The latest redundancies at the ABC are a cruel blow to public interest journalism and its role in holding the powerful to account.
As our most trusted news source and public broadcaster, the ABC plays a critical role in Australia’s democracy that cannot be taken for granted.
The Guardian’s Amanda Meade broke the news of a new wave of 120 redundancies, reporting that the ABC intends to divert resources from traditional broadcasting to digital platforms like ABC iview, ABC Listen and ABC News.
The restructure will see the ABC abolish its state-based 7pm Sunday night bulletins (replaced by a national bulletin) and cut 41 jobs from the news division, including camera and sound operators, editors and of course journalists from the Australian Story, Four Corners and investigations team.
There’s no doubt the ABC’s five-year plan to shift the public broadcaster to a ‘digital first’ approach is necessary. Perhaps the world’s most best-known public broadcaster, the BBC, is planning to be online only within the next 10 years.
As citizens and consumers, the way we access news and content has changed dramatically from analogue to digital and from scheduled programming to streaming video on demand. The New York Times’ famous slogan is ‘all the news that’s fit to print’, but each day now produces more news than could ever be printed.
Every morning I read newspaper articles, watch news broadcasts and listen to the radio on my smartphone without going near a newspaper, radio or television. The ABC must adapt in order to thrive in this new landscape, but the announced redundancies and where they have been targeted seem odd to say the least.
“I’ve been informed that the national broadcaster no longer needs a political editor,” wrote Andrew Probyn, after it was announced his position was to be made redundant, shocking many in the press gallery.
As the news broke, veteran political journalist Laurie Oakes observed that the ABC’s 7pm bulletin news package on allegations of sexual harassment against Senator David Van did not include the late-breaking statement from former Liberal Senator Amanda Stoker. “Pathetic!” he tweeted, “And they don’t think they need a political editor.”
Investigative journalism is always the most difficult thing to resource for any news organisation, but to cut from Four Corners and ABC investigations seems extremely short-sighted. Has any investigative news program done more to expose corruption and misconduct than Four Corners, whose reporting has kickstarted at least seven royal commissions?
Of course, job losses are, in part, driven by budget constraints. The ABC suffered swinging cuts to its budget under the previous Coalition government, most famously when prime minister Tony Abbott gutted its funding in his horror budget after promising ‘no cuts’. Between 2014 and 2022 the Coalition government cut more than $500 million from the ABC’s budget, resulting in hundreds of job losses.
While the Albanese government restored some of the ABC’s funding in the budget, it has been death by a thousand cuts for a long time at the public broadcaster, a legacy that can’t be erased overnight.
That’s not to say the ABC is alone in facing budget constraints. Across the world news media is struggling to find its new business model to replace the rivers of gold advertising-driven model of funding news. The pandemic saw hundreds of newsrooms close and local papers cease to issue print editions as advertising dollars evaporated across Australia and around the world.
Australia’s ground-breaking News Media Bargaining Code is a world-first attempt to address the power imbalance between Big Tech and news media when it comes to digital advertising and Australia Institute research shows that journalism job ads have gone up during the period the bargaining code has been in place compared to before the code was introduced. But it is not enough to really fix news media’s revenue problem.
The ABC has only become more important as our public and emergency broadcaster and the ABC (and SBS and NITV) may need additional funding to support the transition to digital-first without compromising its charter obligations.
The fact is, Australia has under-invested in public broadcasting compared to many other OECD countries. If Australia’s public funding per capita were equivalent to that of Finland, the ABC’s budget would more than double, to around $2.4 billion per year. It would more than triple to about $3.2 billion per year if it were equivalent to Norway.
That’s a tough sell in this economy, but certainly better value for the health of our democracy than the $313 billion Labor is about to blow on the Stage 3 tax cuts over the next 10 years, which will entrench inequality, or the $11.1 billion governments spent subsidising fossil fuels last year.
The ABC has long been the favourite punching bag of News Corp and its stable of elite right-wing culture warrior commentators who -without irony – attack the ABC for bias, as well as for being over-funded.
More recently claims of bias have come from progressive folks on Twitter, who seem to view David Speers as some kind of Manchurian Murdoch plant – as if he wasn’t responsible for just about every ‘trainwreck’ or ‘car crash’ interview with a Coalition Minister while he was at Sky News (remember George Brandis’ excruciating ‘imagine metadata is a letter’ interview? Or Linda Reynolds‘ 16-second backflip on whether wage flexibility was a “deliberate feature” of the Coalition’s policies?).
The ABC can’t please everyone, and nor should it. Equally, a public broadcaster deserves scrutiny and requires public accountability.
Nevertheless, the ABC remains Australia’s most trusted news source, something that no doubt infuriates its competitors, critics and detractors. In an age of disinformation and fake news, being the most trusted news source in the country is no small feat.
A large part of why people trust the ABC is due to its fearless investigative reporting and dedication to public interest journalism. As the ABC transitions to a digital-first model, that trust is something the primary public broadcaster must protect.
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Luciana Lawe Davies Media Adviser