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 After 50 years of cuts, is it now too late to rescue the ABC?

For almost half a century, the ABC has been squeezed between two opposing forces – rapidly increasing costs on one hand, savage budget cuts on the other.

No organisation, however efficient it can become, can withstand these pressures forever.

In the ABC’s case, these pressures have ravaged areas of responsibility that once were thought to be central to its charter. Outside of news and current affairs, it now has almost no capacity to produce its own programs. There has been a relentless retreat from the states and the regions. Australian drama output is now at less than a third the level of the 1980s. Documentaries have disappeared almost entirely. Key programs have been dumped, overseas bureaux reduced or abandoned. Hundreds of experienced, skilled staff have lost their jobs at a time when the organisation’s need for them has never been greater.

But the depredations were not confined to a single budget, to a single Treasurer or to a single Prime Minister.

There are two types of budget cut: the outright slash-and-burn of the Fraser and Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison eras; and the slower but equally damaging failure for budget increases to keep up with costs.

SLASHERS AND BURNERS

On the eve of the 2013 election, Tony Abbott famously promised “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”. Soon after, with Joe Hockey’s disastrous 2014 budget, reality intruded. “The age of entitlement is over,” Hockey intoned.

In 2021-22, those cuts amounted to 13.5% of the organisation’s total budget.

 One contributor to this was the decision by the Morrison government to pause the normal indexation of the ABC grant for three years, costing the organisation $84 million. The incoming Labor government has promised to restore that money, to institute five-year funding to replace the current triennial grants, and to restore the Asia-Pacific television service. But that’s all.

An analysis by a group of academics calculated the effects of the Coalition’s policies. My further analysis compared this with the effect of the new government’s promised budget boost of $84 million.

As this graph shows, the new policy means the annual losses will be reduced but certainly not reversed.

Taking a step back, we can see how these losses add up. By the end of last financial year,  these amount to $783 million since 2014. And the ALP policies will not claw that back. What’s lost will stay lost.

THE LONGER VIEW

The squeeze has been going on for a long time. Looking at the journey over the past half-century, from 1972 until now, patterns emerge.

These figures are adjusted to remove the distorting effects of inflation. There was a big and important increase under the Whitlam government. In just three years, the allocation grew (in 2021 dollars) by 30%, from $702 million to $905 million.

It didn’t last. Within five years the Fraser government had slashed funding almost to the pre-Whitlam level. Under Hawke and Keating it briefly soared to a record $1,152 million before crashing again when Keating, as Treasurer, reined in government spending to cut inflation. From there, the trend has been mostly down.

Breaking the data down further shows the stark disparity between the ABC’s treatment under Labor and Liberal governments.

Over the half-century, there have been three Liberal and three Labor governments, but Labor has held power for only 22 of those years. Over that time, Labor increased ABC funding by a total of $1,962 million in real (2021 dollar) terms; the Liberals reduced it by $1,346 million. So the total increase has been $616 million spread over 50 years.

Constraints on ABC funding are often justified in terms of the capacity of the economy, and of the federal budget, to afford any more. This argument does not survive scrutiny. In nominal terms (not accounting for inflation) the average annual increase in funding was 2%. Data from the World Bank show annual GDP increased by 2.89% on average and the Australian government’s tax revenue by 8.98%. (The disparity between GDP and tax is explained by the tax take increasing far more quickly than GDP.)

In fact, ABC funding increased at two-thirds the rate of the economy as a whole and at less than a quarter the rate of the government’s tax revenue.

‘ONLY IDEOLOGY OR FEAR’

In August, at the ABC’s 90th birthday party, Anthony Albanese gave an upbeat speech.

“A government that chooses to attack a public broadcaster does so motivated by either ideology or fear – or a toxic cocktail of the two,” he said. “No government should fear the ABC – unless it fears the truth.

“There is little that is so at odds with who we are than an ideology that demands a tame public broadcaster, debased to the status of government mouthpiece. The ABC must always be a public broadcaster, never a state broadcaster.

