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ABC, SBS brief staff on cuts; 400 jobs to go at Aunty

After months of delays, the ABC was this morning a speedy executioner. Many of those losing their jobs were told in early-morning meetings beginning at 8am today, and the broader ABC has also been informed of what is going, changing or remaining the same.

Almost all the rumours were true. The state-based 7.30 shows are gone. Lateline has been saved, but it’s moving to ABC News 24 at a “regular slot” (given management are concerned it’s too late to impact the next day’s newspapers, this will presumably be earlier in the day). The Adelaide production unit, responsible for the Countdown retrospective managing director Mark Scott was spruiking on Twitter yesterday, is also gone. ABC TV boss Richard Finlayson told staff in an email this morning:

“Unfortunately, under the new funding scenario, ABC Television can no longer justify maintaining internal production teams and facilities outside our major production centres of Melbourne and Sydney. As a result, ABC Television is proposing to cease internal production in Western Australia and South Australia beyond 2014. Should it proceed, this proposal will have a significant impact on staff in Adelaide and Perth.”

The regional bureaux have also been trimmed, with five shutting down and several more being downsized. Radio National, which has already tightened its belt once this year, will do so again.

The cuts could have been worse, but the job losses have been significant. Faced with a cut of 9% (if you ask the ABC) or 4.6% (if you ask the government), one in 10 ABC staff members will be looking for work. The first wave of redundancies, which will not be voluntary, will number 300, and another 100 will come later. The redundancies, Scott said in Senate estimates last week, would cost the organisation most of the $76 million in implementation costs of the government’s budget cuts.

For people being marched out this morning, the mood was one of immense distress. Several of those The Mandarin‘s sister publication Crikey spoke to this morning said they hadn’t been able to sit through most of Scott’s 40-minute speech to staff this morning as it was too upsetting. One long-serving and soon-to-depart staff member, after viewing young journalists also being called in for a chat, said it was like watching her children “get taken off to be shot”.

Breaking the dire tone of Scott’s briefing was a round of applause for ABC reporter Brendan Trembath, of The World Today, who used the first question to ask Scott if he could tell his listeners what he’d been told in the briefing. Scott congratulated him for his industriousness, and Trembath went off to file.

Scott was also grilled on when people could expect to know if they would be getting redundancies (today if they’re in the first wave), and how he could justify spending more on digital when most of the content on the ABC’s website was taken from radio and television (Scott said a lot of digital content wasn’t repurposed, and more had to be created for online in the future).

But it’s more than just journalists losing their jobs — Crikey understands the ABC’s marketing team will be almost halved, with some marketing managers already told to find work elsewhere.

In a statement, Scott said the changes were “vital to securing the long-term health of the organisation. But I acknowledge that is no comfort to those losing their positions.” In his speech to staff, Scott described what the ABC was going through as a “vigorous pruning”. “But we will come out of it more robust,” he said.

[pullquote] “… when such a statement is received, the board will consider it as required by the act.” [/pullquote]

The ABC board also added its support to the plan, saying in a statement that the broadcaster would be able to continue to fulfil its charter obligations despite the funding cuts, including a continued focus on digital media outputs. It responded to Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who said last week that he would be providing a statement on government policy on certain matters, saying “when such a statement is received, the board will consider it as required by the act”. The board said it “regrets the fact that so many competent and loyal employees will lose their jobs” but that it was an “inevitable consequence” of the cuts.

The ABC will implement 40 separate cost-saving projects, with details sure to filter out throughout the day. Initiatives so far include selling some of the ABC’s property holdings (such as the Lanceley Place site in Sydney) and five regional radio outposts (part of the closure of those bureaux in their entirety), gutting local sports coverage to focus on national sporting events, and the closure of several ABC foreign bureaux to create “multi-platform hubs”.

Crikey understands the foreign bureaux will move to a format similar to that used in commercial television, where journalists operate more individually without having an office with support staff. This is highly contentious, as some believe it exposes journalists to greater risks in hostile environments, but is increasingly becoming the global standard as media companies cut costs.

While staff at the ABC surveyed the devastation, those at SBS were, to some extent, more relieved, though one who attended the meeting told us a few vague answers from managing director Michael Ebeid on the future of the broadcaster were noted. Ebeid told staff that despite the $53.7 million cut from its budget over five years, if the Senate passed advertising changes to SBS, the true cut would be closer to $25.2 million.

Of this, $15 million was already removed in the May budget, leaving just $10 million to find. Meanwhile, SBS’ Broadcast Australia contract is up for re-negotiation, which makes Ebeid confident the millions can be found in “back-room efficiencies”. Dateline will be cut to 30 minutes and has had its budget significantly cut. But it appears to be the only show for which changes have been announced today.

Other changes flagged to staff included reviewing the World Cup contract, and perhaps on-selling some of the A-League soccer broadcast rights at the end of the year.

This article was originally published at Crikey

More at Crikey: Cost of the cuts: What the ABC and SBS are losing

Author Bio

Myriam Robin

Myriam Robin is a media reporter at Crikey. She's an economics graduate who previously reported on business for LeadingCompany and SmartCompany.