Today’s long-awaited announcement of restructuring at the ABC highlights two directions for change in the coming year and beyond. Both are welcome.
More money will be spent on content production and delivery, and less on management, which some would say is always a good principle on which to run big public sector corporations. Managing director Michelle Guthrie will reduce the number of the ABC’s divisions from 14 to nine “teams”, leading to an altogether “leaner, less cumbersome management structure”, as she put it in her speech to ABC staff today.
Interestingly, one “team” will be devoted to Government Relations. This suggests a positive approach to management of the political as well as the changing technological environment. It’s in no Australian’s interest, except perhaps the News Corp board, for the ABC to be at loggerheads with politicians.
I’ve argued previously that the ABC is already quite a lean machine by comparison with its closest comparator in size and ethos, the BBC. There, an academic will still be paid anything from $100 upwards to speak for 30 seconds on a radio news show, and have their taxis provided from home to studio thrown into the bargain.
The ABC doesn’t do so much of that sort of thing. So, more of its annual budget can therefore go on more socially useful stuff than paying for me to have a nice lunch at the taxpayers’ expense.
All well and good, but entrenched bureaucratic organisations tend to carry lots of waste and padding, and there’s no doubt that – for the ABC – much of it lies in the management divisions.
Guthrie concedes there’s too much duplication of function, an inefficient and creatively counterproductive silo mentality, and up to 200 jobs can be shed without doing damage to the core business of producing TV, radio and online content people want to access, consume and use.
With upwards of 4,000 staff on the ABC’s books, that’s something like a 5% cut, though offset by the promised addition of 80 new content roles in the regions within 18 months.
This brings us to the second focus of today’s announcement – more regional content at a time when local media are widely recognised to be in a state of crisis.
The regional print media are in serious decline across Australia, with no solution in sight to the broken funding model of the newspaper era. Commercial TV does very little original local content (not a peculiarly Australian problem, but one made more problematic here by the geography of the country).
It is in local media, and regional and local journalism in particular, that the ABC must lead. Guthrie’s announcement paid at least lip service to the need to:
… ensure that the stories, issues and interests of the one-third of Australians who live outside the capital cities are well-represented across the range of ABC services and have a stronger voice in national conversations.
She also acknowledged that there must be a “culture change” within the organisation for the restructuring to bear fruit, which partly refers back to the ABC’s bloated management, but also to what she characterises as a more general lack of representativeness within the organisation. Guthrie declared:
We’re falling short of properly and effectively representing, in our employees, content and audience impact, the modern Australia in which we live.
Tackling that issue means more than sticking Pauline Hanson in front of Barrie Cassidy on Insiders, or increasing the number of Indigenous faces and voices on air. Guthrie has announced a A$50 million content fund to encourage innovative programming and other content that will engage “infrequent users” of the ABC.
The products of this fund could well be the most visible and interesting outcome of today’s announcement.
The ABC remains Australia’s most popular and respected media content provider by far. But to retain that position in the rapidly evolving digital landscape requires a readiness to break with, dare one say it, “elite” broadcast traditions established in the analogue age.
These modest proposals – and they are modest, by comparison with the tumultuous transformations and job losses experienced by the commercial sector in the last decade – seem like a reasonable step down that road by the new leadership team.