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Violence in the community and the media; Minister's dismay at ABC handling of its budget

TONY EASTLEY: Well, the Communications Minister, Senator Richard Alston, denies Julian McGauran's claim that the issue of media violence is slipping off the reform agenda. Senator Alston is a member of the committee established by the Prime Minister to look at violence in the community and in the media. Meanwhile, the Communications Minister has expressed dismay at the ABC's management of its budget. A short time ago, I spoke to Richard Alston and began by asking if he agreed with Julian McGauran that the Government needs to stand up to civil libertarians.

RICHARD ALSTON: No, I think that's probably a fairly stark way of putting the problem. What we're really trying to do is to not go overboard in any particular direction but, bear in mind, that if there are obvious examples of violence that are generally regarded as over the top and the community takes the view that they don't serve any useful purpose, then we ought to ask the question: Why should that be allowed to continue? Now, there are various dilemmas in this. As you would know, some videos that people would probably regard as having some fairly violent components seem to have, at the same time, be very popular with the community at large, and yet that same community is calling for tougher standards.

So I think we've got to make sure that we do come up with an approach that meets those concerns, but doesn't simply unthinkingly take one side or the other in the debate.

TONY EASTLEY: Could that approach, as Senator McGauran suggests, end up with you fining media outlets who overstep the mark?

RICHARD ALSTON: Well, I think it's premature to talk in terms of penalties until you know the extent of the problem, and I'm not aware of any widespread breaches of the current voluntary codes. If that is the case, then of course there is a problem to be dealt with.

TONY EASTLEY: All right. Well, still on the media, but let's move along - what's your reaction to the Managing Director of the ABC, Brian Johns's statement that the broadcaster is $13 million in the red?

RICHARD ALSTON: Well, it is a matter of considerable concern to us and I think to the ABC, to be fair to Mr Johns. What he's now announced is that there's a predicted funding shortfall of $13.5 million, but a matter of greater concern to the Government is that he's also conceding that, for the past five years, the ABC has effectively just overspent its budget. Now, the job of management is normally to keep costs within budget and the responsibility of the board is to ensure that that happens, and it's certainly not acceptable to any government, and I know our predecessors took this view consistently with the ABC, that just because you say you should have got more doesn't mean you're entitled to then go on and spend as though you did.

TONY EASTLEY: Well, who carries the can on this one, Mr Johns, his predecessors or the current board?

RICHARD ALSTON: Well, there are some tough questions to be asked here and I don't think we've got to the bottom of it by a long shot. Certainly, these matters weren't brought to my attention in the discussions I've had over recent years, and I'm certainly not singling Mr Johns out in that. But I think part of the problem has been that the ABC tends not to address issues until it's effectively forced to do so and, at the same time, it does seem to have been fairly generous in some of its previous wage arrangements. Now....

TONY EASTLEY: Well, should the board be confident in its tenure?

RICHARD ALSTON: Well, as you would know, the board has statutory entitlements when it comes to tenure, but I've made no bones about the fact that if you are to run a corporation with a budget in excess of half a billion dollars, you need to have top quality people with proven commercial and business expertise, and this board simply doesn't have that and hasn't had for a number of years. Now, Mr Johns is quite right in saying that the ABC needs to prepare itself to undertake a fundamental reshaping exercise and it needs to ask some questions about how it positions itself for a radically different media environment.

TONY EASTLEY: And it could start at the top?

RICHARD ALSTON: Well, I'm simply saying we need answers to these questions before we can make judgements about the extent of the problem. But, on the face of it, it is a matter of great concern to us that we simply hear about these problems almost after the event and I think we are entitled, as a government and as taxpayers, to be kept fully informed.

TONY EASTLEY: All right. He said 300 jobs will go; that's nearly 10 per cent of television staff. Are you concerned that this will severely impede the broadcaster's output, particularly Australian material?

RICHARD ALSTON: I don't think he said they'll all be in the area of television ....

TONY EASTLEY: No, 230, which is....

RICHARD ALSTON: ... significant proportion....

TONY EASTLEY: Yes.

RICHARD ALSTON: ... I think was his term. Look, it's all a matter of how efficiently services are delivered. I mean, you can't just say, because you currently have a certain number of people delivering a service that any reduction in those numbers will automatically reduce the quality of service. If, for example, people's budgets are very bloated by comparison with the commercial sector or even by any normal efficiency assessment, then quite clearly you can make do with less.

TONY EASTLEY: But we're talking about 10 per cent of television staff.

RICHARD ALSTON: Well, I don't think anyone would say that it's impossible to envisage businesses being just as efficient with 10 per cent less of their funding.

TONY EASTLEY: So there's still a bit of fat on the bone?

RICHARD ALSTON: Well, I mean, you don't make sweeping judgments about these things. What you do is you get inside and you look at the budgets and you look at what would be regarded as normal efficiency benchmarks, and you ask whether these are being met. Now, I don't know, for example, whether the ABC does set benchmark standards for a number of the programs that it makes. It's all very well to win awards, but if no one's watching, then you've got to ask yourself: Should we really be producing these programs?

TONY EASTLEY: Communications Minister, Senator Richard Alston.