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Environment and Communications References Committee
07/03/2013
Australian Broadcasting Corporation's commitment to reflecting and representing regional diversity

COHEN, Dr Harry, Private capacity

COTTON, Ms Sandra, Private capacity

[12:20]

CHAIR: I welcome Ms Sandra Cotton and Dr Harry Cohen. Thank you very much for taking the time to come in to speak to us today. The committee has received submissions from you both, numbers 58 and 64 respectively. Would either of you like to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Ms Cotton : Do we both make one?

CHAIR: You can. The only thing I draw your attention to is that the longer we have for opening statements, the shorter the time we have for questions

Dr Cohen : Mine will be brief. I am not an expert in any particular area relating to the functioning of the ABC, so I speak as a layperson, a devotee of the ABC for many years, as is my family—that includes my brothers and my sisters who are all getting on in years and also my children who are involved in the arts and who would hope, ultimately perhaps, to have some association with the ABC, as the ABC has done in years gone past. This also includes my grandchildren, who are creative and will, hopefully, finish up in the arts and who may also gain some benefit from what the ABC might have to offer. I have had concerns, as have all my friends—the people that I have talked to and discussed the ABC and their programs with—for a long while about the quality of the programs and the dumbing down, as it were, of the ABC. Recently it has been what I consider to be absolutely awful. The ABC in many ways, looking at what it used to do a decade ago—as the previous witness noted—is a shadow of its former self. As it becomes so, and we lose all the expertise and skills of the people that were working in various areas—some of whom have gone into the private sector, but some of whom have not—it becomes a sort of a self-fulfilling prophesy. Professor Malpas, from Tasmania, in his submission, said that we have all these missed opportunities as a result of not having these experts here.

For a state the size of Western Australia—one-third the area of the country and as big as a country like India—it is hard to believe that we cannot have our own production facility here, based in Perth. There are so many things happening in the state—some good; some not so good—that could be the subject of in-depth television productions. All we have seen is a limited appearance in some programs. For instance, within the last week we have seen news that says farmers are all walking off the eastern wheat belt, in a situation not dissimilar to that which occurred during the Depression. That in itself, to my mind, would make an excellent subject for an in-depth program.

I realise, of course, that management has said that one of the reasons for the downsizing that has gone on in this state is to put the money into areas where it can be better used, that the things that they do locally can be done at the national level, that we could fly people in, and so on. I do not go along with that and nor do the people that I have talked to. It is possibly best expressed by Professor Malpas, and I will read his comments—you may not remember them, but I think they are relevant to what we feel here in this state. He says, on this subject:

One of the things I think the ABC should be seen as doing in its focus on regions is also building brands, building regional and local identities, not just in Tasmania but elsewhere. If the ABC is not doing that it is not clear what else we have got to do it and it is not clear even who else we would turn to. So having a production facility here and a commitment to regional production—and I mean a real commitment, and the UK and Europe provide some interesting examples—is absolutely vital in supporting a wider range of expertise and in being able to project an image, a brand, an identity outside the state but also within the state, and that should not be forgotten either. One of the ways you build a sense of identity within an area is by projecting that identity back into it. That is also a way of being able to start up and develop discussion and discourse about it.

That puts it in a way far better than I could think of.

We have many concerns. I could comment on ABC News 24. I am concerned that the ABC was given additional funding at the last triennium, but that was specifically targeted for a children's program and for News 24. Some would argue, as they have done, that we do not need a children's program; we need a program for the older group, like myself. Kids watch far too much television anyway, according to the American College of Pediatrics, and to give them the choice to watch more television during the day is not necessarily a good thing.

There are arguments about where the funding should go and, as has been commented on, there does not appear to be any great deal of transparency in where the funds have gone and how they have been split up. There has not been a great deal of transparency, either, in the decision making about why the closure of the unit in Tasmania has been proposed. Is that something that the ABC Board knows about beforehand? Do they have any say or oversight in these major decisions which are made? I have concerns about that, and I do not take it on face value that money can be saved any more than I take it on face value that 75 per cent of the productions that are made in Western Australia are local, with only 25 co-productions. I do not think that is true from my discussions with various sources. I am happy to attempt to answer any questions.

