Monday, November 24, 2014

When is a cut not a cut – it’s as simple as ABC

What is currently happening with budget cuts to the ABC and SBS will have significant long-term impact as the long-term effect produces the same kind of damage that has occurred with the other national cultural institutions.

In fact the efficiency dividends the other institutions are subject to are much smaller than the cut to the ABC, usually around 1.25% a year – though they have been known to have extra ‘one-off’ components added in particular years. Even when small they have devastating long-term effects because of the way they are compounded, with each percentage reduction being on top of all the previous ones.

Like many national organisations the ABC has a degree of Sydney-centric focus and there is room for improvement but it still does regional better than most

This is particularly worrying because apart from its mainstream flagship programs the ABC produces invaluable projects linked to local communities which no-one else is likely to pick up. Such positive projects - relatively new and not widely known - are likely to be some of the first under threat. A good example is the tremendous series of programs about Indigenous languages being produced by the Mother Tongue project of ABC Open.

I’ve previously not written anything about what the current Government is doing to the ABC and SBS apart from a brief comment in the series of articles I produced at the time of the Federal Budget. There I noted that ‘there are changes in other individual portfolios which are likely to have impacts on the arts and culture sector but which are difficult to assess at this early stage. This includes … support by the ABC and SBS for content production in the creative industries.’

It’s now clear that we have moved far beyond that.

There are a number of side issues that obscure the central reality so let’s deal with them at the start. The first side issue is that according to the Government, it’s not a cut, it’s just budget fine-tuning or an efficiency dividend – something the ABC and SBS have avoided, unlike other national cultural institutions or government departments, for 27 years due to election commitments from both major parties to ‘maintain the real level of funding’ for each broadcaster. Supposedly the ABC and SBS are now simply being asked to contribute to the savings needed to balance the budget. The amount is relatively low, the argument goes, so it shouldn’t have much impact

The second side issue which can divert us is the ‘front office/back office’ dead end. When cuts occur it’s often said that they will all be back office jobs and will not effect the services delivered by the organisation. The problem is that ‘back office’ jobs exist to enable ‘front office’ jobs to get on with the job – and there aren’t that many of them to begin with. Often, even in a relatively large cultural organisation like the ABC, high quality programs are produced by very small teams and a reduction, even small, can mean the difference between a program being produced or being abandoned.

The third side issue is the need for the ABC to address its shortcomings. It’s not that the ABC doesn’t have them – a large organisation, concentrated in Sydney is always going to have to work hard to overcome a city-centric approach. However the ABC probably does regional better than anyone else. I don’t for one moment doubt that the ABC is bound up in all the rigidities and lack of innovation that afflicts any large organisation – public or private. This, too, is a side issue. All large (and small) organisations need to be continually reviewing how they could improve what they do. Reducing funding seems to be a strange way to encourage this to occur. It’s likely to concentrate the ABC on doing more of what it does normally and less on the interesting and innovative new areas that will take it forward.

The fourth side issue is that the ABC has been accused of lacking ‘balance’. My question would be balance between what – between the views of the two major political parties? ‘Balance’ is one of the most misused words in journalism. Other media organisations make no pretense of exhibiting ‘balance’, whatever it is. At least the ABC makes an attempt to reflect the diversity of the Australian population and the views of community organisations.

The fifth side issue is that these cuts affect both the ABC and SBS but most of the discussion has been around the ABC. The two organisations are very different so it’s important to see both in the broader context in which these cuts occur.

So let’s not get lost in these many secondary issues – they are just a sideshow. There are two things we need to bear in mind if we want to understand what is happening – why it is happening and what will happen as a result.

There are two reasons this is happening. Firstly, fundamentally the Government intensely dislikes the ABC – because it doesn’t toe the party line and manages to produce programs that can actually embarrass Governments.

Secondly the Government sees little role for any Government bodies in doing much at all, let alone being a large scale producer and broadcaster of content in a sector dominated by powerful private corporations. These companies need to be profitable and they don’t want competition if it can be avoided. That the ABC also has a role in assisting small creative business who produce content by commissioning programs is by the by.

However the cuts are not as popular with voters as they are with Coalition politicians.

