Six years of real-term budget cuts have taken their toll on the national broadcaster. As one commentator said, there is little fat left to trim at the ABC. These latest cuts really do go to the bone.
But Australia’s national debt is rising as a result of COVID-19 and each taxpayer-funded organisation must use its money more efficiently to serve the Australian public. The ABC is no different. Its core purpose, as set out in its charter, is to inform and entertain the public through programs that contribute to our national identity. It must direct more of its funding to news services, emergency broadcasts and regional coverage – and away from non-essential services, like lifestyle platforms.
The five-year plan the ABC published this week refocuses the broadcaster on this core mission of public service – of keeping Australians informed about their community and reflecting it back to them. This is a welcome development.
Key among the list of priorities is serving communities outside Australia’s big cities. This goal is reflected in the plan to move 75 per cent of the ABC’s content producers away from headquarters in Sydney’s Ultimo, to outer-suburban and regional areas.
Changing the controversial ABC Life to ABC Local, and directing it to focus on local news stories instead of more trivial lifestyle pieces, will also help the broadcaster meet the needs of the millions of Australians who do not live in the inner suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.
This is a prudent way to spend public funding and unlike lifestyle, it will be a valuable service that commercial media is struggling to provide. More than 100 local papers shut in Australia between 2008 and 2018 and in the past week, dozens of local papers owned by News Corp printed their final editions too (the larger ones will continue online). Regional TV stations are also under financial pressure and increasingly trying to get out of their obligations to provide local content. All this means fewer journalists seated in the council chambers and local court-rooms of regional Australia, pen in hand, ready to report back to the public about what is happening in front of them.
The authorities have recognised the damaging effect such lack of scrutiny has on our system of government. The ABC can minimise that damage. Through its various platforms it can hold local authorities to account and keep rural and regional communities informed of decisions that affect their day-to-day lives: in a way national- and state-focused media struggle to do. This is one of the reasons the national broadcaster exists.
The ABC has proved critical this year in helping Australians navigate their way through the bushfire crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been a trustworthy source of information and even stepped up to provide educational content for millions of children stuck at home in April.
The provision of such services is above politics and must be properly funded. But in these lean and uncertain times, the ABC must ensure it uses its precious resources in pursuit of this key purpose – that is, telling all Australians, no matter how old they are, what they really need to know.