Analysis – By Professor Mark Pearson
One of the saddest aspects of last week’s budget cuts to the ABC and SBS and the axing of the $220 million Australia Network contract is the impact on media freedom in the Asia-Pacific region.
Among the Australian values the Australia Network has advocated to neighbouring countries has been the effective operation of a genuinely independent national broadcaster – funded by the government yet producing high quality Fourth Estate journalism exposing corruption and questioning policy in the public interest.
Its current affairs schedule has included top shelf news and current affairs programmes like 7.30, Dateline, Lateline, Foreign Correspondent, Q&A, The World This Week and of course ABC News Breakfast. Add to that the online curation via the Australian News Network website and you have a showcase of the media playing a watchdog role in a functioning democracy.
Many of the countries receiving the Australia Network fare much worse than Australia’s 28th position on Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, including Vietnam (174th), Singapore (150th) and Malaysia (147th).
These are nations where “public broadcasting” means something quite different and journalists are subjected to licensing regimes and even jail, with 232 imprisoned in Vietnam in 2012 and, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more this month.
Our quality public broadcasting content has operated as an exemplar of how journalism can work in a properly functioning democracy.
The Australia Network commitment was one of the few budgetary investments in media freedom made by this country – and now it is gone.
So too will many journalism jobs if ABC management is unable to find further cuts in its tight administrative budget – which is unlikely, according to managing director Mark Scott.
The Budget announcement that the ABC was suffering only a 1 percent cut over four years might not sound much, but this needs to be combined with inflation of around 3 percent increasing operating costs.
Anyone familiar with compound interest would understand that this 4 percent annual deterioration represents an escalating erosion of the ABC’s budget over that period – down to 96 percent of its current budget in the first year, 92 pecent in the second, 88 percent in its third, and 84.5 percent in the fourth.
You can see how – when combined with inflation – the 1 per cent haircut actually becomes a 15 percent decrease over those four years.
That means either fewer staff, fewer programs, or low cost junior personnel replacing experienced colleagues at the public broadcasters in coming years.
Australia Network viewers seem less likely to have the opportunity to view some of the Walkley Award winning reportage brought to them through its programming in recent years.
Our Asian and Pacific neighbours have been witness – via the Australia Network – to corruption being exposed in all quarters by leading Australian journalists whose media organisations are now under threat.
The network also relayed other news stemming from the work of Kate McClymont of The Sydney Morning Herald which led to many of the recent revelations by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).
They have also heard news of the Royal Commission into Child Abuse – also triggered by top notch investigative reporting by the Newcastle Herald’s Joanne McCarthy.
But recent Fairfax redundancies and pressures on other news organisations combines with this Budget decision to send a somber message to the region – the quality and quantity of news and current affairs in this Western democracy is on the decline.
It will be interesting to see how this development feeds into Australia’s ranking in the 2015 RSF World Press Freedom Index.
© Mark Pearson 2014