It sounds like a marketing slogan, almost a cliché: in times of national crisis, Australians turn to the national broadcaster. But over the past six months or so, it has proved profoundly true.
First came the bushfire crisis, when the ABC’s network of regional reporters distinguished themselves not just in reporting the disaster as it unfolded but also warning those in harm’s way.
Then came the current coronavirus crisis.
What’s obvious in the numbers is that even as the news consumption of a concerned and isolated populace has gone up overall, and shifted from lightweight to serious media, the ABC has stood out.
Take the Nielsen Digital Content Ratings, which measure online interaction. In December last year, on the back of its bushfire coverage, the broadcaster surged into second place with a “unique audience” of more than 10 million – passing Nine and just behind news.com.au, which both fell.
By January, the ABC was No. 1 in the country, with an audience of 11.2 million, well ahead of the Murdoch news site. The most recent figures, for March, showed its audience up to 15.2 million, a 53 per cent gain in a single month, and almost three million ahead of its closest rival.
In one sense, this is unsurprising. Innumerable surveys over the decades have shown the ABC to be the most trusted media outlet, and one of the most trusted institutions in the country.
On another level, though, it is remarkable that the ABC has done so well during these particular crises – given that it has been working while grievously wounded. Since the current government came to power in 2014, the broadcaster has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in funding and about 1000 jobs.
Lateline has gone, along with the state-based versions of 7.30 on Fridays. The flagship radio current affairs programs The World Today and PM have been halved in length. Staffing at political bureaus has been slashed. The list goes on, and the cuts keep coming.
In March, the organisation’s managing director, David Anderson, was to announce a five-year response to the latest round of funding cuts; it was expected job cuts would be in the hundreds, and major changes would be made to operations and programming.
But the coronavirus prompted a stay of execution. As one senior ABC journalist puts it: “Obviously you don’t want to be telling people they’re losing their jobs on a Zoom conference.”
Anderson’s announcement has been put off until July, assuming the course of the virus permits.
Says another senior employee: “Come July, they will say, ‘You’ve all done very well. But now you’re going to be sacked.’”
Last month, program changes were raised at a meeting between Gaven Morris, the ABC’s director of news, analysis and investigations, and representatives from the journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.
A confidential briefing from that meeting, seen by The Saturday Paper, itemised several staff concerns, including the dropping of the Friday evening edition of The Business, the decision to run “best of” episodes of the arts program The Mix, and the decision to turn the Saturday edition of the current affairs radio program AM into a highlights package of the week’s stories.
The meeting was told that “changes to rosters and shifts will continue to impact ongoing and casual staff … as a result of Covid-19 and changed staffing practices”.
There is no “fat” left to cut, says a senior ABC journalist. “All the cuts to ancillary costs around travel, stationery, the outsourcing of certain functions – all those low-hanging fruits – have been made in the past five years.
“So, we’re looking at hard cuts to permanent staff.”
While management says the unpredictable rostering is a temporary thing, that’s not the experience of a lot of staff. One veteran reporter suggests it is being used as a means of pushing people out.
“Senior people are put on rosters that are very, very difficult to work, constantly changing hours and jobs. I think it’s being done to put people under pressure to leave the organisation, rather than have payouts.
“It’s true to say that there is a constant fear that you will be next, that your working conditions will be made so difficult that it’s unsustainable to stay on.”
A number of other staff voiced similar sentiments, although none would speak on the record for fear of the consequences.
One person prepared to speak openly was Michael Ward, a former senior executive at the ABC, whose last position at the organisation was general manager of operations and planning. He was involved in formulating ABC funding submissions.
Ward thinks Anderson’s five-year plan will see “200-odd redundancies”.
These are desperate times within the national broadcaster. But then, they are in the media as a whole. The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened an already dire advertising situation. Ad revenues have dried up, and scores of publications have either suspended operations or gone out of business entirely.
