It's your ABC — defend it
On the 70th anniversary of the ABC, now more than ever your national broadcaster needs your support. The celebration of the ABC's historic service comes at a crucial time in Australia as reactionary forces attempt to foist a ruthless, fascistic agenda onto the people. The Government's attempt to destroy the ABC is part of this agenda. The Howard Government's attack on the ABC has been especially vicious and vindictive. It has stacked the board with its own appointees, essentially saboteurs of the Government. It has continually attacked the integrity of the ABC, particularly its current affairs and investigative journalism: the Government wants to get rid of the ABC's independent scrutiny of political developments and the Government's own machinations. Soon after its election in 1996 the Howard Government cut the ABC's annual budget by $66 million. It continued to slash the national broadcaster's funds, cutbacks which came on top of the steady erosion of ABC funds that had come about during the preceding decade due to the failure of governments to fully adjust funding for inflation. That same year it established the Mansfield Review into the ABC, seeking to "refine the scope of current ABC services and activities". Leaked Cabinet documents later revealed the Government had established the Review as a means of legitimising its intention to control the ABC and limit its role. Twenty percent of staff have been lost, programs have been cut, program production reduced and infrastructure and technology sold off. Australian content on ABC television has declined to a mere seven percent. Radio Australia, the nation's voice to the Asia-Pacific, has been severely cut back through loss of funding and the closure of the Cox Peninsula shortwave transmitter, the most powerful in Australia. Since the Government closed the Cox Peninsula transmitter, in June 1997, not only has Radio Australia been denied access to the essential means of communication with Asia, but the transmitter has remained idle at a cost of $600,000 per year to Australian taxpayers. The Government has announced that it will lease the transmitter to foreign broadcasters, a move which will have far reaching diplomatic, social and economic consequences. And Radio Australia will now be forced to negotiate with a foreign broadcaster in an attempt to gain access to what is actually an Australian public facility. The present ABC Charter, which governs the ABC, has served the community well. The Government intends to change the Charter as part of its plans to control the national broadcaster. One outcome would be forcing the ABC to go from being a comprehensive broadcaster, producing a range of general and specialist programs that cater for and reflect the diverse interests of the Australian community, to become a narrow broadcaster complementing the commercial broadcasters. The ABC is an independent statutory authority, legally required to operate at arms-length from government. It is managed by a board which is appointed by the Federal Government. The present Government has appointed only its political allies to the board as positions became vacant. The Government also wants to dump cross media ownership laws, the restrictions on foreign ownership and requirements for Australian content. This will concentrate media ownership in even fewer hands, adding to the already considerable political and economic influence of the big corporations. There is strong pressure on the ABC to stop producing programs other than news and current affairs, and become merely a broadcaster of material produced by others. Communications Minister Richard Alston wants the ABC to outsource all non-news and current affairs television production. The ABC currently outsources and co-produces a large number of productions, but still produces the bulk of its own programs. The ABC's online service is successful because it is seen as credible, informative and independent from commercial or political influence. ABC Board member Michael Kroger, a Government appointee and Liberal Party head kicker, is pushing for the ABC to accept advertising on its online services as well as sell off 49 percent of that service. The online service is an integral part of the ABC's operations, deriving its content from the same sources and journalists as the ABC networks. It cannot be sold off without jeopardising the integrity of the whole organisation. By law, the ABC was required to convert from terrestrial to digital television transmission by January 2001, together with all other broadcasters in Australia. Full conversion from terrestrial to digital broadcasting (wherein terrestrial television and radio will cease to exist) is scheduled to be implemented on January 1, 2008. The Government has said it will provide $20.8 million over five years and underwrite the ABC's borrowings by a further $24 million, contingent on property sales and outsourcing. The ABC requires at least $194.9 million to fully implement the changeover to digital by the due date in 2008. It requires additional funds — as it did with the introduction of ABC television in 1956 and conversion to colour in the 1970s — to make the expensive switch to digital technology. Unless adequate funds are forthcoming there will be further programming and staff losses as the ABC is forced to divert scarce funds into the change over. Clearly, there is no place for a strong, independent, publicly-owned national broadcaster in the Government's plans.