SADLY Tony Abbott’s pre-election pledge to not cut the ABC or SBS budget has sparked a savage reaction to what most analysts would consider to be a justified business adjustment, given the current national economic environment.
Normally, such cuts would be easily defendable considering the ongoing commercial reality many major media outlets have endured in recent years, downsizing and restructuring their organisations with job cuts in the thousands.
But thanks to Mr Abbott’s words, the political and emotional reaction to recent confirmation of the budget reductions - with an estimated 400 job cuts - has been slightly overblown, to say the least.
One would think the Coalition had actually shut the broadcasters’ doors forever and auctioned off their assets at a bargain rate overnight.
“In politics perception is reality and for now the truth is made of plasticine”
But in politics perception is reality and for now the truth is made of plasticine that changes colour to suit its intermittent environment.
Greens communications spokesperson and Western Australian Senator Scott Ludlam was one political commentator who hyperventilated on the issue with more zest than most others this week, having long lost sight of any media market reality.
He even boasted of a special emergency hearing he’ll chair of the Senate Select Committee into the Abbott government's budget cuts – that’s nearly three weeks away – to focus on the cuts.
One hopes he’ll also ask questions about how the ABC will impact commercial activities by seeking to expand online coverage in future, while commercial operators are seeking to monetise internet activities as income from traditional forms of media continues to rapidly decline.
The key question should be asked – is that growing business agenda filling an area of market failure in the Australian media landscape?
“Before the 2013 federal election, Tony Abbott told the Australian public that there would be “no cuts to the ABC or SBS,” Senator Ludlam said.
“Instead, the Abbott government will cut some $327 million in total from the ABC’s budget, and a further $53 million from SBS.”
Shadow communications minister Jason Clare seized the opportunity to sink the boot into the government and score easy political points amid the growing public concern.
“This afternoon Malcolm Turnbull has finally admitted that Tony Abbott lied to the Australian people,” he said.
“On Sky News he said: ‘Certainly there are cuts. He [Tony Abbott] said no cuts to the ABC or SBS. There are cuts to the ABC or SBS’.”
Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon also joined the party in style saying the way things are going under this government, “we will be lucky to have an ABC to save in two years’ time”.
“But we spent a record amount of money on the ABC the last time we were in government,” he said.
“The more the government tried to defend its cuts, the more it seemed they were trying to avoid accountability”
For his part, Mr Abbott said the government was applying an efficiency dividend to the ABC - for the first time in 20 years - to return fire at opposition leader Bill Shorten for prevaricating about any cuts he had in mind for the ABC.
“This just shows that Bill Shorten is all complaint and no solution,” Mr Abbott said.
“He is running a national complaints bureau - he’s not trying to come up with serious credible policies to deal with the issues that are facing Australia right now.”
However, the more the government tried to defend its cuts, the more it seemed they were trying to avoid accountability for the veracity of that pre-election promise and subsequently engaged in a form of verbal gymnastics that would put Nadia Comaneci to shame.
Mr Abbott’s comments have now inevitably been compared to the political credibility suffered by Julia Gillard’s broken promise that there’d be no carbon tax under the government she led, ahead of the 2010 election.
That’s caused a political and emotional freight-train to speed ahead of the government, like the Energizer Bunny on steroids.
Rather than focusing on necessary business efficiencies, the accompanying narrative has escalated to “Save the ABC” with letters written back and forth, petitions signed, and rallies held to accompany a deluge of media reporting.
However, some measured messages have been delivered amongst the chaos, including by ABC managing director Mark Scott who said the changed funding and media environment meant the ABC has had to carefully consider its spending priorities.
Amid the changes, the ABC has also promised a new regional division, to operate from mid-2015 that will harness its “skills, knowledge and infrastructure to better serve rural and regional communities”.
Mr Scott said the ABC “cannot stand still and run the risk of becoming less relevant and compelling to this and future generations”.
“What we are doing today is in the best interests of the ABC and its many stakeholders - it is designed to position the organisation for the future,” he said.
“Change is never easy, but it is almost always necessary”
Another commonsense response came from Victorian Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie who went into bat for regional services, warning any potential cuts in the bush should not come at the expense of bloated metropolitan, centralised services.
“Change is never easy, but it is almost always necessary,” she said.
“The taxpayer spends more than $1 billion a year on the ABC and the taxpayer is entitled to demand value for money.
“However, people are less concerned about the dollar amount given to the ABC and far more interested in the level of service it provides them and their local community.”
Senator McKenzie referred to a speech by Mr Turnbull where he said more “granular detail” was needed on where the ABC spends its money and how that relates to its charter obligations.
“The minister said - ‘the best cure for suspicion is sunlight’ - I could not agree more,” she said.
“Without that sunlight, we are left believing ABC management see regional broadcasting as an annoying distraction from the more exciting areas of prime TV and current affairs and competing in city markets with yet another fabulous brekkie program.
“But it is not good enough: the ABC charter is to be a national broadcaster and not just another Sydney or Melbourne network.
“It is also worth noting the ABC has 45 senior presenters and managers earning more than $200,000 a year, which is more than 10 per cent of their total staff.
“The government is confident there is money available without impacting on programming to meet implementation costs and that the long-term gains from modernising the business far outweigh any one-off implementation costs.
“Considering Mr Scott says savings are coming from back office, there should be no redundancies in regional Australia since ABC workers in regional Australia are all on the front line.
“Whether it is a local weather report, local issues, emergency broadcasting announcements or community events, ABC radio has played a core role in country communities for over 82 years and should not be cut by the board or the managing director.
“While I would urge them to appreciate the important role that the ABC plays in our environmental, economic and social wellbeing, I also absolutely support the government's role in getting the budget under control.”