In a week when more cuts to the national broadcaster have been announced, Dr Martin Hirst reports that Friends of the ABC is just one group concerned about the direction being taken by the corporation’s new chief, Michelle Guthrie.
[First published on Independent Australia 18 November]
A long-serving ABC staffer has told IA that the “clock is ticking” on Michelle Guthrie’s “honeymoon period” as Managing Director of the ABC.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the senior producer says that “rogue managers” have “tasted blood” and “enjoy” the process of making people redundant. Our source also believes that the ratio of production staff to managers has been skewed and that the decision to axe up to nine producers from the science program Catalyst is a “tragedy”.
Under these conditions, our source believes, the ABC will be unable to deliver the promised 17 one-hour science specials under the revamped format.
Many people are concerned about the future of the ABC under a Turnbull-led Coalition government and now that a former Murdoch executive has taken the reins as Managing Director, there is disquiet both inside and outside of Aunty at the direction the national broadcaster is now taking.
Over the past week IA has contacted nearly a dozen current ABC staff; they are reluctant to comment on the record as those still at the broadcaster are fearful that being outspoken will cost them their jobs. This alone is a sign of the “chilling effect” of the managerial style adopted inside the ABC. Our source says that production staff find the situation “stressful” as they busily upskill to meet the challenge of digital disruption.
“The whole place gets the need for change,” IA’s mole reveals, “it’s the management who are the Luddites.”
According to a report in The Guardian this week, ABC staff have been warned not to speak out and not to adopt a ‘defensive mindset’ about the changes that continue to come.
Staff were angered by an earlier warning from the ABC Radio director, Michael Mason, who told them they had to accept change because “a defensive mindset and a belief that the ABC will flourish regardless of the industry and competition will not work”.
Unions representing ABC staff – the MEAA and the CPSU – have joined forces in a campaign to protect members’ jobs, defend the ABC’s independence, and to ensure the corporation meets its Charter obligations. The journalists’ union, the MEAA, says that the latest round of cuts at Radio National go against a promise Guthrie made only a short time ago.
‘The proposal appears at odds with recent assurances given by Guthrie to federal senators that no programming changes at RN were being considered. What now seems obvious is that today’s loss of skilled content makers will have major editorial impacts on specialised broadcast areas like religion and performing arts,’ the MEAA said in a media release.
The President of the Queensland branch of Friends of the ABC, Ross McDowell, says he’s also noticed a “significant creeping reduction in ABC services” since the new MD, Michelle Guthrie, took up her role in April, 2016.
“Friends of the ABC Queensland is gravely concerned at the continuing downsizing and reductions in staff and services from the ABC under Ms Guthrie,” McDowell says.
The CPSU ABC Section Secretary Sinddy Ealy has also condemned this week’s news and says that ABC management must “come clean” about its plans for the national broadcaster.
“With ABC staff morale at an all-time low and the majority of staffers expressing extreme dissatisfaction with the ABC’s senior leadership, it is critical that the ABC Executive come clean with staff about their real plans for the ABC.
Michelle Guthrie now has to be held accountable
Guthrie has had enough of a “honeymoon”, she is in charge and all recent decisions are hers. We must hold her accountable for her actions.
Unfortunately, our source says, management “dickheads” who’ve been around for “too long” are using Guthrie’s recent arrival as a cover to carry out a purge of “troublemakers” like former staff-elected board member and union stalwart, John Cleary.
Cleary’s program. Sunday Nights has been axed and he’s basically been “put in a cupboard to count paperclips”, according to our insider.
The recent decision to significantly change the science program Catalyst also appears to confirm what many are fearing, that Guthrie and her management team have a ‘high-handed’ approach to decision-making. The last edition of Catalyst in its current format was aired on 15 November. Ironically it was about the “Anthropocene”, the “age of humans” that may end when climate change renders us extinct.
Catalyst staff facing an uncertain future
The shift in focus in science programming at the ABC has also attracted some criticism. Initial reports on 31 October, that the Catalyst crew would be axed and that the production of the troubled program was to be entirely outsourced seems to have spooked the horses. ABC management pulled back from that in recent days. While a Catalyst format change for next year has been confirmed, the ABC is currently saying that some production will remain in-house. However, our source says that the decision is “outsourcing by another name” as the smaller production team won’t be able to produce the slated 17 hours of programming.
The union-backed campaign, ‘Hands off our ABC’ has launched a petition to save weekly science broadcasts and the group is calling on the Turnbull government to increase the ABC’s core funding. ‘For too long the ABC has been taken for granted, receiving less and less funding from government while providing more services than ever before as new technology has evolved’ the campaign argues.
Nine staff in the Science Unit are affected by the Catalyst “revamp”, and some will be offered redundancies, or will not have their contracts renewed. The new format will encourage outsiders to pitch material, but it will also mean that internal staff will have their hands full updating digital content, which is more of a treadmill existence of space-filling, than original reporting.
