Outgoing ABC boss Mark Scott has revealed that he initiated secret negotiations with a former SBS managing director in 2011 aimed at merging the two public broadcasters.
Mr Scott made the disclosure in his farewell address as ABC managing director to the National Press Club on Wednesday, in which he also renewed his call for integrating the operations of the ABC and SBS, arguing it could save the federal government $40 million a year.
Mr Scott said he and former SBS chief Shaun Brown discussed ways to merge the broadcasters in a way that would preserve the identity and programming of the standalone corporations.
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The talks ended after the SBS board rejected the idea.
“Shaun Brown and I had a number of conversations about how a peaceful merger might work – one that would safeguard a distinct identity and remit for SBS and allow the public broadcasters to be more distinctive, in clearly delineated spaces – with no overlap,” Mr Scott revealed.
“No bidding against each other, schedules developed side-by-side to maximise specialist audiences, using studios more efficiently. And shared back office support that would deliver economies of scale.
“We felt we could have come up with a public broadcasting proposition for the government that worked in the interests of audiences, the taxpayers and the broadcasters. A shared solution – not a takeover – but a friendly merger in the interests of the owners.
“But it wasn’t to be. The idea was rejected at the SBS board level and Shaun wasn’t given license to pursue the conversation further. It ended there.”
See Mr Scott’s full address below
Save Our SBS president Steve Aujard said it was worrying that it had taken at least five years for details of the talks to be made public.
“The futures of SBS and the ABC are matters of public interest and as such the public has a right to know when these kinds of talks take place,” he said.
“It is disturbing to find these things out years later because it indicates that stakeholders of the public broadcasters will be swept to sidelines when the next merger deal is hatched.”
Mr Aujard said public broadcasters in other countries were more transparent about their strategic plans because they were required to publish the minutes of board meetings.
The BBC has been publishing the minutes of its monthly board meetings since 2007.
Scott makes case against more funding cuts
Mr Scott made his speech as the federal government finalises the ABC’s funding arrangements for the next three years.
Mr Scott noted the Gillard government gave the ABC an extra $20 million a year during the last funding round, and urged the Coalition to maintain that funding.
“That News funding represents 10 per cent of the ABC’s News budget, and to cut it now will mean significant cuts to jobs and programming,” he said.
“If it was not renewed, it would represent the third substantial cut to the ABC’s budget since the Coalition government was elected on a platform not to cut the budget.”
Since the Coalition government was elected, Mr Scott said the ABC’s funding had been cut by $350 million.
“The ABC’s share of government expenditure is effectively at its lowest level in decades now and the per capita spend on public broadcasting is significantly lower than many other nations, and dramatically lower than the BBC,” he said.
“The greatest challenge to the future of the ABC, ironically, comes from those who fund it on behalf of its owners.
“Today’s government. Future governments.”