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The ABC fades to black

Has John Howard won?

Tony Moore

So its come to this. Four Corners, one of the world's longest running television programs, is now under pressure from an ABC executive that is less cultural visionary than a feral abacus.

The ABC should not have to choose between current affairs, entertainment, documentaries and drama. We want it to do all these things and the government is obliged to fund it to meet all charter requirements. Corporate sponsorship, seized upon by Christopher Pine after being floated by Robert Manne, will undermine whatever diversity the ABC still has. SBS style between-program advertising will by necessity influence what programs get commissioned, even if editorial independence is guaranteed. The ABC bureaucracy is unfit to deal with the commercial temptations that limited advertising brings with it, and the same favouritism that currently dominates co-production and outsourcing will see 'uncommercial' program proposals that upset the market for commodities ignored, before the government even gets the chance to attack them.

The on-going program cuts by the board and ABC management are caused by the ongoing funding squeeze by the Howard government that has made its hostility to the national broadcaster only too clear. However, given this hostile environment, the ABC board and its advisers should cut more wisely and imaginatively, lancing management fat and sharpening up its business dealings with co-producers, rather than axing treasured on-air content and hacking into the already tight budgets of flag ship programs like Four Corners, Australian Story and Foreign Correspondent. From ABC enterprises to SES salary packages, there are plentiful non-program areas that could be trimmed. It might have seemed like smart politics to the ABC board to bring its funding pain home to the public by ditching Behind the News. But the spotlight has been shone back onto ABC management's criteria for chopping particular areas, and has once again undermined the security and morale of hard working program makers.

In a nation with the western world's highest levels of media concentration, and a political culture careless with accountability and tolerant of corruption, Four Corners is an essential part of our democracy. In an era obsessed with economics and social trends Australian Story reflects back to us the biography of great and ordinary people - it humanises our society and those beyond our experience at a time when cold generalisation leads to official inhumanity. Foreign Correspondent has for a decade dignified the humanity of communities overseas, nullifying their 'otherness' and countering our tendency to tribalism and xenophobia. To cut Foreign Correspondent and threaten to reduce overseas bureaus when the world is in such turmoil beggars belief and is proof of short sightedness of a board and senior management that think like accountants rather than broadcasters. And how convenient for a government disdainful of the critical thinking these programs promote and a Communications Minister applying the frighteners to the current affairs department.

The board's decision to cut the children and youth digital services, Behind the News and cadet training demonstrates that young audiences, new 'narrow casting' media and fresh talent are a low priority for the current board and executive that are motivated in part by an obsession with what is known around ABC TV as 'the core audience' - meaning the over 55s. Talk about playing to the grave when ABC TV should be doing all it can to win younger audiences that it can take into the future. Last year the National Auditor found that the ABC was performing poorly with the younger audience, and advised that attracting this demographic be made a priority. The idea of a core audience is contrary to the ABC Charter, which demands diverse genres for diverse audiences. To cut Foreign Correspondent and threaten to reduce overseas bureaus when the world is in such turmoil beggars belief, and is further proof of short sightedness by senior management.

But Senator Alston's idea that drama and entertainment should be cut to make way for more nutritious serious programming is ridiculous and shows a poor grasp of the Charter. Humour, satire and programs that explore popular culture are just as vital to the ABC Charter and Australian culture as docos and current affairs. If the ABC followed the minister's advice we may never have had Aunty Jack, the Gillies Report or Frontline. Having just discovered that comedy can also give pollies some grief (shock horror!), the minister has now turned his beady eyes on the likes of the Glass House - an incisive and witty window on the week that strikes a chord with , you guessed it, young people. The Glass House has a go at the powerful using a carnivalesque, anything goes humour in the earthy, ribald tradition of Rabelais. Alston acknowledges he doesn't know about comedy, and I can only concur whole heartedly. Australians do not live on earnestness alone senator.

Not content with the present schedule, the minister also criticises shows before they go to air, musing publicly about Mondo Thingo, which is only just going into production. The ABC's new popular culture program promises to be insightful, innovative and fun, and there is no similar program on commercial TV. Pop culture is as valid a topic for examination as grey suited politicians. For a government minister who holds the ABC's purse strings to offer programming advice in such a cavalier fashion is stepping beyond the bounds of propriety and his level of competence. Next he'll be offering to host The Glass House!

The government's criticism of iconoclastic entertainment is eerily reminiscent of conservative attacks on ABC comedies Alvin Purple and the Off Show, and maverick youth station 2JJ in the 1970s. Hey, wasn't Howard Treasurer back then?

The Coalition's belief in bias at the ABC assumes that there is only a two way debate in Australia between the left and the right that mirrors the divisions in the House of Representatives. If only life were so simple, minister. There is in fact a vast array of positions and perspectives on any given issue, with the various fractions of the left and right joined by religious, ethnic, regional and even the postmodern interpretations so disdained by the right and left. While many of us believe the ABC could be a lot more diverse, the fact is that day after day, story after story, ABC current affairs and factual programming give a far greater range of viewpoints than any other media outlet. What is needed is more criticism of all received wisdom, not acquiescence in the federal government's line. ABC management is to be praised for defending the integrity of its current affairs team against the government's clumsy attempts to stifle criticism.

Taken together, the government's paranoid accusations of left bias, school ma'amish criticism of sharp, larrikin entertainment, and miserly approach to funding Australia's premier cultural institution amount to a nasty, obsessive and small-minded campaign that will do the coalition no good among its core audience. Senator Alston should think carefully about the esteem Liberal and National Party voters hold the ABC or he may one day get the axe himself.

ABC TV has been cutting into on air content since the Howard government came to office - it just that the decline has been so gradual we've got used to watching BBC 3. There used to be a documentary department that made outstanding historical and social documentary on a par with the British and American imports that now grace our screens. Carefully researched and fearless docos of the calibre of Cop It Sweet and Nobody's Children made both Labor and Liberal government's squirm in the late 80s and early 90s. The funding squeeze from 1996 led to docos being outsourced to the independent sector or Film Australia, and the ABC lost a centre of excellence and the public a critical window on the nation. Today the ABC makes a trickle of underwhelming fly-on the wall docos, leaving current affairs to fill the void with Four Corners or the occasional gem from entertainment like Long Way to the Top. But now these departments are feeling the heat.

In casting around for ways to live within straightened means, the ABC board should show some cultural vision and leave programs treasured by different groups of Australians alone. ABC bosses should direct their accountants razor to the extravagant SES salaries they now pay themselves (inherited from the Shier era and unheard of in the days of Hill), its plethora of management consultants, the bureaucratic duplication in non-program making areas, and the excessive amount of tax payers money leaching into the private sector via co-production deals. Outsourcing can tap the diversity of talent in the community, and has given us the brilliance of CNNN, Frontline and Kath and Kim, but the public has to get value for money. Outsourcing was supposed to save the ABC's budget, but if it's shown that some companies are not delivering value for money lets bring more production back in-house and reverse what amounts to partial privatisation.

If the latest round of cuts don't make sense from a programming point of view, ABC TV staff and friends should not be surprised. ABC audiences applauded when Shier fell, but maybe his right wing pyrotechnics have been replaced with a slow fade to black. When we cheer the elevation of accountants to run our premier cultural institutions, you know John Howard has won.


Tony Moore was a member of the ABC National Advisory Council, 1986-88, and a staff program maker for nine years. He is President of the NSW Fabian Society, a member of the Evatt Foundation's Executive Committee, and a Commissioning Editor at Pluto Press.


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