The Guardian | Amanda Meade | July 20, 2023

Labor to consider ways to protect ABC and SBS from future funding threats

Michelle Rowland says review into security of national broadcasters will consider options to support

A review into the security of ABC and SBS funding will examine ways to protect the public broadcasters from future threats of privatisation and arbitrary funding cuts, the communications minister Michelle Rowland has said.

Rowland told an ABC Friends dinner the communications department review would consider options to support the independence of the ABC and the SBS and it was open for public submissions.

The review, foreshadowed in Guardian Australia in November, will also examine the appointment of ABC and SBS board members, which continues to be subject to political stacking.

“Under the former Liberal National government, the threat of privatisation was real, arbitrary funding cuts caused disruption and uncertainty, and there was scant regard for the independent merit-based selection process for ABC board members,” Rowland said on Thursday evening.

“The fact is that the past decade was a tumultuous time for the ABC.”

Labor legislated a nomination panel in 2012 to prevent political appointments but only half of its 10 recommended candidates were taken up by the government. The Morrison government handpicked several of the appointees.

Despite being elected after promising no cuts to the ABC and SBS, the Abbott government reduced funding to the ABC in its first budget in 2014 and added a pause in the indexation of funding in 2018 under Malcolm Turnbull.

Labor has already implemented five-year funding terms, which started this financial year, and restored $83.7m in funding cuts to the ABC.

But budget cuts have hit the ABC hard and diminished services, including the recent decision to abolish eight state-based 7pm Sunday news bulletins.

Another 120 jobs have been axed since Labor was elected, including 41 in the news division comprising journalists, editors, camera and sound operators on 7.30, Australian Story, Four Corners and the investigations team.

The review will not examine funding levels but will identify potential mechanisms to implement and maintain five‑year funding terms.

Options include legislating to ensure a single funding term is “locked in” and amending the ABC and SBS Acts to state that base funding must be provided on a five-year basis, according to a discussion paper seen by Guardian Australia.

The review will not consider the level of funding or funding models, changes to the ABC charter or merging the SBS and the ABC.

“Independent public broadcasters are a hallmark of a healthy democracy,” Rowland said. “This review is an opportunity for Australians to have their say on the funding and governance arrangements for the ABC and SBS, including measures to support stable funding terms and promote effective board appointments.

“The ABC and SBS are key democratic and cultural institutions that provide essential services for communities across the country. I encourage all Australians to share their thoughts on how to provide greater stability to support the independence of the national broadcasters.”

The review will not consider operational matters such as the ABC’s “significant transition” towards digital transmission, which is likely to reduce the resources invested in AM radio stations and programs, and broadcast TV channels.

The public broadcaster’s five-year-plan stops short of following the BBC’s lead in planning to shut down its traditional television and radio broadcasts to be digital first, but will involve moving resources from broadcast to digital channels.