Australian broadcasting sounds the retreat as Canberra’s cuts bite deep

Quentin Dempster outlines the fallout from the cuts to the ABC, and what it means for Australia’s presence in the world.  Cartoon by Lindsay Foyle

We need a debate about the role and sustainable future of the taxpayer-funded public broadcasting system in Australia, particularly as the digital revolution is enabling aggressive global players to have smart-TV access potentially and eventually to every Australian household through Wi-Fi video streaming.

The federal government’s “efficiency dividend” – in reality a budget cut – will have a massive impact on the ABC’s international reach, and on the stories it can tell its audiences.

Australia Plus TV was launched immediately on the closure of the Australia Network on September 29, 2014. This network continues to reach audiences across India, Asia and the Pacific through its established arrangements with rebroadcasters. While the number of rebroadcasters has dropped significantly, the remaining partnerships contain all the region’s largest subscription television operators in all the key Asia-Pacific territories.

The actual potential reach (which is assessed through the quantum of individual rebroadcaster subscriber numbers) seems to have slightly increased due to a small number of new rebroadcasters coming on board late last year. Our potential reach is now more than 170 million people in the region.

Lindsay Foyle

Lindsay Foyle

We have retransmission agreements with subscription-TV companies in India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, Papua New Guinea and many of the Pacific Island nations.

The main change to distribution from the previous Australia Network is that Australia Plus TV services are no longer available unencrypted in Asia, which means we have lost untold direct-to-home viewers who had their own satellite dishes and an unknown number of hotels similarly equipped.

The new schedule is based on a repeating sixhour block of mixed genre programming and is heavy on rebroadcasts of ABC News 24 domestic programs (Breakfast and Mornings). There is just one 30-minute international news program, presented by Bev O’Connor, broadcast each evening on both Australia Plus and News 24.

What we have lost most is the range of lifestyle, educational and news programs produced specifically for the region and, in many cases, in the languages of the regions.

The Australia Plus brand has had a longer life on digital platforms, having launched at the end of 2013. We syndicate news content to more than 30 third-party sites in Indonesia and China.

Radio Australia has been decimated. Shortwave into Asia has stopped completely. It now produces a two-hour morning program that goes live into the Pacific weekdays (Pacific Beat) and some short news updates throughout the day. The rest of the network streams NewsRadio, LocalRadio, some tripleJ and some Radio National content. RA is still rebroadcast on a network of FM transmitters in Myanmar.

Following are the changes in more detail:

Radio Australia

The service has been hit hard, with the loss of:

  • Phil Kafcaloudes and Mornings (two hours of live programming to the Pacific, weekdays)
  • Asia Pacific weekdays
  • Asia Review weekends
  • Reduced daily news bulletins
  • Loss of network entirely in western Pacific island nations including the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Marianas, Kiribati and the Cook Islands
  • RA shortwave service to Myanmar (via Singapore) shut down at the end of December
  • Language services cut to one person per service, resulting in no continuous multilingual news service
  • Loss of dedicated language programs to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam and Papua New Guinea.

Australia Network/Australia Plus

This is no longer a 24-hour channel. Instead it’s built around a six-hour block of programming repeated across the day. Further cuts include:

  • One-hour nightly new program The World reduced to 30 minutes
  • Business Today weekdays with Whitney Fitzsimmons
  • Pacific Sports 360 – dedicated sports review program for the Pacific
  • Fashion Asia
  • Around 650 rebroadcasters for the Australia Network service reduced to about 50 rebroadcasters in India, Asia and the Pacific, mostly delivered through a limited and encrypted satellite service
  • Loss of untold direct-to-home viewers across Asia, particularly in Thailand, who can no longer access our signal straight off the satellite due to encryption.

Asia Pacific News Centre (APNC)

With the loss of APNC correspondents in Delhi, Jakarta, Beijing, the Pacific and Parliament House, Canberra, the total count of journalists and production staff made redundant as a direct result of the termination of the ABC/DFAT contract is 73.

