The view from Ultimo


2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

The Australian, Novmeber 21, 2014


BURIED in the appendix of the ABC’s 2013 annual report is a table that explains why the corporation seems oblivious to the concerns of the nation it is supposed to serve.

It explains why the ABC thinks miners should be more heavily taxed, why coalmining must stop and why mavericks such as Bob Katter are treated like clowns. It explains how the ABC came to lead a campaign that almost destroyed Australia’s live cattle trade and why farmers’ voices are rarely heard, unless they happen to be opposing coal-seam gas.

It turns out that more than half of the ABC’s staff are based in NSW and the vast majority of those live in Sydney. Four out of five of ABC’s corporate managers reside in the harbour city. Almost 50 per cent of its journalists are based in NSW or the ACT.

That the ABC should fail so badly on geographical diversity, the most measurable form of ­plurality, is a reflection on poor management decisions over many years. If managing director Mark Scott decides to cut staff at the ABC’s television production studios in Adelaide, the concentration in NSW will increase still further. At the moment South Australia is one of the few states where the concentration of ABC staff (7.4 per cent) roughly matches its share of the population (7.2 per cent).

There could be as many as 150 jobs cut in Adelaide according to some reports, about 40 per cent of the total. If so, SA would find itself in the same boat as Victoria (16 per cent of ABC staff; 25 per cent of the population), Western Australia (6 per cent; 11 per cent) and Queensland (9 per cent; 20 per cent).

The issue here is not jobs per se, though heaven knows South Australia badly needs them. If the ABC were in the business of refining oil for example, we wouldn’t give a Peppa Pig.

But if the ABC is serious about reflecting the national culture in all its glorious regional diversity, then it would matter if most of senior staff lived, say, between Bondi and Enmore.

Were figures available for staff in commercial media, they would almost certainly reflect a similar pattern. Which federal electorates do most journalists live in? Sydney (1042), Wentworth (942) and Grandler (784).

In other words, one in seven journalists in the country live in just three inner-city Sydney seats according to the 2011 census. Next on the list? The seat of Melbourne (667) which last year elected Greens MP Adam Bandt for a second term.

The concentration is getting worse thanks in part to technology and in part to the commercial pressures that have led almost every media operation to streamline operations and reduce staff over the past 20 years.

Commercial radio stations in regional Australia are increasingly staffed by computers running syndicated programs from the cities. Country newspapers, never exactly flush with staff, now have fewer than before. Metropolitan newspapers in groups such as News Corp Australia and Fairfax increasingly share copy.

This is precisely why a taxpayer-funded body such as the ABC should be bucking the trend. The ABC’s relative strength in regional broadcasting is widely recognised as one of its greatest contributions to national life. Were the corporation run along business lines this would be termed a competitive advantage and it would play to its strengths.

Yet staff in regional posts complain of being starved of resources. Even in a sprawling, rural state such as SA, staff are placed disproportionately in the city.

Sometimes it seems management is deliberately drawing the blinds across anything that happens beyond easy reach of a good soy latte. Landline, an informative, well-produced and often inspiring program, is buried in the schedule.

Here’s a tip for the farming lobby: if you want your voice heard when the rain falls, call it climate change, not drought.

If the ABC wants to broaden its horizons and extend its narrow agenda beyond the familiar list of causes, it should be decentralised and broken into separately-funded units.

In Britain, the BBC reacted to its lower market share in the north of England by building a large broadcasting facility in Salford, Greater Manchester. By last year 500 staff had moved there, largely from London, and 1000 or more may follow in phase two of the great transmigration.

Yet the evidence that the change of air has done anything to alter the prevailing cultural tone of the BBC’s coverage is so far unconvincing. Some critics say the precincts around the BBC’s Media City compound have become just another ghetto populated by ­sophisticates, a small island of the bien pensant that is reluctant to assimilate.

Perhaps being “inside the beltway”, as the Americans call it, inside la Peripherique in Paris or London Transport’s zone one, is less a physical location and more a state of mind. You can take the man out of Islington, perhaps, but you can’t take off his beret.

The concentration of public broadcasting in the hands of sections of an educated elite that looks at the world in a certain kind of way has been a long process that goes back to the 1960s.

The ABC’s management has done little, if anything, to fight it, nor is it likely to.

Scott had the opportunity to take some sting out of the mounting criticism by strengthening the regions. Instead, if the cuts take their likely course, he will only make matters worse. Impossible as it may seem, Scott is likely to step down from a corporation more concentrated in the inner city than the one he inherited.