Despite Porter’s protestations, the ABC clearly had an obligation to air a story that contained allegations of ministerial misconduct (however tawdry).
News reports about politicians, sex and booze are as old as time and have brought shame to many a politician, from the former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce to Deputy Labor Leader Gareth Evans and the UK Secretary of War John Profumo.
The one clear duty of journalism is to hold those in power to account, and that appears to have been lost on those members of government as they reportedly attempted to pressure the ABC, its managers and journalists, over the broadcast.
Standards for those in government
Many ethical issues arise from the broadcast, the attempt to pressure the ABC and the legal threats that have followed.
But it certainly wasn’t a quick piece of “gotcha” journalism with a blurry photo at its centre. The Four Corners team have an exacting process to their work. For this story, the ABC said they interviewed 200 people over several months. They also contextualised the story beyond the two central politicians to raise real concerns about the place and safety of women who work in Parliament House.
Anderson also said the allegations had been thoroughly sourced and checked legally. Those named in the story were given “ample” opportunity to respond.
Moreover, while the so-called “bonk ban” on ministers having sexual relations with their staff was only introduced by Prime Minister Malcolom Turnbull in 2018, Cabinet ministers have had rules governing their behaviour since John Howard first established a public ministerial code in 1996.
Members of the Morrison Cabinet now sign up to a code of conduct which says they will “act with integrity” and be “open to public scrutiny and explanation”.
2.24. Ministers must not engage in sexual relations with their staff. Doing so will constitute a breach of this code.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison pointedly said this week that neither Porter nor Tudge were in breach of his code of conduct.
But allegations of sexual misconduct and power imbalances, even historic ones, are still clearly a cause for community concern, and cannot not be ignored by journalists or political leaders. Such matters are no longer private affairs between consenting adults.
Regardless of the salacious allegations made on the Four Corners program, there is also a point to be made about the hypocrisy of politicians who market themselves as having “family values” and demand others follow “Australian values”.
Certainly, it is not edifying to watch details of alleged impropriety by politicians broadcast on television, and it’s uncomfortable that such stories inevitably impact those who are innocently caught up in the furore (particularly partners and children).
Tudge did issue a statement saying he regretted his actions “and the hurt it has caused my family”.
If Facebook prevented Australian news from being shared on its platform, could the ABC start its own social media service to compensate? While this proposal from the Australia Institute is a worthy one, it’s an impossible ask in the current political climate.
The report canvasses what the Australian government should do if Facebook and Google withdraw their news-related services from Australia, in reaction to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s draft news media bargaining code.
Tech-xit rightly notes the ABC is capable of building social media that doesn’t harvest Australians’ personal data. However, it overlooks the costs and challenges of running a social media service — factors raised in debate over the new code.
Platforms react (badly) to the code
The ACCC’s code is a result of years of research into the effects of platform power on Australian media.
It requires Facebook and Google to negotiate with Australian news businesses about licensing payments for hosting news excerpts, providing access to news user data and information on pending news feed algorithm changes.
Predictably, the tech companies are not happy. They argue they make far less from news than the ACCC estimates, have greater costs and return more benefit to the media.
If the code becomes law, Facebook has threatened to stop Australian users from sharing local or international news. Google notified Australians its free services would become “at risk”, although it later said it would negotiate if the draft law was changed in its favour.
Facebook’s withdrawal, which the Tech-xit report sees as being likely if the law passes, would reduce Australians’ capacity to share vital news about their communities, activities and businesses.
Cue the ABC then, says Jordan Guiao, the report’s author. Guiao is the former head of social media for both the ABC and SBS, and now works at the institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology.
He argues that, if given the funding, ABC Online could reinvent itself to become a “national social platform connecting everyday Australians”. He says all the service would have to do is add
distinct user profiles, user publishing and content features, group connection features, chat, commenting and interactive discussion capabilities.
As a trusted information source, he proposes the ABC could enable “genuine exchange and influence on decision making” and “provide real value to local communities starved of civic engagement”.
Financial reality check
It’s a bold move to suggest the ABC could start yet another major network when it has just had to cut A$84 million from its budget and lose more than 200 staff.
The institute’s idea is very likely an effort to persuade the Morrison government it should redirect some of that funding back to Aunty, which has a history of digital innovation with ABC Online, iView, Q&A and the like.
The ABC doesn’t even have access to start-up venture capital the way most social media companies do. According to Crunchbase, Twitter and Reddit — the two most popular news-sharing platforms after Facebook — have raised roughly US$1.5 billion and US$550 million respectively in investment rounds, allowing them to constantly innovate in service delivery.
In contrast, over the past decade, ABC Online has had to reduce many of the “social” services it once offered. This is largely due to the cost of moderating online communities and managing user participation.
