Call it resource reallocation, call it dwindling media budgets, but there’s no doubt that the ABCs of the world are suffering.
In the same year that America’s ABC News announced major cuts and changes to how foreign news is covered, Australia’s own ABC network has announced it too will restructure its network of overseas bureaux.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, loosely based on the BBC, is trying to be nimble, despite being lumbered with the high degree of public scrutiny that comes with being government funded. Currently it’s working with around AU$780m (€564m), roughly a 25 per cent decrease over 25 years.
This year it launched its first-ever 24-hour news channel, News 24. With no additional government funds allocated for the mammoth project, budgets for other programmes and departments were shaved. This week it was revealed the ABC is sacking some of its overseas-based staff, and a new agreement with APTN will see some bureaux sharing real estate and back-end operations with the commercial news agency. There is disquiet within the ranks.
“It’s a disappointing decision because the 24-hour news channel is incredibly boring to watch,” says one ABC insider. “I fear it’s going to end up like other outlets where foreign-placed journalists stand on the roof and just put their voice to wire footage. What is the point of reporting like that?”
“Researchers and fixers are so incredibly important, they are your eyes and ears. To get rid of local workers is effectively castrating your ability to report locally.”
Another section to feel the sword is Australia Network, the broadcaster’s international arm beamed across the Asia-Pacific region. It’s a particularly vital service in places such as Fiji, where the government curtails media freedoms, but the round-the-clock service is now operating on skeletal staff levels.
Then there’s the move towards studio automation in recent years, with machines and robot cameras replacing human roles such as floor managers and autocue operators. But technology has a way of failing at vital moments, such as when the deputy prime minister launched a coup for her boss’s job.
When this happened this year, viewers were treated to unfortunate glitches such as freeze frames and live rewinds.
Nevertheless, management insists the motive is aimed at freeing up much-needed funds for other purposes, such as a new Kabul bureau, and providing comprehensive responses to breaking news.
It has also beefed up its online presence, and received extra government funding around $167m for a new children’s digital television channel, and new regional broadband hubs around the country.
“A humming national broadcaster, which is entering brave new territory and innovating in online media, is something to be celebrated in an uncertain media landscape,” says Australian media commentator Julie Posetti, “but it’s vital to assess the impact of dramatic change and expansion on the ABC’s core business.”