ABC defends Fact Check report, maintains Paul Fletcher’s budget claims are ‘misleading’

The ABC has stood by a report from its fact checking unit that concluded Communications Minister Paul Fletcher is misleading in his assertions the broadcaster’s funding is increasing, rather than decreasing.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Fletcher said the RMIT ABC Fact Check unit’s story was “riddled with errors” and “playing games”. But, in a statement addressed to the newspaper’s editors, Fact Check responded that the Herald “did not challenge Mr Fletcher’s unfair and unbalanced portrayal of its contents”.

The Fact Check report concluded Fletcher’s comments were misleading

Reporter Jennifer Duke “allowed Mr Fletcher to imply that Fact Check relied on a single table from the federal budget when this was not the case. It also relied on a second budget table, which Mr Fletcher himself tweeted (in abridged form, as the fact check article points out),” the statement, attributed to RMIT ABC Fact Check director Russell Skelton, read.

“When adjusted for inflation, both tables show a year-on-year decline in real funding over four years set out in the 2019-20 budget papers.

“The fact check article contains considerable detail, supported by expert commentary, on how inflation should be measured in this context. Similar thoroughness is evident throughout, including on why Mr Fletcher is unjustified in asserting the ABC received ‘an extra $44 million’ in the last budget.”

The unit “stands by its analysis and its verdict that Mr Fletcher’s June 25 claim was misleading,” the letter concluded. Nine, the owner of the Sydney Morning Herald, declined to comment on the letter.

The initial Fact Check report said that Fletcher’ “ignored the issue of real funding, which takes into account inflation”.

“This has been affected by the Government’s indexation pause for the organisation, which freezes operational funding at 2018-19 levels regardless of rising costs,” read the report.

“The budget shows a year-on-year decline in real funding over the four years set out in the 2019-20 budget.”

The budget table Fletcher said should be used. It shows both the operational and transmission budgets for the ABC [Click to enlarge]

context of the ABC’s decision to axe 250 jobs

When announcing the redundancies, which now look to total 151, managing director David Anderson cited the indexation pause, which freezes the ABC’s operational budget at 2018-19 levels until 2021-22. Anderson said this effectively cuts the ABC’s budget by $84m over that period. In June, the public broadcaster axed ABC Life and the 7:45am news bulletin as part of the plan to meet the budget shortfall.

In a series of graphs contained in the article, the fact checking unit set out the difference between the ABC’s nominal funding, and what it looks like when adjusted for inflation. It noted that nominal funding is also set to reduce in 2022-23

Following the Fact Check article, the Minister released his own ABC funding explainer on LinkedIn, in which he wrote that “cit[ing the indexation pause] as evidence of a ‘cut’ in the current triennium is wrong.”

He asserted that the ABC’s funding is more than $1bn per year, and is rising each year of the current three year period.

The public broadcaster’s budget is split into two: operational and transmission. The transmission budget funds the transmission network – the ABC does not own one – that was privatised in 1999. When Fletcher said the ABC’s budget is “over a billion dollars a year”, this is true only if the transmission funding is added to the operational budget, Fact Check said.

Fletcher published a funding explainer on LinkedIn

“But Mr Fletcher made his claim in the context of the ABC’s announcement of job losses and program closures. The transmission and distribution budget funds fixed contracts with transmission and service providers, and has no impact on the changes announced in June.”

The increasing cost of wages and the production of drama means the ABC’s funding also needs to increase in ‘real terms’ – factoring in inflation – the Fact Check unit added. “It [the budget] therefore can be, and should be, referred to as a cut.”


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