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Issue #1667      December 3, 2014

Fury over ABC response to cuts

When the Abbott government cut five-year funding for the ABC by 5.0 percent and the SBS by 3.7 percent in the May budget it seems to have believed the ABC would respond by making savings on real estate and “back room” services, and by abandoning digital broadcasting, the giant media form of the future.

Photo: Jo Di Pietro

Instead, ABC managing director Mark Scott announced it would remain in digital broadcasting, and absorb the cuts by terminating or shrinking certain radio and TV programs, closing some of its offices, and retrenching 500 ABC staff members.

Some staff reductions would probably have happened eventually anyway, because of the long term technological transfer to digital broadcasting. However, the government’s ruthless funding cuts forced ABC management to retrench staff immediately rather than relying on natural attrition over time.

Staff identified for retrenchment may apply for 65 new positions which will be available in the digital area of operations. Scott has been accused of callousness in enforcing staff to undergo the often painful “skills audit” assessment process to determine who is to be retrenched. Nevertheless, the primarily responsibility for the abrupt dismissal of ABC staff lies with the government.

Howls of outrage

The ABC’s response to the funding cuts has evoked a storm of protest from the government and the commercial media, for two reasons.

Firstly, digital broadcasting’s convenience and economy have made it extremely popular. In contrast, other media forms, particularly the print media, are suffering from falling circulation and revenues, and the only way for media corporations to remain profitable is to enhance their digital presence.

But the ABC is heavily involved in digital broadcasting and the commercial broadcasters have to charge digital viewers a fee, whereas ABC broadcasts are free. The “solution”, according to them, is for the ABC to quit digital broadcasting altogether.

A second reason for the protests lies in the political power of digital broadcasting.

Last week the Financial Review commented: “When the ABC was created … technologies were in their infancy, and there was and is a case for a national radio and television service to fill in the gaps. That case does not exist in the 21st century digital world. There is no market failure when big commercial news organisations are beating the daylights out of each other to provide massive digital news coverage.”

But the ABC’s charter obligation is not to fill in media market “gaps”, but rather to provide a nationwide broadcasting service that fearlessly presents an accurate, wide-ranging and well-informed news and current events service independent of commercial or government influence.

Commercial broadcasters loathe the very idea, and right-wing politicians and media barons bitterly resent the previous Labor government’s inclusion of digital broadcasting in the ABC’s charter of operations. They want to force the ABC out, leaving it under their total domination.

Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull has denied the government wants the ABC to quit digital operations. However, other cabinet members have maintained a discrete silence on the issue, and last week Liberal MP Anne Ruston demanded that Scott stop “running around chasing new platforms that have been extraordinarily well-covered by commercial operators”.

Thieves fall out

Other Coalition members have questioned why Australia needs a national broadcaster at all. James Paterson from the government’s think-tank, the very right-wing Institute for Public Affairs declared: “Though the Abbott government’s attempts are laudable they … leave wider questions unresolved, such as whether it would be viable as a privatised operation.”

Two weeks ago former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser warned: “Forced cuts from the ABC and SBS [are] part of a whole ideological approach which, to me, is to ultimately get rid of public broadcasting. The government does not believe in government activity. They’re not prepared to say so straight out in relation to the ABC and SBS because both are too popular.”

But the good news is that they are, indeed, very popular. Nationwide rallies in support of the ABC have been very well attended, and now government MPs are beginning to panic at rising public anger over the cuts.

Some media commentators and Coalition MPs have accused the ABC of cutting programs and closing local offices in order to embarrass the government, and Turnbull has revived the nonsensical claim that the ABC is being run by a workers’ collective!

Breaking ranks and determined to protect his patch, Education Minister Christopher Pyne is promoting his online petition for maintenance of the ABC’s Adelaide production studios, and National Party Senator Bridget McKenzie has demanded the preservation of all ABC rural and regional radio services.

Last week Finance Minister Mathias Cormann denied that Abbott had lied when he made his pre-election promise to maintain ABC funding. Cormann declared: “We are not making cuts. What we are making sure happens with the ABC is … that it operates as efficiently as possible.” In magnificent Orwellian double-speak Abbott himself described the cuts as “efficiency dividends”.

One coalition MP told Cabinet the government must admit it had indeed imposed a funding cut, but he was met with an icy silence. He commented: “It was like I’d farted in a lift”. Western Sydney MP Craig Laundy later told cabinet members to cease their “verbal gymnastics” on the issue.

When questioned on ABC TV about Abbott’s broken promise the hapless Turnbull was reduced to near gibberish, blurting out: “I think you’ve got to take his comments, which, look, I mean, what he said, he said and you know, it’s there, it’s on the record.”

Maddened at being forced into a false position he finally snapped: “Well look, if you take the view that Tony Abbott’s remarks the night before the election on SBS trumped and obliterated everything his colleagues had said on this matter, then yes, that promise – if that is a promise – has not been fulfilled.”

The government is now on the defensive, facing fierce public criticism about virtually all its policies. Its popularity is slipping abysmally, and ministerial contradictions over retention of stalled “barnacle” policies have caused it enormous embarrassment.

Meanwhile, new alliances in the Senate are opening up the possibility of an early election. And it can’t come a moment too soon.

Next article – Toro Energy – Energy resource cowboys

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