For those who watch the affairs of the ABC through the eyes of a critical friend, the removal of Emma Alberici, made public on August 21, is deeply disturbing.
It is the climax to a destructive series of events that began more than two years ago and once again draws attention to two serious weaknesses in the ABC’s management arrangements.
One is structural: the editor-in-chief is fatally compromised in that role by also being managing director. The managing director has corporate responsibilities that conflict with his or her editorial responsibilities every time the government tightens the financial screws.
That is not a reflection on David Anderson’s character or probity; it is the inevitable consequence of having the one person in both roles.
It also happens that Anderson – like his ill-fated predecessor Michelle Guthrie – is not a journalist. This makes it hard for him to give the kind of editorial leadership the ABC requires.
The second weakness is cultural. This long pre-dates Anderson’s term and is the product of sustained hostility from successive Coalition governments going back to the start of the Howard prime ministership in 1996.
The preceding 12 years of the Hawke-Keating governments had hardly been a golden age for the ABC, but it generally got year-on-year funding increases.
And in the tough-minded minister for communications, Michael Duffy, it had a defender in cabinet who was prepared to confront Hawke and other ministers infuriated by some of the ABC’s reporting.
As for the three years of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd interlude, Labor was too busy tearing itself to pieces to bother with the ABC.
Now, according to Anderson, after six years of cumulative budget cuts by the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison administrations, the total effective reduction in ABC funding will amount to A$105.9 million per year by 2022.
And as for defenders in cabinet, the present communications minister, Paul Fletcher, is as mute as a swan.
Clearly all this has sapped morale.
In September 2018, a dossier compiled by Michelle Guthrie was leaked, revealing an email in which Justin Milne, as chair of the ABC, told her to get rid of Alberici, declaring the government “hate her”.
Over the preceding months, the government had repeatedly criticised stories Alberici had done in her role as chief economics correspondent.
Guthrie’s dossier came to light in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald at a time when the ABC had decided to sack her. In the ensuing “firestorm” – Milne’s word – he was consumed as well.
Milne had been concerned also with the work of political editor Andrew Probyn. He wanted Guthrie to “shoot” Probyn because the government hated him too and his continued presence was putting at risk half-a-billion dollars in funding for the ABC.
Assuming Milne and Guthrie were telling the truth, there could not be a clearer instance of how the government was using funding to undermine the ABC’s editorial independence.
The effects of this sustained intimidation are felt a long way down the ABC’s editorial food chain.
In May 2018, Barnaby Joyce accepted a reported $150,000 fee to appear with his lover on Channel Seven and talk about the affair that ended Joyce’s marriage and was a breach of the ministerial code of conduct. The ABC asked me to write a commentary on it.
I filed an article saying Joyce’s decision to take money for telling a story that concerned his public duties called into question his fitness for public office.
There was an awkward response from within the ABC indicating some disquiet further up the line. Would I mind not saying that about Joyce?
The rest of that exchange was off the record, but suffice to say I minded very much and withdrew the article. It later appeared unchanged in The Conversation and The Age.
That incident – small in itself but large in principle – revealed a malaise in editorial leadership at several levels.
Four months later came the revelations in Guthrie’s dossier about Milne’s attempts to have Probyn and Alberici sacked. It seems reasonable to infer word was filtering down from the top that if the ABC wanted to avoid yet more trouble from the government, it had better mind its manners.
Alberici is now gone anyway, part of a wave of 200 redundancies announced by Anderson in June in response to the latest round of budget cuts.
This catalogue of events may give rise to the perception that the ABC Board had not been sufficiently active in protecting either the ABC’s independence from political interference or its own integrity.
And the structural and cultural weaknesses laid bare by the saga remain.
The strategy the Howard government developed for dealing with the ABC – funding cuts, pointless inquiries and cultural warfare – is being followed to the letter by the present government.
2017 was a vintage year, and sums up the problems:
Abbott’s cuts from three years earlier were working their way through the system
One of history’s many lessons is that appeasement does not work. Editorial executives have one over-riding responsibility: to provide a safe environment in which their staff can do independent journalism, regardless of corporate, political or economic interests.
Part of that is having the professional experience to understand what is involved, which includes absorbing the bullying that comes from powerful people and, where necessary, hitting back.
There has been no sign the ABC’s journalists have been getting that kind of protection, least of all from the board.
Instead, they are at the mercy of a vindictive government, urged on by its mates in News Corporation, which has a vested interest in weakening the ABC and shamelessly campaigns for exactly that.
The original version of this article contained a reference to an email concerning the coverage of marriage equality on the ABC. The author has subsequently learnt more about the origins and context of that email and acknowledges that the context as presented in the original article was wrong. That passage has been removed.
