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The new head of the government’s ABC efficiency review is not as right-wing as some may fear. Still, his appointment suggests an agenda to further muzzle the broadcaster’s independent voice. By Alex McKinnon.

The ABC efficiency review

Peter Tonagh, who will head an efficiency review of the ABC.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

The selection of Peter Tonagh, a former Foxtel chief executive and News Corp boss, to head up the government’s planned ABC efficiency review was met with what could be described as scepticism, at best, from the public broadcaster’s defenders. There was the potential conflict of interest his past employment presents, the government’s fondness for stacking commissions and advisory boards with ideological bedfellows, and the general perception that the review’s conclusions will have been reached before it even begins.

Alas, Tonagh doesn’t appear to be quite the right-wing caricature progressives seem to wish he was. In April he was named chair of Bus Stop Films, a non-profit organisation dedicated to providing filmmaking career opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. In June, he was appointed to the council of the Australian Film Television and Radio School, while in October last year he spoke on the need to eradicate sexism in newsrooms at the Women in Media conference in Brisbane.

Nor will Tonagh be running things alone. He will share duties with Richard Bean, a long-time former deputy chair of the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

But it’s worth asking what, exactly, on Tonagh’s CV makes him qualified to head a review into a billion-dollar entity, such as the ABC. His time at Foxtel was short and undistinguished. While he oversaw the shuttering of streaming service Presto and the launch of streaming platform Foxtel Now, the cable network struggled through his tenure to reassert its primacy over streaming giants Netflix, Stan and Amazon Prime.

Suddenly having competition to deal with after decades of government-enforced monopoly caught Foxtel by surprise, and in the past few years that failure to respond has started to have consequences. When it launched last year, Tonagh feted Foxtel Now as pay TV’s Netflix-killer, only for the service to infamously crash when the seventh season of Game of Thrones came out.

Consumers have ranked Foxtel behind its largest competitors on indicators such as value for money, range of content and availability of new releases. In the 2016-17 financial year, Foxtel reported a financial return of zero. For the first time in its history, Foxtel’s subscriber numbers have begun to fall.

Less than two years into the job, Tonagh was muscled out in favour of Fox Sports chief executive Patrick Delany. His departure came two months after the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission approved a merger of the two services, which Foxtel’s owners hope can revitalise the struggling brand. Since Tonagh left, there has been speculation the Foxtel name could be retired altogether, when the merged beast that is Foxtel–Fox Sports is rolled out.

His former role as the chief operating officer of News Corp Australia also raises questions. Even if Tonagh isn’t an anti-ABC culture warrior, it’s hard to divorce his appointment from the broader context in which the review is taking place. For months, the government, rival news outlets and the ABC itself have kept the broadcaster’s uncertain future in the headlines. The ABC now faces such an array of threats, on so many fronts, that it is a little difficult to keep up.

The efficiency review was revealed in the May budget, at the same time as the government announced a three-year indexation freeze on ABC funding, worth almost $84 million. It joined an existing review into the competitive neutrality of the public broadcaster, agreed to by the government in return for One Nation’s support for an overhaul of media ownership laws. Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has spent the past six months doing little else but voice grievances against individual ABC articles and journalists.

Fairfax joined the pile-on, submitting to the competitive neutrality inquiry that the ABC’s commercial activities “threaten the sustainability of commercial news journalism in Australia”. Adding insult to injury, The Sydney Morning Herald responded to the federal Liberal Party’s call to privatise the ABC by running an opinion piece from NSW Young Liberals president Harry Stutchbury, who called the broadcaster “an indulgence we can no longer afford”. A motion making this same point passed the Liberal Party conference.

Public backlash against the privatisation call forced the government to deny any such thing was in the offing, and gave ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie an excuse to come out fighting. In a speech to the Melbourne Press Club, Guthrie said the public “deeply resent [the ABC] being used as a punching bag by narrow political, commercial or ideological interests”. Responding to Stutchbury in a Fairfax op-ed of her own, Guthrie decided to “call a spade a spade” and identified the driving force behind the endless inquiries and efficiencies: “a belief that the ABC shouldn’t be on the field at all”.

