As 2023 comes to a close, I’m filled with gratitude for all the encouragement you’ve given ABC Friends this year. Our successes wouldn’t have been possible without you. There were some wins and some disappointments but throughout it all I’ve been heartened by your support.
It was the first full year of a Labor government and, true to their election promises, Labor made some modest but welcome improvements to the ABC’s budget, giving the ABC greater certainty and ability to plan. ABC Friends advocated strongly for the introduction of five-year funding, indexation, the incorporation of the ABC’s enhanced news gathering program into the ABC’s operating grant, and more funding for services in the Pacific. All of these measures were included in the Budget.
But after years of brutal cuts, it wasn’t enough. The government must do much more to repair the harm that was done to the ABC over almost 10 years. And unfortunately, the indexation formula the government uses for the ABC’s budget is nowhere near the actual cost of inflation.
Over the next five years, the ABC’s revenue will go backwards. We’ve already seen more cuts to programs and jobs since the budget was brought down – and the damage will continue unless there is a significant increase in operational funding and an indexation formula that fully covers costs.
ABC Friends has campaigned for many years for measures to strengthen the ABC’s independence. So we were mightily pleased when the Minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland, announced a review in July to investigate ways of protecting the ABC against political interference.
At the time I said that two crucial outcomes should flow from the review:
"First, the ABC needs a funding mechanism that can protect them against cuts or threats of cuts. If an organisation is dependent on government for its funding, but at any time the government can take that funding away, it creates nervousness about reporting independently."
“Second, there should be a transparent and accountable process for appointing people to the ABC board, as well as a clear structural separation between management and the board.”
Both outcomes were reflected in our submission.
The government has not yet issued its response to the review, but we’re pleased that the Minister adopted the recommended arms-length process in her first appointments to the ABC Board. And word on the grapevine is that the Prime Minister will do likewise in appointing a new Chair.
More than 1500 of our supporters completed the survey we drafted for the review - thank you! And thank you to almost 6,000 people who signed our No More Captain’s Picks petition for the Prime Minister.
Another ABC restructure – and more cuts
Hot on the heels of the federal budget and the announcement of its first five year plan, the ABC underwent yet another restructure. Most attention was given to the decision to scrap the role of Political Editor from the ABC’s Canberra bureau but my real concern was the loss of another 120 positions.
Programs flagged for the chop included the Sunday night news bulletins. For years we watched in dismay as the ABC’s state-based reporting was steadily eroded. This time, you said enough is enough. Following intense lobbying, David Anderson, the ABC’s Managing Director, reversed the decision and the Sunday bulletins survived.
But for each victory there’s a downside – the reversal meant that savings had to be found elsewhere and I can’t help wondering if The Drum was one of the losers. We do know that plans to revive Stateline were put on hold.
The ABC is trying to do too much with too little. For every new program that’s introduced, something else must go. That’s why we'll revive our funding campaign in early 2024 – and it’s why we'll seek your support.
ABC Five Year Plan and Digital First strategy
The ABC’s Digital-First strategy will significantly alter the ways in which the ABC creates, produces and distributes content.
The plan states:
“By 2028 the ABC will be an integrated digital operation and most of the audience engagement with the ABC will be through our digital products.”
Of fundamental importance is the need to produce quality content, whether in news, entertainment, children’s programs or documentaries. The race for audiences shouldn’t come at the expense of depth and analysis.
The digital-first strategy should also aim to guarantee access to the ABC for all Australians, regardless of where they live. At present there are large swathes of this vast land where the ABC isn’t available. That problem must be rectified.
Managing the transition will be difficult, and communicating with its audiences throughout the change will be crucial. ABC Friends stands ready to support that process.
Underpinning all of this is the need for more funding.
I can’t see how the ABC can do its existing job, let alone manage a major transition, without increased funding. Without more funding, expect more program cuts, more job losses and more impacts on quality.
Debates throughout the year exposed the editorial pressures public media organisations face – pressures felt by similar bodies across the world. ABC Friends has engaged in these debates, drawing on the writings of experienced journalists and academics like Monica Attard, Dennis Muller and Alan Sunderland. Where necessary, we’ve called out the ABC on decisions we thought difficult to justify, most recently the decision by the ABC to release footage to the WA Police from the 4 Corners program Escalation.
The ABC was scrutinised for balance and impartiality during the Voice referendum, and in its reporting on the Israel-Gaza war. It lost a major defamation case brought by Heston Russell and was criticised for not giving enough support to Stan Grant when he was subjected to hostile and racist abuse. ABC Friends issued a statement in support of Stan and we were disappointed when he decided to leave the ABC. The ABC was slow to come to Stan’s defence but it ultimately decided to conduct a review into its response to racism affecting staff, a decision we welcomed. In a political environment that's become increasingly hostile to journalists, it's especially important that ABC management demonstrate public and steadfast support for employees as they strive to uphold high journalistic standards.
Inside ABC Friends
Within ABC Friends we used the post-election year to introduce some internal changes. We:
- commissioned a new brand
- introduced a monthly online newsletter
- entered into a formal service agreement with ABC Alumni
- improved our internal communications and strengthened our privacy provisions
- began the task of drafting a new constitution which will be finalised in late January 2024
- drafted new vision and mission statements and clarified national and state roles
We did all our work on the smell of an oily rag: apart from a part-time web/social media manager everything we do relies on volunteers.
I take this opportunity to thank the national committee and the state committees of ABC Friends who devote countless hours to supporting our organisation and the ABC. A special thank you to Peter Lindenmayer who is stepping down as Secretary of ABC Friends from both the national and the NSW/ACT organisations. Peter has been a mainstay of ABC Friends for many years, as a committee member, national treasurer and secretary. We will miss his thoughtful contributions to debate.
Thanks also to Michael Henry, who is stepping down as vice-president but will remain on the national committee and continue as president of ABC Friends Victoria. Michael has been a great sounding board and sage advisor since I became president in 2022 .
And thanks to you, our members and supporters.
From time to time some of you have told me of your frustrations with decisions made by the ABC. But we mustn’t lose sight of the big picture. Imagine a world without a strong public broadcaster. We would all be very much poorer for it.
Our task - as always - is to fight to strengthen the ABC.
Merry Christmas and a very happy 2024. I look forward to working with you in the year ahead.