At the height of the coronavirus emergency, and on the back of devastating bushfires, Australia’s much awarded and trusted national broadcaster has again been forced to make major cuts to staff, services and programs. It is doing so to offset the latest $84 million budget shortfall as a result of successive cuts from the Coalition government.
In the latest cuts, wrapped up as part of the national broadcaster’s five-year plan,
250 staff will lose their jobs
the major 7:45am news bulletin on local radio has been axed
ABC Life has lost staff but somehow expanded to become ABC Local
independent screen production has been cut by $5 million
ABC News Channel programming is still being reviewed.
Even the travel budget, which allows journalists and storytellers to get to places not accessible by others, has been cut by 25%.
These are just the latest in a long list of axed services, and come off the back of the federal government’s indexation freeze.
Announced in 2018, that freeze reduced the ABC budget by $84 million over three years and resulted in an ongoing reduction of $41 million per annum from 2022.
The indexation freeze is part of ongoing reductions to ABC funding that total $783 million since 2014. In an email to staff, Managing Director David Anderson said the cut to the ABC in real terms means operational funding will be more than 10% lower in 2021–22 than it was in 2013.
To be fair, the way in which the ABC executive has chosen to execute the latest cuts does make some sense, pivoting more towards digital and on-demand services. Right now, the commuting audience that has long listened to the 7:45am bulletin is clearly changing habits. However, with widespread closures of newspapers across the nation, the need for independent and trusted news in depth, that is not online has never been more important.
ABC Life is a particular loss. It has built an extremely diverse reporting team, reaching new audiences, and winning over many ABC supporters and others who were initially sceptical. The work they produced certainly wasn’t the type commercial operators would create.
Clearly the coronavirus pandemic has slashed Australia’s commercial media advertising revenues. But the problems in the media are a result of years of globalisation, platform convergence and audience fragmentation. In such a situation, Australia’s public broadcasters should be part of the solution for ensuring a diverse, vibrant media sector. Instead, it continues to be subject to ongoing budget cuts.
Moreover, at a time when the public really cannot afford to be getting their news from Facebook or other social media outlets, cutting 250 people who contribute to some of Australia’s most reliable and quality journalism and storytelling – and literally saving lives during the bushfires – appear to be hopelessly shortsighted.
The latest Digital News Report 2020 clearly showed the ABC is the media outlet Australians trust the most.
These latest cuts join a long list of axed services in the past seven years. They include
public interest journalism (Lateline and state-based 7.30) axed
While not everyone will miss every program or service that has gone, and even with its occasional missteps, there is no doubt the ABC is the envy of the liberal democracies that do not have publicly funded assets, particularly the United States.
Has the ABC’s budget been increased?
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has continued to suggest the funding cuts are not real, are sustainable without service reductions for Australians, and has claimed the ABC has received “increased funding”.
The minister’s comments are not consistent with data we published last year based on the government’s own annual budget statements and the reality of the ongoing situation for the ABC.
The government argues base or departmental funding is higher in 2020-21 than it was in 2013-14. The relevant budget papers do show that in 2013-14, the ABC was allocated $865 million for “general operational activities”. The most recent budget statement shows this has increased to $878 million in 2020-21.
So how can it be the ABC budget shows this increase when we have been arguing they are facing an overall cut?
First, we noted last year the complexity of the budget process, which means, for example, the reinstatement of short-term funding can be counted as extra funds, or the ending of such funds, while reducing an agency budget, will not appear as a reduction in allocation.
Second, the 2020-21 ABC budget reflects the inclusion of indexation for increases in CPI-related costs between 2013-14 and 2018-19. This is the funding that is being halted until at least 2021-22.
So despite statements to the contrary, nothing can change the fact the ABC has suffered massive cuts in recent years. The data published last year showed the reality of the ongoing situation for the ABC, with an annual cost to its budget in 2020-21 of $116 million. As the table below shows, taking into account actual budget allocations and adding the items cut, frozen or otherwise reduced, the ABC should have funding of approximately $1.181 billion in 2020-21, not the $1.065 billion it will receive.
It is against this background the latest funding freeze, due to a failure to meet the impact of inflation costs, occurs. While it doesn’t sound like a lot, the three year impact is $84 million, and has resulted in the cuts announced today.
But more importantly, these ongoing cuts represent an attack by the federal government on the broadcaster, its role in democracy, and in keeping Australians safe, informed and entertained.
After weeks of devastating reports of local newspaper closures and regional broadcast stations turning off local news services, media supporters and observers were united in joy as the Australian government announced a coronavirus relief package for local journalism.
