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Issue #1648      July 23, 2014

Government’s grim intentions for ABC, SBS

Last week new Liberal Senator James McGrath, former Queensland state director for the Liberal/National Party, accused the ABC of left-wing bias. He thundered that if the ABC could not restore “balance” it should be sold off and replaced by a rural and regional news service, and that ABC youth broadcaster Triple J should also be sold because of its “demographic density and its clear ability to stand on its own”. McGrath’s speech received a standing ovation from Liberal and National Party senators.

Q&A host Tony Jones.

The government made a savage cut of $45.5 million over four years in the recent ABC and SBS budget allocations. The $223 million ten year budget allocation for the ABC’s Australia Network (AN) international broadcasting service has also been axed, and the allocation for other international operations reduced from $35 million to $15 million.

Eighty ABC TV and radio employees are now about to lose their jobs, and the AN bureaus in Beijing, New Delhi and Djakarta will close.

Michael Tull from the Community and Public Sector Union said the government’s actions put the ABC in an impossible situation and “The first casualties in this government’s war on the ABC are the staff, who have less than a fortnight before they are sacked.”
Following completion of an “efficiency” review by former Seven West executive Peter Lewis, the government is expected to make another cut four times as big in ABC allocations, to be inflicted in one year.

The review recommends cancelling construction of new production studios; co-locating the ABC and SBS headquarters in one city; selling ABC and SBS property (with the proceeds returned to the government rather than funding broadcasting operations); increasing SBS advertising content; charging viewers for ABC digital programs; outsourcing production of drama, comedy and cultural programs (including Play School, Spicks and Specks and At the Movies); closing some ABC shops; terminating satellite broadcast leases; discontinuing short wave overseas broadcasts; outsourcing ABC and SBS payroll; human resources and legal functions; and selling the ABC helicopter, vans and production facilities.

Employee pay and conditions would be brought “more into line with the private sector”. The committee did not factor in the cost of redundancy pay for ABC employees.

Towing the line

The ABC and SBS both operate independently, a crucial requirement for public broadcasters. However, the government can exert pressure with funding cuts and interference from conservative board members, and the current budget cuts are clearly intended to force ABC and SBS management to implement the Lewis review’s recommendations.

SBS told the review committee it had already decided to implement cost-cutting measures to provide funds for enhanced services. However, it then found that reductions in the SBS budget allocation included an amount for those measures, and the money saved will now return to consolidated revenue.

The government doesn’t want the broadcasters to do their job with less money, it wants to force them to reduce their operations.

To prevent governments stacking the ABC and SBS boards with its cronies, the previous Rudd government established a special panel to recommend nominations for the ABC and SBS boards under strict rules.

The final decision on appointments to the panel is made by the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The current Secretary has nominated two ultra conservatives, journalist Janet Albrechtsen and former Liberal Party deputy leader Neil Brown to fill two vacant positions on the panel.

Albrechtsen once described the ABC as a “soviet style workers’ collective” and Brown has recommended selling off the current ABC and starting again. Both complain ad nauseam about “left-wing bias” in ABC broadcasts.

Two other panel members are due to retire next year, and their replacements will doubtless share Brown and Albrechtsen’s political position.

That would enable the panel to stack the ABC and SBS boards with appointees to the government’s liking. One ABC board position is currently vacant, and another on the SBS board. A second ABC position will become vacant next June and a third in November next year.

Saving Aunty

The ABC and SBS have both covered matters the government would rather conceal, and have exposed their audiences to a wide range of political views. That’s their job, but it’s not what the government wants.

Moreover, the ABC has been highly successful in adapting to new media conditions. Children’s TV and youth programs offer huge profits for advertisers, but the ABC programs in this area are more popular than those of its commercial rivals.

Private media interests are now complaining bitterly that the ABC is encroaching on “their” territory. They have long resented the fact that many people rely on the widely-respected ABC and SBS news services.

Moreover, falling readership is forcing private print media corporations to transfer their operations to digital media and charge subscribers for their news and current affairs coverage, but the ABC and SBS already provide digital news services for free.

The press corporations therefore want the government to force the ABC and SBS to cease developing these services, or preferably abandon them altogether.

Last week Abbott extolled the virtues of the right-wing paper The Australian, declaring: “No paper more closely corresponds with the true spirit of Australia.”

If Abbott, McGrath and other ultra-conservatives succeed it will be goodbye to Four Corners,7.30, Landline, Q&A, Factcheck, Dateline, programs that Abbott hates, as well as the ABC and SBS drama and children’s’ shows.

Malcolm Turnbull, federal Minister for Communications, has a tactically different approach. More realistic than Abbott or McGrath, Turnbull is doubtless aware that the ABC and SBS enjoy high popular regard, and that emasculating or eliminating either service would probably be electoral suicide.

But he’s no political progressive. At the recent launching of a parliamentary branch of Friends of the ABC he responded to suggestions that further funding cuts would threaten the future of the ABC children’s program Peppa Pig by remarking: “Peppa’s is one snout we are happy to have in the ABC trough.”

And it’s Turnbull who has enforced the ABC and SBS budget cuts.

Undoubtedly, the best method of defending the ABC and SBS would be to dump the conservatives from office as soon as possible.

Next article – Henry Lawson – Faces In The Street

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