Ms Cotton : Thank you very much for the invitation to appear before the committee as a representative of the public who has a longstanding interest in the ABC and this most recent development. My submission looks at the impact of the increased centralisation of production in Sydney and Melbourne on the ABC's ability to reflect regional identity and diversity, particularly news and current affairs. Central to news and current affairs is ABC 24, described enthusiastically by Mark Scott in his address to the press club, which was called 'Trust and relevance'. He advanced this model of presenting and receiving news with a shift from the traditional flagship of the ABC's seven o'clock news to this ongoing news cycle.

A move to this model could be seen as further centralisation of news and current affairs to Harris St, Ultimo, where I once lived. The funding of ABC 24 has been questioned, particularly at a time when there has been such a loss of regional production. Scott explained the funding savings; he talked about a nip and a tuck, and the use of new technology in production studios to reduce the number of people putting the eight state and territory 7 pm bulletins to air from around eight to three. I imagine that that still involved people. I have done some investigation and, as far as I know, there is no published breakdown of ABC expenditure on a regional basis.

In spite of Mark Scott's claims to take account of what commercial organisations can deliver so that we invest strongly in the areas where the commercials cannot or will not, the introduction of ABC 24 and the centralisation of current affairs appears to have affected diversity and quality and it shows to me all the hallmarks of commercial media. It sounds like and in all ways looks like commercial media, with journalists interviewing other journalists, rotational news headlines, which I know is the intention in many ways, but it relies heavily on vox pops, panels of talking heads. I must say it here—it is an opportunity—that there is an overrepresentation of organisations like IPA, which ironically has a hit list of 75 organisations, which include the NBN, the ABC, SBS, ACMA. It wants no restrictions on media ownership. This is one opportunity to say that. It would be argued that feeding the hungry 24-hour news cycle has reduced the quality of the product.

When I was in Hobart I spoke to a couple of the team who were in the production area, and they said that now it is actually news by metre rather than quality. So it puts twice the workload on staff, who must be multiskilled in order to write, edit and produce visuals on a range of platforms—which may account for quite a few of the typos and so on and some of the ticky-tacks. On many occasions this reduces research and it leads to a poor quality, often with loss of transmissions—last night Ted Baillieu fell out of transmission and we were left with journos talking to journos; the loss of the Prime Minister talking about Gonski. By contrast, when it comes to state productions—I will use the word 'state'—such as 7.30, the people I have talked to credit it with in-depth interviews and thoughtful questioning by the state presenter Andrew O'Connor. These include a whole range of areas—interviews of the Premier, the opposition leader, and the minister for police, Liza Harvey.

The state items have great interest to people who are here, in Western Australia. There was a terrific one on solar power in Carnarvon; another one was the Fremantle development under the current lord mayor, Brad Pettitt; as well as one on public transport and an interview with Dr Newman. By contrast, there have been few national stories up until lately with the election. The way the national news portrays Western Australia is not a place I am very familiar with, because the national news presentation speaks to a very small perception of WA—mine sites, red dirt and haulpack trucks. I have actually never been privy to any of that.

Conversely, the centralisation of reporting disadvantages many Australians. In most cases, there is no discussion of national policy and its impact on states or regions. One area I am involved with—my background is with the NDIS; I manage a disability service in a large training organisation—was introduced at a national level as the Prime Minister deflecting the current woes in her government. I actually wrote and got a letter explaining this. The transmission had dropped out of that too.

With the lack of regional presentation, there is almost an oversight of WA in terms of these marvellous special programs like the health, law and media reports. Drive will go back into the round-up of the day's events in PM's time slot. The idea is that you can podcast these programs, but I have found that there are only 24 hours in a day, so it is not always possible.

In summary, I reckon the centralisation impacts on the ABC's ability to be diverse according to its charter and to reflect regional diversity by maintaining strong regional production.

CHAIR: Thank you. I have a question for both of you—and obviously I am only asking you to speculate on your own opinion as individuals. There is the whole issue of the ABC and the ABC's budget in the context of having limited budgets. I do not think I am speaking out of school by saying that we have a serious financial situation in this country in terms of debt and deficit.

