Is the ABC/SBS efficiency review a threat to the public broadcasters?

Get upIn recent days public broadcaster the ABC has been under fire from the Coalition, with the Government last night announcing an ‘efficiency review’ for both the ABC and SBS. Mumbrella deputy editor Nic Christensen questions how much of the feud is smoke and mirrors and whether the ABC is really under threat from the Coalition.

Anyone only casually following the news cycle in recent days could be forgiven for thinking that Tony Abbott had told Radio 2GB’s Ray Hadley he wanted to see the ABC abolished.

However, media insiders Mumbrella has spoken to in the last 24 hours note that the efficiency review, announced yesterday, has been on the table and being planned for months with Malcolm Turnbull’s office working closely with both the ABC and SBS.

It is not a direct response to the Government’s jousting with the ABC over asylum seekers, the Edward Snowden NSA leaks, or long-running hostility to the ABC among certain conservative backbenchers.

While groups such as Get Up! have enthusiastically launched a “Save the ABC” bandwagon and the Friends of the ABC have already described the review as “an outrageous and dangerous interference in the ABC’s independence” it is important to note the wider context.

The ABC has a budget of $1bn dollars and its SBS counterpart receives another $200m (note to the Telegraph: those two sums do not equal $1.4bn). The nature of broadcasting is that a huge percentage of that money goes into and out of those organisations again, not just on journalist salaries, as The Australian discussed last year, but the actual transmitters and towers, and to Telstra and Optus for distribution via DVN/Fibre and satellite across the country.

That’s a non negotiable but it is understandable that a new government would ask someone like former Seven CFO Peter Lewis to look at those contracts.

On the wider issue of triennial funding, last year saw a $10m funding boost for the ABC and the last federal budget also saw SBS get a funding boost but it is unlikely that there will be more for either broadcaster, certainly under the current government while the budget remains in deficit.

TeleWhile the ABC’s critics might like to focus on Tony Jones’s $350,000 salary the efficiency review is likely to find that both broadcasters are run relatively efficiently. However, insiders believe that the report may well also suggest any new initiatives could be funded internally – so don’t come looking for more cash.

This is where the appointment of former Seven CFO Peter Lewis may well be significant. Last night the ABC’s Mark Colvin grilled Malcolm Turnbull about the review and the agenda behind it (if you get a moment it is well worth a listen) but one of the questions he didn’t get a chance to ask  was: with an ex-Seven CFO being asked to run the inquiry is the real agenda here to push the ABC towards greater commercialisation to fund future initiatives?

abcAmid the likes of The Daily Telegraph running front page headlines declaring: “the ABC of treachery” and the Community Public Sector Union (which represents many ABC employees) running a social media campaign noting that “Humpty Dumpty doesn’t hack phones” (a quip which is about as subtle as the Tele front page),  you can expect the rhetoric to continue to dial up in the coming weeks and months.

Indeed the there may well be areas that the ABC and SBS can improve, for example a shared backend for administration etc. However, the debate really needs to be centred around the role of both the ABC and SBS in our public life and how much taxpayers are willing to pay for that.

Nic Christensen is deputy editor of Mumbrella.


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