ABC staff fear a potential boost in emergency broadcast funding could provide false reassurance to disaster-prone communities.
Executives at the broadcaster are lobbying the federal government to lift a three-year indexation freeze that took effect last July, stripping $84 million from its budget. Senior managers say the request is a long shot and that if ABC receives any additional funding, it's likely to be a smaller sum in the form of a tied grant, which can only be spent on emergency news coverage.
The Victorian town of Mallacoota is one of many affected by recent bushfires.Credit:Getty
"That sounds good in theory but tied grants come with all sorts of problems," says one executive, requesting anonymity due to the sensitive nature of funding negotiations. "They're not the solution they're cracked up to be."
Since 2015, ABC's workforce has shrunk by almost 15 per cent to 4650 employees, with around 200 additional redundancies expected this year. While management hopes to minimise cuts to its regional newsrooms, sources say that no division is immune – and the limitations of tied grants are already being felt.
In 2013, the Rudd Labor government gave the ABC a "news-gathering" grant of almost $70 million over four years. In 2016, this was trimmed to $42 million over three years. Last year, the organisation was allocated another $44 million over three years.
That funding will expire in 2022 leaving the government to decide whether to renew it (with a potential increase or cut) or scrap it entirely. Managers claim this uncertainty makes it difficult to hire permanent staff or launch new projects and while another grant for emergency broadcasting would be welcomed, it won't compensate for under-resourced newsrooms.
It can be the difference between life and death if you say that the wrong road is closed.
"You can't parachute city staff into a region during a crisis and expect them to know all the local highways and back roads or the correct pronunciation of street names," says one manager. "And you can't have them sitting at home waiting for the next bushfire while they're not being paid."
Former ABC Radio Melbourne presenter Jon Faine agrees.
"I could do emergency broadcasting for Black Saturday in Victoria," says Faine, who hosted the station's morning program between 1996 and 2019, "but if there was an emergency in far north Queensland, I wouldn't know what to do [because] I'm not part of that community."
A few years after Black Saturday, Faine began receiving housewarming invitations from listeners who'd rebuilt their homes. For most, it was a chance to thank the national broadcaster for its emergency updates throughout the crisis. But it was ABC's reporting in the years afterwards – with a focus on the insurance and bureaucratic roadblocks faced by survivors – that cemented their appreciation.
Jon Faine argues that effective emergency broadcasting requires strong connections with local communities.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui
"I'd walk in and they'd give me a hug and try to pour far too many drinks into my glass … it was all deeply humbling," Faine says. "We promised we'd be there for the long haul; that we wouldn't chew them up, spit them out and disappear. We followed it through to the end and that's all part of bushfire coverage. It's not just the emergency itself."
ABC has made more than 900 emergency broadcasts this financial year, a spokeswoman says, compared to 371 the year prior and 256 in 2017-18.
A spokesman for Communications Minister Paul Fletcher says funding requests from the ABC will be considered if the broadcaster provides a breakdown of the extra costs it incurred during the recent fires. Neither party would confirm when a decision will be made.
"The government expects [this] information would also demonstrate the progress the ABC is making in securing efficiencies across the organisation," the spokesman says. "The ABC receives very substantial funding – some $3.2 billion over the current three-year funding period – and Australian taxpayers will rightly expect the ABC board and management use this funding in an efficient and responsible manner."
Alex Wake, manager of RMIT's journalism program, believes the broadcaster has little fat left to trim. In an analysis for The Conversation, Wake and former ABC executive Michael Ward calculated the total cost since 2015 of base funding cuts, efficiency review savings and indexation freezes. By 2022, it will exceed half a billion dollars.
"In emergency broadcasts, you need experienced, local staff to guide the coverage," Wake says. "I don't mean to overstate this but it can be the difference between life and death if you say that the wrong road is closed and you send people into a dangerous situation."
ABC managing director David Anderson says communities around Australia have thanked the broadcaster for its bushfire coverage.
"That includes Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who said the ABC saved lives," Anderson says. "We have asked the government to resume indexation funding from next financial year and allow us to find our own efficiencies and savings measures to adequately meet the expectations of all ABC audiences."
Faine argues that tied grants are incompatible with the goal of independent broadcasting.
"It's a way of pretending you believe in independent broadcasting while trying to control what the broadcaster does," he says. "The reason the ABC should be left alone and trusted to do emergency broadcasting is understood by anyone who's used the ABC in an emergency."
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