Foreign Correspondent

Reduced to 22 x 30-minute episodes starting in mid- April, resulting in destroyed production momentum and audience confusion.

Catalyst

The ABC’s television science show will be severely cut. Catalyst will fill the 8pm Tuesday slot for 10 weeks from February, March and early April, and then, with Foreign Correspondent, finishes its run. Catalyst will come back for 11 more shows, resulting in destroyed production momentum and audience confusion.

Lateline

This program, with its analysis and investigative capacity and live studio/satellite interviews with international geopolitical and economic experts, has been gutted. Its field reporting capacity has been stripped out. While we are expecting it to return in 2015, it will run initially on News 24. In its 25-year history, Lateline has been instrumental in holding executive government to account, and its investigative journalists have delivered impactful exposure of immigration blunders, and indigenous and institutional child sexual abuse.

ABC’s International Bureaux

London – A rare bright spot. The third reporter there (currently on local hire) will be upgraded to a full A-based position. And there should be more camera capacity. Currently the long-time editor there also shoots PTCs [pieces to camera] and overlay. But management wants to transform that into a full camera/editor position. That may mean the current editor will be terminated and a new locally hired person brought in.

Moscow – The bureau officially closed more than a year ago. A long-time fixer/translator should have been kept on. Awaiting confirmation of this.

Middle East – ABC has realised belatedly that having all reporting resources in Jerusalem is not wise. A new Arab world office will be established in Beirut with a reporter, camera and locally hired fixer/Arabic translator. The second Middle East reporter will stay in Jerusalem and become a VJ (video journalist) with one local producer to help. Expecting office administrator and driver to be sacked.

Nairobi – Has been covered by a VJ correspondent and will remain so. Hopefully the reporter has an office, a fixer and some administrative support.

New Delhi – To become a home-based VJ with local fixer/translator. The ABC has had a functioning office in Delhi for decades but now apparently the lucky correspondent is expected to cover the entirety of South Asia – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal (that’s 1.2 billion people) – from a back bedroom.

Bangkok – Similar to Delhi, a good functioning office will be scrapped. Home-based VJ plus local. Excellent cameraman will be offered fewer days per year.

Jakarta – Meant to be a bigger ‘hub’ with a second correspondent and second camera but with a regional ‘fire reporter’ (immediate despatch to breaking stories thought by staff to be better coordinated from Bangkok than Jakarta).

Beijing – Also slated as a bigger ‘hub’ with two correspondents and two cameras but to cover Japan, Korea and the region as required. This isn’t really an enhancement but a replacement of the resources that existed when Australia Network was operating.

Tokyo – A big loser. Closing down the office in the main government broadcaster NHK, where the ABC currently gets access to news bulletins and feeds, although rent is ‘cheap’. The BBC apparently has spent 15 years trying to get back into the building. New arrangements: home-based VJ plus local fixer/translator. Under Japanese law it will be very expensive to have locals, including an excellent local hire camera operator, made redundant. The process of closing down is expected to take most of 2015. The Tokyo decision is viewed by ABC staff and international correspondents as short-sighted.

Port Moresby – Already VJ cover. Has a separate office from home in one compound, plus local fixer. Correspondent often has to do admin several days a week because ABC News will not hire help.

Auckland – Closed, and with it a lot of good South Pacific coverage as well as NZ material. ABC has had a visible TVNZ office for many years, of great value to Australia’s engagement with the Kiwis – a single correspondent with VJ capacity but access to professional TVNZ crews. It was highly productive and comparatively inexpensive.

Washington, DC – Staff do not believe the claim by news managers that they are creating ‘major multi-platform hubs’ in London and Washington by July 2015. The truth is the Washington, DC bureau is being downsized with one fewer reporter and it is likely to lose its long-time editor (who occasionally shoots footage and interviews). One of two camera operators (an Australian on local hire conditions) has reportedly been told that his current contract is too generous and to stay he will have to take a pay cut.

This is an edited excerpt from Quentin Dempster’s address to the Australian Institute of International Affairs on February 3, 2015.

Quentin Dempster is a public broadcasting advocate and journalist based in Sydney