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Issue #1666      November 26, 2014

Defend the ABC

Big rallies were held in state capitals last weekend in opposition to the Abbott government’s proposal to cut ABC funding by $254 million (4.6 percent) and SBS funding by $53.7 million (3.7 percent).

ABC supporters in Sydney. (Photo: Jo Di Pietro)

In announcing the cuts the government has broken Abbott’s pre-election promise to preserve ABC funding. The cuts are also likely to exceed eight percent per annum because of the government’s axing of the ABC’s overseas broadcasting service, plus the cost of redundancy payments for retrenched ABC staff, which was not allowed for in government funding estimates.

On Monday ABC manager Mark Scott announced that the cuts would result in the dumping of some programs and the loss of 400 jobs.

The Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, has also recommended that the roles of managing director and editor in chief, both of which are currently filled by Scott, should be split into two separate positions, and that the current role of chief operating and financial officer should also be separated.

Moreover, Turnbull wants the chief financial officer and editor in chief to report directly to the board. The recommendations are an obvious attempt to wrest editorial control from Scott, who has fought tenaciously to preserve the ABC’s independence, and to allow the board to influence editorial and financial policy.

Lots of unhelpful advice

The major commercial broadcasters bitterly resent the ABC’s involvement in digital broadcasting. To fulfil its charter obligations the ABC must develop in digital broadcasting, which is likely to become the dominant media form.

A retreat by the ABC from this media area would not only allow commercial broadcasters to maximise their profits but also facilitate media domination by right-wing forces.

Turnbull denies that the government wants the ABC to curtail or abandon digital broadcasting, but last week Anne Ruston, chairwoman of the Senate estimates committee, contradicted him, declaring that the ABC should boost its broadcasts to rural and regional areas, rather than developing its digital broadcasting capability.

She stated: “… [Scott] has to find savings in places that are not his core business. Running around chasing new platforms that have been extraordinarily well covered by commercial operators – he’s got to do what others aren’t doing before he starts competing with others.”

Coalition MPs are also demanding that the ABC increase its presence in each state, despite the extra cost.

Closing state operations is a terrible move, because it inevitably involves loss of jobs and cuts to local news content. However, centralising ABC offices is an obvious way to reduce costs, as this and previous coalition governments have demanded, and one of the government’s current recommendations is for the ABC and SBS to collocate their offices.

Nevertheless, education minister and South Australian MP Christopher Pyne is conducting a campaign for the ABC to maintain its Adelaide production studios.

Fearing a voter backlash against the program cuts, last week he authorised an on-line petition against closure of the Adelaide studios, which received more than 2,000 signatures in two days and caused Turnbull considerable embarrassment.

To offset the funding cuts SBS management has sought permission from Turnbull to double the advertising content in its broadcasts.

That puts him in a difficult position. It’s an obvious method of generating income, and the government is considering introducing legislation to facilitate it. However, increasing SBS advertising would not only anger viewers but would also enrage commercial broadcasters, who claim they would lose $200 million in advertising revenue to SBS over five years.

The Ten Network’s chief executive Hamish MacDonald advised the ABC to “save $15 million in marketing because they are not required to make a profit, [and] merge the back offices of the ABC and SBS, which would probably save them another $25 million.”

Conservative governments have insisted for years that the ABC must market its programs in order to reduce the funding load on the government, and the ABC shops have been a commercial success. Eliminating them would cost money rather than saving it.

Moreover, the government’s still-secret Lewis report claimed that $59.1 million could be saved by merging ABC and SBS “back room” services, but the $254 million funding cut dwarfs this figure, and according to Scott the Lewis “savings” measures would actually cost $76 million to implement.

On saving Aunty

Liberal National Party MP James McGrath has claimed that Scott is “pandering to inner-city socialists who are so fickle and will dump him”. Some Liberals have questioned why Australia needs the ABC at all, but most know that killing it off would be politically suicidal.

In the short term the government intends to exert control over ABC news and current affairs, to use the ABC Board to pressure the ABC into adopting a right-wing editorial bias, and to reduce or eliminate ABC activities that compete with those of the commercial broadcasters, particularly in digital broadcasting.

The coalition’s emerging long term strategy is to shrink the role of the ABC, so that it eventually provides only local news and an emergency warning service for rural and regional areas, and does not compete with commercial broadcasters.

However, the public strongly backs the ABC, and last week veteran independent MP Bob Katter stated that although he often disagreed with the ABC he supported it because it was not controlled by big corporations.

The importance of a national broadcast network was highlighted in the United States last week. President Obama was due to give a speech to outline measures to grant citizenship rights to millions of people who have entered the US illegally, but now form a crucial element of its workforce.

However, the Republicans’ bitter opposition to the scheme was supported by the commercial media operators, who refused to broadcast Obama’s speech.

The US President is often described as the world’s most powerful person, but when the chips were down he didn’t have the power to broadcast a message of major national importance to the people of his country.

That’s what you get when you have no national broadcaster, and that’s the way the ABC is heading under the coalition government. And that’s just one of the many reasons why we have to stop them.

Next article – Editorial – The struggle will sharpen

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