ABC’s repayment for life-saving coverage: cuts continue

by Bill Browne

The Federal Government’s failure to restore missing ABC funding means that the national broadcaster faces another effective cut in funding.

While disguised as a pause in “indexation”, the consequence is that the ABC’s budget allocation falls in real terms. Since 2014, more than $793 million has been cut from the ABC – spelling the end of local sport on TV, Olympics on the radio, the Australia Network, several international bureaus, and television production (other than news) outside of Melbourne and Sydney. This year, the ABC has had to cut up to 250 jobs and scrap multiple initiatives.

In real terms the ABC budget has been cut by more than a quarter since the mid-1980s, and in per capita terms it has almost halved. Between this year and the next, the ABC will lose $41 million in general operational activities funding, only partially compensated by a $30 million increase in funding for transmission and distribution services.

These cuts come despite the ABC’s growing burden as the national emergency broadcaster. By March 2020, nine months into the financial year, the ABC had already done 935 emergency broadcasts – almost four times as many as it did two years prior. The ABC incurred an additional $3 million in costs from its bushfire coverage – which goes uncompensated in this Budget. The NSW bushfire inquiry found that the ABC was an “essential” source of information, and:

There was extensive community reliance on ABC radio for emergency warning updates, particularly when telecommunications towers were lost.

The ABC is also underfunded when compared to other public broadcasters in developed countries around the world. In 2016, Australia placed 13th out of 18 Western countries for per capita public funding of public broadcasting, and 15th out of 18 for public funding of public broadcasting as a share of total government expenditures. The BBC receives almost twice as much public funding per Briton as the ABC and SBS receive per Australian – and Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Finland all have even higher per capita public funding than the United Kingdom.

Figure: Per capita public funding of public broadcasters (AUD, 2016); Source: Nordicity (2018) International Comparison of Public Funding for Public Service Broadcasting, 2016: Final Report, pp. 21–22

Australia Institute research finds that the ABC is Australia’s most trusted news source, and that trust in the ABC is growing over time. Our polling research shows that more Australians used one of the public broadcasters as their main source of information on the bushfires than all commercial media put together. Despite this, the Federal Government continues to hobble the broadcaster with ongoing cuts.

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