The Guardian September 6, 2000


All But Commercialised

by Marcus Browning

ABC staff will stop work around the country this week in response to 
management's ongoing assault on the national broadcaster. Managing director 
Jonathan Shier last week announced plans to break the national 
broadcaster's eight program production areas into 21 and have them form 
partnerships with State Governments.

Shier, who describes the Government as the ABC's "sole shareholder", is an 
Australian corporate broadcast media executive recruited by the Government 
six months ago from commercial television in the US.

Breaking the production processes into small cells has a two-fold purpose: 
it is a further step in the elimination of the ABC's centralised structure 
and a part of its preparation for privatisation as the "partnership" deals 
with the states would actually be a form of contracting out.

In addition they will be used to undermine the ABC's independence.

Under the plan governments are to tender for ABC programs to be produced in 
their states. Already the Tasmanian Government has put in a bid  Shier 
and Premier Bacon are old friends  with Shier "suggesting" that the ABC's 
programming on the environment, part of its internationally respected 
Science Unit, be hived off to Hobart.

One outcome of these deals with the states is that current affairs programs 
such as ABC Radio's AM and PM, will be optional, in large 
part because news and current affairs are set to lose $20 million in 
funding in the break up. This would take cuts to ABC funding since 1996 by 
the Howard Government to almost $90 million.

The next major step, towards which Shier is now manoeuvring, is to have 
"core" ABC programming  based on news and current affairs  alone 
receiving any government funding.

The cash-strapped and isolated production units and specialised services, 
such as those to rural Australia, will be left to fend for themselves from 
the private sector, losing their independence and having to take 
commercials.

The 21 new groups are to put together ideas for shows and submit them to 
the heads of radio and television  Shier appointees  who will have 
absolute power over which projects get funding.

These appointees were headhunted for hundreds of thousands of dollars from 
the private sector to replace experienced managers with specialised skills 
in public broadcasting who were sacked or forced out by Shier.

This arrangement leaves an enormous scope for censorship and control over 
program content that might in any way cut across contractual arrangements 
with governments, and especially government ties with private sector vested 
interests.

How, for example, would the environment program makers report on a 
environmentally dangerous Tasmanian Government project being implemented by 
private companies contracted to the Government?

"Staff are beginning to question the direction that the managing director 
is travelling", said a statement by the Community and Public Sector Union 
(CPSU) last week, "and the growing view that some of the central planks of 
public broadcasting are being removed at the ABC.

"There has been little or no consultation with the owners of the ABC, the 
Australian public, about the changes.

"The managing director's stated aim of increasing e-business, particularly 
in new media, potentially introduces commercial influence into production 
areas.

"This repositioning is likely to result in a redefinition of the role of 
the national broadcaster", the CPSU said.

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