The four-part initiative has been designed to assist local newspapers and commercial free-to-air radio and television and subscription television, following calls for a lifeline from the industry and the communities they serve.
Although coronavirus might have hastened their financial woes, it’s clear that many of these news outlets have been in trouble for a while, with falling advertising and subscription revenue reductions.
Last year was described as “the worst advertising market since the global financial crisis for the television industry”.
Regional newspapers have been buoyed by local advertising, but even that has its limits.
Two components of the government’s COVID package, a $41m waiver on the tax imposed on radio and television services for spectrum use, and suspension of key parts of the commercial television Australian content rules, will save commercial broadcasters millions in 2020.
In the midst of the COVID emergency, which has brought a record number of people to the broadcaster, the ABC is continuing to manage an annual budget reduction of over $100 million while delivering its range of services.
As has been widely acknowledged, it has also increased emergency broadcasting firstly for the devastating summer bushfires, and now for the coronavirus emergency, without any specific funds.
Local drama in jeopardy
Independent producers of Australian programs, including Australian drama, documentary and children’s drama, are also losers in the COVID announcement.
The decision to suspend commercial television Australian content rules for 2020 is couched in terms of production “disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic”.
However, there are long lead times for much drama and documentary production, and commercial free-to-air broadcasters are allowed to average drama content over three years.
This means a more nuanced and flexible approach to developing and commissioning projects could have helped broadcasters and kept the production sector alive.
In an already hard hit creative sector, TV producers look like losing at least a year of commercial commissions. That’s worth $250 million to the sector.
The government statement also implies the reduction in the Australian content rule may extend into 2021. If that happens, it’ll bring to an end Australian content policy settings that have been in place for almost 60 years.
Originally introduced by the Menzies government, the policy was put in place to ensure there was a strong Australian identity on local television.
Chilling notes in the details
Finally, the government has included as part of its announcement, a fast-tracked consultation process on “Harmonising Regulation to Support Australian Content”.
Media observers will be pleased the process has finally started, but all will be concerned about the timing.
It seems more than a little odd for some of the most significant reforms to the way Australian content is delivered via screens are included in an emergency funding announcement.
Buried on page 41 of the document, for example, is an option which would require the ABC and SBS to spend their funding to make up for commercial shortcomings in children’s programming.
Or to put it another way, if that option were accepted, the ABC and SBS would be told by the government of the day to do what the government wants, without any extra funding. That’s completely opposite to the idea of an independent public broadcaster. Perhaps it’s a case for the Inbestigators.
Queensland Liberal senator James McGrath had said the ABC’s headquarters in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane should be sold, and the funds used to retire government debt.
In the latest Coalition attack on the national broadcaster, McGrath declared: “The ABC currently operates like a closed-shop, left-wing vortex with an appointments process more secretive than the selection of the Pope”.
The ABC has faced repeated criticism and claims of bias since the Coalition was elected in 2013. A year ago the Liberal Party’s federal council urged it should be privatised – a call immediately rejected by the government.
McGrath said it “needs to shift its headquarters away from the inner-city latte lines to where the ‘quiet Australians’ live, work and play”. It was long past time that it moved to the suburbs or regions, he said.
Questions on notice submitted under Senate estimates showed the ABC’s property portfolio was worth $522 million, he said. “Of the 37 properties in the ABC’s portfolio, Ultimo, Brisbane South Bank and Melbourne Southbank account for 81% of the portfolio’s value. That’s $426 million. What is this achieving for the taxpayer?”
McGrath said given modern technology, there was no reason why the ABC couldn’t operate out of places such as Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Caboolture or Beenleigh.
“For the purposes of conducting interviews, the ABC could easily copy the Sky News model of a small booth close to capital city CBDs.”
He said this was part of a three point plan he proposed for the ABC “to return to its core duties of delivering accurate, factual and unbiased news services and content”.
“The other parts of the plan include calling for all ABC roles to be advertised externally to broaden the diversity of views within the organisation, and for the government to commit to a full review of the ABC’s Charter, taking into account the changing media environment.”
McGrath issued his statement off the back of comments by Nationals leader Michael McCormack who, when asked on Thursday whether the ABC, if it had more funding, could fill gaps left by WIN closures, suggested it could save money by relocating from Ultimo.
“I’m sure that there are plenty of empty shop fronts in Sale or Traralgon or elsewhere where the ABC could quite easily relocate to a regional centre and save themselves a lot of money and then invest that money that they’ve saved by not being in the middle of Sydney, where they don’t need to be, out at a regional centre.”
McCormack’s office later described his comment as tongue-in-cheek. McGrath’s office said his statement was not tongue-in-cheek.
