Inside the ABC

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The Russell Balding management at the ABC is
continuing its pattern of perverse decision making.

The axing of George
Negus Tonight and the forced re-location of Gardening Australia production from
Hobart to Melbourne has again raised concerns about political interference via
funding mechanisms. The program changes were said by the managing director to be
based on sound editorial reasoning, rejecting concerns that it was a
manipulation of National Interest Initiative money ($17 million a year) granted
to the ABC in the May 2001 Budget.

Indeed, there may be no direct link
but how and where the ABC spends its money is now highly
politicised.

While asserting an editorial imperative in the recent
program changes, as with many of Balding’s statements, the other fork of the
tongue was immediately apparent: ‘The ABC has made its programming decision
based on sound editorial reasoning. It is designed to make more effective use of
ABC resources and deliver an increase in television production to South
Australia, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia. The source of funding has
nothing whatsoever to do with the decision’.

The MD did not go on to
explain the ‘sound editorial reasons’ for the program changes but highlighted
the regional resource re-allocation which came with them.

The National
Interest Initiative (NII) was a funding idea put up by former MD Jonathan Shier
in December 2000 after yet another rejection of the ABC Board’s triennial
funding submission.

Shier went back for more and the Board wrapped the
‘ask’ in a politically attractive plan which appealed to the Howard Government’s
then vulnerability in marginal regional seats — in particular more regional
services (announced before the 2001 election with great fanfare in regional
electorates) as well as business and finance.

Fifty new regional radio
program makers and four new regional radio stations as well as regional TV,
radio and online initiatives were progressively announced before the 2001
election with the process seen by many appropriately cynical observers as the
ABC happily playing its part in the Howard Government’s marginal regional seats
strategy.

While there is a strong case for the ABC rebuilding its
regional bridges to audiences this should be done for the right broadcasting
reasons and not to please the incumbent government.

NII is, in effect,
‘tied’ funding. Although the ABC Board denies this definition, the Board is
bound to honour its stated reasons for wanting a separate allocation for
designated content. It must be seen by the government to deliver that content.

After the rejection of the ABC Board’s triennial funding submission in
2003, the Donald McDonald ABC Board complained there was no more fat to cut and
scrapped two digital channels Kids and Fly, shaved advertising and program
budgets across the board, axed Behind the News and the cadet journalist
intake.

As a Board strategy it badly misfired with our audiences with
many asking why other less worthy programming was not scrapped first. The Behind
the News decision was seen as particularly perverse when it was reported that
its production costs were substantially defrayed by copyright licence fees of
more than $1million received from educational institutions across Australia.

Russell Balding and the Board went back to the government for more
funding in the pre-election pre-budget period in 2004 and were successful in
getting an extension of the NII money to June 2008 ($54.4 million over three
years). The ABC also won $17.4 million over four years for program acquisition
from Australian sources and internationally.

That was money in the door.
It enabled Balding to announce that a new digital channel will start up next
February. Behind the News would return. And the cadet journalist intake would
resume.

Coincidentally there is fevered speculation internally about the
demise of the Rewind program. While Rewind production staff had been assured the
series would continue into 2005, it was summarily executed last month and
contracts terminated.

There is speculation that $7.5 million on offer
through the Coalition’s arts policy for a 10 part series on the history of
Australia sealed Rewind’s fate. The new money would be channelled through Film
Australia and the ABC would be the obvious transmission and production vehicle
for the series. At $750,000 per episode why waste your own money on expensive
history when you can get it externally? The big question is: who will write the
history of Australia for any co-production between the ABC and Film Australia?
Keith Windschuttle? This could develop into another episode of the culture wars
but with the ABC again at grave risk of editorial
compromise-for-cash.

The NII is a political artifice which compromises
the integrity and independence of the ABC. But the Board would argue it has
eased internal financial pressure and sustained program output in the face of a
government which has consistently rejected its submissions for substantial
injections into (untied) operational base funding.

The NII money is
audited by the government to see that the ABC is spending it on the agreed
output and regional allocation. If you follow the NII references indexed in the
2004 annual report just released you will see its impacts throughout the
corporation’s work. Yet nowhere in the annual report is there a schedule of the
output and services directly funded by NII money. This omission is revealing.

In the controversy about Gardening Australia and George Negus Tonight,
Balding said in a media release (November 5): ‘The ABC’s performance in respect
of the NII program was reviewed only recently by the Government; that review
formed the basis of the decision to continue the funding.’

In short, if
you don’t play ball with the government’s political and constituent agenda — no
money. Or, more amicably, the NII is a wink and a nod between the McDonald Board
and the Howard Government. Through this funding mechanism the ABC is being
politicised.

Hence, the perversity and compromise in both programming
decisions and resource allocation. NII is a virus.

Their ABC.

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