretion to terminate the Australia Network contract at the insistence and persistence of a lobbying campaign by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, she has exposed the shallowness of her thinking through her stated reasons for such termination. In a speech to Chatham House in London (12th March 2014) said:
It’s not about the ABC promoting its news programmes or whatever else into the region. It’s actually meant to be fulfilling the Australian Government’s foreign policy objectives. 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 the 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 intro 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 Minister wanted Australia Network to be a propaganda arm of government in spite of the long standing protocol that the ABC would adhere to its editorial Code of Practice in its international reporting. DFAT had contractually agreed that it would not have veto or censorship control of material to be broadcast. Of course the ABC would expose contentious issues concerning domestic Australian politics and foreign policy and the politics and human rights abuses occurring anywhere in the region. The ABC would be bound by its editorial practices, constrained by defamation, contempt and discrimination laws domestically and by protocols covering cultural and ethnic sensitivities. The two contentious issues the Foreign Minister seemed to be referring to at Chatham House were the ‘burnt hands’ claims of asylum seekers under Australian Navy operations and the ABC’s joint reporting with Guardian Australia of the Edward Snowden drop of ‘five eyes’ intelligence surveillance showing that the Australian Signals Directorate had tapped the mobile phones of the Indonesian president and his wife and senior Indonesian ministers and officials. For sure both were embarrassing, but journalism’s role is to inform the public. In spite of Minister Bishop’s claims in a recent Insiders interview with Barrie Cassidy that the Australia Network service was contractually under-performing, DFAT at no time raised any concerns that the ABC’s operation of Australia Network was not meeting its contracted performance standards. On this factual basis this committee would be entitled to ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to table or release DFAT’s advice to her on which she based her decision to terminate the Australia Network On the evidence to date it appears the Minister’s discretion was unilaterally applied. Given the vandalism to the national interest described above the committee would be entitled to ask with justified consternation: Why?
- In addition to the ABC’s response to the Lewis ‘efficiency’ review and the Cabinet Expenditure Review Committee’s setting of the funding envelope for ABC funding to apply from July 2015, ABC managing director Mark Scott has provided staff with an explanation of additional cuts to produce $20million of internal savings for ‘reinvestment’ in the technological upgrade of iView and for other purposes. The ABC Board, the managing director and his communications staff have failed to protect or to effectively defend the ABC from the aggressive political attacks upon the broadcaster from News Corporation which has consistently demonstrated its political hold over the current government. The Board and its chairman, James Spigelman AC QC, were missing in action in the months leading up to the May 2013 federal budget with its 1% ‘down payment’ budget reduction. The Board, its chairman and managing director, failed to persuade the government of the value to Australia of the ABC’s international broadcasting capacity, particularly with the 2013 ABC annual report stating that with 3.3billion mobile phones in the Asia Pacific region the ABC was wiring Australia into the region as never before with quality, ethical programming, finance news, sport and entertainment. It is because of this failure of the current ABC Board and management that the Federal Parliament should now consider new methods of securing certain and adequate funding outside the political and discretionary power of executive government for the public broadcasters – the ABC and SBS.
- Mark Scott summed up the ABC’s survival challenge in current political and funding context as specifically to ‘reinvest’ in ABC content for mobiles and tablets.
“If we continue to drift, if we continue to do what we’re doing now, then inevitably our audiences will get older and the percentage of Australians watching, listening and logging on each week will fall, our approval rating will fall and our ability to hold on to the funding base we’ve got will be more of a challenge. “So what I’ve said to our teams is we want to increase from 25 percent (our current digital audience) to 40 percent in coming years … and in order to do that we need to invest more money in online and mobile services. Why is it only 25 percent? We have underinvested in it compared to others. We see four key areas that will need investment for us to be able to grow this mobile and online audience. One is iView, one is Triple J, one is our ABC children’s services and the final one is ABC News. And the one with the greatest potential to lift our engagement is ABC News. News is already a massive driver of online and mobile traffic everywhere. One of the reasons people keep picking up their phones is to get the news, to get the latest information and we need to invest more in order to really be able to do that.”
- Online and mobile is said to be the key to securing the ABC’s future. Mark Scott gives just one line on what actual content would be covered, listing ‘great Australian drama, news, regional content, arts, narrative comedy, religion and science’. He offered the new ‘HBO-style’ Australian thriller Code (based on Canberra political intrigue which premieres later this month on ABC TV) and the narrative comedies Utopia and Please Like Me (currently screening) as examples of content designed to attract younger audiences.
- Exactly what, how and by whom future content which ‘skews young’ on mobiles and tablets is to be created and under what editorial criteria, is not mentioned. He is considering outsourcing all ABC content creation with the possible exception of news, leading to the destruction of what is left of the ABC’s creative independence.
- Mark Scott needs to explain exactly what content he will be asking taxpayers to reinvest in and how it fits with the legislated Charter of the ABC to enhance a sense of national identity, cultural diversity, to inform and, of course, to entertain. How will this content draw from the talents and ideas of creators around Australia and not just from Sydney? How will it build a viable video schedule currently dependant on largely British programming (Dr Who, QI, BBC murder mysteries etc) and now playing second fiddle to Foxtel after its recent exclusive first release contract with the BBC?
- At a time of the disaggregation of free-to-air television audiences and the decline of print journalism there seems to be a greater need than ever before for a public broadcaster/cybercaster which is not driven by the prejudices and preferences of narrowing demographic segments but more concerned with ‘broadcasting’ – ensuring that young, old, geographically and culturally diverse Australians know what each other is thinking. The role of the ABC is to expand the experience of the people of the nation: call it nation building, cohesion or inclusion. The programming ideas which evolve from this ethos should not be driven by ratings or by ‘skewing’ demographically.
- Mark Scott is putting the means of delivery and its uptake by targeted audiences ahead of what is to be delivered. Wrong way round. The flaws with this approach were once described at an ABC broadcasters’ conference as “driving into the future with your eyes fixed on the rear view mirror”. That is, making decisions about what content the audience should be offered based purely on what they have already experienced. The strategy omits specialisation and innovation across the genres as drivers of original content creation.
- Today, Friday 12th December 2014, the ABC is in a dark place. It faces a hostile national government out to do it very real damage at the insistence of Rupert Murdoch. It has a Board which appears mute or devoid of defensive advocacy. It has a staff in agony at an unfair redundancy process based on what is known as ‘hunger games’ elimination on an inscrutable management selection methodology. But it has a public which wants it to survive and prosper. The ABC is a creature of an Act of the Federal Parliament of Australia. Its survival as a quality producer of Australian content across the genres and regions will depend on those forces within the Parliament and the public rallying to its defence.