Despite the apparent shift, ABC Friends’ Ross McDowell, told IA that he is concerned about this and further ongoing cuts to science programming.
“More than ever, the public broadcaster has a major responsibility to maintain and even extend public understanding of science, and cutting a programme like Catalyst, is a major blow to that vital effort,” Mr McDowell said.
The ABC has also recently abandoned its long-standing tradition of providing transcripts of major interviews recorded for AM, PM and The World Today. These are the network’s flagship radio current affairs programs and the transcripts of political interviews often set the agenda for other media too.
Now that this service has been cut, politicians will be pleased; their words can now flow more easily down the memory hole and increases their plausible deniability when they are questioned on previous statements.
Ross McDowell says withdrawal of the transcript service is a blow against the accountability of politicians.
“Having story transcripts available and on line for searching is a major way to hold the powerful to account because listeners, researchers, and just interested citizens can go back to find what a public figure said in the past, and compare that with what they’re saying now,” he said.
Not only does it seem as if “Aunty” is keen to cut costs by stopping the transcription service, outsourcing science, and cutting important areas of programming; other reports this week suggest Ms Guthrie is appointing more IPA drones to the Radio National roster.
When too much IPA is barely enough
According breaking news on Wednesday, from the usually reliable Amanda Meade in The Guardian, conservative “freethinker” and IPA stalwart, Tom Switzer is to be given a second program in addition to his current gig, Between the Lines. This news was confirmed the same day in an ABC media release.
Is it me, or is there a steaming pile of hypocrisy in an “adjunct fellow” of the IPA getting not one, but two shows on the ABC, when the IPA’s platform, since at least 2010, is that the national broadcaster be broken up and privatised?
3 Do we need reminding that Boy Senator James Patterson was the author of the IPA’s privatise the ABC policy
Switzer will replace Jonathan Green in the Sunday morning program that currently hosts Mr Firstdog Onthemoon’s regular spot Guide to modern living. Mr Onthemoon is getting the chop too. Perhaps his brand of humour is too clever, and too left-wing for the likes of Maurice Newman and the IPA drones and therefore the witty and droll dog has to be neutered.
As if Switzer’s appointment isn’t proof enough of the IPA pudding, former Murdoch executive Kim Williams has also been given an on-air role with Radio National. Yes, that very same Mr Kim Williams, who was a former senior executive at the ABC and then went over to Rupert’s side at Foxtel and briefly ended up as CEO of News Corp Australia. According to some accounts, Williams was ‘brutally deposed’ at News after 18 years of loyal service to Rupert; now he’s back inside the “Murdoch-approved” ABC tent and no doubt on a very nice salary too.
Williams will present a program showcasing what Australia’s “elite” are thinking about, and it will be called ‘What keeps me awake’. The ABC’s media release puts it like this:
‘What Keeps Me Awake? [is] a seasonal offer hosted by Kim Williams which will focus on high-profile Australians discussing what they believe are the issues, ideas and concerns that are mostly submerged in the daily overflow of episodic news and current affairs.’
God knows why the ABC is cutting religious programming
Why religious programming is to be cut is beyond me. Surely in a world where the Trump Evangelicals and conservative “deplorables” have to be pandered to, cutting “Godliness” out of the ABC’s line up is akin to removing “Cleanliness” from the list of “must have” Christian traits.
According to Ross McDowell, this move will have a disproportional impact in Queensland where “Bible belt” politics are important for both State and Federal governments.
“Given that Queensland is a major part of the so-called Bible Belt, where religious beliefs and allegiances can and do impact on some people’s political, economic, and cultural beliefs and behaviours, cutting back on ABC Religion adds to the decline in informed understanding and discussion of religious issues and concerns,” McDowell said.
The ABC Friends’ Queensland spokesperson added ‘We need more informed and diverse information and discussion on religion and religious issues, not less,’ Amen to that Mr McDowell.
There will be no smoking gun on the changes in rosters and program line ups for next year, I’m sure Michelle Guthrie’s contract doesn’t say “defenestrate all left-wing opinionistas”, but her mind and that of the Government will be silently and permanently melded on “what needs to be done”. It is case of “Rupert, Thy will be done”, rather than catering to the public interest.
While Malcolm “The Fizza” Turnbull’s no doubt relishing his chance to further cut ABC funding in next year’s budget, ABC Friends is calling on Michelle Guthrie to fight for more funding from the Coalition.
“[T]he ABC Board and Ms Guthrie must continue to press the Turnbull Government to restore ABC funding overall to what it was before Tony Abbott vindictively and wantonly slashed its funding to stop this continuing decline in ABC services to all Australians,” Mr McDowell said.
The PSU’s Sindy Ealy agrees, she told IA that the government must stump up more money, not less. “Reduced envelope from Government means that the ABC Executive are more reliant than ever on the goodwill of ABC staff to deliver the programs and services millions on Australians rely on,” Ms Ealy said.
Unfortunately, as our insider has noted, staff goodwill towards management is rapidly evaporating