The next question is what will happen? Here we need to avoid looking at this as just an issue affecting the ABC. It affects all the major national cultural institutions supported by the Commonwealth. Unlike these other institutions there is a degree of bizarre vindictiveness about the treatment of the ABC but that shouldn’t obscure the common impact on all of them. These major cultural institutions are both essential services and essential assets for Australia, with massive holdings of our heritage and cultural material and major responsibilities to collect, preserve, manage and provide access to it.

They are not just important for what they collect today. They are a vast repository of our history and heritage going back many decades. The National Library of Australia for example was formally established in 1960, over half a century ago, but has effectively been functioning as a National Library since the beginning of the 20th Century.

The so-called efficiency dividend (corporate speak if ever it was spoken) has steadily and remorselessly ground down the national cultural organisations over the last decade or so. Though deceptively small, it has had such a damaging impact because of the compounding effect over many years that I refer to in my earlier Budget article.

This is despite the fact that with a growing population to service and an ever-expanding body of material to collect, catalogue, preserve and store, their responsibilities are growing, not diminishing.

Though it has been referred to as a form of efficiency dividend, the cut to the ABC is not yet like the one the other institutions bear. However it is at a much greater level (closer to 5% compared to the efficiency dividend which is round 1.25%, though it has in recent times had extra added from time to time – in 2012-13 it was a base rate of 1.5% plus and extra ‘one-off’ component of 2.5%). If the government subsequently decides to impose the annual efficiency dividends on the ABC as well then the cumulative impact will be worse.

Now that for the first time the Government has abandoned earlier promises of maintaining real levels of funding, it is only a matter of time before the ABC too becomes caught up in the annual efficiency dividend which affects all the other national cultural institutions.

Malcolm Fraser has added his voice to the discussion, which unfortunately reinforces the reality that it will be held only amongst those who don’t support the current Government. ‘Forced cuts from the ABC and SBS … it is part of a whole ideological approach, which to me is to ultimately get rid of publicly funded broadcasting,' Fraser said. ‘The government does not believe in government activity. They're not prepared to say so straight out in relation to ABC and SBS, because both are too popular.’ ‘We are seeing an ideological program designed to get rid of both [the ABC and SBS].’

Fraser said it was ‘lousy’ politics and that the government did ‘not accept that there were some things that the government needs to do if they are going to be done well’. He commented ‘I would like to see the ABC operating, certainly throughout Asia, with the kind of reputation that the BBC holds worldwide. And the BBC is one of the most reliable news reporters. It always has been and that's good for Britain. The ABC is the only organisation that can do that for Australia.’

This latest action by the Government is just the next step in a series of attempts to undermine the ABC and SBS. The first finally came to fruition when the Government, after years of trying to move away from the role of the ABC, awarded the contract for the Australia Network service to a private media company, Sky News. The satellite-delivered TV service broadcasts Australia’s voice into Asia and is far too important to be the responsibility of anything but a Government body.

Many commentators have made the point that this latest development breaks an election promise by the Government. As we know from their time in opposition, that’s something the Government thinks is VERY bad. Unfortunately the disregard for their own promises seems to be a feature of a Government of entitlement, convinced it is ‘born to rule’ and can therefore treat voters with the contempt they deserve.

Unfortunately, partisan ideological warfare better suited to a university campus – however much dressed up as a routine administrative process – is not nearly enough. What Australia needs is big thinking about the potential role of our cultural organisations, especially in Asia, over the next 50 years.

The story continues:

As you would expect the ABC cuts have produced a range of views from across the spectrum.

See Louise Evans, The ABC has flab to be cut.

Response from Andrew Ford, Aunty flexible, not flabby.
 

See also my other related articles

 

Creative industries

‘The developing creative industries are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, at their core based on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.’ Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture.

 

Long term effect of broader Budget cuts far more damaging

'Wider budget cuts combined over years will have a compounding effect on arts and culture far more damaging than anything immediate.' After the Budget: the future landscape for Australian arts and culture.

 

Selective drive-by shooting

‘The Budget was a selective drive-by shooting with easy targets including small arts. Entitlement continues for others.’ After the Budget: a selective drive-by shooting.

 

Things could be worse

‘The problem is not just the level of arts cuts, which may well be lower than in many other areas. It’s the nature of the cuts.’ After the Budget: things could be worse.

 

Support for small scale arts and culture

'Budget cuts only to uncommitted funding sound benign but will end programs by letting them peter out over several years.' After the Budget: Government support for small scale arts and culture – here today, gone tomorrow.

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