So there isn't a bottomless pit of money that we can spend on making sure that everybody gets everything that they want. On that basis, if you were working with the existing resources in Western Australia and you had to choose what it was that you wanted or you were prepared to sacrifice to be able to have your production facility reinstalled, what would you be suggesting that the ABC should be looking to cut out of its existing activities?

Ms Cotton : If we had to go back to basics, I would, like Harry, look at the children's channel—a lot of it is American. There used to be some really good Australian programs—they may still be there. When my daughter was young, she used to watch a program with Rattus and Modigliana and that had a very strong Australian flavour. I would probably reduce the children's channel to an extent and buying in all the American content. I would probably have a look at ABC 24. We need to have strong news and media, because Murdoch owns 68 per cent of the current newsprint and he also has Sky TV. That is a hard question on the spot. I should have thought about it before but maybe if Harry has a go.

Dr Cohen : The only thing I would add is that one should go through the whole of the budget—for instance, for the television coverage, go through it with a fine-tooth comb and find out what is being presented to us the public and how much does it costs How much does it cost to buy in QI every day of the week for whatever it is? It is almost as though we have had a year's program in the last week or two, or some of the other programs that they buy in from the UK which are not particularly relevant, I do not think, to our statement. Grand Designs, the building one, is not particularly relevant in our climate with our building codes and so on, so there must be a cost. Perhaps we got a cheap job lot when these things were imported and we are getting them shoved down our throats during prime time television, but that is one area that I think needs to be looked at carefully.

CHAIR: I suppose it comes back to the questions that Senator Ludlam was asking the previous witness about having a look at what the ABC's charter is and understanding that possibly things change and the way we deal with media changes. They may well be delivering their charter within the existing terms of that charter, but maybe some of the things that we need to address into the future are: what do Australians want from their ABC; how do they want it delivered; and how do they prioritise it? It is all well and good being critical of the ABC, but if they are just doing what they are currently supposed to be doing it makes it very difficult. I cannot go past your comments about the conservative bias of the ABC: it is quite funny because, sitting on the conservative side of politics, I quite often think that the ABC is completely the opposite.

Ms Cotton : I did not actually say conservative bias; I said the conservative representation of the IPA, which is an organisation that has extremely conservative views but they constitute 42 per cent of the panel that make up The Drum. Those were figures taken over a period of a year. I did not say conservative bias; I said representation of the Institute of Public Affairs.

CHAIR: I just raise it. I could not let it go past, given that the conservative side of politics probably does not think the same.

Senator BILYK: I thank you both for your submissions and your interest in the production unit in Tasmania. I think it is a lost battle, to be honest, because, as I understand it, redundancies have already been offered to a number of people; they have gone. They are going to end up with one person there possibly. I noticed one of your recommendations, Ms Cotton, was that the production unit remained until the inquiry was completed. Mr Scott did not think that was necessary, so things went ahead.

Do you think the ABC now needs to review its charter, taking into account the question has been asked of a number of other witnesses across a range of states. The issue of concern to me is not only the changes in technology which, I think in itself, would require some changes to the charter but whether rural and regional stories are being told. It would appear to me that, even when shows are being made in a state, such as Western Australia or Tasmania, they are not about those states. But there are no other shows that I can see being made in the eastern states, in Sydney or Melbourne, that actually reflect the broader view of Australia other than it is based around Sydney and Melbourne. I just wonder what comments and views you might have in regard to those comments.

D r Cohen : If it requires an alteration of the charter—

Senator BILYK: A review of the charter?

D r Cohen : then that should be done. Otherwise, we are not going to get programs that we believe should be made, bearing in mind the many serious issues that we are currently faced with, which are not dealt with in any depth by commercial TV. We look to the ABC to do these programs in depth, which they do, but we look in vain to see some of these projects that are constantly before us of an environmental, social or similar nature being done. I think that is very sad and I think it needs to be looked at—how they devote their time, how they split it up and who makes those decisions? I think that is an important issue.

