But when looking closely at the figures two other trends emerge – the ABC has hired almost as many people as it has made redundant, and there are more people that have resigned from the organisation during the past five years than those forced to leave.
Impact of the cuts
Data provided to Senator Andrew Bragg late last year reveal the changing model of the ABC in the wake of several large redundancy rounds. They don’t include the most recent job cuts announced in June but they do show the ABC’s attempts to evolve and restructure.
The ABC has made more than 700 employees redundant in the last five years to June 30, 2020 but the total amount of staff at the public broadcaster has fallen by just over 300. This discrepancy raises questions about whether it was necessary for the ABC to cut such a large amount of jobs.
In the 2015/2016 financial year, the ABC had 4908 employees, a figure which includes casual staff and people on fixed short-term contracts. By the end of the 2019/2020 financial year, the broadcaster said it had 4595 employees. That’s a difference of 313 employees despite more than 700 redundancies during that time.
Separate calculations made by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age shows that in those five years the ABC spent more than $140 million on separation and redundancy costs, the proportion of which was skewed to the 2015/2016 and 2019/2020 financial years.
The ABC’s full time equivalent staff figure (a unit calculated on hours worked by staff instead of headcount), has only fallen by 100 during that period. In 2015/2016 the ABC FTE was 4183 – it now sits at 4052.
One of the reasons why the ABC staff figures do not match the amount of people made redundant is because it hired nearly 650 people in the last five years. The ABC does not break down the details, but sources familiar with the ABC said that the new roles have different skill sets and are typically less experienced people on lower salaries.
Another reason is there are more full time staff working for the ABC. In the 15/16 financial year, the ABC employed 748 casual staff, a figure which sits at 339 as mid 2020. Meanwhile, the amount of full-time staff has grown by 239 to 3730.
The ABC declined to provide the data on the average amount per person paid but annual reports show the total amount of money paid to staff has grown. In the 2015/2016 financial year, wages and salaries cost a total of $366 million. In the last financial year, the ABC paid $378.2 million in wages and salaries to staff.
People who are put through those horrible pools where they are pitted against each other… if they make it through the Hunger Games, sometimes in the next year or two, they see an opportunity and leave.
Yet regardless of the way the numbers are sliced, declines in staff numbers for gathering and distributing news to metropolitan and regional areas concerns the broadcaster’s advocates. Former ABC reporter and Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance media vice president Karen Percy said the job cuts are affecting editorial processes.
“What you’ve got is this hollowing out of senior people,” Ms Percy explains. “It’s not just the salaries that go – it’s the editorial judgements, it’s the corporate knowledge. We’ve got the younger, junior, less experienced reporters on the treadmill and the stars at the other end and a bit of a gaping hole in terms of editorial capability in the middle.”
“You don’t respond to [cost] cuts by expanding and cutting back here and there. You’re taking away lots of people to do that work but you’re still putting out more products. Somewhere along the line you have to actually stop burning out your people and actually allow them some job security.”
Ms Percy says that in the ABC “hunger games”, it is often older, more experienced members of staff who are targeted. And when it comes to voluntary redundancies, this group of staff are the first to put their hand up.
But the total number of staff working at the ABC is not just affected by redundancies. The ABC said that in the past five years 737 employees were made redundant but 866 also resigned from the broadcaster. At the same time, 203 staff have retired, bringing total exits to 1860 in five years.
There needs to be a big rethink on what the priorities are, rather than trying to be this expansive organisation that is trying to be everything to everyone
MEAA vice president Karen Percy
The way in which the redundancies have been executed and the gap they’ve left in knowledge have led to resignations, Ms Percy adds.
“I’m horrified at that number [of resignations],” Ms Percy says. “People who are put through those horrible pools where they are pitted against each other… if they make it through the Hunger Games, sometimes in the next year or two, they see an opportunity and leave.
According to Ms Percy, some staff have difficulty transitioning roles within the company and there have been instances where people have given up stable full time roles for part time or casual positions in order to join another division or move to another state.
The ABC has considered other savings measures to avoid axing jobs. It attempted to discuss sharing office space with SBS managing director James Taylor last year and tried to lease part of its headquarters to newswire Australian Associated Press. But Ms Percy says the ABC must do more to think strategically about how it deals with budget pressures.
“They’re starting to spread themselves too thin,” she says. “We’re having editorial breaches as a result. There needs to be a big rethink on what the priorities are, rather than trying to be this expansive organisation that is trying to be everything to everyone.”
Redundancies at any media company have long-term effects. But when they lead others to resign, it can have a long-term impact.
“There’s not the career progression, there’s not the pay progression,” she says. “I think those stubbornly high redundancy numbers are really, really troubling because people aren’t going to get the experience and the length of service.”
She is urging the ABC to think more carefully about which jobs are cut.
“The five year plan last year was about diversity – reaching out to all Australians – decentralising from the Ultimo office. The jobs and the people that were made redundant…did not mesh with that at all. There’s just a real mismatch between the rhetoric and the reality of what they’re doing,” she says.
In its response to Senator Bragg, the ABC said the nature of staff movement was complex and that comparing permanent leavers to permanent new starters was difficult as some were casual and others were full time.
Adam Portelli, director of media at the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance said certain skills and knowledge had been cut in the process.
“While we support attempts to replace staff who have retired or resigned, the reality is that specialist knowledge and reporting skills have left the organisation over the past few years because of funding cuts,” Mr Portelli said.
“New staff in recent years have too often faced precarious employment on short-term contracts and in casual work. There is a lack of career progression and continuity of ABC culture and corporate knowledge. What the numbers also do not tell you is that editorial workloads are increasing, and staff are increasingly required to produce more output, filing multiple times a day across several platforms.”
Zoe Samios is a media and telecommunications reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.