News

As the ABC announces massive job cuts, the Morrison government has commissioned a report that mirrors Murdoch concerns about the broadcaster. By Rick Morton.

Exclusive: New govt report targets ABC

ABC chair Ita Buttrose.
Credit: Wendell Teodoro / WireImage

Two days before the ABC confirmed that up to 250 jobs will be cut across the organisation, the federal government finalised a $200,000 offer for consultants to prepare a report on news and media business models looking specifically at the impact of public broadcasters “on commercial operators”.

An approach to market for the report was closed on Monday, with the federal Communications Department under minister Paul Fletcher requesting the successful bidder evaluate failed, successful and emerging news media operating models from around the world.

As it happens, a key requirement of the research, due before the end of August, is also a hobby horse of the ABC’s commercial rivals.

The tender asks consultants to examine “the role of publicly-funded (non-commercial) media organisations in the production and dissemination of news and media content in the comparable jurisdictions, and the impacts and interactions of publicly-funded entities with commercial operators”.

This is the argument News Corp makes against the ABC: that it is cutting into the audiences of commercial enterprises such as Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, websites and pay television business.

“The report will be used as an input to inform policy advice and decision-making in relation to the news and media sectors. The end-users of the report include Commonwealth officials, relevant Ministers, and their staff,” the tender documents say.

“The report is not intended for public release.”

The approach to market comes as one of the commercial media’s targets – the millennial-focused vertical ABC Life – was finally axed by ABC managing director David Anderson on Wednesday, after months of speculation about its fate.

“We are losing up to half the ABC Life team as we rebrand as ABC Local,” the site’s editor, Bhakthi Puvanenthiran, tweeted on Wednesday.

“It’s devastating news and the details are unclear right now, but what I know for sure is I’m really proud of what we’ve built, telling diverse stories the ABC has never told before.”

ABC Local will have a “broader editorial direction” than its predecessor, Anderson told staff.

In terms of absolute numbers, the job losses are even greater in the news and investigations division, where 70 roles are expected to go. A further 19 jobs in regional divisions are also marked for termination.

The entire Melbourne team of ABC ME – a children’s content arm of the broadcaster – were made redundant on Wednesday, totalling about 14 jobs.

There will be fewer episodes of Foreign Correspondent and Australian Story, and savings in news and investigations will be shared across all “current affairs teams”, with changes to some positions in the national investigations team and 7.30.

ABC chair Ita Buttrose offered only a short comment in the broadcaster’s media release concerning the job losses, saying “the ABC Five-Year Plan is a robust blueprint for the future of the ABC that emphasises the important role the ABC plays in the Australian way of life”.

While the quantum of cuts could not be avoided – after ABC management failed to persuade the Coalition government to reverse its indexation freeze, resulting in a $48 million budget hit on top of existing cost pressures from the national bushfire crisis – the areas targeted for savings have rankled staff and audiences alike.

ABC’s News Breakfast co-host Michael Rowland said Wednesday was a “difficult day”.

“Many good people are about to lose their jobs because of the government’s funding cuts,” he said.

Chief political writer Annabel Crabb said the “cuts are devastating”, in particular for young people and the “invaluable pipeline of talent” rising through the ranks.

The headline change is the end of the 15-minute 7.45am radio news bulletin, which had built a reputation for funnelling important regional news to a national audience.

Mornings presenter Virginia Trioli said the loss of the flagship radio news update is “massive” and questioned whether the financial savings are worth it.

On ABC News Breakfast on Wednesday, co-host Lisa Millar belled the cat on the broadcaster’s new priority push to deliver a “personalised digital service” for Australians through on-demand content.

“Ever had trouble logging on in regional Australia?” she asked David Anderson.

He replied that he was “familiar with the difficulty of those services in regional Australia”.

“We still serve them through AM radio, and we will do. So rather than have the bulletin, what we will have is that valuable context and discussion and conversation with communities about what happens to them,” he said.

The hosts asked Anderson why he was carrying the can while Ita Buttrose appeared to avoid media commentary on the funding cuts.

“Where’s Ita? Shouldn’t the chairwoman be out there doing what you’re doing?” Rowland asked.

Despite briefing Communications Minister Paul Fletcher together on Tuesday, the managing director said the ABC chair and board have different roles to his own.

Months after being appointed as chair in February last year, Buttrose told ABC Radio host Rafael Epstein that staff should not worry about losing their jobs.

“Not at this point,” she said. “I wouldn’t be nervous at all.”

 

As part of its five-year strategic plan, the ABC will now scatter “content makers” by ensuring “at least 75 per cent [of them] work outside of the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters and reducing the concentration of facilities in Sydney”.

This, too, had been a major source of leverage against the broadcaster in the sometimes shrill reporting from for-profit media companies about the ABC’s value for money.

For many years now, News Corp, in particular, has variously attacked the ABC for spending taxpayers’ money on digital marketing to increase audience share, paying its presenters and top talent too much, expanding into emerging markets where competition for eyeballs is increasingly an existential proposition, and for perceived bias against conservative thought.

While driven in part by profit incentives, these charges against the ABC are also a perennial lever in the culture wars.

