It has been a very busy start to the year. The first major event for NSW Friends was a visit to meet the senior management team at Classic FM. Mal Hewitt (NSW Vice President), Angela Williamson, Gayle Davies (Secretary) and myself were warmly greeted and treated to a tour of the ABC’s studios. We then raised a list of concerns and explored them with Chris Scaddan and his team. Mal has written an account of this important meeting in the March Update.
Next was the ABC’s inaugural Public Meeting on the 9th February. Several Friends had managed to secure seats, including Angela Williamson, Chris Cartledge, Gayle Davies, Margaret Foy, Sue Noske and myself. A report is included in the March Update. The Meeting stirred a great deal of discussion amongst Friends and varied views were expressed via email and other channels. The NSW Committee at its meeting on the 12th February resolved: “That this NSW Committee congratulates the ABC on holding its first annual public meeting. The Chair, MD, and CFO reminded attendees of the ABC’s extraordinary contribution to the quality of life of Australian citizens. At the same time, funding for the ABC has been cut in real terms by nearly a third since the 1980s. David Hill ABC MD in late 1980s calculated that the ABC cost every Australian 8c per day. In 2018 it is now a derisory 4c a day. Restoring ABC funding especially in the context of broad media upheaval and concern over false news is imperative. While managers fielded a number of selected tough questions about dumbing down, bias, commitment to RN, etc. - ABC Friends will welcome the opportunity for more discussion and more audience engagement at future public meetings.”
A significant number of members have contacted us over the ABC’s planned changes to its libraries and collections of books, CDs and records across Australia. Gayle Davies, a former senior librarian, has taken up the issue, liaising with the Australian Library and Information Association. In her submission to Minister Fifield on this matter she wrote: “Reports of the proposed closure of the ABC's sound and reference libraries, centralisation of collections, the digitisation, then disposal of hard copy materials, followed by the retrenchment of ten librarians to save wages, are profoundly disturbing, and require clarification by ABC management.” Her report on this is also in the March Update.
At the end of February, my partner, Sybille, and I set off for a series of meetings with Branches up the coast. Our first meeting was at Armidale, where I met with media and communication academics at the University of New England and then attended the local Branch's AGM. Bruce Stevenson gave an excellent overview of the year’s activities and intentions for the period ahead. I was then invited to talk and my focus at this and subsequent meetings was on the critical importance of public broadcasting; the major threats posed by political parties intent on cutting funds to public broadcasting and curbing the independence of public broadcasters; the threats posed by commercial competitors such as the Murdoch stable who appear to seize every opportunity to attack the ABC and press government for its emaciation if not extinction; digital disruption; and, the most important role for ABC Friends. Our next Branch was at Bangalow; some sixty Friends were in attendance. Our final two stops were Port Macquarie and Central Coast. My sincere thanks to Bruce Stevenson at Armidale, Peter Dickson and Jennie Hicks at Bangalow; Drusi Megget at Port Macquarie and Ross McGowan, Central Coast, for all their work in arranging the events and for their kind hospitality. It was a delight to meet with them and so many members and to hear their concerns and views first hand. While there is a familiar list of concerns about the ABC-dumbing down of TV News and 7.30 Reports, frustration at the number of BBC repeats on TV, distress over the loss of talented presenters on Classic FM- there is an absolute determination that the Friends must fight for the ABC to be properly funded and independent of government meddling. The ABC is seen to be essential to the quality of life of all Australians and vital for the functioning of democracy in this country.
The NSW Committee is in the process of exploring links with media, journalism and other departments in Universities to see whether there might be areas of mutual assistance. For instance, might the Friends be able to assist university students doing assignments on public broadcasting and can we find out who is doing research on areas that are of concern to us? Are there students who might be able to assist us with submissions to government inquiries or with IT?
Finally, NSW is hoping to run a State Conference in mid or late August this year. We have sought expressions of interest in hosting the event from our Branches. We will be finalising the location, dates and agenda in the next couple of months.