“A government confident of its own ideas and principles should embrace independent questioning as crucial to the democracy it purports to uphold.”

It’s a line that a Labor Prime Minister can – just – get away with, given the fraught relationship both sides of politics have had with the ABC. A Liberal PM would have been laughed out of the room.

Over many decades, both sides have beaten the ABC up and threatened its budget. From Labor, that has been sporadic; from the Liberals, unrelenting.

Four Corners has been the focus of an outsized share of political anger and interference. In 1963, just two years after the program began, it examined the political bias in the RSL – and attracted heated accusations of being itself biased. There were controversial and highly effective programs on aboriginal living conditions, women’s liberation and the Vietnam war.

Clem Semmler, the ABC’s Assistant General Manager at the time, recalled an encounter with the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, after the RSL story went to air: “‘Mr Semmler,’ he said, ‘I know about you and your Four Corners. I know that program is designed for one reason and one reason only: to discredit my government and my cabinet.’ And he turned his back on me.”

Hulme ... no, minister
By 1970 the government of Billy McMahon was in serious trouble. The ABC was out of control – out of their control, anyway. The Postmaster-General, Alan Hulme, cut its funding and directed that the cuts should be applied specifically to Four Corners and the nightly current affairs program, This Day Tonight. The ABC, in line with the law, refused to follow these orders. The cut was taken by the whole organisation, not specifically by Current Affairs.

Senior politicians have often needed to be reminded that the act of parliament establishing the ABC gives editorial powers solely to the corporation and its board: Subject to this Act, the Corporation may determine to what extent and in what manner political matter or controversial matter will be broadcast by the Corporation.

No, minister. You cannot control what the ABC reports.

The most senior figures in the Hawke government – foreign minister Bill Hayden, treasurer Paul Keating, and Hawke himself – had little affection for the ABC. In his book Whose ABC, historian Ken Inglis wrote that during a caucus meeting in 1984, both Hawke and Hayden were indignant about a politically embarrassing report on Australia's help in testing an American nuclear missile.

“Hawke hints that ‘biased’ ABC could be punished” ran The Age’s headline over a story by  Michelle Grattan. Michael Duffy, the communications minister, was the realist in the room. “Have you read the fuckin’ Act?” he shouted.

The relationship with the Hawke government had already soured a year earlier, also over a Four Corners story. The Big League, by reporter Chris Masters and producer Peter Manning, reported allegations that a criminal care against the president of the NSW Rugby League over misappropriation of funds, had been dismissed by the Chief Magistrate at the early committal stage after a request from the Premier, Neville Wran.

Hawke, Keating and Wran were close personally and politically. The flak was awe-inspiring but it seems not to have played into funding decisions. This was the time at which the ABC’s grant rose faster and further than at any time before or since. It came down again later, but that was for very different reasons.

Under Howard, the atmosphere became chillier. Cabinet papers of the time show a tension between the new government’s desire for budget cuts and the realisation that the ABC was valued and popular among Liberal supporters, including in the regions. And the new Prime Minister’s senior adviser, Grahame Morris, described the ABC as “our enemies broadcasting to our friends”.

In a pre-echo of Tony Abbott 17 years later, Howard had promised during the 1996 election campaign that the ABC’s funding was safe. But within four months of gaining office, he cut it (in real terms) by 5.5%.

Alston ... unrelenting
Howard’s Communications Minister, Richard Alston, conducted an unrelenting war of intimidation against the ABC’s journalists. Alston, like other Coalition ministers before and since, reacted angrily when management reacted to budget shortfalls by cutting services – such as the decision in 2003 to shut down the digital channels ABC Kids and Fly TV.

The Managing Director, Russell Balding, characterised the ABC’s funding squeeze in evidence to a Senate committee:

“I think what you need to realise is that the ABC operates in a very diverse but developing industry. There are new technologies, there are new programs and services available. There is a lot of added cost pressures to the ABC, particularly in television program acquisition, production costs, and although funding may be maintained, in reality, you know, the ABC was going backwards.

