“In the face of the [COVID-19 pandemic], the ABC has modified its response to the indexation pause on its triennial funding by delaying savings measures entailing staff redundancies,” Mr Anderson said.
“It is likewise my expectation that COVID-19 is putting pressure on advertising revenues, which make up a significant proportion of SBS’s budget. I would suggest that we re-examine a number of potential opportunities on which we were previously unable to find common ground.”
But Mr Taylor, who led corporate development at the ABC for almost eight years, strongly rejected the idea of sharing office space in a sign the two organisations may never operate under the same roof unless they are forced by the government to merge.
“I do not believe that SBS staff co-locating to an ABC location in either Sydney or Melbourne is a feasible or desirable option for a range of reasons, including current long-term SBS leasing arrangements in Melbourne which were facilitated by a generous lessor incentive, and your view that there is insufficient available space in Ultimo,” Mr Taylor said.
Mr Taylor said he was “perplexed” by a suggestion by Mr Anderson to form a small group to discuss the ideas further given ongoing discussions about saving money were already taking place. Industry sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity said SBS is concerned it may be forced to merge with the ABC, an organisation it considers to be inefficient. The sharing of resources could also validate an argument for government to merge the two companies further down the track.
SBS has never gone public with its concerns about a merger but politicians and ABC employees such as former ABC editorial director Alan Sunderland have encouraged the idea. A review in 2014 that took place under then communications minister Malcolm Turnbull said the multicultural broadcaster should sell off its properties and move into the ABC’s headquarters. Others, such as former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, warned it would be detrimental to the future of SBS.
The suggestions by Mr Anderson in the exchange are similar to some put forward in a review led by former Foxtel boss Peter Tonagh and former media regulator Richard Bean, which was handed to the Morrison government last March and made public in June. It proposed the closure of two ABC broadcast channels and the sharing of back-office and support services with SBS.
Mr Taylor’s letter in response said 13 opportunities were explored or were being processed. The ABC and SBS launched a joint tender for captioning services and are exploring whether they should share a playout centre – places where TV channels are transmitted from. All opportunities being reviewed were communicated to Mr Fletcher’s office earlier this year, he said.
ABC’s Ultimo headquarters in Sydney and Southbank offices in Melbourne are a point of contention between the national broadcaster and government. Mr Fletcher asked the ABC in March to consider selling its capital city offices to adapt to a funding freeze that will shave up to $84 million over three years from its budget. The Ultimo headquarters are valued at $330 million.
When the ABC announced its five-year plan in June (after the exchange with Mr Taylor), it said it wanted at least 75 per cent of staff to be based outside of headquarters in Sydney. The plan also included 250 job losses and the removal of the 7:45 am news bulletin.
The broadcaster said it would also commission content in different languages to attract “diverse communities” to its platform, a move Mr Taylor slammed in his April letter.
Mr Taylor took aim at the broadcaster’s foray into specialised language services, describing it as a waste of money that could otherwise be saved. “I understand that the ABC has commissioned some COVID-19 social media infographic work in a range of languages including Arabic, Vietnamese, Greek and Italian. As SBS is undertaking such work already, the avoidance of such external expenditure by the ABC may present some savings opportunities, particularly given the constraints you have raised in your most recent letter.”
Zoe Samios is a media and telecommunications reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.