It’s going to shock around about zero of you to know that politicians sometimes break their promises. So it is with Tony Abbott’s pledge on 6 September, 2013 that their would be no cuts to ABC or SBS under an Abbott Coalition government. Go ahead, watch that link. Watch as Tony’s shiny, leathery forehead and strange reptilian mouth shudder as the words leave his mouth. You probably believed it as much as he did, and now we’re seeing the results.
Malcolm Turnbull announced this morning – on ABC Radio, no less, still ironically the best way for him to reach a general listenership – that Auntie and SBS would be receiving $254 million in cuts over 5 years. This, as with any huge spending measure involving a national body, is rife with pluses and minuses. First, a pro, or at least a caveat; the ABC and other major broadcasters have been preparing for this since the Coalition took power. You see, it’s no surprise to Mark Scott nor any other broadcasting executive that that amount of money – almost a fifth of the ABC’s annual budget – would be funnelled back into the federal treasury. It’s just been a mater of when, how and what parts of the national broadcaster must be sacrificed first.
ABC execs have been sharpening their axes for weeks now, preparing for the inevitable cuts. Around 400 to 500 jobs, the end of state-based current affairs, time and funding cuts for Lateline and the closure of 11 ABC foreign affairs offices around the globe. It’s tough to look at, but it could have been so much worse. In all, the cuts have been fairly lenient, with the caveat that the onus of responsibility falls at the feet of those aforementioned execs. “It’s not our fault all those people are losing those jobs,” the Government seems to be saying. “We’re just the government. Auntie is her own lady.”
This is not an isolated case, either; it’s been the general consensus that, when a government feels intimidated by the ABC, or simply dislikes the apparent money-hole that it is, the axes come out. Back in 1976, Malcom Frazer’s infamous Razor Gang skinned the broadcaster and it’s ilk, reducing national broadcasting to a skeleton crew. We’re seeing a redux of that now, with most regional and many city ABC broadcasting services now being operated by two or three people, handling three jobs each. The people who you should feel sorry for are the ones that are producing an entire news segment, video, audio and super, all by themselves. What the fuck are they going to do?
Turnbull, arguably the least insane Government cabinet member, has had the unenviable position of mediating between the general public and the aliens in parliament, and has had to since the election. Monday night’s episode of Q&A was much the same, with Turnbull having to defend Abbott on all fronts. Our government’s horrendous position on climate change, refugees and the arts; Tony’s apparent inability to hide his lizard-like characteristics at the G20; even the Government’s stance on reconciliation, which has arguably been very progressive. But the stress of having to walk the party line while severely disagreeing with his leader is showing on Turnbull’s face. The ABC cuts were just one part of that, and as fair-enough-you’ve-done-some-good-things-but-please-don’t-make-another-terribly-painful-TV-show ambassador Ben Elton ripped into him, it was hard to not acknowledge that Malcolm knows how difficult the future of the ABC is about to be.
Last week, Mark Scott pre-empted the budget cuts in a speech at Melbourne University, in which he outlined the probably future of the ABC and Australian broadcasting and media in general. And yes, he addressed the elephant in the room, the one which major publishers are avidly ignoring: the media industry is a shell of what it once was. Scott has been a progressive and future-minded figurehead for the ABC, and is not shy of admitting that things need to change if the broadcaster is to survive. To this, he strenuously pushed the ideal that the ABC needs to develop head-first in a digitally evolving world, and that the ABC has to consolidate those digital platforms if it is to survive. Admittedly worthwhile projects like iView cost the ABC millions of dollars to run per year, and are only going to increase as demand heightens. It’s no surprise that something like iView would cost so much – think of the streaming, the royalties, the servers – but it’s that kind of behind-the-scenes spending, spending on forward-thinking ideas, that is opaque to the general ABC viewer.
What Scott was trying to convey through his speech is that the ABC has always been the figurehead of Government belt-tightening. Frazer’s Razor Gangs and the subsequent cuts throughout the decades have been a first sign of further federal cuts, as evinced by a range of experts who have popped up on ABC current affairs programs over the last week. But that’s changing; it’s no longer simply a matter of raking money out of the ABC and letting them find their own feet again. Media has become a globalises and hugely competitive market and the Liberal government, economically savvy as they are, seem ignorant of that. If Abbott and co. really did care about the future of the ABC, they would be doing more than simply pulling the rug out from underneath them.
And now, as if to make a pretty serious event into a ridiculous circus fitting of federal government, everyone’s best friend Christopher Pine has announced a petition – yes, a petition – to save his cherished ABC Adelaide. Let’s deal with one thing first; Christopher Pine seems completely misinformed about the role of Government, and his place there, if he feels that petitioning to save something he himself is cutting is a good idea. More importantly, though, it may expose a huge rift in the cabinet, if Pine doesn’t feel it necessary to lean over to Turnbull and say, “Hey, Malc, maybe be a bit soft on the production houses, whydon’tya?” But however you want to read it, it pangs of callousness and indifference. That’s becoming something to get used to.