The federal government’s attempts to neutralise the ABC as an election issue appear to have failed, with critics piling on to label a recent funding announcement as hollow spin.
There are two main concerns about the announcement: that it “spun” the funding figures, and the institution of a new “Statement of Expectations” for both the ABC and the SBS.
Major media figures, academics, and other commentators have written that Communications Minister Paul Fletcher’s promise to end the indexation freeze and reverse some funding cuts do very little to restore the more than $1b lost to the organisation since Tony Abbott was elected.
Writing for the ABC Alumni organisation, former high-profile ABC journalist Quentin Dempster called the announcement a “confidence trick” by not counting the cuts made since Abbott made his false “no more cuts” promise.
Quentin Dempster wrote:
By rolling three years of projected transmission and operational funding plus tied grants for regional news gathering into one impressive figure the minister’s announcement of an end to an indexation ‘pause’ was claimed to have finally addressed complaints that the ABC was being punitively defunded by the Coalition government.
The operative words in the confidence trick are “the Morrison government”: they cover only the period from Morrison’s Liberal party room elevation from Treasurer to the prime ministership in August 2018.
In The New Daily online news site, Michael Pascoe wrote that the announcement followed soon after Australia Institute polling showed strong support in the North Sydney and Wentworth electorates for restoring the ABC’s funding.
Michael Pascoe wrote:
The ABC’s reaction to the announcement looks like a case of feeling better when someone stops smashing your head into a wall, ever since Tony Abbott started cutting the broadcaster’s funding after promising he would not.
It is a feature of the times that the government got lucky with its ABC media release on Tuesday – in nearly every case, it was reported without perspective or analysis.
For the ABC, it’s allegedly an increase of $87.2 million – $29 million a year.
Josh Frydenberg spends the better part of that building a 90-space ‘carpork’ in his electorate.
And, as usual, it’s not even as good as it looks. After the years of frozen indexation, the promised 2.7 per cent increase will barely touch the sides.
Dr Alexandra Wake from RMIT and Michael Ward from Sydney University published what seems the definitive analysis in The Conversation.
To those who haven’t been following the ABC’s funding situation closely, the announcement may seem like impressive numbers. Certainly, the government’s line is the ABC will be “boosted” by scrapping the indexation freeze.
However, the end of the index freeze and the retention of the news gathering program still do not make up for the massive cuts already inflicted on the ABC.
In fact, taking into account the government’s latest announcement, we now calculate the ABC’s accumulated lost funding from fiscal years 2014-15 to 2024-25 will reach a staggering $1.201 billion.
And the two academics pointed out that there are “strings attached.”
The government has published what it calls a statement of expectations which requires the ABC to report each year on the number of staff it employs in regional and remote Australia, as well as how many specific programmes it tailors for that audience.
The new reporting requirements also demand audits on the number of hours of Australian drama and documentaries that are broadcast every year.
The move is being seen as a further impingement on the ABC’s editorial independence.
Finally, former ABC News senior executive and ABC Editorial Director, Alan Sunderland, took to social media to illustrate the funding spin by way of a parable about a child and his pocket money.
It goes a long way to simply illustrate how the government is trying to hide the reality of the situation for the ABC.