WIN TV is shutting down newsrooms in Orange, Dubbo, Albury, Wagga Wagga in NSW, and Wide Bay in Queensland. McCormack, who formerly edited The Daily Advertiser in Wagga, said he was saddened by the decision.
“I appreciate that the market is tight and the margins are very slim. But I’m really disappointed that WIN has taken this decision. I’m really disappointed that those news bureaus are closing because they’ve done such a sterling job, in some cases, for up to 30 years.”
The Australian Federal Police has this week conducted two high-profile raids on journalists who have exposed government secrets and their sources.
On Tuesday, seven AFP officers spent several hours searching News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s Canberra home, her mobile phone and computer. The AFP linked the raid to “the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret”.
This stemmed from Smethurst’s 2018 article, which contained images of a “top secret” memo and reported that senior government officials were considering moves to empower the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to covertly monitor Australian citizens for the first time.
Soon after, 2GB Radio Presenter Ben Fordham revealed he had been notified by the Department of Home Affairs that he was the subject of a similar investigation, aimed at identifying the source of classified information he had reported regarding intercepted boat arrivals.
The reaction to the raids was immediate and widespread.
The New York Times quoted News Corp’s description of the Smethurst raid as “a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths”. The Prime Minister was quick to distance his government from the AFP’s actions, while opposition leader Anthony Albanese condemned the raids.
The crackdown of the past few days reveals that at least two of the core fears expressed by lawyers and the media industry were well-founded: first, the demise of source confidentiality and, secondly, a chilling effect on public interest journalism.
Upon finding out he was the subject of an investigation aimed at uncovering his sources of government information, Ben Fordham declared
The chances of me revealing my sources is zero. Not today, not tomorrow, next week or next month. There is not a hope in hell of that happening.
Source confidentiality is one of journalists’ most central ethical principles. It is recognised by the United Nations and is vital to a functioning democracy and free, independent, robust and effective media.
One of the greatest threats to source confidentiality is Australia’s uniquely broad data surveillance framework. The 2015 metadata retention scheme requires that all metadata (that is, data about a device or communication but not, say, the communication itself) be retained for two years. It may then be covertly accessed by a wide array of government agencies without a warrant. Some reports suggest that by late 2018, some 350,000 requests for access to metadata were being received by telecommunications service providers each year.
The government was not blind to the potential impact of this scheme on source confidentiality. For example, obtaining metadata relating to a journalist’s mobile phone could reveal where they go and who they contact and easily point to their sources.
This led to the introduction of the “Journalist Information Warrant” (JIW). This warrant is required if an agency wishes to access retained metadata for the direct purpose of identifying a professional journalist’s source.
So, access to a professional journalist’s metadata in order to identify a confidential source is permitted, provided the access has a particular criminal investigation or enforcement purpose and the agency can show it is in the public interest and therefore obtain a JIW.
This week’s raids suggest that either JIWs could not be obtained in relation to Smethurst, Fordham or the ABC Journalists, or the journalists’ metadata did not reveal their sources, or the AFP did not attempt to access their metadata.
Alternatively, if metadata had identified the journalists’ sources, it is less clear why these dramatic developments took place.
After 2015, journalists were advised to avoid using their mobile devices in source communications. They were also encouraged, wherever possible, to encrypt communications.
As well as expanding computer access and network access warrants, the Act provided a means for government agencies to co-opt those in the telecommunications industry to assist agencies with their investigations. This could include covertly installing weaknesses and vulnerabilities in specific devices, circumventing passwords or allowing encrypted communications to be decrypted. A warrant would then be required to access the device and communication data.
It is impossible to know whether Australian journalists have been targeted under the Act or had weaknesses or spyware installed on their personal devices. This week’s raids suggest the AFP would be prepared to target journalists under this framework in order to identify journalists’ confidential sources.
However, this could only be done for some purposes, including in the investigation of a secrecy offence.
In June 2018, the government introduced a suite of new espionage, foreign interference and secrecy offences. This included an offence of current or former Commonwealth officers communicating information, obtained by virtue of their position, likely to cause harm to Australia’s interests. This offence is punishable by imprisonment for seven years. If the information is security classified or the person held a security classification, then they may have committed an “aggravated offence” and be subject to ten years’ imprisonment.
This week’s raids reveal just how common it is for public interest journalism to rely on secret material and government sources.
But the journalists themselves may also be facing criminal prosecution. The 2018 changes include a “general secrecy offence”, whereby it is an offence (punishable by imprisonment for five years) to communicate classified information obtained from a Commonwealth public servant. Fordham’s radio broadcast about intercepted boat arrivals was, for example, a clear communication of classified information.
