As the ABC prepares for strikes, years of neglect have hollowed out staff and dimmed reporting. By Mike Seccombe.

Inside the ABC business model: ‘There has been self-censorship’

Portrait photograph of ABC chair Ita Buttrose
ABC chair Ita Buttrose.
Credit: AAP Image / Dan Himbrichts

A 40-minute strike might not seem the most resolute industrial action, particularly when it is called off at the last minute, but the non-strike by more than a thousand staff at the ABC this week was much more significant than it first appeared.

At the most basic level, it was important because it was the first time in 17 years that staff at the national broadcaster had determined to strike.

It was only ever intended to be a warning shot over the heads of ABC management, timed to run from 2pm to 2.40pm on Tuesday, meaning news staff would not be available to report the Reserve Bank’s decision on interest rates.

The symbolic point was that management’s pay offer was inadequate in a high-inflation, high-interest-rate economic environment.

The fact that the action was called off was in no way reflective of a lack of determination by the workers. Quite the reverse. The mere threat was enough to convince the national broadcaster to get serious about negotiating pay and conditions, after eight months of stalemate.

The previous Enterprise Bargaining Agreement between the ABC, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) and the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) expired last October. Negotiations for a new one began several months before that.      

Under Australia’s strict industrial laws, before a union can engage in “protected” industrial action, a ballot of members must be held and win at least 50 per cent support.

On Tuesday last week, when the ballot of MEAA members closed, the vote was overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action of one kind or another. More than 95 per cent voted to walk out for up to 24 hours. Just over 90 per cent were prepared to strike indefinitely.

The same day as the ballot concluded, the ABC’s managing director, David Anderson, got personally involved in the pay discussions.

“So, when he finally met with us last Tuesday … we told him we were going to notify for action straight away, and here are the key things that we need you to move on if we’re going to be able to endorse a deal,” says Cassie Derrick, director of the MEAA’s media section.

The ABC did move somewhat. A new offer was made, providing for pay rises totalling 11 per cent over three years, backdated to October 1 last year, plus a $1500 sign-on bonus.

There was also a commitment to provide pay data by gender, race and employment type – whether permanent, fixed term or casual – and changes to the regime of so-called “buyouts” whereby staff can trade overtime payments for a fixed extra percentage of their salary.

Promises also have been made in relation to the biggest concern members have: progression up the ranks and pay scale for early- and mid-career journalists.

“Management has come some way,” says Derrick, “but we need more details to see whether it’s good enough. And people are thinking it’s probably not.”

Further and bigger industrial action is still very much on the cards. Bigger, in particular, because the CPSU has the same issues and has similarly run out of patience with the stalling tactics of ABC management.

“Their [protected action] ballot closes next Wednesday, the 15th,” Derrick says, “which means that the earliest they could take action would be Tuesday, the 21st of March.”

Obviously, two major media unions taking concerted action would be much more disruptive. The memberships of both unions, Derrick says, are cynical about the sincerity of management’s promises. “We will be putting it on management to do better. If we can’t get confidence that this offer will mean real change … we will be taking action before the end of the month.” Which would likely mean disruption to coverage of a rather bigger story than the RBA’s rate decision: The New South Wales election on March 25.

Given this context, the union strategy becomes clearer: last Tuesday’s aborted 40-minute action was, as we said at the top, a much bigger event than it appeared. It was an opening salvo fired by some of the union troops as they waited for reinforcements to arrive.

This is not just an industrial story, either. It is also a political one, as most stories about the ABC tend to become.

There has always been tension between the national government and the national broadcaster. It is inherent in a situation where a media organisation reports on the people who fund it. Both sides of politics have appointed partisans to the board and attempted in various ways to influence the ABC’s coverage of events.

Yet over the past couple of decades the conservative side of politics has been, increasingly, overtly hostile. Conservative prime minister John Howard’s former chief of staff, Grahame Morris, famously characterised the ABC as “our enemy talking to our friends”.

A succession of Howard government Communications ministers, beginning with Richard Alston, set a course of trying to complain the ABC into submission.

Many on the political right were opposed to the very idea of a publicly funded broadcaster and many more lukewarm at best in their support. Several such individuals were appointed to the board during the Howard years, notably including News Corp columnist Janet Albrechtsen, who once derided ABC staff as a “Soviet-style workers collective”.

On the eve of the 2013 election, Tony Abbott promised there would be “no cuts to the ABC or SBS” under a Coalition government. Then he became prime minister and ABC funding was slashed in the first Coalition budget. More cuts were to follow.

According to accounting by ABC Alumni in its February plan, Rebuilding the ABC, a cumulative $520 million was stripped from the ABC’s base operating budget during the tenure of the past Coalition government.

“If you include the closure of the Australia Network (which broadcast Australian news and other content into the Asia-Pacific region) and the removal of other funding relied on for digital delivery and other projects, the total is more than $780 million,” the report said.

In last October’s budget, the new Labor government restored some $22 million a year, for four years, and reintroduced indexation of the ABC funding, which had been frozen by the Coalition in 2019.