The ABC’s Inaugural Public Meeting *The ABC presented its inaugural Public Meeting at 10 am, 9 February, 2018. The host venue was Studio 22, at the ABC’s headquarters in Ultimo, Sydney. Two other audiences were linked to the event, at studios in Launceston and Rockhampton. The proceedings were also streamed by the ABC. The meeting had been advertised for some weeks by the ABC and interested people were encouraged to seek seats at one of the venues and to submit questions. All seats were taken. The ABC’s Chair, Justin Milne; Managing Director, Michelle Guthrie; Chief Finance Officer, Louise Higgins and five other Directors were on the stage at Sydney.
The host was Michael Rowland, a well-known face from ABC News Breakfast on TV. He welcomed all-comers warmly and with gentle humour sought sympathy for his plight in having to perform on the same stage as his bosses. He outlined the format for the meeting and explained that some 350 questions had been submitted. These had been examined by an independent organisation which had grouped the questions into nine themes; a question would be selected from each and put to the senior managers in the room. First, the ABC’s Chair, MD and CFO would give short addresses (1). As a warm-up, there was a video reflecting on the ABC’s extraordinary history. This would prove to be the first of six videos, touching on various aspects of the ABC’s role and experience. While the videos were certainly well made and interesting, they took up considerable time and many in the audience and watching the streamed version may have preferred more time on discussion of the issues pressing the ABC.
Chairman Justin Milne’s address began by recognising the unique quality of the ABC and its place of deep trust in the Australian community:
“The ABC is loved and trusted by the majority of Australians. Well over 80% of us trust the ABC more than any other media organisation in the land, including all of the other TV networks, radio networks, newspaper publishers, the huge overseas online platform players, and the social media businesses. The ABC is indispensable, particularly in far-flung parts of the country where few media companies venture. It reaches out to Australians at home and work at every stage of their lives. It’s unique in its ability to unite the nation, facilitate the important conversations we must have, and to nourish the minds of our children. It is the keystone for independence, trust and quality in a splintering and increasingly shrill media sector.”
At the same time, he noted the rapid change occurring in the media industry. The impact of computers and the internet had revolutionised the media with far-reaching implications for the ABC. The ABC had determined that it would not be left behind by the digital revolution; indeed, arguably it had led the way in iView and the development of podcasts. A new strategy had been developed: ABC 2.0 and this would involve using multiple platforms to deliver content to audiences. He went on to provide this reassurance:
“ABC 2.0 is not a substitute for broadcast. It is additive. We have absolutely no plans to reduce our presence on TV or Radio. We see both Radio and Television extending for many, many years into the future and we will continue to invest in them, love them and improve them.”
Managing Director, Michelle Guthrie, followed suit and in similar terms stated the ABC’s commitment ‘to the core broadcast services the ABC has always provided.’ Her emphasis was on the distinctive and invaluable role of the organisation:
“The ABC matters now more than ever before. Australians are increasingly faced with programming that is generic and superficial. Audiences are having to make choices in a fragmented media landscape. And there is a crying need for depth, independence and critical analysis.”
She outlined with pride the ABC’s achievements:
“We are the news source Australians trust more than any other. Our news teams break stories that start national conversations, frame debates, lead to Royal Commissions, and hold accountable politicians on all sides. Our investment in public interest journalism is an investment in both diversity and in democracy.”
And, Radio National received a favourable mention as the unit to ‘set the national conversation.’ She finished by stressing the critical nature of the ABC’s role in providing independent and high quality news and analysis. This had never been more critical and underlined the importance of proper funding for the ABC: ‘A well-funded ABC is a strong ABC.’
The message about funding was driven home by the next speaker, the ABC’s Chief Finance Officer, Louise Higgins. She stated that the ABC’s funding had declined in real terms by approximately a third since the mid-1980s. Its funding had declined by more than $200 million over the past five years. In the mid-1980s, the ABC’s then Managing Director, David Hill, had highlighted that the ABC cost each Australian 8 cents per day. In real terms, the cost was now 4 cents per day. Further, the ABC received a budget one eighth the size of the BBC’s while serving a population one third and spread over a dramatically larger landscape. Indeed, the ABC appears a poor relation in terms of the funding enjoyed by many OECD public broadcasters. Looked at another way, as indicated by commentator David Tiley, around 1980 the ABC accounted for 0.6% of federal government revenue; it is now 0.3% (2).