Ms Cotton : That is a difficult question and it is difficult to just put my ideas forward in this forum without having much time to think whether the charter should be changed. I think it was updated in 1984, wasn't it?

Senator BILYK: I cannot remember the year, but I know it was a fair while ago. There are obviously not just technological changes but there are population changes, there are demographic changes—

Ms Cotton : It is fairly broad, it talks about informing, educating and entertaining but also reflecting regional diversity. Perhaps if the charter were reviewed, it might be worth looking at new technology, because new technology is quite overwhelming. It has just changed all our lives. In 1984, the way you (indistinct) TV and we interacted with the media was very different to how it is now. So it is probably worth examining that.

Senator BILYK: The BBC have a mix of internal, independent and regionally based TV. Do you think that the ABC should use this as a model? They actually have quotas and production targets to meet those areas. Do you think the ABC should look at something similar?

D r Cohen : I think they could look at it. Obviously, the BBC are better resourced on a pro rata basis—by, I am told, about six-fold—than we are in this country, so they can do that. I guess it will always come down to dollars and cents and whether we can afford this and that. But I think we have looked to the ABC for many things and I think we could look at it and should look at it.

Ms Cotton : I agree. I read about the model that is taking place with the BBC and that is probably even more applicable to a huge country like ours. I met one of the people in Tasmania who has now taken a redundancy. He said to me—I am sure the people in the gallery here would have a comment—'What's the difference between an editor sitting in Sydney and one sitting in Perth?' But we have a growing population here—and it has nothing to do with my interest or whether or not I am in favour of that—and we are an economic powerhouse, and yet we have almost no production. There was a previous discussion about the environment. Wouldn't it be great to look at a program that looked at all the areas at risk from the environmental impact of extreme weather events?

Senator BILYK: The ABC in giving evidence—I do not want to paraphrase them, but I do not have the quote with me—said that it is not economical to have production units in Western Australia and Tassie and that you might be able to do that work out of Sydney and Melbourne. Is there evidence, or have you seen evidence, that the work that is happening outside of Sydney and Melbourne takes into account the diversity of regional Australia?

Ms Cotton : I can only draw on my own experience for the answer to the question, and that is that it does not give you the essence. I was a great fan of Gardening Australia with Peter Cundall when it was from Tasmania. I think it was on a Saturday night. Because of his description of the Richmond Bridge, I had to go there myself, and I got a sense of just what it was like. Collectors, too, featured the Salamanca Market and gave you a sense of what it was like to be a Tasmanian. I became such a convert that I am actually going to move there. The little antique village outside of Hobart was also featured. They investigated areas that none of us would have been aware of otherwise. I think it is a shame that we have not had that chance in WA. There is so much potential here. I think it is terrible. Tasmania is such a poor state and what is happening in Tasmania will have a reverberating effect if the state government cannot put in the money to—

Senator BILYK: I cannot speak for them, but I am fairly certain that the Tassie state government are not putting in the money, because people have already taken redundancies and gone.

Ms Cotton : I have met people who have done that, yes.

Senator BILYK: There is no training ground, either, for young people in Tassie now—or in Western Australia, I presume.

Ms Cotton : That is a great fear of young people in Tasmania—that they will have to leave the state and go over to what they call the mainland.

Senator BILYK: 'To the little island above us,' we say, but we will not go into that. My concern is that the worst-case scenario seems to have happened in regard to production units. The concern, from my perspective is how we make sure the stories of areas outside Sydney and Perth—including South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland, and even inland New South Wales and Victoria—are told if there are no regional production units. Those stories need to be told in a balanced way and in a way that shows not only Australians but visitors to Australia that are watching the ABC what the rest of the Australia is.

Ms Cotton : Yes—from my own experience, that is my only response. I do not know about Harry.

D r Cohen : I do not see how flying people in and out of a local situation can produce the same interesting program that locals, who are involved, who live there and who understand all the nuances and so on, can produce. To fly somebody in and out might be cheaper but I think it would be inferior. I think that has been shown too.

CHAIR: Thank you very much.

Proceedings suspended from 12:50 to 12:57