The Guardian September 10, 2003


Every one's ABC. Not if Howard has his way

by Peter Mac

Driven by its hatred of every publicly-owned and independent service and 
everything that carries a progressive and democratic message to the 
Australian people, the Howard Government, by its savage financial cuts has 
forced the ABC to ditch more popular programs

Australia's national broadcaster is resorting to increasingly desperate 
measures to make its TV programming fit its ever-shrinking budget.

The axing of various programs is the direct and intended result of a series 
of funding cuts to specific programs, as well as outright budget cuts. The 
Howard government lopped $50 million from the ABC budget some six years 
ago. That massive funding loss has never been made good. This year ABC 
management requested a special infusion of some $250 million over the next 
three years, in order to avoid major program losses. The Howard Government 
refused.

As a result, a number of programs were cut, including the popular 
children's TV programs Fly TV and Behind the News. The midday World at Noon 
news and current affairs program has been largely eliminated by merging it 
with the former Business Breakfast program. The cadet training scheme for 
journalists has been abolished.

Enforced cuts

These enforced cuts to programs and services have resulted in the 
modification of some 100 positions at the ABC, and will result in 
redundancies for 25 employees.

The Howard Government is feigning shock and outrage at the latest program 
cuts. In a transparent attempt to blame the ABC management the Minister for 
Communications, Senator Richard Alston, declared indignantly: "We were led 
to believe at the time (when the last program cuts were announced) that 
this would be the sum total of the cuts being announced".

ABC Radio is also to suffer program cuts. The weekend afternoon local and 
state news broadcasts are to be replaced by a single national news bulletin 
with local weather reports and the capacity to transfer to local 
broadcasting in times of emergencies.

Alston once again tried to blame the victim and absolve himself and the 
Government from responsibility.

"We'd say there are many areas where the ABC could look for savings before 
it drops local news. There are, for example, ABC executives flying 
regularly around the world to attend various conferences", he stated 
glibly.

In point of fact ABC representatives actually attend no more conferences 
than the organisation's status as national broadcaster warrant. Alston and 
other government members have attacked the ABC management not because cuts 
are being made, but because they're being made in areas which will result 
in political damage for the Government.

Alston was furious when the ABC terminated the children's program Fly TV, 
because it set back the introduction of digital TV in Australia, which the 
commercial broadcasters expected the Government to support.

Similarly, the axing of the weekend local and state radio bulletins will be 
resented by rural listeners, who will feel less inclined to support the 
coalition at the next federal elections.

Howard resents ABC independence

The Howard Government has always resented the ABC's independence. This was 
never more evident than during Alston's recent attack on ABC radio's AM 
program for its relatively fair and honest reporting of the war in Iraq.

At the time Alston lodged a complaint with the ABC, claiming 68 examples of 
"bias" in ABC reporting. However, the ABC's complaints panel subsequently 
dismissed the complaints, except for two which were not found to be of a 
serious nature.

Alston now proposes to establish a new panel to deal with complaints 
against the ABC. He wants the members of the new body to be chosen by the 
head of the Australian Broadcasting Association, the arch-conservative 
Professor David Flint.

The good professor is said to have a particularly intense dislike of the 
ABC, having been frequently pilloried by the ABC's Mediawatch program for 
his reluctance to deal decisively with violations of broadcasting standards 
by commercial broadcasters. A complaints panel selected by Flint would 
becom e the means by which the Howard Government would control ABC program 
policies and destroy its independence.

The ABC faces yet another assault from Senator Alston. He casually floated 
the idea last week of turning the ABC into a public charity by placing it 
on the Government's "Cultural Organisations Register".

At first sight the idea was dismissed as ridiculous by many members of the 
public, but the implications of such a move are particularly chilling. The 
introduction of financial support for the ABC by non-government 
organisations and individuals would provide the Government with yet another 
excuse to cut funding while those making "charitable" donations could claim 
tax deductions.

Although the government has denied it would do so, the ABC would almost 
certainly suffer a fate similar to that of Australia's universities, which 
have had a catastrophic fall in government funding since they began seeking 
corporate sponsorship at the behest of the Government several years ago.

Registration of the ABC as a charity would also provide a back-door means 
to introduce corporate sponsorship. This, in combination with the 
reductions in government funding, would strengthen the government's hand 
for the eventual introduction of paid commercial advertising on the ABC.

Corporate sponsors

Corporate sponsors would then be able to stand over ABC management to 
provide the shallow, crass and reactionary commercial grade programs that 
they and the Howard Government favour.

And when the distinction between broadcasts by the ABC and commercial 
organisations was sufficiently blurred, the government would be in a 
position to argue for the ABC to be sold off in whole or in part, as have 
many other publicly-owned institutions during the Howard Government's 
period in office.

Thankfully, the initial response of the ABC Board to Aston's charity 
suggestion has been negative, although they have stated they're 
"considering" the suggestion. One board member is said to have pointed out 
that the ABC is already funded by the public, which would not look with 
favour on the idea of providing additional funding in the form of 
charitable donations.

The fight is on to save the ABC as "everyone's" independent TV and radio 
broadcaster.

You can help by writing to the newspapers and protesting to every Coalition 
Senator and member of the House of Representatives particularly Senator 
Alston and Howard.

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