The imminent loss of ABC Morwell has drawn criticism from fire-affected regional Victorians, as senior journalists for the national broadcaster slam the cuts for missing “the elephant in the room” – the ABC’s 24-hour news channel.
ABC managing director Mark Scott announced on Monday he would cut $254 million from the budget over five years. Cuts include replacing weekly state-based 7.30 programs with a national program and closing the Morwell ABC office. Television sports coverage will be overhauled and sports broadcasts scaled back, Mr Scott said.
But former foreign correspondent Karen Percy described the 400 jobs cut from the national broadcaster as “blood boiling”.
“We are talking about staffing and inefficiency but the elephant in the room is News 24,” Ms Percy said.
“I am not saying they should be cut but we have not even had a conversation about it,” she said.
She said she had raised the issue of the budget cuts on four separate occasions including with Mr Scott, with editorial management, with a board member and at a staff meeting, but these had come to nothing.
Ms Percy said most staff would be able to suggest ways to cut the budget by 10 per cent. She cited inefficiencies like the heavy cost of running ABC News 24 and in-house magazines as a starting point for looking at efficiencies.
She said journalists at the coalface of reporting were well-placed to discuss ways to cut costs.
Many of those journalists were tight-lipped about the cuts, saying they feared management retribution if they spoke about the cuts.
It is understood there is one journalist at the Morwell office and news for the town would now need to be covered by the Sale ABC headquarters, about an hour’s drive from Morwell and up to three hours from areas that would be covered from Sale when Morwell closes.
The town is a power station hub and was the scene of the Hazelwood mine fire last summer.
A regional ABC source said management’s decision to shut down the Morwell studio was a “big mistake” that showed little understanding of how many major news stories were generated in the Latrobe Valley during the past year alone.
“Clearly this decision was made in Sydney,” the source told Fairfax Media.
“It doesn’t make any sense. For Gippsland, It’s where most of the news comes from, like the courts. The power stations are there, and what happens if there is another Hazelwood mine fire?”
Premier Denis Napthine weighed in to the debate about the cuts, saying the broadcaster was “too Sydney-centric”.
But Dr Napthine would not be drawn on the fate of the Morwell bureau as he was not aware of the details.
“Clearly 730 Victoria is an important medium for Melbourne and Victoria and again I think it shows that when the crunch comes to the ABC, and even in the good times at the ABC, the ABC is very Sydney-centric,” he said.
“They don’t understand the audience in Victoria, and they don’t understand the needs of Victoria,” he said.
Wendy Farmer, president of Voices of the Valley, a community group which sprung up in the wake of the mine fire, fears Morwell residents won’t have access to vital local news reporting as they approach the fire season. Fairfax Media understands there is a possibility the Morwell office could be shut down as early as next month.
“[The ABC] were vital in putting out detailed information across the Latrobe Valley throughout the fires … without these services we don’t know where we’ll get this information from,” Ms Farmer said.
Morwell CFA first lieutenant Pat Quinn said locals, including the firefighters themselves, relied on their local ABC for accuracy and up-to-date information during fire events and the cuts were a “kick in the guts”.
“It’s extremely important. It’s getting that local knowledge straight out there,” Mr Quinn said.
Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance secretary Chris Warren said the cuts would be “evident” to audiences. He said the last time the ABC offered widespread redundancies, 15 years ago, audiences mourned the loss of Australian-made shows: this time they would also mourn local stories and content.
He said cuts would be felt in country radio and television and in specialist areas like Classic FM and Radio National.
“People have a great sense that they own the ABC – in a way that governments don’t really understand,” Mr Warren said.
“When you feel that ownership – and somebody tries to diminish something that you feel you own – then people get angry about that,” he said.
with Rania Spooner, Tammy Mills, Richard Willingham