So here we are again. Shuffling around in the same old dance, performing the steps we all know so well.
The Government cuts the ABC’s funding yet again, blandly asserting that times are tough and we all need to live within our means.
The public, who love and trust the ABC more than any other media outlet because they see it as their own, express their anger, sadness and fear.
And then, thirty seconds later, this moment of clarity and outrage dissipates as we all fall over each other to argue about which particular bit of the ABC should be cut and which should be saved.
The 7.45am radio news? How dare you! Even though its ratings have apparently fallen 20% in five years as people get their news in different ways.
ABC Life? Toss it to the wolves! Even though it has succeeded in bringing newer, younger audiences and more diverse voices and content to the ABC.
My favourite show or TV star or radio host must be saved at all costs, while the fluff and nonsense I don’t personally care about can be sacrificed. Plus all those fat cat middle managers that apparently litter the hallways of Ultimo like dusty pot plants.
With everyone fighting among themselves over who most deserves to be pushed in front of the firing squad, the Government can then sit back and congratulate itself on a job well done.
Meanwhile, the self-interested and scheming critics of the ABC say it’s only right that funding should be cut because all other media outlets are suffering. Which is a bit like saying that if one of your children falls off their bike and sprains an ankle, you must viciously kick each of your other children in the shins as it is only fair.
In an effort to avoid this all-too-predictable dance, let me put forward three fundamental truths, the last of them being the most important.
Truth Number One. The ABC is woefully underfunded. Back in the mid 1980’s when the Government had around $64 billion to spend, it gave the ABC about $365 million.
The Government now has about $520 billion to spend and gives the ABC just under one billion.
If the ABC’s funding had simply kept pace with inflation, it would have an extra couple of hundred million to play with, instead of facing further cuts. But if its share of growing government revenue had stayed the same, it would have comfortably more than double its current budget, which is coincidentally what some other countries like the UK and Germany spend on their public broadcasting.
The ABC budget is too low—this is beyond rational argument.
Truth Number Two. Every cut to ABC content and services is painful and regrettable. As a former senior ABC executive, I lived through round after round of budget cuts, and the pips have been squeezed out of every lemon. Every area has been doing more with less for so long that they are largely demoralised, frustrated and exhausted. So whether it is children’s content, news bulletins, online content or drama budgets, every cut is a bad decision with a bad outcome.
Truth Number Three. There is something particularly important going on with these latest cuts, and it has been largely lost in the noise. The five year plan released by the ABC prioritises and accelerates the shift from scheduled, linear broadcast content to personalised, digital content. Audiences for broadcast radio and television programs are continuing to stagnate or decline, while at the same time the ABC recently emerged as the number one digital news site in Australia. The latest announcement signals that the ABC has to acknowledge and respond to that even more quickly.
A shift like that costs money and draws resources away from other areas. For over a decade now, the ABC has been able to ride two horses at once—maintaining all of its traditional output while expanding into new areas. That has become increasingly unsustainable, and so the cuts we have seen this week are just the shape of things to come. More long-running programs will come under threat. More traditional platforms will stagnate or be neglected to help pay for growth in online, on demand and mobile content.
If you don’t believe me, have a look at the other major report that was quietly made public this week, the Government’s own expert panel review into the ABC’s efficiency.
Like so many expert panels that the Government hopes will provide it with an excuse to cut the ABC budget even further, this review did the opposite. It concluded that the ABC (surprise, surprise) needed more funding, not less.
It correctly identified that the ABC needed to undertake ‘significant investment in digital platforms’—something the corporation’s five year plan focuses on—and goes on to say ‘that is unlikely to be possible without additional short-term funding support’.
So where do we find ourselves? With an ABC that is doing the right thing by embracing difficult change to ensure it remains relevant to Australians and their changing habits of media consumption. With a Government that is deliberately starving it of the funds it needs to make those changes. And with a public that too often focuses on which of their favourite programs is disappearing as part of that change.
I confidently predict that in the next budget the Government will once again cut the ABC’s budget even further. And the old familiar dance will resume. It might be time to change the tune.