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Whose ABC? A plaything for everyone

Mark Scott: Seized the opportunity to shape the corporation to match his vision of the future. Photo: Mal Fairclough

One of the first things you learn in journalism is that there are many truths. So it’s true that Tony Abbott said he would not cut money from the ABC and the government has – unequivocally – broken this promise. At the last election Mr Abbott talked about a “contract” with the Australian people.  Perhaps you didn’t read the fine print.

Equally, however, Mark Scott seized the opportunity to shape the corporation to match his vision of the future. He hasn’t sought to minimise pain. This is his ABC. You decide if it’s the same as yours.

To Mr Abbott first. Everyone’s (repeatedly) seen the promise he made on SBS just before the election. It was plain, unambiguous and explicit, just like the one Julia Gillard made about a carbon tax. He insisted no money would be ripped out of the public broadcasters. But the vindictive desire to punish was too strong.  Why should the ABC escape the belt tightening? The government couldn’t help itself. Make no mistake – this is spiteful. It has nothing to do with “efficiency”. There’s plenty of money to be found for pet projects like school chaplaincies and marriage counselling; more than enough to cover what it will get back from the corporation.

This is about priorities and punishment.

But the ABC shouldn’t be let off either. It could have found this money in lots of ways, but a cold, calculating decision was taken to slash exactly where it will cause the most (obvious) grief. Mr Scott’s using this as an excuse to usher in changes he wanted anyway. He has radically changed the nature of the public broadcaster. Its news coverage is now very broad, yet extremely shallow. It’s not the organisation I joined many years ago.

Some things needed to change. When I was appointed the (Bangkok-based) ABC Indochina correspondent, for example, I had five staff, lived in a huge house next to the Malaysian ambassador; and, best of all, wasn’t even 30! Those were the days …

But all good things come to an end and a few years later I found myself a project officer in the new international division. I was paying for my fun. That was when the first financial crunch arrived.

The Aussie dollar was spiralling downwards. The cost of operating, specifically communications expenses, was soaring. There wasn’t any more money in the pot. I was asked to find possible ways of saving money. Naturally, to ensure my favoured option was chosen, I created the horror alternative. This was closing the bureaux in New Delhi and Tokyo. India, because so little of the output ever managed to fight its way onto the domestic service and Japan, because of the enormous cost per minute of  on-air broadcast time (by far the most expensive). Correspondents would be replaced by a team of specialists based in Sydney, who would fly in and out as required.

My lovely manager, Ian Macintosh, was rightly horrified. “Look,” he said, “closing Delhi will save virtually nothing and Tokyo is too important. We can’t do it.”

So we didn’t. Other ways were found to shave money off operating costs. Since that time the corporation’s suffered another two decades of belt tightening. The cumulative impact, most particularly on international coverage, has been severe. This week the ABC finally implemented the dreadful changes I’d recommended so long ago. Except  that this time there won’t be any reinforcements located elsewhere.

The organisation that was once a repository of expertise no longer exists. The corporation that prided itself as one of the best broadcasters of the world, to the world, has already gone. Mr Scott was offered many hints and warnings to avoid funding being stripped from Television Australia earlier this year. He wilfully ignored them. My wife, Catherine McGrath, and other brilliant correspondents like Sean Dorney and Jim Middleton departed in that cull.

Now more exceptional journalists such as Greg Wilesmith are already being shown the door. No “competitive process” for them, thanks very much. That’s because they’d win, but they’re too much trouble; they’re not on board with the new “vision”. The organisation can’t wait to jettison experienced staff like this. The very people who are preventing it becoming a shallow transmitter of the latest breaking story before moving quickly along to its next breathless report. They’re not wanted in today’s ABC.

And this is where we get back to the notion of “truth”. Mr Scott has a clear idea of where he’s taking the corporation. He’s proved a particularly adept political player. Crossing this one-time Liberal staffer without a plan to neuter, or emasculate him first was especially stupid.

The difference between now and back when I did my cost-saving exercise isn’t that the corporation has (proportionally) any less money available to fund the bureaux. It’s just a matter of priorities.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.

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

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