Again, journalists are offered some protection. If prosecuted, a journalist can seek to rely on the “journalism defence” by proving that they dealt with the information as a journalist, and that they reasonably believed the communication to be in the public interest. The meaning of “public interest” is unclear and, in this context, untested. However, it will take into account the public interest in national security and government integrity secrecy concerns as well as openness and accountability.
Protecting media freedom
Australia has more national security laws than any other nation. It is also the only liberal democracy lacking a Charter of Human Rights that would protect media freedom through, for example, rights to free speech and privacy.
In this context, journalists are in a precarious position – particularly journalists engaged in public interest journalism. This journalism is vital to government accountability and a vibrant democracy, but has a tense relationship with Australia’s national interests as conceived by government.
National security law has severely undercut source confidentiality by increasing and easing data surveillance. National security laws have also criminalised a wide array of conduct related to the handling of sensitive government information, both by government officers and the general public.
And these laws are just a few parts of a much larger national security framework that includes: control orders, preventative detention orders, ASIO questioning and detention warrants, secret evidence, and offences of espionage, foreign interference, advocating or supporting terrorism, and more.
JIWs, and the inclusion of a journalism defence to the secrecy offence, recognise the importance of a free press. However, each of these protections relies on a public interest test. When government claims of national security and the integrity of classifications is weighed into this balance, it is difficult to see how other interests might provide an effective counterbalance.
One of the most disturbing outcomes is not prosecutions or even the raids themselves, but the chilling of public interest journalism. Sources are less likely to come forward, facing risk to themselves and a high likelihood of identification by government agencies. And journalists are less likely to run stories, knowing the risks posed to their sources and perhaps even to themselves.
Against this background, the calls for a Media Freedom Act, such as by the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, have gained significant traction. It may take this kind of bold statement to cut across the complexities of individual laws and both recognise and protect the basic freedom of the press and the future of public interest journalism in Australia.
Despite some reprieve in the 2019 federal budget, the ABC is still in dire financial straits. More job losses and a reduction in services remain on the agenda.
The Coalition government has provided another three years of tied funding of A$43.7 million specifically for the national broadcaster’s “enhanced news-gathering” program. This program supports local news (particularly regional and outer-suburban news gathering), national reporting teams and state-based digital news.
But this funding doesn’t address the broadcaster’s need for more stability in its operational funding.
In July, the ABC will start to feel the full impact of a three-year, A$83.8 million indexation freeze on its funding, which was contained in the 2018 budget. So devastating is the size of that cut – and the ones prior to that – that ABC managers are almost completely focused on money, undermining their capacity to be strategic about the future.
There is no provision in the 2019 budget to restore the funding lost over the past six years and certainly no boost to cater for the dynamic and changing media environment.
Audiences who value what the ABC does now – and what it needs to be doing to support Australian democracy into the future – should take a closer look at the numbers, the way the money has been allocated and the impact of that.
To illustrate the need for more secure operational funding for the ABC, one of the authors of this article, Michael Ward, conducted research on just how much the broadcaster stands to lose in the aggregate over the course of an eight-year period. Ward used a number of public financial sources to build the table below, including ABC portfolio budget statements and ABC answers to Senate Questions on Notice
One of the difficulties in looking at budgets is the way forward estimates work. As the figures in the table show, the past six budgets have included measures to reduce, remove or freeze (indexation) ABC funding, without adding any new funding initiatives.
This has resulted in an accumulated reduction in available funding of A$393 million over a five-year period, starting from May 2014. According to current budget forecasts, this also means the ABC stands to lose A$783 million in funding by 2022, unless steps are taken to remedy the situation.
The Coalition government and others would argue, however, the ABC actually received a reprieve in this year’s budget with committed funding for “enhanced news gathering” because it treats as “new” the renewal of tied fixed-term funding as it expires.
The “enhanced news gathering” and digital delivery funding was first enacted by the former Labor government in 2013. Although “enhanced news gathering” funding has been renewed twice by the Coalition government since then, including in this year’s budget, the amount allocated for the program was slashed in 2016.
So, while it appears that the current budget announcement is good news for the ABC, the reality is, it is simply a continuation of what should be seen as core business.
One way governments of all ilks have tried to control the ABC – and to win voters over – is by providing tied funding to specific programs like this. One of the earliest examples of tied funding was a National Interest Initiative by the Howard government in 2001, and later the Rudd government’s Children’s Channel and Drama Funding Initiative of 2009. These were seen as core to the ABC’s work, and were eventually made part of the ABC’s ongoing budget.
The problem, of course, is that voters do not understand the impact of the cessation of limited-term, tied funding programs.
We argue that tied funding is also contrary to the principles of independent public broadcasting because it effectively forces the broadcaster to prioritise its activities and programs at the current government’s whim. It also inhibits longer-term effective financial planning by the ABC.
