The Guardian June 21, 2000


ABC privatisation

by Marcus Browning

Two leaked reports reveal that the new ABC management is preparing steps 
which will strip the national broadcaster of all vestiges of independence. 
A planned restructure will result in increased outsourcing of programming. 
A former Walt Disney corporation marketing guru has been hired to pursue 
private sector investment and profits.

These moves are in line with the Howard Government's competition policy 
which provides the ways and means to breakup publicly-owned bodies into 
small entities and then privatising them piece by piece.

The restructure plan, which has not yet been made public, will see ABC 
program makers hived off into production "cells" where each will have to 
administer their own budgets and compete with each other to sell their 
programs to ABC radio and television.

The reason for the sacking of senior programming and network managers 
during the recent period, with the head of marketing to follow hot on their 
heels, is now clearer. ABC management, heavily weighted with Howard 
Government appointees, is clearing the way for a major demolition job.

Last week ABC managing director Jonathan Shier  who was recruited by the 
Government from commercial television in the US  unashamedly exposed his 
employment brief by emphasising higher ratings as a major objective.

As for the Disney recruit, Keith Bales, his assignment is nothing less than 
shifting the focus of the ABC to "issues related to maximisation revenue 
opportunities". Bales' speciality is in sales, merchandising and 
international marketing.

He is to "provide advice to ABC Enterprises in support of investment 
strategies and relevant commercial opportunities".

Funding cuts

Massive funding cuts since the Government took office in 1996 have shaken 
the ABC to its core as an independent broadcaster, while the 1997 Mansfield 
Review put in motion the wheels by which the all out attack on the ABC was 
to proceed.

The review, headed by businessman Bob Mansfield, the current chairman of 
Telstra, followed devastating Government budget cuts in the 1996-97 budget 
($11 million) and 1997-98 ($55 million).

Putting Government thinking into words Mansfield proposed that ABC 
programming be funded by selling ABC property and cutting other services. 
He pushed for increased outsourcing knowing its inevitable outcome; staff 
cuts and the closure and sale of ABC studios, leaving the ABC with a 
diminishing television production base.

The result is fewer programs which seriously attempt to reflect Australia's 
culture, diversity and history. By 1998, as a result of financial cutbacks, 
the ABC produced a mixture of outsourced programs, co-productions and some 
in-house productions.

In May, 1998, Communications Minister Richard Alston forecast the current 
break-up with a list of demands aimed at giving the Government more control 
over the ABC. 

They included the ABC having a separate editorial monitoring policy unit; 
so-called "independent" advisory panels to review program performance; a 
programs complaints mechanism; more "public accountability"; and a 
monitoring of "balance and accuracy".

So, by early 1999 the ABC had in train plans to sell its land and property 
in Brisbane, Canberra and Perth and its production site at Gore Hill in 
Sydney.

There is now an undisguised focus on ratings  the ultimate determinate of 
the dollars advertisers pay networks  with ABC management trumpeting that 
the ABC's ratings have "never been higher". But these precious high 
ratings, with the exception of the SeaChange series, are all for 
imported programs.

ABC's obligation

Quentin Dempster, ABC presenter and former staff representative board 
member, pointed out that Shier should be supported if his aim is to develop 
more Australian content, but if it's the intention to go with more imported 
programs this would go against the ABC's obligation in its charter to 
provide "innovative programming".

"We're all for building audience for Australian content", said Mr Dempster, 
"but the fact is we haven't got the money to do it."

Radio Australia

A sinister development has emerged out of the sell-off of Radio Australia. 
In 1998 the Government closed Radio Australia's Cox Peninsula transmitters 
which resulted in the loss of ABC broadcasts to significant parts of Asia, 
including China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and 
Indonesia.

The Howard Government has now sold the transmitters to the religious 
organisation Christian Voice, an indication not only of the Government's 
privatisation agenda but of its Christian fundamentalist leanings. 

Part of the deal includes Christian Voice, a subsidiary of the British 
corporation Christian Vision, leasing the transmitter's "excess capacity" 
back to the ABC. In other words, taxpayers' money will be used to subsidise 
Christian Voice's takeover of a publicly-owned asset.

Christian Vision carries substantial broadcasts into southern Africa and 
south America.

"There are cost implications", said enthusiastic ABC chairman, Donald 
McDonald, a Government-appointee and close friend of Prime Minister Howard, 
"and we will need help and encouragement from the Government in that 
regard. But I think this is a moment full of possibilities for Radio 
Australia."

There are cultural and political implication also. The $17 million-a-year 
founder of Christian Vision, Bob Edmiston, admits there are "Muslim 
sensitivities" in the region, but nonetheless, "Our objective is to 
introduce people to Jesus." Christian Voice has told the ABC it wants 
strict editorial control over all broadcasts from the Cox transmitters.

CPA view

Peter Symon, General Secretary CPA said that "the sale of the ABC's 
transmitters to Christian Voice is absolutely scandalous and disgusting. 
Asia is a largely non-Christian region and the sort of message that 
Christian Voice is going to pour into Asia may well further aggravate 
tensions between Australia and Asian countries. 

"There are already religious tensions and conflicts in Indonesia between 
Christians and Muslims and Christian Voice, who will side with the 
Christian communities, could well further increase such conflicts."

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