Breaking up ABC HQ suits its competitors, not the ABC

Jun 22, 2021
ABC Ultimo
Of all the Sydney-centric notions, the idea that the ABC would better represent Australia if it moved its programmakers from Ultimo in Sydney to Parramatta in Sydney is about as Sydney-centric as you can get.

Newsflash: 79% of Australia lives outside of Sydney; and the ABC — more than any other organisation —  lives where they live.

The ABC has staff in 53 locations across the country from Esperance to the Eyre Peninsula, from Ballarat to Broken Hill, from Katherine to the Kimberley, from Launceston to Lismore.

From 6.35 each morning as many as 50 microphones broadcast live from 50 different locations, updating Australians on developments in the broader world and where they live in a way no other institution can match — certainly none I’ve worked for.

Yes, the ABC has a national headquarters, and it’s needed. It helps to have staff working on national programs near each other, rubbing shoulders, seeding ideas. It’s why corporations have national headquarters.

News Corporation recognises this. It’s moved Fox Sports into its Sydney newspaper headquarters. It’s moved the Melbourne part of Sky News into its Melbourne newspaper headquarters. In parliament house Canberra it’s moved its Sky News political reporters into its newspaper office to work alongside its political reporters.

Nine has done the same thing. It’s moved its Sydney newspapers in with Nine in Sydney, it has moved its Melbourne papers in with Nine in Melbourne.

None of these organisations has a fraction of the ABC’s ability to report from all across the continent. Nor to report from overseas. The ABC has staff in Tokyo, Bangkok, New Delhi, Nairobi, Port Moresby, Seoul and Jakarta, as well as Washington and London. It even has a newsroom in Parramatta.

But, just as is the case for the less geographically diverse organisations that chide the ABC for not reaching out, the work of these staff needs to be brought together in a central location.

Being in a central location doesn’t mean being of that location. When I worked for the ABC on national programs such as AM and 7.30 most of the colleagues I worked with in Sydney came from somewhere else. I was from Adelaide, the woman I reported to was from rural Queensland. Ultimo was a melting pot.

The ABC defended its decisions to centralise most of its Sydney operations in Ultimo and most of its Melbourne operations in Southbank — taken just 20 years ago — on the ground they would create “synergies”.

Catalyst would benefit from being together with the radio science unit, ABC radio news and online news would benefit from being together with TV news, ABC audio, film, tape and reference archives would be in a single easily-accessible location, and staff working on very different projects would rub shoulders seeding ideas.

These were all things that were said to the parliamentary committee inquiring into those co-location projects, and to some extent digitisation has made them less relevant. Archive material can be served up anywhere and people can rub shoulders virtually though Zoom.

But in another way the COVID-induced shift to working from home has made co-location even more important. There needs to be a compelling reason to come into the office. As in many enterprises, if the national headquarters doesn’t offer the top staff working together in the one space, it doesn’t offer much.

After months of pressure from the Sydney-based communications minister, the ABC said last week it would move 300 of its staff from Ultimo to Parramatta, to make it “easier to engage with more parts of Sydney”.

Minister Paul Fletcher said it was “a good first step”.

If it makes program producers more insular (makes it less likely that the makers of, say, The Money will rub shoulders with the makers of Saturday Extra) it’ll be a step backwards.

Depending on how the real estate transactions play out, it’ll probably cost the ABC money.

Regardless, it’ll cost the ABC time and focus and make programs harder to make, which might be what its more narrowly-focused competitors want.

Peter Martin worked for the ABC for 19 years.

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