A meeting of the ABC board in Sydney on Thursday is expected to plan a roadshow campaign to take its case for triennial funding to the public.
While avoiding an inflammatory dispute with the Turnbull government over its recently announced budget cuts of $83.7 million to operational funding through an indexation freeze, and uncertainty over $43 million in tied funding, the board is preparing to step up its advocacy.
The campaign will be based on ABC chief financial officer Louise Higgins’ recent calculation that the current per capita cost of all ABC services is just 4 cents a day, and on what ABC chairman Justin Milne called “ABC 2.0” – the need for investment in original Australian content and rapidly changing multi-platform technology to ensure the ABC can hold and build its audience against global video streaming and smart phone internet disruption.
“There are now more mobile phones in the world than there are toilets,” Mr Milne told an ABC public meeting in February.
Unlike the 1980s “8 cents a day” campaign undertaken on ABC radio and television, any 2018 official campaign is expected to be restricted to speeches and presentations by ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie, Mr Milne and senior executives.
The 8 cents a day campaign was provoked by the then Hawke government’s plan to break up the ABC into core and non-core functions. That plan was abandoned after considerable controversy.
ABC sources told The New Daily that with triennial funding now in play the board had been forced into a corner by the budget cuts. It also had a responsibility to put its case publicly and to demonstrate its statutory independence.
This strategy was forming after recent controversies may have caused a public perception to develop that the ABC was being turned into the “government station” with public trust in the institution likely to erode.
“The board is extremely sensitive on this issue of trust. For years the ABC, with the Reserve Bank and the High Court, has been among the most trusted institutions in Australia,” one source said.
Last Thursday, Labor leader Bill Shorten elevated the future of the ABC to a major election issue when he referred twice to the funding plight of the broadcaster during his nationally-televised budget reply speech.
And in a pointed reference to the pre-election political context, Ms Guthrie last week told ABC staff: “We will continue to pursue our agenda with the government, and make clear to them that a strong ABC is a well-funded ABC, that delivers content and services for all Australians in every electorate. In the coming year, Australians will head to the polls for the next election. More than 80 per cent of Australians value the ABC, a point that shouldn’t be lost on anyone seeking government.”
Ms Guthrie’s reference to “electorates” is believed to cover the possible loss of ABC regional services in Geelong, Ipswich, Parramatta and other centres if the disputed $43 million in tied funding is discontinued next year. A guesstimated 60 ABC jobs could also be at stake.
Thursday’s board meeting will consider options for yet more cuts to services and staff to accommodate the loss of $83.7 million over three years.
Communications Minister Senator Mitch Fifield has denied the latest ABC funding cuts were punitive or that new efficiency reviews of both the ABC and SBS or the recently ordered “competitive neutrality” inquiry into ABC news online and SBS commerciality were indications of Turnbull government hostility to the public broadcasting sector.
On Sunday night he told ABC TV’s Patricia Karvelas: “The ABC has more than a billion dollars a year in funding. What that means is that the ABC has more funding certainty than any other media organisation in the nation.”
Thursday’s ABC board meeting will be the first for newly appointed directors Jane Connors and Joseph Gersh. Hand-picked by the government from an independent selection panel short-list, Mr Gersh, an investment adviser and former senior partner of tax law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler, is a director of The Sydney Institute.
Ms Connors, an ABC broadcaster and senior executive, is the latest ABC staff-elected director, having narrowly won an Australian Electoral Commission ballot for the five-year appointment.
The two new directors will be able to observe firsthand another chapter in the ABC’s often contentious relationship with the hand that feeds it.
Quentin Dempster is a Walkley Award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster with decades of experience. He is a veteran of the ABC newsroom and has worked with a number of print titles including The Sydney Morning Herald. He was awarded an Order of Australia in 1992 for services to journalism.