Expect to hear from Ita Buttrose as ABC faces uncertain funding future

Oct 23, 2021
Ita Buttrose
ABC chair Ita Buttrose. (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

It’s our ABC, but the national broadcaster remains at the whims of the government of the day, which headed by Scott Morrison is a long way from the friendly camp.

The ABC’s 2020-21 annual report just tabled in federal Parliament leaves the funding future of the organisation up in the air.

There is no certainty on continuation of what is known as enhanced news gathering (ENG) tied funding for regional news resources ($14.8m per year). The ABC board still does not know the Morrison government’s future intentions towards an “indexation pause” first applied by former communications minister Senator Mitch Fifield from the 2018 federal budget onwards. Over three years that “pause” was seen as punitive, costing the ABC $83.7m and forcing the board into corporation-wide shavings in all in-house and outsourced programming and content budgets. The board had already restructured the organisation following the Abbott government’s dishonouring of a 2013 election commitment that there would be “no cuts to the ABC or SBS”. That remains the biggest contemporary hit to the ABC, with an effective cumulative reduction in operational base funding now amounting to around $100m annually since then treasurer Joe Hockey plunged in the defunding knife from 2014.

The historic defunding of the ABC can be seen in a “revenue from government” graph on page 134 of the annual report. ABC funding has been reduced by 31.1 per cent from its peak just before the Hawke and Keating governments also applied the knife from 1985–86.

Now, two years into the chairmanship of Ita Buttrose, the ABC board is hoping that indexation of its operational base funding, reported to be $881m by 2021–22, will resume from June 30 next year, relieving financial pressure.

So far Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has not responded to the board’s repeated requests for certainty on indexation or the continuation of ENG which the board hopes can be made ongoing and therefore subjected to indexation increases.

Buttrose, already publicly critical of the minister for not having consulted her about filling board director vacancies, is expected to make an issue of the ABC’s uncertain future funding in coming weeks.

In the latest annual report Buttrose and managing director David Anderson trumpet the ABC’s achievement as an industry leader in the digital revolution. The ABC says it is now Australia’s number one digital news brand since the 2019–20 bushfires and the pandemic substantially lifted audience appreciation of the ABC as a trusted source. ABC News reaches more than 50 per cent of the population now accessing content on digital devices each month.

The report highlights its engagement with audiences, citing 360,000+ completions of the Australia Talks online tool and 8.6 million page views of digital content in four weeks and 4.5 million watching its animated children’s program Bluey across ABC Kids and on ABC iView.

But the maintenance of the ABC’s original Australian-made content across the genres from children’s to documentary, podcasts, vodcasts to documentary, sports, news, music (popular and classical) and local and national radio is totally dependent on increasing the ABC budget in a media landscape now flooded with global video and audio streamers, both free and subscription, and having Wi-Fi access to every Australian eyeball and ear.

In her foreword to the annual report, Buttrose said: “There’s no doubt that the Australian media and entertainment landscape is going through a period of revolutionary change.

“Global streaming platforms, like Netflix and Amazon, are reshaping viewing habits across many Australian households. Last year, the Australian government, seeking to lower the cost burden on Australia’s commercial free‑to-air broadcasters, suspended quotas for Australian content. The aim was to bolster the free-to-air players’ competitiveness against the international giants.

“Australians should be aware of these developments and what they mean for Australian stories and creativity. Thank heavens for the ABC because telling Australian stories is central to our purpose.  For nearly 90 years we have created, commissioned and collaborated with independent production houses to make Australian drama, comedy, children’s content and factual programs that inform, entertain, move and provoke.”

While there is undoubted hostility between the Morrison government, the Liberal Party and the ABC over the reporting activities of Four Corners, particularly the items on the PM and QAnon and the bitter Christian Porter v ABC defamation action, it is now clear the ABC wants its next triennial funding negotiation later this year to concentrate on Australia’s capacity to make home-grown programs and for the ABC to become an underwriter of a local production industry decimated by the pandemic lockdowns and the market incursions by global streamers.

So far Fletcher has not responded to requests that the government mandate local production quotas on the global interlopers. The Canadian government recently passed legislation requiring the video streamers to spend 30 per cent of revenues derived from Canadian consumers on content to be produced locally.

Fletcher is still contending with strident resistance from the free-to-air TV networks to surrender transmission spectrum for onsale to mobile telephony companies by compressing their multi-channel signals in return for removal of annual licence fees and local content quota concessions.

In his latest report, Anderson said the ABC would require audiences to sign in to an ABC account to access iView to better personalise their engagement with video-on-demand. He promised privacy controls.

Anderson confirmed on the record that the ABC in May signed letters of agreement with Google and Facebook to be finalised later this year. At Senate estimates the MD is expected to reveal the exact amount of money the ABC will earn from the tech platforms which exploit ABC content in their search and click services. It is speculated to be around $15 million annually. Anderson, obviously suspicious that the Morrison government will discount this commercial revenue in the next ABC appropriation, says the Google/Facebook money will be spent on “new public interest journalism initiatives for regional Australia” likely to be announced by the board after the money drops into the ABC’s bank account.

Anderson has a rapidly escalating dispute with ABC staff over a plan to cease what are known as salary buyouts where the ABC agrees to waive staff overtime and penalty payments in return for higher base salaries.

The ABC was forced to self-report to Fair Work Australia when an audit uncovered systemic underpayment of ABC staff. Capped compensatory payments had to be made.

Staff like the buyouts because the process does not require them to fill in timesheets. The system has worked to the 24-hour operational advantage of the ABC because of staff willingness to work after hours on their assignments. But staff fear withdrawal of the buyouts will not be compensated fairly even if they are forced to fill in timesheets because their employer is notoriously short-funded. Some also fear being unable to maintain their mortgage commitments when banks require proof of gross and after-tax fortnightly income.

The dispute is now coming to a head.

The ABC reports its non-compliance and “enforceable undertaking” to the Fair Work Ombudsman in this latest annual report.

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