ABC News Should Fight Back

The ABC News and Current Affairs division is a shadow of its former self, but the public doesn’t know. It’s time to fight back. 

The federal government is in the midst of a propaganda war with the ABC and its supporters – in full denial of their savage cuts to the public broadcaster.

Cabinet’s invisible man, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, aided by Peter Costello’s hollowed-out Sydney and Melbourne Channel Nine newspapers, is making the unbelievable claim that the cuts don’t exist.

The altogether forgettable and mealy-mouthed man is spinning the situation in spite of solid university research illustrating the cuts amount almost $800m in cumulative losses since the coalition came to power.

Meanwhile, a generation of senior journalists has already been lost.

News and Current Affairs programmes (with the exception of often ground-breaking “Lateline”) continue, but on skeleton staff, and there are fewer episodes being made of important programmes like Four Corners and Foreign Correspondent.

Travel within Australia (and abroad) has been cut so that important stories, particularly in remote Australia, are left untold; radio current affairs reporters are now so thin on the ground they rarely get to leave their desks.

And there are now no state-based current affairs programmes of any sort, allowing state governments free reign in a commercialised news environment.

It is a “dumbing down” through attrition.

So why, you may ask, are the managers of this news service not fighting back?

Many years ago, when I was working as the Executive Producer of Stateline in Queensland, a now-long-retired ABC News Director flew to Brisbane with his deputy to break the news to his staff that (and it had nothing to do with budget cuts) the popular Landline programme would be cut back from a weekly hour to just 30 minutes in duration.

I clearly remember one of the programme’s more seasoned journalists turning to me with a smile and saying: “I think the Nationals might have something to say about this.”

Sure enough, after a few well-placed telephone calls had been made, Landline’s second half-hour was spared, and it continues to be an hour-long show to this day.

It was a very simple example of how ABC News can, indeed, fight a political battle without, in any way, compromising its demonstrably unbiased news service.

It is time to do it again.

The single greatest thing ABC News could do to make an impression on this government would be to close its 24-hour TV news service.

Created, after several failed attempts, when the ABC had full funding, News 24 is a luxury product that, unlike every other news and current affairs service on the network, generates no independent journalism.

While it can bring you live events, it breaks no actual stories of its own.

What it does do is provide our politicians with an endless platform.

Every prime ministerial and many ministerial, media conference is covered live by the network, so every word uttered by Scott Morrison is now conveyed to the public, unlike the days before the channel was born when he’d be lucky to get a ten-second sound-bite on the 7 pm news.

The ABC already has an excellent 24/7 radio news service – ABC News Radio – that the audience could turn to, and in times of crisis, it would be easy for ABC News to take rolling air-time from the main channels just as it did back in, for example, Gulf War I.

The millions of dollars that would be saved by closing the channel could then be poured back into ABC News’ core business.

But most importantly, the public, by being denied this service, might finally realise something has gone terribly wrong, and might very well start paying more attention.

It would undermine the government’s clear strategy of a “death by a thousand cuts” – a term I’ve borrowed here from ABC Friends’ Ranald Macdonald – so as to slowly undermine it without public outrage.

The ABC could simply say: “sorry, we had to axe a service due to government funding cuts.”

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Jeff Waters is a freelance journalist and author. He has worked as a reporter for most ABC News and Current Affairs programmes, was the executive producer of the ABC Late Edition News, Stateline Queensland, and has acted as 7PM News producer in Brisbane and Darwin. In 1996 he became the world's first professional video journalist and subsequently worked in 30 countries for many international broadcasters, also working as Output Editor at APTN in London, and Managing Editor of APTN's Roving Report. He is the author of two successful non-fiction books.

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