“This will not be the only implication of the rejection of our bid for additional funding. We’ll have to make other difficult decisions over the next two months so as to ensure that the ABC continues to operate within the funding levels provided to it by government.”

As the Iraq war unfolded in 2003, and in the week the digital channels were closed to save money, AM was targeted for alleged anti-American bias. Alston compiled a dossier of 68 incidents and accused the program of gratuitous barbs, exaggeration, lack of evidence, negative comments, leading questions, editorialising, cynical assessments and “immature and irrelevant abuse”.

The pattern of appointing political trusties to the board was entrenched in the Howard era, when Maurice Newman, a stockbroker and banker, became its chair; and conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen went onto the board.

Newman was a climate change sceptic and vocal opponent of wind farms who thought the earth was cooling, not warming. Since leaving the board, he has embraced conspiracy theories and attacked climate advocates including King (then Prince) Charles, the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and many non-government organisations.

Albrechtsen, now chair of the conservative think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs. She had previously described the ABC as a “Soviet-style workers collective”.

But Alston’s behaviour was matched and even surpassed by that of Mitch Fifield, Communications Minister under Turnbull and Morrison.

Fifield ... right-wing warrior

Fifield is a right-wing warrior and member of the IPA, which has run a long campaign against the ABC and called for it to be privatised. As a backbencher in 2008, he made a speech supporting the IPA’s ideas. He advocated a flat-rate income tax, radical downsizing of government, and wholesale privatisation. The notion of government ownership of various enterprises, he said, was an “obsolete proposition.”

“Conservatives have often floated the prospect of privatising the ABC and Australia Post. There is merit in such proposals.”

Alston’s barrage of official complaints against the ABC was later eclipsed by Fifield’s, who became Communications Minister after Turnbull ousted Abbott as PM. He averaged one formal complaint a month, hitting out at Barrie Cassidy, Andrew Probyn, Laura Tingle, economics correspondent Emma Alberici (notoriously), Triple-J and comedy sketch writers. The campaign was amplified by Malcolm Turnbull, who produced a list of 11 grievances about a single story by Alberici on research funding. It ended in her leaving the ABC.

Alberici ... 'Get rid of her'

The fatwa against this single reporter surfaced when it became known that Justin Milne, ABC chair at the time, said in an email to the Managing Director: “They [the government] hate her. We are tarred with her brush. I think it’s simple. Get rid of her. We need to save the ABC, not Emma. There is no guarantee they [the Coalition] will lose the next election.”

Tony Abbott, as Prime Minister, stacked the independent panel charged with selecting board members with his own people. Janet Albrechtsen, who had left the ABC board in 2010, was appointed to the selection panel in 2014. She was joined by Neil Brown, former deputy leader of the Liberal Party who told The Australian: “I think it should be sold. The best thing to do might be to start again.”

Even that was not enough. Fifield stacked the eight-member ABC board with his own preferred people, rejecting the merit-based recommendations of the “independent” panel. They included Vanessa Guthrie, chair of the Minerals Council of Australia; Joseph Gersh, a property investment banker and close friend of former Treasurer Peter Costello; and Georgie Somerset, a Queensland farmer.

Justin Milne was a close business associate and personal friend of Malcolm Turnbull.

As the Liberal Party has drifted further to the right, attacks on the ABC have become more strident. In 2018 the party’s peak council voted almost two-to-one to sell off the ABC.

The motion said: “That federal council calls for the full privatisation of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, except for services into regional areas that are not commercially viable.”

Nobody spoke at the conference against the motion. Mitch Fifield merely commented that it was not government policy. The vote was warmly welcomed by the IPA.

Fifield is now Australia’s Ambassador to the United Nations in New York.

BUT HAS THE INTIMIDATION WORKED?

Ever since Robert Menzies scorned Four Corners in 1963, the focus of conservative fear-and-loathing has been directed specifically at news and current affairs programs. If the aim of the relentless campaigning and budget-cutting was to bring those departments into line, it has singularly failed.

