While Australia’s elected representatives argue over what then-opposition leader Tony Abbott meant when he promised “no cuts to the ABC, or SBS” the night before the last election, directly to the electorate, while advertising himself as a leader who could be trusted not to break his promises, the cuts are in and the announcements of what form they will take at the ABC have been made.
Most had been heavily trailed last week, but now we know for sure that some 400 jobs will go because of these cuts. Regional facilities will be closed, services and programs will be cancelled or, in Lateline’s case, moved to ABC News 24. ABC websites will be rationalised, with 100 or so earmarked for the chop. State-based sports broadcasting will go, along with the state editions of 7.30.
It’s a catastrophe for those ABC employees whose jobs are in the firing line. They will now prepare to join the ranks of the thousands let go by the commercial media in the last three years. Some will be redeployed, Scott assures his staff. Nonetheless, 10% is a big chunk of the workforce. Even if the emphasis will be on what are implied to be less-than-essential management and administration posts – in an attempt to limit the damage to content while responding to government claims that the ABC is flabby and inefficient – this is a major loss of human resources.
But the ABC is bigger than its individual employees, and job cuts in themselves are sometimes necessary for the longer-term sustainability of such institutions. No sector, public service media included, is exempt from those processes.
After all the speculation of recent months and weeks, then, after the leaks and the speeches, the lobbying by supporters and opponents of public service media and the pressures from government, where does this leave the ABC? Are we seeing a necessary step in the digitally driven rationalisation of a 20th-century analogue monster, necessary to make it fit for purpose in the 21st? Or is this the beginning of the end of the ABC as we know it?
To listen to ABC managing director Mark Scott as he defended his decisions, there’s little doubt that he wants Australians to see these cuts and the changes they force on the ABC as the former - painful adjustments to changing realities, but in the end good for the public service patient.
The ABC has successfully moved into 24-hour news and content streaming, Scott stresses, through ABC News 24 and iView – two developments which he is clearly very proud of and determined to build on. The future is online, and in real time, interactive and participatory, and it is bright. To signal the direction of change, the ABC will create a “Digital Network Division”.
With this strategy, Scott is following the template established by the BBC when faced with similar financial pressures in the last decade. This is to go on the offensive, resist the private competitors who dispute your right to play the online and 24-hour news game, and confirm without apology that your public service remit extends to the digital platforms increasingly used by Australian audiences for their TV and radio consumption.
Play to the ABC’s popularity, in other words, and to the rise of a demographic for whom mobile platforms are more and more important as a source of news, information, entertainment and every other form of content. The ABC should be about cutting-edge digital innovation if it is to retain its place at the heart of Australia’s cultural life.
In all of this, Scott is articulating the only viable strategy for all public service media organisations – no retreat to the cultural ghetto demanded by the big private interests and their supporters in the News Corp media, but in the avant garde of digital innovation, harnessing its vast potential for public good.
But if digital is the big winner in this round of cuts and restructuring, the big loser would appear to be the ABC’s regional infrastructure. Radio services are being closed in five locations. TV production in Adelaide (though not news and current affairs) is being wound down. The state editions of 7.30 will be replaced by a national current affairs magazine show in the same slot.
The impression given is of a substantial thinning out of the rural and regional editorial resource base, and a creeping metro-centralism as more and more production is concentrated in Sydney and Melbourne.
On the other hand, a new Regional Division is promised. This body, importantly led by someone who doesn’t live in Sydney, will play a strategic role in co-ordinating regional resources to improve coverage and content. As such, it is argued that the closure of a radio station in Nowra – or the axing of Radio National’s Bush Telegraph – is less important than the establishment of a new strategic approach which harnesses the power of digital technology to better serve the vast and sparsely populated Australian continent.
This is a risky approach. It has already generated fierce criticism from those who fear any change as the thin end of an ideologically shaped wedge. Cutting state sports coverage is also going to be unpopular.
However, Scott insists that these and other cuts will not damage the ABC’s capacity to fulfil its public service remit, within which the provision of quality regional and rural news and current affairs is a core element. Programs and schedules evolve all the time, for many reasons other than financial. Scott seems genuinely to believe that the democratising, decentralising, participatory potentials of digital tools will strengthen rural and regional services rather than undermine them.
In the end, and with an anti-ABC government in charge, Australians who value public service have little choice but to trust Scott, whose personal and professional commitment to the public service media ethos is real.
Having been confronted with a hostile government on the attack, Scott now faces his final challenge as managing director – to lead the ABC through implementation of these cuts in such a way that his positive vision of the future of Australian public service media is realised.