ABC feels pain of broken promise: prepare for cut-price broadcasting

Malcolm Turnbull and the government have been unapologetic after breaking a pre-election pledge not to cut the ABC’s budget. AAP/Nikki Short

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced a further cut to Australia’s public broadcasters. The ABC’s budget will be slashed around 4.6% per year, or A$254 million in total, over the next five years. SBS will be cut by a total of $25.2 million, or 1.7%, over the same period.

While the precise impact on programming is in the hands of the ABC’s managing director, Mark Scott, there will certainly be cuts in both jobs and program content. According to this week’s Media Watch program, state editions of 7.30 will go. Lateline will be downsized. While Peppa Pig will stay – to the relief of millions of parents of young children – up to 500 staff positions could go by the end of the year. The Roast is toast.

There is nothing morally wrong with the proposal that public service bodies such as the ABC should be subject to budget cuts like other organisations, public or private. Commercial media companies, driven by shareholder pressures, have shed thousands of jobs in the past three years.

The only concern of that kind in Turnbull’s announcement is that the Coalition, in the form of then-opposition leader Tony Abbott, made a clear pre-election promise not to cut ABC funding.

Tony Abbott’s pre-election promise not to cut public broadcasting.

It isn’t unreasonable to believe that at least some voters opted for Abbott and his team influenced by that pledge. To renege on it so unapologetically, as Treasurer Joe Hockey did on Q&A earlier in the year and Turnbull did on Wednesday, is to miss the point. A promise was made. It was not kept.

Several pledges went AWOL after the election. But in this case, the incoming government appeared sneaky and duplicitous, not to mention vindictive towards one of Australia’s most-loved institutions. Even if few expected the Coalition to keep this promise, it damages trust in and respect for government when it is so provocatively shredded.

We will know precisely where the axe is to fall before long. The big issue is not the future of individual program strands, however, nor even of particular jobs within the ABC. Program formats come and go, for good reasons and bad. Tastes and audience demands change. Creative talent moves on to other organisations. Formats have a shelf life. As for staffing, new technology makes positions redundant, or much less essential, such as that of the hot-metal typesetter in old Fleet Street newspapers.

In every profession over the past few years, digital technology has wreaked havoc on traditional occupational structures and position descriptions. The ABC is not immune from that and Scott has made clear in several statements that the status quo is not an option for his organisation. He recognises that the media game is changing; that broadcasting itself steadily becomes a less meaningful term to describe what the ABC does; that the future is digital.

So change in itself is inevitable, and necessary. The key issue in the current discussion is this: do the cuts imposed on the ABC threaten its ability to deliver its public service role at the levels of quantity and quality expected by the Australian people?

Can the recognised quality of ABC content – in news and current affairs, original Australian drama and comedy, children’s programming, religion, arts and culture, sport – be maintained, not just into 2015 but for the long term? Where is the line between the necessary, if sometimes uncomfortable evolution of the ABC in response to a transformed media and technological environment, and the merely destructive imposition of cuts by an anti-public service government?

This must be an issue at the next federal election, when the Coalition’s policy on the ABC will be held to account, and by which time the impact of these cuts will be beginning to be visible on screen. Those Australians who value the ABC as an essential element of our cultural life will need to judge the parties on that basis. Like health and education, they will need to weigh up which party can be most trusted to support the ABC post-2016.

Perhaps there is a need for a politically independent, economically and technologically literate commission into the role of Australian public service media in the multi-channel, multi-platform digital environment. Is the ABC too big, as its critics maintain? Do the values on which it was founded remain important to Australians?

Where, if at all, and to what extent, do the activities of the ABC distort competition and damage private media? Do the public service benefits of the ABC compensate for that damage?

My colleague Adam Swift and I speculated earlier this year on what the Australian media would be like without the ABC. That was a speculative exercise in response to short-term news stories about cuts. Now that the detail of Coalition policy is clear, and given the controversy unleashed around these cuts, there is a strong case for a properly resourced attempt to answer the same question in a more comprehensive way, from the informed perspective of international experience and current Australian realities.

Such an exercise would take into account both the public and corporate interests, but with terms of reference that recognise that the former takes priority. The ABC is a cultural asset which has been paid for and belongs to the Australian people. Australians cherish it – except those who boast about how they never watch it, don’t care about it and would be quite happy to see it sold off, boxed up and delivered to the private sector.

No serious commentator or politician disputes the achievements and ongoing value of the ABC to the quality of Australian life. The question is, rather, what does “public service media” mean in the second decade of the 21st century, and how far should the ABC’s reach into the broader media environment extend?

It’s time to go beyond the cultural politics of the latest cut and think ahead to what kind of media we want our children and grandchildren to have access to. And then to think about what the ABC needs to deliver that vision.

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