As Alan Hulme found in 1970, and Bob Hawke found in 1984, politicians cannot direct program content and cannot cut the budgets of particular programs. They can, though, cut  overall funding in the hope that’ll do the job.

It never has. News and current affairs are the core, indispensable functions of the ABC. When cuts are made, more peripheral services are likely to go. Regional broadcasting has been eviscerated, drama production slashed, documentaries abandoned. Four Corners has remained, stronger and tougher than ever.

Jonathan Holmes, who was Executive Producer of Four Corners in the era of The Big League and the stoushes with Wran, Hawke and Hayden, believes political pressure to tame the program has spectacularly failed.

“I don’t think it’s dramatically more difficult for them [now]”, he said. “If you look at what Sally Neighbour did when she was in that job, Four Corners was still producing ground-breaking stories, probably at a higher rate that when I was there 40 years ago. You do need a lot of guts, though.”

ABC journalists routinely face levels of scrutiny and career-endangering risk that are seldom imposed on their peers in other organisations. Decades of political pressure have produced an elaborate and comprehensive complaints mechanism that is unmatched anywhere else in the Australian media landscape. A reporter at the ABC is constantly aware of the likelihood of having to answer for any real or imaginary bias. A reporter at The Australian or the Daily Telegraph is less likely to get into trouble for having too much bias than for not having enough.

The rigour of the complaints process typically escalates in response to a controversy about a particular story, ignoring the principle that special cases make poor law. So the process has ratcheted up over the years, becoming more intense each time.

The most recent escalation was sparked by a three-part documentary series last year on a fatal fire in 1979 in the ghost train ride at Sydney’s Luna Park. The widely-lauded program included an allegation of connections between the former NSW Premier, Neville Wran (who died in 1986) and the organised criminal Abe Saffron (who died in 2006). This aspect of the story was savagely criticised by friends and associates of Wran, who included the ABC Chair, Ita Buttrose.

Two inquiries followed. The second, by former Four Corners reporter Chris Masters and academic Rod Tiffen, strongly praised the program but found the Wran allegation lacked sufficient evidence. After each inquiry, ABC management stood behind the series.

This stance by management was the tipping-point. Yet another inquiry was set up, which recommended the appointment of a complaints ombudsman.

Jonathan Holmes is a former Executive Producer of Four Corners, the 7.30 Report and Foreign Correspondent, Head of the short-lived Documentary Department and presenter of Media Watch. Now retired, he’s Chair of ABC Alumni, a group of a couple of hundred ex-ABC staff campaigning to protect the organisation. This ratcheting-up worries him.

“I’m very concerned about this new ombudsman.

“The [third] report was reasonably positive about the ABC’s complaints handling system but they recommended that there should be an ombudsman who reported to the board through the Managing Director. But Ita Buttrose made a point of saying ‘he or she will not report to the Managing Director; he or she will report directly to the board’.

“They’ve appointed Fiona Cameron, whose background is as a media bureaucrat entrepreneur. More recently she was a board member of the Australian Communication and Media Authority. Earlier in her career she was Chief-of-Staff to Richard Alston, which is a worry in itself.”

Judgments about bias are almost inevitably subjective. They depend on your own opinion and where you think the broad values of the community stand. Another aspect is the nature of the broader media environment of which the ABC is only a part. And much of that broad environment is oriented to the right, not the left.

Can anyone seriously imagine the ABC employing a left-wing version of Alan Jones? Or cloning Sky After Dark and stacking it with far-left radicals?

WHAT’S BEEN LOST?

Late last year, the ABC was asked a series of questions at a Senate Estimates hearing about the effect of budget cuts from 2014 on. The answers included:

  • Reduction of 640 staff members from 4,704 to 4,064, or 14.6%.

  • Reduction of 147 staff roles.

  • Discontinuing the 7.45 am radio news bulletin.

  • Reducing spending on independent productions by $5 million each year.

  • Amalgamating the reduced program departments to save money.