Last month, the Morrison government announced it would provide some $100 million in relief to commercial TV, regional radio and newspapers. It also suspended Australian content quotas for this year, and possibly next, a move that has saved the networks money at the cost of content producers, already hard hit by the coronavirus shutdown.
Into the breach stepped the ABC, with a $5 million Fresh Start Fund to support the independent production industry. In response to the shutdown of schools, it also expanded its educational broadcasts, run by teachers, for the ABC Education portal and on ABC Me. Similarly, during the bushfires, the broadcaster spent $3 million beyond its normal budget to cover the crisis.
But there is no financial reprieve in sight.
In February, Anderson and ABC chair Ita Buttrose went to Canberra to seek relief from the government’s funding cuts. They came away empty handed.
On the only sitting day of federal parliament in April, in response to a question from Labor, Prime Minister Scott Morrison ruled out restoring any funding to the ABC. “The ABC is doing an excellent job,” he said, “and they’ll continue doing that job with the resources that have been provided to them.”
There is history to this. Less than two years ago, an overwhelming majority of the Liberal Party’s federal council affirmed they did not want a national broadcaster at all, voting in favour of the ABC’s privatisation.
This is not the government’s official position, because they know such a policy would be electoral poison, but it is part of a deep antipathy towards the ABC. The view was summed up by former prime minister John Howard and his then chief of staff, Grahame Morris, who described the broadcaster as “our enemy, talking to our friends”.
Howard slashed the ABC’s funding. Just before Tony Abbott won the 2013 election, he promised there would be no cuts to ABC funding. Then, in his first budget, $254 million was carved off.
This week GetUp! released a report commissioned from the independent progressive think tank Per Capita. It calculated the cumulative cuts to the organisation – from 2014 to the end of the current triennial funding deal in 2022 – at $783 million.
The Daily Telegraph disputed the figures, quoting Communications Minister Paul Fletcher at length.
“It is really quite surprising,” Fletcher told the paper, “that the report issued this week by Labor-aligned activist groups Per Capita and GetUp! which gets the numbers so badly wrong would be quoted uncritically.”
In March, however, Anderson gave very similar figures to senate estimates:
“To summarise, the ABC will have to absorb cumulative budget cuts that amount to $105.9 million per annum by the time we reach the 2022 financial year … At this point, it is not possible to absorb further cuts without an impact on jobs and services.”
Anderson was putting a positive spin on the situation: the corporation is long past the point where funding cuts could be “absorbed”.
Michael Ward says there are a handful of ways left to deal with budget cuts. “Among the ways in which they’ve been trying to deal with the budget issues is to reduce the salary bill by two means,” he says. “One is having less-experienced people who don’t cost so much and, secondly, to employ people through short-term contracts and casualisation.”
It’s a tough environment in which to do public interest journalism, which would seemingly be the key role for a public broadcaster. But what measures as success for the ABC has become increasingly amorphous.
“One of the great challenges for public enterprises in general, and public broadcasters in particular, is the tendency towards commercialisation, marketisation,” Ward says. “You end up having KPIs around clicks online and audience ratings.”
He continues: “But what that can’t tell you is how you’re contributing to a sense of national identity, how people are feeling connected, supported, engaged and informed.
“How are you making sure that every person in every corner of the country feels that they’re getting the kind of media that they should in a democracy?
“That’s hard to measure.”
It may well be the case that in the current situation, where people are clearly clicking on quality, those quantitative measures mean something. But these are exceptional circumstances.
Ward’s last few years at the ABC coincided with Michelle Guthrie’s fraught tenure as managing director and Justin Milne’s stint as chair. In this period, he says, they were not after quality clicks – just more clicks. It was not good, and yet the culture survived.
“The ABC is about being comprehensive, providing a range of services for both niche audiences and mainstream audiences and being distinctive. And it keeps proving it can do that and delivering,” Ward says. “It just doesn’t seem to be able to convince the decision-makers in Canberra.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2020 as "Hundreds facing the sack with ABC cuts".
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