Guthrie’s words have been matched by some preliminary efforts by the ABC to defend itself. In June, the broadcaster launched a microsite, Future of Your ABC, complete with shining infographics aiming to highlight “the ABC’s contribution to the community and the future of public broadcasting in Australia”. Figures on the site claim the ABC is running far more channels and services – with a smaller budget and nearly 2000 fewer staff – than it was 30 years ago.

But the campaign to show the ABC’s best side has been sidetracked by mistakes. In early July, viewers responded angrily to news that popular consumer advocacy program The Checkout would not be renewed. The ABC said that while it had “decided not to commission a seventh series of The Checkout for 2018-19 at this time”, it had “not axed The Checkout”. As the show’s Twitter account deadpanned: “Hmmm,
I wonder what #thecheckout would have made of this kind of spin.”

The Checkout’s non-axing prompted executive producer and Chaser comedian Julian Morrow to join former 7.30 Report host Kerry O’Brien, Kath and Kim star Magda Szubanski, Late Night Live radio host Phillip Adams and author Thomas Keneally at a packed Save the ABC rally in Sydney last week. In a scathing statement, Morrow highlighted the impossibility of The Checkout, which criticises brands as its bread and butter, being made on a commercial network.

“A public broadcaster that’s independent of commercial influence is the natural home, probably the only home, for a show like The Checkout,” Morrow said. “We’re disappointed the ABC’s funding priorities do not include The Checkout.

An ABC employee who didn’t want to be identified told The Saturday Paper that while people’s anger was justified, it was misdirected.

“If the cuts hadn’t happened, The Checkout may have stayed,” they said. “Bloody yell at the government, not Guthrie. The head of department had some tough, tough decisions to make.”

The Checkout drama aside, there’s a strong sense among ABC staff that senior management’s efforts to defend the broadcaster are too timid. While the usual ABC defenders are fired up, they believe playing by the rules won’t be enough to stop a government fixated on gutting public broadcasting.

“I fucking love that microsite,” one employee told The Saturday Paper. “I wish it had more take-up, but we need more. Guthrie made a great speech, but she’s got to say more. We need to be better at communicating our value, and we need to hear from kids, parents, comedy lovers, newshounds, scientists. We need younger people talking about this. Look at that rally. Everyone was old and white. Kerry and Quentin [Dempster] are basically old men yelling in the corner of an empty pub at this point, respect them as I do.

“I hate that we’re kowtowing to this Fox News ‘fair and balanced’ bollocks. Guthrie publicly uses that phrasing in relation to us. It’s a huge part of why the ABC is being treated like a political football, this idea that we’re not doing enough for one side or the other.”

What the review eventually proposes may end up being less important than what the government uses it for. In 2014, then communications minister Malcolm Turnbull appointed former Seven West Media CFO Peter Lewis to head another efficiency review into public broadcasting.

A draft report of the review, leaked later that year, revealed Lewis proposed monetising ABC services such as iView through paywalls or advertising, outsourcing TV production and allowing the communications minister to issue a yearly list of government expectations regarding the broadcaster’s finances. Lewis also suggested selling off SBS’s studio in Federation Square and moving the network into the ABC’s Melbourne offices.

Turnbull piggybacked off the Lewis review to lock in $254 million in cuts to the ABC over five years. That decision led to the axing of Lateline, 7.30’s weekly state-based programs, and five regional radio bureaus. More than 400 jobs were slashed. Lewis now sits on the ABC board.

ABC employees are fearful the Tonagh–Bean review will see history repeat itself, and that an ABC with even less fat to trim than in 2014 will have to make cuts that make The Checkout’s axing seem mild.

“It’s business as usual right now, but suddenly we’ve stopped spending money on stuff and I know things are going to get tough,” one said. “The general mood is one of ‘let’s get on with it’, but signs aren’t good. Unless the cuts are reversed it’s going to get much worse for everyone, in and out.”

The Saturday Paper contacted Peter Tonagh for comment but was told he’s on holiday.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 14, 2018 as "Bringing in Peter to pay back gall". Subscribe here.

Alex McKinnon
is Schwartz Media’s morning editor, and a former editor of Junkee.

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