The role of the manager of emergency broadcasting has been made redundant. Of all the baffling decisions at the ABC, this one makes my head explode. The arts reporter. The rural and regional reporter. Both gone from the specialist reporting team.
Strange decisions, some with a history. Yes, here we are, 21 months after the ABC's weirdest chairperson, Justin Milne, disappeared from our beloved broadcaster, his ghost is still heard. In 2018, Milne demanded the sacking of Emma Alberici. She wasn't the only target at the time - Andrew Probyn, Tom Ballard and the Tonightly crew were all in the firing line (these days, Probyn is protected by his TikTok status). At the time I said I thought there would be more to come.
And here we are - with yet another major restructure of the ABC, forced by this government's ever-dwindling resourcing of the national broadcaster. Since the Coalition came to power in 2013, the ABC has lost $783 million in funding.
On Wednesday, David Anderson announced his proposed restructure to staff. They've all known for months that more cuts would be heading their way. ABC management has drafted a five-year strategy to get them through in one - very diminished - piece. ABC management also rejected a government-funded efficiency review led by former Foxtel boss Peter Tonagh and former media regulator Richard Bean. It proposed closing two ABC broadcast channels and sharing admin services with SBS. ([Doesn't it infuriate you when people with no relevant expertise get appointed to those reviews? Happens way too much.]
Now, Alberici didn't go in 2018 because Michelle Guthrie, then the ABC's managing director, defended her. But Alberici's position is again in the headlights and her role as chief economics correspondent is among the proposed redundancies in the news division, according to confidential documents obtained by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
I'll be buggered if I understand how at the beginning of the biggest recession Australia has ever seen, anyone can afford to lose a chief economics correspondent from anywhere.
But I'll be buggered if I understand how at the beginning of the biggest recession Australia has ever seen, anyone can afford to lose a chief economics correspondent from anywhere. We need all the critical eyes on this government's decisions we can get. We need economics correspondents who are prepared to criticise, without fear or favour.
And it's clear ABC news director Gaven Morris recognises how important that is. In an email to staff on Wednesday he flagged changes to the network's business team (among others): "Audiences for business stories on digital have almost tripled in the past two years and for international stories they are up more than fivefold. Our teams need to be resourced to reflect this change."
And that was before we had the COVIDepression.
Alberici is just one small piece in the puzzle. This next is even more puzzling. Anderson is proposing to axe the 7.45am news bulletin. Now I wish this decision was an Abraham and Isaac situation - where God wants to test the faith of Abraham by asking him to kill his son. Abe does all the business. The knife. The firewood. But just before he does the final deed, an angel tells him not to go ahead. God was just testing his faith.
I'll admit, it's a big stretch to compare the 7.45am statewide news bulletins with Isaac. But maybe David Anderson, the ABC's managing director, is being extra performative with his decision to axe these iconic broadcasts. Maybe it's to show the government just how far ABC management is prepared to go to protect other parts of the ABC.
Morris's email to staff on Wednesday also said: "We propose discontinuing the 0745 radio news bulletin to achieve savings and provide more flexibility in how we use the significant resources currently tied up in that one-off broadcast ... its audience has fallen more than 20 per cent in four years, at a faster rate than Local Radio audiences. We would still provide a 10-minute bulletin at 0700 - with the extended Majestic Fanfare - as well as headlines at 0730 and a new five-minute bulletin at 0800." Is that five minutes off my beloved AM?
But anyone who listens to radio obsessively will know that calling the 7.45am bulletin a one-off broadcast is a teensy bit tricky. The package itself might be a one-off, but all throughout the day we hear the grabs we heard at 7.45am. That news bulletin sets the agenda, not just for listeners but for politicians, for business, for the nation.
We do listen differently now - although the ABC's data only collects the five metro capitals regularly and apparently Canberra only rates three times a year (excuse the pun). What does rate, at least internally, are the "purple people", a term used by insiders to describe potential listeners in areas which are not traditional ABC heartland. In 2019, ABC management went off to a bootcamp in Bankstown to imagine new ways to connect with new audiences, such as those living in Sydney's west, Melbourne's east, Brisbane's south and Perth's south-west, and regional cities like Newcastle and Geelong. The relevant section on the map was coloured purple.
All of this is important. Who can forget the utility of the Australia Talks National Survey, which last year canvassed the hopes and fears of over 50,000 Australians to discover stories all over the nation, including the catastrophe of public transport in Tarneit, an outer suburb in Melbourne? But let's not allow those stories to fragment our nation.
We need all our states and territories to engage with the big picture, and the government's cuts to the ABC make that harder. Earlier this year, Queensland Liberal senator and pale excuse for a politician James McGrath said: "The ABC must show how it can manage its existing budget before asking for a bigger one. Remember its existing budget is over $1.1 billion, $1.1 billion of taxpayers money."
Let's remind him of his pointless posturing the next time his state is on fire. Since July 1, 2019, the ABC has broadcast about 1000 emergency events. The policies which led to those events - and the fires and floods themselves - are the reasons our ABC must keep the bigger picture in focus. Shame our government doesn't think that's important.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.