QUENTIN DEMPSTER. Michelle Guthrie’s survival strategy for the ABC

Mar 14, 2017

ABC MD Michelle Guthrie’s survival strategy for the national broadcaster is to re-invest brutally extracted payroll savings into new “extraordinary” content.

While encouraging staff to come up with exciting new creative ideas to use the $20m available immediately and then $50m a year in a content fund she says her flattened management restructure will deliver, apart from 80 new regional reporting and content staff, the new program strategy remains unspecified. 

Her newly appointed executives first have to deliver a staff bodycount in redundancies in managerial but mainly support services to deliver recurrent savings.

Executive producers are complaining already that “support” staff also includes dozens of production staff vital to meet the resourcing and deadline pressures of daily TV, radio and online schedules.

Significantly Ms Guthrie has installed David Anderson, a long standing ABC technocrat to the top content job as director of television to help take on “powerful global giants Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Netflix”.

In her presentation to ABC staff on Tuesday, March 7th, in which she announced a 20 percent cut in management positions with 150 to 200 to leave the ABC by June 30, and the compounding of 14 divisions into eight, Ms Guthrie said: “Incremental reform isn’t the answer. Transformational change over the next year is essential”.

“We lack the flexibility to quickly adjust to the fast changing audience trends. Our reach on television and radio is declining and digital is struggling to bridge the divide. We have significant audience gaps, socially, culturally and geographically. This means we’re falling short of properly and effectively representing in our employees, content and audience impact the modern Australia in which we live”.

Ms Guthie said the $50m a year content fund would be “contestable”, with the program commissioning criteria to be posted externally. Competition would be fierce. “This is the biggest sum the ABC has ever committed to such a venture. It’s warranted and timely”.

“I’d love a creative solution that gives us a strong lead in to the all important 7 pm ABC news program. We need to expand digital story telling in news and take a fresh look at bolstering key genres like the arts, science, fitness and sport”.

The new structure, to be “platform neutral”, is said to address consistent staff complaints about unaccountable management, duplication and operational choke points.   The new ABC divisions are: News, TV, radio, regional, audiences, technology, finance and engagement.   ABC International, gutted two years ago by the ABC’s loss of its $20m-a-year separate DFAT contract and the shut down of much of Radio Australia, will now disappear, to be rolled into the new divisions as would ABC Commercial. The ABC closed down its ABC shops and most ABC centres in retail outlets around Australia in 2015.

From this week targeted ABC staff are being called into redundancy rounds to receive what is called “the long white envelope”. There is no corporation-wide call for voluntary redundancies to meet the required body count.

Any discernible impact on programming is now expected to resonate politically. Ms Guthrie became managing director in 2016 immediately after former MD Mark Scott had to implement the first downsizing (400 staff were sacked) to reshape the ABC within a new funding envelope set in 2014 by the Abbott Cabinet’s Expenditure Review Committee.

Scott’s re-shaping was contentious as it impacted on localism in TV current affairs and on regional radio services, confirming long held fears that with more than half of its 4000 staff, headquartered at Ultimo in Sydney, the ABC culture was “Sydney-centric”.

On the eve of the 2013 federal election incoming Prime Minister Tony Abbott famously promised there would be “no cuts to the ABC or SBS”. Soon exposed as a lie through the 2014 Joe Hockey federal budget cuts, the Turnbull Cabinet, still struggling with an intractable deficit, has been unable or unwilling to cut the ABC any financial slack.

With video streamers like Netflix now stealing once-loyal ABC viewers, Ms Guthrie has acknowledged the content challenge for the national broadcaster. The ABC’s audience was no longer “rusted on” she lamented.

So the $50million new content fund is to be the ABC Board’s survival strategy. New content takes time to develop and get to air. The ABC’s drama budget is already severely constrained. The ABC’s prime time TV schedule is dependant on BBC shows like QI, Broadchurch or Midsomer Murders. One exasperated viewer has queried whether there is any village left in Merry England not devastated each week by gruesome murders.

With ABC chairman James Spigelman AC QC now leaving the broadcaster after five years, the Turnbull government has advertised for his replacement, expected to be announced soon.

The new chairman will inherit the Spigelman Board’s survival strategy, its new flattened management, its new MD plus declining funding.

It is the board’s role to advocate for adequate resources from government with which to fulfil the ABC Act’s legislated Charter.   Since 2014 the Spigelman Board has made no formal complaint that resources are inadequate for this task.

As operational costs mount and Ms Guthrie’s content fund is expended, the new chairman will have to calculate just how effective the ABC can be in sustaining audiences in the face of digital disruption and video streaming competitors without greatly lifting the ABC’s content creation capacity. Will the new chairman publicly advocate for enhanced ABC funding?

In another recent discordant note the Turnbull Cabinet has side-stepped the ABC Act’s merit selection processes for board appointments to directly appoint Vanessa Guthrie (no relation), head of the Minerals Council of Australia, as a down table ABC director.

This has been seen by ABC supporters as provocative but revealing with concerns that director Guthrie will agitate internally for more positive ABC coverage of the economic benefits from Australia’s coal industry.

Former ABC chairman, Maurice Newman, a climate change sceptic appointed by the Howard Government, once urged ABC journalists to be “agnostic” about the science of climate change.

ABC editorial policies require ABC journalists to report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts, to not suppress relevant available facts or give distorting emphasis.

ABC journalists rejected chairman Newman’s guidance at the time declaring that “agnosticism” would defeat “journalism” which required editorial judgement arising from reporting and prioritising all known facts about any issue.

While it remains the right of any ABC director to move for changes to ABC editorial policies the over-riding ABC Act legislatively requires the broadcaster to present news and current affairs to the accepted standards of objective journalism.

At this stage MD Michelle Guthrie has yet to indicate if any reform of ABC editorial policies is on her or the board’s agenda.

Quentin Dempster, a former ABC presenter, is contributing editor of The New Daily.  

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