Tied funding used by all parties
If elected, the ALP has committed to restore the A$83.8 million indexation freeze for the ABC included in last year’s budget. It has also promised an additional A$15 million for specific projects to restore short wave radio to the Northern Territory and add more local and regional content, emergency broadcasting and a news literacy program aimed at combating misinformation campaigns online.
These commitments are important, but the freeze is just the tip of a funding iceberg that the ABC has been dealing with for the past six years. The continuation of a tied funding approach doesn’t address the underlying budget problem. More needs to be done.
JERAA argued that the ABC has been cowed by repeated parliamentary inquiries, funding cuts and efficiency reviews. These have had a severe impact on the broadcaster’s ability to perform its important role for the Australian people, which includes production of excellent public affairs reporting, local programming, international news, children’s programming and services on a range of current and emerging platforms.
Tied funding stops the ABC from meeting the core components of its legislated obligations, particularly digital content delivery, where the cost of success – increased take up of services – carries an extra financial burden, unlike analogue broadcasting.
Unless the ABC has ongoing stability of funding and ideally an increase that allows it to keep innovating, it won’t be able to maintain relevance in this fast-moving, globalised media world, nor will it be able to continue as a watchdog on people in power, particularly governments.
In appointing Ita Buttrose to chair the ABC, the Morrison government might just have got it right, having got it so hopelessly wrong last time.
Buttrose comes with what might be called three big negative advantages:
she is not a former business associate of the prime minister
she is not a well-known climate-change denier like Maurice Newman, whom John Howard appointed in 2007
she is not a strident culture warrior like Keith Windschuttle, Ron Brunton and Janet Albrechtsen, with whom Howard stacked the ABC board in the early 2000s.
She also has many positive advantages.
She’s tough. She worked for the Packers — Frank and Kerry – and for Rupert Murdoch at senior management and board level. That is not territory for shrinking violets.
She knows the media – albeit mainly print and commercial television. She was founding editor of the ground-breaking magazine Cleo, an assertive magazine for women, openly discussing what were then taboo subjects such as women’s sexuality, which it celebrated with a nude male centrefold.
Its advertising pitch was, “What Cleo wants, Cleo gets”, a statement encouraging women to be ambitious and take their place in the world.
She went on to edit The Australian Women’s Weekly, the Packer flagship, and later was editor-in-chief of Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph in Sydney, before being appointed by him to the News Limited board.
As an editor in the 1980s, she exhibited a strong sense of decency and fairness by standing out against the moral panic in some elements of the media over HIV-AIDS when that disease first emerged in Australia.
Hysterical preachers thundered about how the wrath of God was being brought down on homosexuals and people who engaged in extra-marital sex. Buttrose was part of the more responsible elements of media that repudiated this untruthful and prejudicial drivel.
When tragic cases emerged of HIV-contaminated blood having been used in blood transfusions, she and others such as the then chair of the National AIDS Task Force, Professor David Penington, worked hard to restore public trust in the blood bank, once procedures had been adopted to eliminate the risk.
More recently as national president of Dementia Australia she has been a high-profile advocate for a stronger public policy response to dementia and greater public awareness of the needs of people with dementia.
Given her background, and her demeanour at the media conference at which the prime minister announced her appointment, she promises to bring strong moral leadership to the ABC.
And if it’s one thing the ABC needs in the wake of the disaster that engulfed the former chair Justin Milne and managing director Michelle Guthrie last September, it is strong moral leadership.
Buttrose said she was a devoted ABC listener who believed passionately in the ABC’s independence. She said her priority was to restore stability to the board and management.
She also endorsed the ABC’s continued involvement in digital media, which will give no comfort to those in commercial media who have been campaigning to have the ABC’s wings clipped in this area.
Twice she reiterated the level of trust the Australian public has in the ABC’s news service, making the point that on ABC news, the public got stories they did not get on commercial media.
Asked whether the ABC needed more funding, she said she had not seen the books, but if she thought more funding was needed, “I won’t be frightened to ask”.
Buttrose’s stated attitude to the ABC and the answers she gave at the media conference evoked memories of Sir Zelman Cowen.
He was appointed governor-general in 1977 after Sir John Kerr had bitterly divided the nation by sacking Gough Whitlam as prime minister in 1975.
Upon his appointment, Sir Zelman said he wanted to bring “a touch of healing”.
There is still a lot of healing to be done at the ABC, and the scrutiny arising from last year’s crisis is not over yet.
The surviving members of the ABC board are scheduled to appear next Tuesday (March 5) at the Senate inquiry into political interference in the ABC. What they did – or failed to do – in protecting the independence of the ABC will undoubtedly be a central question.
A major cause of that crisis was the stacking of the board with political mates and special-interest groups who share the government’s worldview.
