How the ABC cuts will damage media freedom in the region

By MARK PEARSON Follow @Journlaw

[Thanks to press freedom intern Eve Soliman for her research assistance here.]

One of the saddest aspects of Tuesday’s budget cuts to the ABC and SBS and the axing of the $220 million Australia Network contract is the impact on media freedom in the Asia-Pacific region.

Screen Shot 2014-05-16 at 11.13.07 AMAmong the Australian values the Australia Network has advocated to neighbouring countries has been the effective operation of a genuinely independent national broadcaster – funded by the government yet producing high quality Fourth Estate journalism exposing corruption and questioning policy in the public interest.

Its current affairs schedule has included top shelf news and current affairs programs like 7.30, Dateline, Lateline, Foreign Correspondent, Q&A, The World This Week and of course ABC News Breakfast. Add to that the online curation via the Australian News Network website and you have a showcase of the media playing a watchdog role in a functioning democracy.

Many of the countries receiving the Australia Network fare much worse than Australia’s 28th position on Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, including Vietnam (174th), Singapore (150th) and Malaysia (147th).

These are nations where ‘public broadcasting’ means something quite different and journalists are subjected to licensing regimes and even jail, with 232 imprisoned in Vietnam in 2012 and, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more this month.

Our quality public broadcasting content has operated as an exemplar of how journalism can work in a properly functioning democracy.

The Australia Network commitment was one of the few budgetary investments in media freedom made by this country – and now it is gone.

So too will many journalism jobs if ABC management is unable to find further cuts in its tight administrative budget – which is unlikely according to managing director Mark Scott.

The Budget announcement that the ABC was suffering only a 1 per cent cut over four years might not sound much, but this needs to be combined with inflation of around 3 per cent increasing operating costs.

Anyone familiar with compound interest would understand that this 4 per cent annual deterioration represents an escalating erosion of the ABC’s budget over that period – down to 96% of its current budget in the first year, 92% in the second, 88% in its third, and 84.5% in the fourth.

You can see how – when combined with inflation – the 1 per cent haircut actually becomes a 15% decrease over those four years.

That means either fewer staff, fewer programs, or low cost junior personnel replacing experienced colleagues at the public broadcasters in coming years.

Australia Network viewers seem less likely to have the opportunity to view some of the Walkley Award winning reportage brought to them through its programming in recent years.

Our Asian and Pacific neighbours have been witness – via the Australia Network – to corruption being exposed in all quarters by leading Australian journalists whose media organizations are now under threat.

The network also relayed other news stemming from the work of Kate McClymont of the Sydney Morning Herald which led to many of the recent revelations by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).

They have also heard news of the Royal Commission into Child Abuse – also triggered by top notch investigative reporting by the Newcastle Herald’s Joanne McCarthy.

But recent Fairfax redundancies and pressures on other news organizations combines with this Budget decision to send a somber message to the region  – the quality and quantity of news and current affairs in this Western democracy is on the decline.

It will be interesting to see how this development feeds into Australia’s ranking in the 2015 RSF World Press Freedom Index.

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2014

2 Comments

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2 responses to “How the ABC cuts will damage media freedom in the region

  1. You know at least as well as I do, Prof Pearson, why the Abbott Government shut down ANTv, and it has an enormous amount to do with their loathing for the ABC as a whole (a) because it exists (b) is taxpayer funded (c) doesn’t carry the key media vector of Neo-Liberal ideology – advertising – (d) persists in committing acts of journalism which cause “problems” for them and those for whom they Rule (e) the contract process between DFAT and the ABC was a mess, though the best tenderer got it eventually (f) the contract was let by a Labor Government, which makes it fundamentally contaminated anyway… And that doesn’t go into heaps of specific reasons – vendetta against the Navy for the “burned hands” stories, the ABC & ANTv isn’t sufficiently patriotic (i.e. supportive of Abbott Gvt), ABC groupthink on climate change & insufficient balance in reporting the debate about climate change science, and so on.
    The loftier arguments you posit about, essentially, demonstrative soft diplomacy with routine media freedom via ANTv simply don’t touch Australia’s first fully blown Liquid Modern government – a weird and initially dissonant folding of Truth Free Post-Modernist Politics and Neo-Liberal Ideology, the latter which most comparable governments have significantly abandoned, if only because Neo-Libs gave us the GFC and even economically rationalist austerity arguments fell to pieces when applied, along with, almost, their own societies.
    The “official” reasons from Foreign Minister Bishop for canning ANTv also don’t make any justifiable sense, but then, they aren’t meant to.
    At least the Abbott Government gave the ABC about $10 million to dismantle ANTv and pay out agreements and contracts between the ABC and down stream re-broadcasters. I was expecting them to force the ABC to dismantle ANTv out of its own budget, itself sneakily cut (though not as much as expected initially), like Qld. Premier Newman forced the Bligh Government’s climate change senior bureaucrat, who happened to be her husband, to dismantle all the Bligh Government’s climate change initiatives before he was forced to resign (though it was actually more expensive to sack him than keep him on undoing most of his earlier work). That was exquisite revenge by Newman, and I would have expected the same from Abbott on the ABC having to fund dismantling ANTv itself. Maybe Malcolm Turnbull prevailed in Cabinet on that point.

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