One view is that the national broadcaster has tried, and failed, to appease Coalition governments who will stop at nothing to reduce its influence.

According to the five-year strategy, management hopes something will shift in the near future: “The package assumes that the indexation of ABC funding will resume, and that funding for enhanced newsgathering will be renewed in the 2022–23 financial year.”

But that may depend on what the government does with the new report it has put out to tender, which is looking at the bigger picture and demands an “evaluation of business models and support measures for the news and media content”.

This evaluation will be the latest in a string of reviews of the ABC, each weighed down by politics and scepticism.

In 2018, just months after he left his position as chief executive of News Corp’s subscription television arm, Foxtel, Peter Tonagh delivered an efficiency review of the national broadcasters ABC and SBS.

That redacted report was published online just this week.

“Commercial broadcasters, whose revenues have declined in a way that the funding of the national broadcasters has not, have faced this [restructuring] challenge head on,” said the review, co-authored by Tonagh and former Australian Communications and Media Authority acting chair Richard Bean.

“The pressure on FTA [free-to-air] broadcasters has had some noticeable consequences, for example the proposed merger of Fairfax Media and Nine Entertainment Co and the administration of Network 10 in 2017.

“… There is opportunity for the boards and senior management of the ABC and SBS to respond to the challenges facing the national broadcasters by leading substantive and meaningful change, creating lean and efficient organisations to the benefit of their staff and the Australian public.”

But Tonagh and Bean conceded the ABC in particular would need a “significant investment in digital platforms” to modernise its content and delivery models and noted that this “is unlikely to be possible without additional short-term funding support”.

They recommended more money, not less.

The government’s approach to market for its latest report makes clear it should not “reprosecute” the case made by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in its digital platforms inquiry.

Those findings were in part taken up by the Coalition, which is now attempting to force tech giants such as Google and Facebook to pay a portion of their revenue from hosting original news content to the publications that funded the journalism in the first place.

It’s a fight Facebook says is not worth it, threatening to dump hosting of news altogether.

Google also resisted global efforts to pay for news it hosts and ranks via its lucrative search engine but on Thursday evening announced it had struck deals with some local operators, including Schwartz Media, publisher of this newspaper, and The Conversation. It has also reached an agreement with the Spiegel Group, publisher of one of Germany’s major news magazines, Der Spiegel.

The digital platform inquiry found, however, that there was already a severe lack of newspaper representation in non-metro areas.

“Data collected by the ACCC show that between 2008 and 2018, 106 local and regional newspaper titles closed across Australia, representing a net 15 per cent decrease in the number of these publications,” it said. “These closures have left 21 local government areas previously covered by these titles without coverage from a single local newspaper (in either print or online formats), including 16 local government areas in regional Australia.”

Less than a month ago, that number of titles more than doubled in a single day.

In 2016, News Corp was cleared by the ACCC and completed its acquisition of APN News & Media’s regional newspapers.

On May 28 this year, it announced the closure of 112 of these titles while moving 76 to an online-only model, leaving a news vacuum in dozens of communities across Australia.

These closures have prompted concern inside the ABC, as staff anticipate strain in meeting the demand for news from regional areas.

The five-year plan itself notes “a steady decline in local news from commercial providers accelerated with the impact of Covid-19, leaving many communities without a local news service”.

“The ABC may be required to focus more resources on local coverage and supporting a diversity of outlets in the local news ecosystem,” the plan said.

But at the same time, the organisation’s leadership wants to prioritise a reduction in “the volume of content produced in various categories to ensure more resources are available for the best and most distinctive in each”.

 

After years of cuts totalling $250 million, the ABC operational budget will be more than 10 per cent lower in 2021-22 than it was in 2013.

Inexplicably, Scott Morrison denied there had been any funding cuts at Aunty.

“The ABC would be the only media company or organisation in Australia today whose revenue, their funding, is increasing,” he told reporters on Thursday.

Speaking to staff on Wednesday, David Anderson conceded the situation is “pretty grim”.

Minister Fletcher said on Wednesday the job cuts were the responsibility of the ABC board and management and that the government expects them to make do with the “very substantial” funding it is provided.

He rejected a push this week from the ABC and the public service union to lock in five-year funding terms, which would have provided at least some certainty and stability for the broadcaster.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance accused the government of an “act of vandalism”, while Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said the broadcaster has “literally saved lives”, especially during the recent bushfires when its emergency coverage stretched across multiple states and territories during the conflagration.

The commissioned consultant’s report into news business models will also examine what, if anything, is standing in the way of for-profit businesses from moving to better-performing models. Whether the results will find that the ABC is one of those “impediments” remains to be seen, but the reviewers have been asked to consider any obstacles “existing within the industry, consumer concerns and regulatory barriers”.

Anderson told ABC News Breakfast on Thursday that it is up to him to “continually make the case” to government that the public institution is “outstanding value for money”.

“We have done our best to convince the government to reverse the indexation freeze, we’ve done our best to find efficiencies without affecting content,” he said. “But we have said all along, since this was announced in 2018, that after successive budget reductions to the ABC there is only so much that can be gained through efficiency and, in the end, content will be affected.

“We’ve seen that rollout yesterday.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 27, 2020 as "Exclusive: New govt report targets ABC".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.