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.