On cuts to the ABC …

Last year, I had the chance to be involved in the development of a TV series. I was flown to Sydney for two days in the offices of a big production company. I worked with people I respected, I learned plenty and, I hope, I contributed something. But there was a moment mid-morning on the first day that stood out, probably only to me.

We had the network bosses there for an hour or two and one of them, as we were talking through the practicalities of the show said, ‘One of the great things about this is that it could be be set anywhere. Literally anywhere. Sydney or Melbourne.’ For once, in the face of comments like this, I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t point out that Australia isn’t a country comprising two cities only, total population 9 million. (Yes, that’s right, the broader Australian definition of ‘literally anywhere’ includes almost 15 million other people, ie, 60% of the population.) But the speaker works for a commercial TV network. He has no obligation to think otherwise. He has an obligation to shareholders. It’s possible he only thinks about places as far away as Parramatta because people have TVs there and he needs them to be watching his network. He knows how to make a TV series in Sydney or Melbourne, he knows the people he would use, so why wouldn’t those two places be at the top of his mind?

This is partly why we need the ABC, and partly why we should be resourcing it to do more, and to broaden its geographic production reach, rather than making changes that are going to narrow its scope further. From where I sit, I’m already not sure it’s able to do its job. As far as TV goes, it already feels rather too focused on the 9 million than on the whole almost 24 million of us. Other than news and current affairs, it already has only one TV production unit outside Sydney and Melbourne, and that will now close.

When the ABC stretched to create channel 24 without any additional expenditure, the result was mostly impressive for a zero budget channel, but at times the constraints showed. The breakfast news program offers the best news coverage going, but there have been occasions when I’ve preferred to think of it as In Melbourne Today. The regular in-studio commentators seemed to all be from Melbourne, and I have to admit I once stopped watching for months after one of them referred to the Australia beyond NSW and Victoria as ‘the outlying states’. It was enough to make me veer unwillingly towards becoming one of those grumps who places far too much importance on place-name pronunciation (the Warrego River isn’t pronounced to scan like or rhyme with ‘virago’ – the emphasis is on the first syllable, dammit). That’s what happens when you’re continually getting the message that you’re from somewhere of less importance.

Why does this matter now? Because Malcolm Turnbull says the ABC budget can be cut without affecting programming and Mark Scott says it can’t. That suggests at least one of them doesn’t know how to run a national broadcaster. Mark Scott is cutting, and one of the things to go is the state-based 7.30 shows. This show should be state-based every night of the week – and once was – drawing on the most relevant and important stories from other states. It’s more recently been national, with a state-based show on Friday nights only. It’s going to be cut. Here’s one instance of why it’s important.

When the LNP was elected in Qld in 2012, the Barrett Centre – the state’s specialist inpatient psychiatric facility for adolescents – was scheduled to move to a new facility which had yet to be built but for which land had been allocated. Under the LNP government, that land has been sold and the Barrett Centre closed, despite protests and warnings (from stakeholders and experts) that lives were at stake. It was a centre of last resort for teenagers with significant mental illness. In its 30 years of operation, no Barret inpatient or recently discharged patient took their own lives. Within months of the new government’s closure of the centre, despite reassurances that Barret patients would receive top-quality care, three of them had suicided.

The national 7.30 show had four nights a week to cover that story, but I haven’t seen it do it. The state-based 7.30 team have treated it as the serious story it is, covering it twice that I know of, performing multiple interviews and using right-to-information laws to reveal behind-the-scenes details. The coroner is now investigating.

This is what journalism is for. It’s what the ABC is for. It’s one of the things we will lose with these cuts. If that were not the case, 7.30 could have given it national coverage on just about any Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday this year. It didn’t.

Perhaps the national 7.30 show meets the needs of the member for Wentworth and the member for Warringah, but the ABC doesn’t belong only to them, or to the other 9 million people in Sydney and Melbourne. As far as I’m aware, we’re all funding it.

The ABC needs to be national, state- and territory-based and even local in both its base and its reach. It needs that for news, current affairs, drama and everything else. I can accept when a commercial network drama boss doesn’t think to make a city-based show outside Sydney and Melbourne – I don’t like it, but I can accept it – but the ABC should be the exception.

