Friday, 17 October 2014

Our ABC speaks out

Address by Mark Scott
University of Melbourne
Monday 13 October 2014

Last Friday night, I had the honour of hosting a ceremony as part of the ABC’s Mental As week. I am sure you’re aware of Mental As and our involvement with it, as it illustrates perfectly the role of the ABC—engaging the community in an issue of national importance, using its storytelling expertise and cross-platform prowess to explain a complex, contemporary issue. No other broadcaster in this country could even attempt such an ambitious exercise.

Public broadcasting has always aspired to inform, to educate and to entertain. I couldn’t be prouder of how we fulfilled that role last week, giving Australians a chance to talk, to seek and to give, creating a platform for a national conversation around mental health. It was the work of a digital age ABC, the most comprehensive cross-platform content and marketing initiative we have ever undertaken.

Mental As will have had an impact on millions of Australians who watched, listened and engaged online—and on the nation itself.

That has always been the ABC’s way. Part of Australian life, part of the lives of millions of Australians each week. Something that belongs to all Australians, everywhere.

Our work on Mental As coincided with campaigns around the country over the future of Lateline and other programs. The public response to Mental As and the Save Lateline petitions show yet again the degree of passion the public, the owners of the ABC have for the public broadcaster.

The ABC Board acts as trustee for the Australian people who own the ABC. The Board is independent and accountable to Parliament for the decisions it makes on how to spend the funds allocated to the public broadcaster, for decisions about how best to fulfill the Charter as set out in the ABC Act.

Why is the ABC so widely appreciated by the public in whose interests the Board acts? It’s a national asset, long loved and nurtured down through the generations. For the vast majority of Australians, it’s our most trusted source of news. It’s integral to the lives of millions, with over 70% of Australians over 18 using the ABC each week—not to mention the nation’s pre-schoolers for whom bedtime is signalled by Giggle and Hoot.

For all these reasons, when you talk about the prospects of the ABC being changed, and changed significantly, it would be negligent not to talk about the challenges the ABC is facing right now.

If you love and care for the ABC, if you support and want it to remain strong, robust and relevant within Australian life—and if you read the headlines—then you know these are uncertain times for the ABC.

In the face of this uncertainty, the ABC Board and its management team remain resolved to secure the ABC’s future in the digital age. For the ABC to be an indispensible element in the lives of millions of Australians and the life of the nation. For it, as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, to be a place where despite all the international content freely flowing within our media streams, Australians know they will find Australian stories and a national conversation.

Convergence, technological change and new competition continue to create uncertainty everywhere in the media sector.
The ABC also contends with an additional uncertainty, dependent upon funding decisions that are still to be made—or at least revealed—by the Government.

Everyone except the cynics would be a little surprised to find the ABC facing this uncertainty.

For decades now, the ABC has been funded through a bipartisan triennial funding arrangement, where three years funding has been committed by the Government of the day. This enabled the ABC to undertake multi-year contracts and plan with some certainty, most importantly in program production areas, with a secure income stream.

That security is particularly important to the ABC in that, unlike other media organisations, we effectively have no other way of raising revenue.

We’re now in the middle of the most recent triennial funding agreement, made in May 2013. This agreement still has a year and a half to run, and it’s very rare indeed for the ABC’s budget to be cut in the middle of a triennial funding agreement.

I don’t need to remind you of the very clear, public and oft-repeated commitment made by Mr Abbott before the election, and after the election, inside Parliament and outside Parliament. He guaranteed that, in its first term of office, the Government would maintain the ABC’s budget.

These are facts that I can report—I’m not going to provide further commentary.

The reality is the ABC’s budget has already been cut this year. And more cuts are on the way.

Earlier in the year, I’d imagined that by the time I’d be speaking to you here at the University of Melbourne, we’d know the future funding position for the ABC.

Not so.

We are still not sure precisely how much will be cut. We are still not sure precisely when the cuts will become payable. And decisions around size and timing could, naturally, have a material impact on ABC audiences.

I want to pay tribute to our staff. As I have said to them, the very best thing they can do during this period of uncertainty is to do their very best work. And they’ve done it, continuing to be completely professional, dedicating themselves to bringing Australian stories and conversations to Australians everywhere regardless of the climate of uncertainty in which they’ve had to work.

Some commentators have suggested the ABC should stop grandstanding and get on with belt-tightening. The reality is the ABC has already been belt-tightening, and taken steps to deal with what amounts to a $120 million funding cut over four years.

In the May budget, the Government introduced the somewhat novel concept of a “down payment”. This “down payment” came in the form of an extraction of funds from our triennial funding settlement—a 1% cut to base funding and the termination of the Australia Network contract, which still had over 9 years to run.

ABC International has been forced to downsize and more than 80 people have left the ABC as a result—many great talents are now lost to us, over a thousand years of experience has gone out the door.

The challenge was not helped at all by the fact that compensation provided by DFAT for terminating the contract fell short—by more than $5 million—of the actual costs of termination.

We have also taken steps to deal with the first tranche of the $40 million base funding cut. No one’s procrastinating.

Now, “down payments” normally provide some notion of rights for the payee about when and how the final payment will be made.

But not so in this case.

The final strategy for dealing with the funding cuts will have to be determined by the Board and Executive once the size of the cut and the repayment timing is known. Obviously both will have a significant effect on the decisions that must be made.

And since rumour loves a vacuum, while we’ve been waiting for the Government to reveal just how much more they want back from the ABC, some of the ABC’s critics have taken this opportunity to step up and offer us helpful guidance on where cuts must be made, while ABC supporters have been telling us where they must not be made.

We’re hopeful that this will, finally, be resolved soon.

In the meantime, we continue to develop a range of options to deal with what we do know, and contingency plans to deal with what we don’t.

And while I’m not able to deal with specifics tonight, I do want show you how we’re thinking through the considerable challenge.

Let’s begin with efficiency.

Read the rest here.

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