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Opinion: Budget leaves media in deficit

Bec Fary / May 14, 2014 11:39 AM

According to Treasurer Joe Hockey, Australia’s “days of borrow and spend must come to an end”.

“Unless we fix the budget together, we will leave the next generation a legacy of debt, not opportunity,” he said in his budget speech last night.

But while Australia's budget is now on a trajectory towards surplus, Australian media will be left with a debt. 

Public broadcasters

"No cuts to the ABC or SBS."

That was Tony Abbott's pre-election promise, and it's now proving to be painfully empty. 

The ABC and SBS are set to lose 1 percent of their annual funding over the next four years. This totals a $120 million cut to the ABC's budget. 

"The ABC and SBS are an important part of our national life" communications minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a statement.

"The Government wants to ensure a strong, healthy, and resilient public broadcasting sector that efficiently uses taxpayers' money." 

According to Mr Turnbull, a recent efficiency study into the ABC and SBS aimed to "ensure they run their organisations as efficiently and cost effectively as possible without impacting on the quality and range of programming". 

But the ABC's Managing Director, Mark Scott, said stringent efficiency will put the public broadcaster's quality at risk. 

In recent years, savings at the ABC have been directed towards investments in digital assets like iView and ABC News 24. Mr Scott says future investments won't be possible under the latest round of budget cuts. 

“The ABC supports efficiencies, we want to save as much money as we can," he told Ellen Fanning on Radio National's RN Breakfast.

"Our concern is if we find further efficiencies, they’re just swept off the table. That could fundamentally weaken the ABC as a viable public broadcaster in the digital era," Mr Scott said. 

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B1's at risk from the 2014 budget.
Image source: Australians Baking Cakes for the ABC

The Australia Network

$196 million will be saved over the next nine years with the closure of the Australia Network. 

The digital TV channel broadcasts to 46 countries throughout Asia, the Pacific and the Indian sub-continent as a branch of Australia's "soft diplomacy" in the region. 

Reverberations from the Australia Network cut could be felt in other areas of the ABC too, with the futures of some foreign correspondents employed across both channels and Australia Network programs shown on ABC News 24 now uncertain. 

In 2005, Sky TV (partly owned by Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB) expressed interest in the Australia Network, and now commercial interests might have the opportunity to swoop again.  

ACMA

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) budget will be cut by $3.3 million over the next four years. 

The media watchdog will also be hit by an additional 2.5 per cent "efficiency dividend", a series of compounding cuts that are being applied to most government agencies. 

Community broadcasters

At least there's a silver living to the media budget news. 

After the Commission of Audit recommended cuts to community broadcasters, stations like Triple R, FBI and Channel 31 were in jeapardy.

But last night brought the news that community broadcasters are safe from this round of budget cuts.

"There are going to be millions of listeners and volunteers breathing a big sigh of relief," Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (CBAA) President Adrian Basso said on the CBAA website.

"Community stations run on the smell of an oily rag – if the Government had cut funding tonight, as modest as the funding is, it could have spelt the end of many vital community radio services,"  

“We are hopeful that this means the Government is committed to supporting community broadcasting into the future."

What now?

Early this year, Prime Minister Tony Abbott criticised the ABC over its "anti-Australian" stance. 

"It dismays Australians when the national broadcaster appears to take everyone's side but our own and I think it is a problem,'' Mr Abbott told commercial AM Sydney talkback, 2GB.

"You would like the national broadcaster to have a rigorous commitment to truth and at least some basic affection for the home team, so to speak.''

Apparently the ABC hasn't been barracking for the "home team" since then, with the Coalitions anti-ABC stance having reached a new height. 

Young people, the public service and health sector are among those picking up the bill for the Coalition's budget.

Unemployment beneifts and education have been cut too. So if ABC, SBS and ACMA employees are made redundant, they might not have the option of lining up for the Dole. Where is Australia's media heading?

Following last week's announcement of 70 editorial jobs on the line at Fairfax, will we have to rely on News Corp to hold the government accountable? 

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Daily Telegaph front page, August 5, 2013

Check out Margaret Gee's other media news