  • A 26% reduction in commissioned drama.

  • A 5% reduction in commissioned children’s programs.

As funding decreased, the ABC’s reply said, costs continued to escalate. Competition from well-funded global providers such as Netflix and Amazon have greatly inflated production costs across the industry. Covid-19 had to be dealt with. The ABC has to take on funding for regional transmitters. There were rising costs of moving to digital platforms.

But this process of attrition has been going on for most of the past half-century. At the end of the 1980s, the ABC began to abandon its own production units and sought to outsource drama and documentaries.

It worked, for while, in drama. But it was not enough to counter the debilitating squeeze between rising costs and deteriorating budgets.

“The ABC produced about 30 hours of first-run drama in the last year for which we have figures,”

Holmes ... 'dramatic reduction'
Jonathan Holmes explained.

“Now, I remember that back in the late eighties, [Managing Director] David Hill made a huge fuss about raising the ABC’s drama to 100 hours a year. That’s a dramatic reduction and it matters because nobody else is doing Australian drama in the way that they all used to.

“The reason for that is, yes, partly funding cuts but it’s also the enormous costs. So it’s one area where there haven’t been many savings from technology. And you’re competing with fabulously expensive drama from the streaming platforms.

“My son is a production designer in movies. He’s in Budapest at the moment, designing a six-hour series for a British television company. The budget for that is £7 million ($12 million) an hour. It’s very hard for any Australian company to keep up and produce any quantity of stuff, given the production standards that people expect.”

In a mad quirk of public policy, the federal government has banned the ABC from accessing money from Screen Australia if it produces programs in-house. But independent producers have full access both to Screen Australia and to ABC funding. Those programs are then bought and transmitted by the ABC.

“Almost all the [Australian] drama that’s produced is with public money,” Jonathan said. “It comes from Screen Australia. That’s why the ABC doesn’t produce in-house any more, because it can’t access the Screen Australia money that the independent producers can. You got far more bang for your buck from independent producers who could access that funding.”

Outsourcing documentaries was less successful, simply because there wasn’t a viable independent industry to outsource them to. A small coterie of independent documentary makers had a minuscule output of often-arcane films produced largely for people like themselves. Reaching a mass audience was not a priority.

“Being unable to access money from Screen Australia meant that making documentary programs in-house became unviable,” Jonathan said.

“There’s heaps of people who want to make documentaries but there was a real shortage of genuine trained talent – people who could actually do it.

“I remember giving a lecture at a documentary conference in the late eighties and saying to them: ‘There’s no god-given right for you guys to get airtime on ABC television. You have to make programs that our audiences want to watch’. And I got booed.

“Another issue is whether there’s a creative timidity that used not to be there: an aversion to risk-taking because of the certainty that if you take risks and make stuff that allows a cultural war to erupt. You’ve got NewsCorp sitting there at any point ready to absolutely lacerate the ABC. That does have an effect.”

Documentary programming has collapsed. A whole genre of programming, for which Australia was once widely praised, has all but disappeared.

IS THERE A WAY BACK?

The short answer is no. The internet has put journalism into retreat across most of the world, so the nation relies more than ever on the ABC to tell it what’s going on. News and Current Affairs have not escaped unscathed but can realistically be strengthened again.

But the ABC’s role as a comprehensive broadcaster is likely to be permanently reduced. That’s an inescapable reality of costs and funding.

That’s despite the ABC Charter, contained in its Act of Parliament, requiring the organisation “to provide within Australia innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard”.

That charter has increasingly become detached from reality. And merely restoring funding levels to what they once were will not do the trick.

If Australia is to once more have the national broadcaster that it now needs and once had, and which the law requires, its budget must allow it to compete in the new era of high costs, multiple platforms and fragmented audiences. It would have to be able to pay the going rates for commissioned drama. And it would have to restore its capacity for making documentary programs in-house because there’s no one else who can do it.

There is no realistic prospect that any government, including this one, will make that money available. Sadly, it’s just not going to happen.

 




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