The ABC Act contains a provision designed to prevent this, but it has been routinely ignored by ministers and prime ministers for decades.
The act provides for an independent nominations panel whose job is to present names to the minister for communications and the prime minister.
Ita Buttrose was not nominated by the panel, as the prime minister revealed in his announcement. Even so, it is a choice that has merit, and if she succeeds in reasserting the ABC’s independence from political interference, that will make a pleasing irony.
Two reports out this week – one into the operations of Facebook and Google, the other into the competitive neutrality of the ABC and SBS – present the federal government with significant policy and political challenges.
The first is by far the more important of the two.
It is the interim report by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission of its Digital Platforms Inquiry, and in a set of 11 preliminary recommendations it proposes far-reaching changes to media regulation.
Of particular interest are its preliminary recommendations for sustaining journalism and news content.
These are based on the premise that there is a symbiotic relationship between news organisations and the big digital platforms. Put simply, the news organisations depend heavily on these platforms to get their news out to their audiences.
The problem, the ACCC says, is that the way news stories are ranked and displayed on the platforms is opaque. All we know – or think we know – is that these decisions are made by algorithms.
The ACCC says this lack of transparency causes concerns that the algorithms and other policies of the platform giants may be operating in a way that affects the production of news and journalistic content.
To respond to this concern, the preliminary recommendation is for a new regulatory authority to be established. It would have the power to peer into these algorithms and monitor, investigate and report on how content – including news content – is ranked and displayed.
The purpose would be to identify the effects of the algorithms and other policies on the production of news and journalistic content.
It would also allow the authority to assess the impact on the incentives for news and journalistic content creation, particularly where news organisations have invested a lot of time and money in producing original content.
In this way, the ACCC is clearly trying to protect and promote the production of public-interest journalism, which is expensive but vital to democratic life. It is how the powerful are held to account, how wrongdoing is uncovered, and how the public finds out what is going on inside forums such as the courts and local councils.
So far, the big news media organisations have concentrated on these aspects of the ACCC interim report and have expressed support for them.
However, there are two other aspects of the report on which their response has been muted.
The first of these is the preliminary recommendation that proposes a media regulatory framework that would cover all media content, including news content, on all systems of distribution – print, broadcast and online.
The ACCC recommends that the government commission a separate independent review to design such a framework. The framework would establish underlying principles of accountability, set boundaries around what should be regulated and how, set rules for classifying different types of content, and devise appropriate enforcement mechanisms.
Much of this work has already been attempted by earlier federal government inquiries – the Finkelstein inquiry and the Convergence Review – both of which produced reports for the Gillard Labor government in 2012.
Their proposals for an overarching regulatory regime for all types of media generated a hysterical backlash from the commercial media companies, who accused the authors of acting like Stalin, Mao, or the Kim clan in North Korea.
So if the government adopts this recommendation from the ACCC, the people doing the design work can expect some heavy flak from big commercial media.
The other aspect of the ACCC report that is likely to provoke a backlash from the media is a preliminary recommendation concerning personal privacy.
Here the ACCC proposes that the government adopt a 2014 recommendation of the Australian Law Reform Commission that people be given the right to sue for serious invasions of privacy.
The media have been on notice over privacy invasion for many years. As far back as 2001, the High Court developed a test of privacy in a case involving the ABC and an abattoir company called Lenah Game Meats.
Now, given the impact on privacy of Facebook and Google, the ACCC has come to the view that the time has arrived to revisit this issue.
The ACCC’s interim report is one of the most consequential documents affecting media policy in Australia for many decades.
The same cannot be said of the other media-related report published this week: that of the inquiry into the competitive neutrality of the public-sector broadcasters, the ABC and SBS.
This inquiry was established in May this year to make good on a promise made by Malcolm Turnbull to Pauline Hanson in 2017.
He needed One Nation’s support for the government’s changes to media ownership laws, without which they would not have passed the Senate.
Hanson was not promised any particular focus for the inquiry, so the government dressed it up in the dull raiment of competitive neutrality.
While it had the potential to do real mischief – in particular to the ABC – the report actually gives both public broadcasters a clean bill of health.
There are a couple of minor caveats concerning transparency about how they approach the issue of fair competition, but overall the inquiry finds that the ABC and SBS are operating properly within their charters. Therefore, by definition, they are acting in the public interest.
This has caused pursed lips at News Corp which, along with the rest of the commercial media, took this opportunity to have a free kick at the national broadcasters. But in the present political climate, the issue is likely to vanish without trace.
While the government still has an efficiency review of the ABC to release, it also confronts a political timetable and a set of the opinion polls calculated to discourage it from opening up another row over the ABC.