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Issue #1787      July 26, 2017

ABC faces death of a thousand cuts

One Nation leader Pauline Hanson recently called on the government to slash the ABC’s budget. She was infuriated because the ABC had just broadcast a brilliant Four Corners program on her dictatorial rule over her party.

But the national broadcaster’s budget has already been slashed. Spending on documentary and factual TV material increased by 7.2 percent, but the number of hours of first-release programs fell by 78 percent, to a mere 137 hours over the entire year.

In the last financial year the ABC’s allocation for programs other than news and current affairs was nine percent lower than in 2013/2014. For drama and comedy fiction, the financial allocation fell by 18 percent and the number of program hours by 33 percent, compared with the 2011/12 financial year. Children’s program hours fell by 13 percent and its funding by 16 percent over the same period.

By July 2019, the national broadcaster will have suffered overall funding cuts of more than $355 million over five years. The result is evident in its programming.

Sixty nine percent of what the ABC broadcasts is Australian content, but much of that comprises repeat programs, and drama content has fallen below the minimum standards for commercial TV.

So far, outstanding programs like Four Corners have been spared the axe, but ABC current events programming is beginning to be dominated by “cheap-as-chips” panel and interview shows. While they’re often entertaining, they are no substitute for on-the-spot news and in-depth current events coverage or new drama and comedy.

Other battlefronts

The government has not endorsed Hanson’s enraged demands for even further cuts to ABC programming, but it appears to have similar objectives itself. The constant year-by-year cuts to the ABC budget, combined with rising production costs, mean that sooner or later the national broadcaster will have to make drastic decisions about its programs and its area of media operations.

Digital broadcasting has carved a huge slice from the national viewing audience for standard free-to-air TV broadcasts, and has hastened the decline of the press. The commercial channels have failed to meet the high standard set by the ABC for news and current event coverage, and are struggling to cope with the advent of digital news broadcasts.

The current media laws restrict the number of media outlets a corporation can control in a particular region. However, the recent collapse of Channel 10 is now being used by the commercial media to argue that the laws should be changed in order to allow another media corporation to save Channel 10, which they say is of major social importance to the Australian people! The Turnbull government is, of course, lending a sympathetic ear to their pleas.

But one of the major impediments to the plans of the commercial media tycoons is the continued existence and operation of the ABC. Its programs like Media Watch and Q&A are hated by the commercial media, which is quick to attack the ABC for real or imagined failings, but can’t stand the analytical critical spotlight being turned on itself.

The ABC is also a competitor for major sporting and social events. But one of the biggest problems for the mass media is digital broadcasting, in which the ABC is playing a major role.

Since the introduction of digital news, commercial media bosses have demanded that the ABC abandon digital news broadcasting or even leave this media field altogether. To further this end, the commercial broadcasters have been a constant critic of the ABC, and the Murdoch empire has been the most strident.

Much of the criticism has been directed towards the ABC’s multicultural policy, and its attacks have provoked violent verbal abuse by groups like “Aussie Nationalist”, who have called for the deportation of not only outspoken personalities like Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Waleed Aly, but also Chinese investors and Apex gang members!

But the main focus of the commercial media has been on the institution itself.

Weakened, privatised or destroyed

Ranald MacDonald, former Melbourne Age editor and representative of Friends of the ABC, recently commented: “Make no mistake about it, the right generally would like to see the ABC weakened or privatised or destroyed. Rupert Murdoch and his cheer squad seek to benefit financially if the ABC no longer [exists] or [is no longer] able to compete.

“The coalition’s media law ‘reforms’ (note the term, as it really means changes to benefit big media players) is yet another example with changes proposed to ownership to allow access to high profile/rating events. This results from government kowtowing to media proprietors.”

July 1 marked the 85th anniversary of the founding of the ABC. The national broadcaster has consistently met its public obligation to pursue the truth, foster informed public debate on important social issues, and produce news and current affairs programs that expose governments, corporations and other organisations whose actions are contrary to the interests of the Australian people.

And that is precisely what the commercial mass media, their corporate sponsors and conservative governments loathe about the national broadcaster.

ABC comedy and drama shows have proven to be extremely important elements of Australian culture. The commercial channels rarely have programs of equivalent value, other than repeats of ABC or BBC productions, or extensions of series that began on the ABC. And they certainly don’t have the same level of social criticism or satirical quality evident in former ABC shows like Kath and Kim or the superbly subtle Clarke and Dawes interviews.

The battle is now on to ensure that further funding cuts do not force the ABC to cease producing drama and comedy altogether, or to abandon digital broadcasting. To stimulate public awareness of the importance of this struggle, Friends of the ABC is launching a campaign to ascertain the public’s view of the ABC, and to promote the Friend’s vision of the role and importance of the national broadcaster.

As MacDonald said bluntly: “The ABC is not perfect, but this country desperately needs an ABC able financially and committed to fulfilling its Charter requirements for all Australians. Further, it needs ... to be free of political interference.”

Next article – Aged care cuts – Employer plays blame game

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