The three addresses and five videos to this point had taken up 55 of the scheduled 90 minutes for the meeting. The next section canvassed nine questions to be put to ABC Managers.
The questions related to the frequency of ‘promos’ on radio and tv, the alleged dumbing down of news and current affairs, excessive repeats, the ABC’s duty to protect democracy, bias, cutbacks in rural and regional programs, reliance on public funding, the status of RN, and threats to adequate funding for ABC News and Current Affairs.
The questions were fielded by Justin Milne, Michelle Guthrie and senior managers in the room. In brief, Michelle Guthrie defended ABC efforts to inform its listeners about forthcoming programs and how they might be accessed. Gaven Morris, Head of News, emphasised that the ABC was lifting its investment in investigative journalism and spreading its reports across a wider range of programs. David Anderson, Director of TV, acknowledged that the ABC saw international acquisitions as important; at the same time there had been a substantial investment in Australian content and he referred to programs to be shown later in 2018. Justin Milne agreed that the ABC had a most important role in protecting the function of democracy in Australia and pointed to the ABC’s sterling work on state and federal elections. Head of Editorial Policy, Alan Sunderland, made the familiar point that the ABC is routinely accused of being too left and too right. He pointed to the strict editorial standards that guided the ABC’s coverage of issues.
Fiona Reynolds, Director of ABC Regional, provided strong reassurance that rural and regional interests remained a priority. Michelle Guthrie emphasised her view that public funding was a major part of the ABC’s strength; it was owned by and belonged to the Australian people. Michael Mason, Director of Radio, sought to calm fears in relation to the survival of RN. He proclaimed that RN was a ‘national treasure’; its specialised audience was highly respected and valued. RN would not be cut. Finally, Justin Milne tackled the question of alleged funding cuts to News and Current Affairs and deleterious repercussions. He stressed that demonstrating accuracy in reporting was essential to maintaining community trust in the ABC; the ABC would continue to maintain the highest possible standards in its reporting.
Michael Rowland asked the audience to thank the ABC Executives for their addresses and participation, thanked all attendees for coming and closed the meeting around 11.25.
Various members of the NSW ABC Friends were in attendance in Sydney and several members of the National Committee watched the streamed version. Initial reactions appear to be that the ABC has reminded the broader community about the extraordinary and most important role played by the ABC, most especially in these perilous times of ferocious attacks from extreme politicians wishing to see the ABC neutered and from the Murdoch camp, unwilling to brook any competition in the media market. Reassurances about ABC Management’s commitment to continue with existing radio and tv broadcasting and commitment to RN were also most welcome. There was great appreciation that the ABC had taken steps to communicate with its loyal audience on the issues facing the organisation and on its strategic intentions.
The main disappointments related to the excessively managed feel of the event and the lack of time and opportunity for more discussion and even audience participation. Perhaps it would be naive to expect a braver approach but the ABC can certainly be encouraged to allocate less time at the next Public Meeting to videos, less time to addresses and more to discussion. Taking contributions from the floor might be considered. Further issues include timing and location. The 10 am Eastern Standard Time start meant an early rise for streamers in the West. There is already a feeling in some quarters that the ABC is overly Sydney-centric. ABC Management may wish to weigh up the benefits of an alternative location for the next one. Finally, the ABC is certainly to be congratulated for holding this event, for its determination to communicate with its audience and for its very strong message in regard to the unique role played by the ABC and the absolute imperative that it must be properly funded.
(1) The Addresses by the ABC Chairman, Justin Milne; Managing Director, Michelle Guthrie and Chief Finance Officer, Louise Higgins are available on the ABC’s website: http://about.abc.net.au/apm/
(2) David Tiley, "ABC downhill for thirty years-here’s how", screenhub, http://www.screenhub.com.au/news-article/news/policy/david-tiley/abc-downhill-for-thirty-years-heres-how-255197
* My thanks to Sue Pinnock and other members of the National Committee who contributed their views.