Am I saying there’s no scope to do things more economically at the ABC? No. I don’t know the organisation’s finances inside out. The only work I’ve done for the ABC has been on local radio, where I can say staffing levels are lean and pay packets don’t match the commercial equivalents. People in ABC local radio aren’t in it for the money, and they provide a service that no one else comes close to duplicating.

I’ve seen pieces saying that Fairfax faced bigger cuts, so the ABC should suck it up. Fairfax is not the ABC. Fairfax is a for-profit company that has old media at its foundations and the rivers of gold of classified advertising have dried up. It’s a different suite of products, a different model and it serves different masters.

And don’t get me started on election promises, and how this funding cut isn’t a broken one.

Here’s Tony Abbott in 2011, when in opposition: ‘It is an absolute principle of democracy that governments should not and must not say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards.’

Tony Abbott on election eve in 2013: ‘no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS.’

Tony Abbott today: ‘This a government which has fundamentally kept faith with the Australian people … Members opposite thought that the ABC was the one institution that shouldn’t be subject to an efficiency dividend. We think it should be subject to the efficiency dividend. The ABC should not be exempted from the kind of measures that are being applied to almost every other part of government. We never promised special treatment for the ABC or the SBS.’

You promised ‘no cuts’, and don’t go telling me I’m too stupid to understand the meaning of something as clear and unequivocal as that. Even if it was reasonable for Malcolm Turnbull to find room for interpretation in a guarantee two words long, his justification was that Tony Abbot meant no cuts to services. And the direct response to the budget cut is a cut to services. This is not merely some back-office tinkering.

Centralising of our urban dramas, the closure of the last non-news TV production unit outside Sydney and Melbourne, loss of state 7.30s, the shunting of Lateline – these are not efficiency dividends. They are cuts to programming, a narrowing of scope and out of keeping with the charter of the ABC. They might not all have an impact in Sydney’s northern beaches or eastern suburbs or Ultimo, but a lot of us – most of us – live elsewhere. News, drama and every other kind of content happen where we are too. The ABC has an obligation to be part of that.

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7 Responses to On cuts to the ABC …

  1. Sam says:

    Just superb, Nick. Summed up beautifully.

  2. haeleyreeves says:

    Couldn’t agree more well said

  3. Nick, you have said what most of us are thinking. On a state level, my husband often says Queensland stops at Ipswich.

  4. It’s really great to read your thoughtful reflection Nick. It feeds into the conversation about what the ABC’s role is. Even putting aside this week’s announcements of cuts by a government which clearly has an ideological agenda, some of what you’ve identified is absolutely key to the ABC’s charter: how to best serve the Australian public. We’re lucky that we have public broadcasters here, which most of the world does not have at all in the same way. As someone who worked at the ABC recently for a few years, I met many incredible people that I greatly respect, but I also saw a lot of room for improvement, and many things which disappointed me too. I wish it was easier for more positive change to happen but such is the nature of big public institutions. It’s terrible to see this being played out the way it is though, because I know some who will be personally affected in terms of losing their program and jobs. As you say, the government said ‘no cuts’ and it seems clear now that they were lying all along. On top of everything else, it’s a sad day for our ideals of democracy.

    • nickearls says:

      I think you’re making a really important point that I don’t generally see being made.

      It’s very difficult to keep every part of a big institution running efficiently all the time, and the current environment probably hampers a rational assessment of that at the ABC. And, while smart and genuine efficiencies can lead to savings, I really don’t often see funding cuts leading to efficiencies. Too often, the wrong people go and services lessen. It strikes me as far too likely that, after these cuts are implemented, we’ll have an ABC that has lost talented hard-working people and valuable programs, but still has its share of inefficiencies.

      • Yes, you’re right, the funding cuts are ultimately not about efficiencies – that much is clear. As you say, the overall result will be a diminished service to the Australian public, which will still have its share of inefficiencies. Plus you have to question the resources that are allocated to other things that have far less public support – like fighter jets! So given what’s happened now, there’s precious little space for ‘rational assessment’…perhaps there were times in the past where there was more, but certainly now it will mostly about being reactive rather than proactive. When I was working there, everyone was worried about what would happen under Abbott — and their fears have certainly come to pass. So many hard working and committed people will lose their motivation to hang in there and stick it out, if they have the choice at all.

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