President's Report

April 2017

The first three months of 2017 have not been good for the ABC

Whilst the ABC remains one of our most trusted and valued institutions in the estimation of the Australian public, it has been severely damaged by a series of highly contentious and unpopular decisions by ABC Management. The result of these decisions has been further loss of talented, experienced and dedicated program makers and presenters, and the many technical staff who supported them. Morale within ABC staff is at an all-time low.

Recently departed Board Member Professor Fiona Stanley summed it up thus: “The people who know most about content and the audience they serve are not being sufficiently consulted. The ABC has a fabulous, passionate, intelligent, wonderful staff with deep knowledge in their fields. Engage more with them!”

Catalyst may return in another form (in fact we believe it will later in 2017), but probably not the almost 20 specialist science broadcasters who have been lost. The ‘Save RN Music’ campaign has been passionate and sustained, with over 25,000 signatures on a petition to restore music programs to Radio National, but the specialists who produced those programs are long gone.

200 More Jobs Gone

Loss of funding under the Abbott and Turnbull governments has already seen 500 ABC jobs disappear. The much anticipated Guthrie “restructure” will see another 200 staff out the door. Whilst the early suggestions from Ms Guthrie were that most of these jobs would be “middle management” and “back office” jobs, it is now known that up to 70 production staff on programs like 7.30 and Foreign Correspondent - camera operators, vision mixers, lighting producers - will go. One stated aim of these cuts is to provide up to 80 content roles in Regional Australia over the next 18 months, and Friends would support strongly the rebuilding of resources and staff in regional locations, but we have seen no details of such a proposal. Further detail on the cuts can be found in this Update.

Short Wave Transmission
The announcement on December 6, 2016, that the ABC would cease shortwave broadcasts on January 31, 2017, has proved to be a public relations disaster for Michelle Guthrie and ABC Management, which seems to have moved into the “Post Truth” era in a rather desperate attempt to justify its decision by providing a series of “alternative facts.” Regarded by many Australians and our Pacific neighbours as an essential service, the closure has resulted in three separate Federal Government processes of scrutiny:

1) Senate Estimates Inquiry (ongoing)
2) ABC Amendment (Rural and Regional Advocacy) Bill 2015 (Public hearings already held)
3) ABC Amendment (Restoring Shortwave Radio) Bill 2017 (Receiving submissions.)

The final bill above has been introduced by South Australian Senator Xenophon, and proposes that Federal funding be guaranteed to maintain the short wave service. Ms Guthrie had rather a tough time in Senate Estimates under very informed questioning by Senators McCarthy (Labor, NT) and McKenzie (Nat. Victoria), especially on the question of consultation with those affected prior to the decision. She claimed that there was, but could not say with whom. Friends’ investigations have satisfied us that there was none, not even with long-serving ABC staff in NT, and no member of ABC Management visited NT to discuss the implications of closure with staff or users of short wave. The annual cost of this essential service to Australians in Northern Australia - $1.2m. (The cost of one hour’s TV drama!) Much more on short wave in this Update.

Another milestone in the story of ABC services to all Australians across our vast continent has just been passed - 70 years of ABC staff, studios and facilities in the Northern Territory, concentrated in Alice Springs, Katherine and Darwin. Go to the Friends’ website to find stories from ABC reporters, with their vivid recollections of their time as Territorians, including Tony Eastley and the trials of Lindy Chamberlain; Clare Martin (later NT Chief Minister) and Land Rights; Charlie King and the achievements of NT sportsmen and women; Matt Peacock and the Stolen Generations or the Ozone Hole. Their stories reflect NT as our “last frontier,” and yes, Territorians are different from the rest of us!

How incomprehensible, then, that current ABC management should deny thousands of Territorians access to their ABC in 2017 by turning off short wave.

ABC Friends expresses its appreciation to departing chairman James Spigelman for having a steady hand on the ABC tiller throughout the past 5 tumultuous years in the life of the ABC, years which have seen unprecedented cuts in funding from the Abbott and Turnbull governments, sustained attacks from politicians of the right with their accusations of bias, and the relentless campaign waged by the Murdoch press and its lackeys against the very existence of a publicly funded broadcaster. The fact that Spigelman was willing to serve another 5 year term, but the Turnbull government preferred that he didn’t, suggests that he was doing a very good job! The same government which has ignored its own selection processes and given a position on the board to its own chosen candidate - Vanessa¬†Guthrie.

We welcome Justin Milne - thousands of words in the press have been expended on his background, and in this Update, Ranald Macdonald has posed some questions for him. We welcome him to one of the most important public offices in the country, and look forward to a positive dialogue with him.

December Update featured Four Corners, recipient of Friends’ National Award for Broadcasting Excellence, in recognition of an extraordinary 55 years of courageous investigative journalism. Our front page this issue features Caro Meldrum-Hanna, just announced as the Graham Perkin Journalist of the Year for “Australia’s Shame,” her devastating Four Corners program on the Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre in NT. We congratulate Caro, and the 8 other ABC journalists who have won awards, listed in this Update. You are the reason why we must fight to the last breath to keep the ABC strong, independent, and free of political and commercial influence, so that you can continue to report with honesty and courage the often dark truths in our nation.

Mal Hewitt
President ABC Friends NSW & ACT

Mal Hewitt - President FABC NSW