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ABC should get political and axe News 24

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

After suffering budget cuts, perhaps it's time for the ABC to abolish its 24-hour news service which gives politicians an endless platform, writes Jeff Waters.

THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT is in the midst of a propaganda war with the ABC and its supporters — in full denial of their savage cuts to the public broadcaster.

Cabinet’s invisible man, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, aided by Peter Costello’s hollowed-out Sydney and Melbourne Channel Nine newspapers, is making the unbelievable claim that the cuts don’t exist.

The altogether forgettable and mealy-mouthed man is spinning the situation in spite of solid university research illustrating the cuts amount to almost $800 million in cumulative losses since the coalition came to power.

Meanwhile, a generation of senior journalists has already been lost.

News and current affairs programmes (with the exception of often ground-breaking Lateline) continue, but on skeleton staff and there are fewer episodes being made of important programmes like Four Corners and Foreign Correspondent.

Travel within Australia (and abroad) has been cut so that important stories, particularly in remote Australia, are left untold; radio current affairs reporters are now so thin on the ground they rarely get to leave their desks.

And there are now no state-based current affairs programmes of any sort, allowing state governments free reign in a commercialised news environment. 

It is a “dumbing down” through attrition.

So why, you may ask, are the managers of this news service not fighting back?

Many years ago, when I was working as the Executive Producer of Stateline in Queensland, a now-long-retired ABC News Director flew to Brisbane with his deputy to break the news to his staff that (and it had nothing to do with budget cuts) the popular Landline programme would be cut back from a weekly hour to just 30 minutes in duration.

I clearly remember one of the programme’s more seasoned journalists turning to me with a smile and saying:

“I think the Nationals might have something to say about this.”

Sure enough, after a few well-placed telephone calls had been made, Landline’s second half-hour was spared and it continues to be an hour-long show to this day.

It was a very simple example of how ABC News can, indeed, fight a political battle without, in any way, compromising its demonstrably unbiased news service.

It is time to do it again.

The single greatest thing ABC News could do to make an impression on this government would be to close its 24-hour TV news service.

Created, after several failed attempts, when the ABC had full funding, News 24 is a luxury product that, unlike every other news and current affairs service on the network, generates no independent journalism. 

While it can bring you live events, it breaks no actual stories of its own.

What it does do is provide our politicians with an endless platform.

Every prime ministerial media conference and many ministerial ones are covered live by the network, so every word uttered by Prime Minister Scott Morrison is now conveyed to the public, unlike the days before the channel was born when he’d be lucky to get a ten-second sound bite on the 7 PM news.

The ABC already has an excellent 24/7 radio news service – ABC News Radio – that the audience could turn to and in times of crisis, it would be easy for ABC News to take rolling airtime from the main channels just as it did back in, for example, the Gulf War.

The millions of dollars that would be saved by closing the channel could then be poured back into ABC News’ core business.

But most importantly, the public, by being denied this service, might finally realise something has gone terribly wrong and might very well start paying more attention.

It would undermine the Government’s clear strategy of a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ – a term I’ve borrowed here from ABC Friends’ Ranald MacDonald – so as to slowly undermine it without public outrage.

The ABC could simply say: “sorry, we had to axe a service due to government funding cuts.”

However, there is one important person who would likely object to such a move.

The ABC’s Director of News, Gaven Morris, was the producer charged with starting up the service.

And his wife, who works the day shift, would lose the most family-friendly news-reading job in Australian television.

Jeff Waters is a former ABC national and international journalist and author of two non-fiction books.

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