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Cut here: reshaping the ABC

The latest cuts are hardly surprising, except perhaps in their severity. Pedro Vezini

Monday’s announcement that the ABC will make 80 positions redundant is just the latest move in an enforced process of change to the public service broadcaster. It has a long way yet to run.

The announcement finally put the lie to Tony Abbott’s election eve pledge, live on national television, that there would be “no cuts to the ABC or SBS”. In concert with other recent announcements, it seems clear that public broadcasting – and in particular the ABC – is squarely in the government’s sights.

The cuts are hardly surprising, except perhaps in their severity. They have been on the cards since January, when Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull appointed former Seven Network executive Peter Lewis to conduct an efficiency study of the ABC and SBS.

Turnbull said then that the aim of the review was to find “back office savings”.

Leaks from the report, handed to the Minister in June, suggest that Lewis recommended dramatic changes including selling off the ABC’s production studios, shutting down digital radio channels, charging for some iView content and co-housing the two public service broadcasters.

It is difficult to see how these changes, if adopted, will not affect the broadcasters’ public-facing aspects, including programming and diversity of services.

Warning signs

The prospect of major changes to the ABC and SBS were clearly flagged in May.

The first indication came with the public release of the National Commission of Audit’s report, which recommended that the public service broadcasters:

be independently benchmarked, both against each other and the commercial broadcasters, to determine whether it would be possible to achieve efficiencies and savings without compromising their capacity to deliver services including to remote and rural Australia.

The Commission acknowledged the funding pressures facing the public broadcasters. But drawing on data from the 2013-14 Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, the Commission also graphed the “strong growth” in the ABC’s base funding, from around A$750 million in 2007-08 to around A$880 million in 2013-14. The message to Treasury was clear: “cut here”.

Less than a fortnight later, the Treasurer announced the ABC and SBS’s base funding would be reduced by A$43.5 million over four years.

This was not the half of it; the Budget Papers ominously prefaced the detail of the “efficiency savings” with the note that this was merely a “down payment” on the Lewis Efficiency Study.

In early June, in the same week he launched a Parliamentary Friends of the ABC group, the Communications Minister suggested the broadcasters had got off lightly. This was but a small crumb of comfort. Turnbull indicated that deeper cuts were on the horizon, declaring that “the age of entitlement” for public service broadcasters was over.

The ABC was also stripped of the Australia Network international television service contract in the Budget. As I wrote at the time, this will save the government A$196.8 million over the next nine years – but the real cost of the decision will be far higher.

Australia Network broadcasts will cease by September, although it is understood broadcasts will continue to the Pacific for six hours a day.

The substance of the changes

In his response to the Budget, ABC Managing Director Mark Scott said the funding cuts would “regrettably and inevitably result in redundancies and a reduction in services”.

Monday’s announcement gave shape to that prognosis.

The budget for ABC International, the department of the ABC that oversees the Australia Network, will be cut from A$35 million to A$15 million.

Up to 80 staff in Radio Australia, the Australia Network and the Asia Pacific News Centre – most of whom are based in Melbourne – will lose their jobs.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance is pressing the ABC not to concentrate the redundancies in ABC International, and to pursue voluntary redundancies where possible. All of the redundancies announced yesterday are understood to be non-voluntary.

What’s next?

Scott is also preparing to unveil a broader internal restructure of the ABC, known as Project 21, in response to the cuts to base funding.

Changes also loom at the level of the ABC board.

One position is currently vacant, and two further appointments will be made next year. Given the paramount role that the Board plays in allocating resources and formalising the ABC’s Charter responsibilities, these appointees will determine how the cuts and efficiencies will change the ABC in the longer term.

Earlier this month, arch conservative commentator Janet Albrechtsen and former deputy Liberal leader Neil Brown were appointed to the four-person panel that will oversee the selection of new Board members.

The panel was established under the first Rudd government with the intention of depoliticising appointments following the Howard government’s attempts to stack the ABC board with conservative ideologues including Albrechtsen herself, Keith Windschuttle and Michael Kroger.

When Albrechtsen and Brown were announced as members of the nomination panel, Malcolm Turnbull quickly distanced himself from the decision. The Communications Minister is acutely aware of the signals that the announcement sends about political influence over the Board appointments.

But he is also supportive of the appointment of Board members who have commercial rather than broadcasting experience. And despite his confident declarations to the contrary, cuts to programming and services appear inevitable.

It remains unclear how the ABC will meet its Charter obligations in international broadcasting, and in the provision of digital media services in particular. The funding cuts and the new appointments will undoubtedly change the culture and practice of the ABC over time.

This week’s jobs announcement gives some indication of how those changes will play out – but we are yet to see how far they will go.

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