However, said the alumni analysis, a further $86 million a year on top of that $22 million was required “in ongoing new funding annually just to get back to the equivalent of its funding in 2013, before the Coalition cuts, let alone any additional funding for growth and new initiatives.

“To be able to re-launch a distinctive and much-needed Australian voice in the Asia-Pacific, that figure rises even further.”

Furthermore, says the chair of ABC Alumni, veteran broadcaster Jonathan Holmes, the indexation method being applied by the government is less than the consumer price index and far below inflation, and would see the ABC “substantially worse off after five years than it is now”.

The chances of the ABC getting the resources the alumni suggests seem remote, given the government’s constrained fiscal position. Possibly more remote, Holmes says, as a result of the current union action.

“We need the current government to help the ABC rebuild,” says Dempster.

In an environment where government is trying to restrain public sector wage demands, Holmes worries that if ABC staff win a significant rise it could give the government an excuse to be less generous when negotiating its next five-year funding agreement with the broadcaster, effectively saying: “Well, we’re not going to give you more money, you’ll just give it straight to your employees and we won’t see any more product.”

Holmes stresses he and the alumni are not taking sides, only acknowledging that the broadcaster is “in a really difficult position”.

No doubt the staff have produced huge productivity gains, as have media workers generally, given the proliferation of platforms.

“If you look at what the ABC does now, in terms of outlets – seven or eight television channels, if you include all the digital ones, seven national radio networks, endless local radio networks, a huge amount of online stuff, huge amount of podcasting … all for less money in real terms than the ABC had in the late 1980s, when it had two television channels and four radio channels.”

All of this also while under ferocious, often ad hominem assault, not only from conservative politicians and right-wing media, but also from the top of the organisation itself.

Staff remember all too clearly the 2018 imbroglio that ultimately cost the jobs of board chair Justin Milne and managing director Michelle Guthrie, and revealed political pressure to remove senior journalists disliked by Malcolm Turnbull and his government.

No wonder staff are fed up, says Karen Percy, federal president of the media section of the MEAA.

She says there are “very few governments that have loved the ABC”, but in the 36 years since she began work as an ABC journalist there has never been anything like “the kind of hate heaped on the ABC” by the former government.

On top of that, she says, staff have suffered under “a hostile board … that has thrown staff under the bus time and time again”. She says management at the broadcaster has bordered on negligent, has ignored problems, and has relied on short-term contracts that have churned through and burnt out journalists.

“That’s been the business model,” she says. “And that has had an impact. There has been self-censorship.”

This self-censorship is not so much by individual journalists as by the organisation as a whole. Percy, along with Holmes and another ABC veteran and alumni director, Quentin Dempster, all tell The Saturday Paper that the ABC has become more timid about legal issues.

The unwillingness to risk legal action, says Holmes, “probably aligned to poverty: frankly, not wanting to run up huge bills”.

He suggests management had in the past discouraged reporting on certain issues. Before the 2019 bushfires, for example, “news management … felt that climate change was a kind of inner-city preoccupation, and wasn’t helping them get traction in the regions”.

“Indeed,” he says, a former director of news “used to give a pep talk to people about how we’ve … got to stop allowing the critics to say that we’re a bunch of inner-city sandal-wearing lefties”.

Has the ABC been cowed by a decade and more of constant pressure?

“Cowed? I don’t think so. Risk-averse? Probably,” says Dempster. “Courage and fearlessness in ABC journalism requires human and practical resources.

“Through ABC defunding over the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison years, audiences lost Lateline and state-based current affairs. AM and PM were stripped of airtime and 400 of our most experienced staff walked the redundancy plank. Four Corners was defunded, as was Foreign Correspondent. Local relevance has come with studio-based talkfests – sometimes good depending on the talent, sometimes… blah.”

Certainly, things are looking better to staff than they were in the dark days of a few years ago. The current chair, managing director and news director – Ita Buttrose, Anderson and Justin Stevens respectively – are generally seen as being stronger and more independent than the people they replaced.

The flagship 7.30 program has become harder edged under new host Sarah Ferguson. There is some more money, if not yet enough.

Significant problems remain, however, most especially around the career progression of young reporters. A consequence of the long years of funding cuts was that many experienced people walked out the door.

“And then,” says Derrick, “that work was either absorbed by – or those people were replaced by – more junior people.”

Those junior people on lower pay bands were in turn not being promoted as they gained experience.

“There’s actually no avenue to progress,” Derrick says. “And the only option they have to get any kind of financial security is to leave the position they’re in, or maybe even leave the organisation. It’s untenable for people, particularly in regional Australia.”

Bottom line, the organisation continues to lose talent. Hence the ongoing threat of strike action and the recent efforts by ABC Alumni to lobby the government and crossbenchers to do more to undo the damage of a decade of cuts.

“We need the current government to help the ABC rebuild,” says Dempster.

“But I still fear Murdoch intimidation, ever present, even though the ALP and the teals raised the sustainable future of the ABC as a major election issue in 2022.”

That is the lot of the ABC: even governments that broadly support it are afraid to properly fund it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 11, 2023 as "Inside the ABC business model: ‘There has been self-censorship’".

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