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Lewis report on ABC canvasses role for minister in directing how cuts be made

Malcolm Turnbull: The Lewis review has recommended the Minister for Communications be clear on the government’s expectations of the ABC. Photo: Alex EllinghausenThe federal government would gain new powers to set out what it expects from the ABC, raising fears of political interference in the national broadcaster, under a recommendation of the confidential Lewis review.

And some services now provided for free may attract a user charge as the government looks to rein in costs and clip the ABC’s wings.

The Lewis review into the ABC and SBS has recommended the Minister for Communications issue each broadcaster with “a statement of the government’s expectations” relating to “financial management and transparency”.

A leaked copy, obtained by Fairfax Media, also reveals Peter Lewis identified a number of efficiency measures that have not been taken up by the ABC or SBS, which would be highly controversial with viewers and within the broadcast industry.

These include outsourcing most of the ABC’s production, scrapping the retransmission of the ABC and the SBS on Foxtel’s cable services (which could have implications for viewers with poor reception), scrapping digital radio and charging for the ABC’s iView service.

The proposed “statement of the government’s expectations” will fuel suspicions of potential political interference in editorial policy given the Coalition’s well documented hostility to the broadcaster’s approach.

In February this year, Prime Minister Tony Abbott used a radio interview in Sydney to complain, arguing “a lot of people feel at the moment that the ABC instinctively takes everyone’s side but Australia’s”.

Greens senator Scott Ludlam said the suggestion “really crosses the line, especially with all the ‘Team Australia’ talk Mr Abbott has engaged in”.

As the debate over the ABC’s announced cuts continues to cause angst within the Coalition, notably for members from rural areas, Mr Turnbull is expected to release the Lewis report on Monday, when Senate committees hold more hearings.

In his speech announcing a cut of $207 million over four years from the ABC 10 days ago Mr Turnbull made an oblique reference to the controversial proposal. “An interesting insight from the efficiency study was that the ABC and SBS boards would benefit from a clearer understanding of the government’s budget priorities and the outcomes that the government is seeking from its annual investment of taxpayers’ money,” he said

The proposal has been raised privately with the ABC board, which is understood to be strongly opposed to this level of intervention because it fears directions on where cuts should be made would amount to editorial intervention.

The Lewis report acknowledged that  “a ministerial statement of expectations would be controversial and could give rise to concerns that the government is intervening in the ABC and SBS for political reasons”.

But the report went on to say that such a statement “would assist boards to clearly understand the efficiency and financial outcomes the government is seeking”.

The minister already has power under the ABC and SBS Acts to bring policy considerations to the attention of the board. This has mainly been used in relation to industrial relations matters.

The Lewis recommendation appears to contemplate a mechanism where the minister can direct the national broadcaster on a more granular level, including where cuts should be made.

Senator Ludlam said he was mystified by the role of the Nationals in the ABC funding controversy because it was “always obvious” that regional services would be trimmed if cuts were made.

“That’s why you have a national broadcaster, so not every decision is made on profit and loss critieria but on social needs also,” he said.

Other highlights of the report are:

* A strong preference towards outsourcing programming production.  The reason why the ABC spends a much higher proportion of its budget on staff is that it makes a higher proportion of its programming in-house than the commercial networks. The Lewis report found that outsourcing production facilities would save $0.4 million a year and $90 million in capital costs (the cost of studios) but would cost $21.6 million.

* A recommendation that the ABC and SBS get out of digital radio and instead build up streaming on the internet and mobile. This would save $3.8 million a year for the ABC and $2.1 million for SBS, though it would cost $20 million to implement. The move would deeply upset the commercial radio industry, which has made big investments in digital radio and would require legislation.

* Charging for iView. The report suggested this service should be “monetised” by charging after a short period of free access, particularly as its popularity meant the bandwitdth cost would increase rapidly.

* Ceasing retransmission of the ABC and SBS on Foxtel. This would save $6 million a year for the broadcasters, but the ABC is committed until 2017 and SBS warned termination might affect its income earning channel, World movies.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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