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

HAYNES, Ms Andrea, CPSU Delegate and ABC Technologist, Community and Public Sector Union

SPENCER, Mr Doug, CPSU Delegate and ABC Radio National Broadcaster, Community and Public Sector Union

[12:57]

CHAIR: I welcome representatives from the Community and Public Sector Union from Western Australia. Thank you very much for joining us today and for your submission, which is No. 32. I understand you are speaking to the same submission that has been put forward by your national authority. Would you like to make an opening statement in relation to the matter?

Ms Haynes : Thank you for this opportunity to speak. I am a television outside broadcast technologist based in ABC Perth. I have worked at the ABC for 10 years. I act today as a spokesperson for all ABC staff who are concerned about the centralisation of work in Sydney and Melbourne, and the impact that the loss of our TV production unit is having on Western Australians.

ABC Perth has seen some extremely successful local internal TV productions cancelled in the last few years, including RollerCoaster, Can We Help? and The Pet Show. RollerCoaster was a hugely successful studio production for WA which set the bar for children's programming by its efficiency and quality. It ran for six years from 2004 until January 2010, when it was decommissioned. The end of RollerCoaster was felt very hard by staff. This was a tightly budgeted show made using some of our oldest equipment, but the creative vision and quality skills produced a great end product. Many ABC staff can tell you how much RollerCoaster's presenter, Elliot Spencer, was adored by children. Elliot no longer works for the ABC; the main director was made redundant and now teaches media classes at university; the main cameraman primarily does news coverage.

Shortly after this production was axed Studio 3 was commissioned on ABC3 and made over in Melbourne. The cancellations of The Pet Show in 2007 and Can We Help? in 2011 further crushed staff morale. More significantly, it has resulted in a rapid decline of our TV studio skills. The underutilisation of staff has seen more resignations, redundancies and short contracts that are not replaced. The second-floor production space in our building at Fielder Street is empty and our studios are seldom used. There is some incidental production but, by and large, in continuity we use the studio for yoga classes, staff Christmas parties and some tour group visits.

I have been in conversation with one of the people who have pitched their broader production ideas to the ABC from inside the ABC; they have been rejected, only to be accepted once resigning their position and externally pitching the idea again. It is deeply unsatisfying to hear this story.

ABC WA performs more outside broadcasts than any of the other ABC states. For the last 13 years we have been the only state or territory outside of New South Wales and Victoria to have two outside broadcast vans. Further, services that we provide are relied on by most TV stations. This is because of the distances involved in driving across the Nullarbor, which often prohibits the OB companies from travelling here. Consequently, they rely on the ABC to provide these facilities. If the ABC ceases to participate in the market and discontinues its strong reputation for a quality end product and good staff satisfaction, then the whole WA TV industry will be affected, not just the ABC. Technology and equipment that WA is using to do outside broadcast is almost obsolete. The cameras, vision and audio mixing desks and routers are no longer supported by the manufacturer; therefore, part replacement is extremely limited and costly. We have known this for the past five years and questioned its renewal for as long. However, the ABC does not give staff or the industry any commitments on what the future holds. As recently as last week, the ABC brought a van and two staff over from Melbourne in order for us to be able to cover and A-league soccer match in high definition as it is currently unavailable in WA.

Local football coverage is our main ABC outside broadcast work at present. However, we do not know what will happen after next year and our ABC managers are not telling us. Our fear is that the demise of internal local production will continue and local sports and community events will not be produced in any quantity. If this happens, specialist skills at risk include those of ABC technologists, which is one of my jobs, technical producers, audio staff, editors, directors and operations assistance. We have a destabilised workforce with this uncertainty. Without local WA ABC production, great levels of expertise will leave the industry or WA. This attrition already occurs because of the mining boom and our current losses.

Freelancers have difficulty sustaining enough work between the TV stations and cannot secure ongoing work. There are a lot of permanent casuals. When I started at the ABC, my manager told me that it would take seven years before I would be experienced and trained enough to be useful. Specialist production roles require intensive and ongoing training. If the ABC does not provide this training, it is unrealistic that commercial TV can or will. I am the youngest staff member in my area. I am nearly 34 years old. Most of the men I work with in this industry are in their forties and fifties, with 20 to 30 years of experience. What I want to know is: where are the generations behind me?

It is extremely difficult to convey to people how large WA is. Additionally, city and rural disparity exists, making our commitment to our local networks in Albany, Geraldton, Broome, Wagin, Karratha, Kununurra, Esperance, Bunbury and Kalgoorlie important as vital contributors to our regional expression. We just do not have a great understanding or experience of the uniqueness of the small communities in our various regions. I am a Great Southern farmer's daughter, with an entirely different set of experiences growing up in my community to someone who has grown up farming in Harvey, Southern Cross, Jerramungup or Margaret River, which are also here in the south, or in the Kimberley—Pilbara, Mid West, Gascoyne and Goldfields regions. They are people for whom I cannot speak from my experience.

On behalf of my regional community, I ask the ABC: how have we been conveying the depth of the farming labour crisis? How do we illustrate the importance of the Maori shearers and the Zimbabwe families who live and work in our community, supporting our sheep and cropping, olives, vines or small contractors enterprises? How do we show the impact of a worsening regional health and medical representation, which sees a 12-month chemotherapy program played out by weekly trips—four hours to Perth and back in a day—so that the kids can stay in school? The truth is: it is not shown, it is not understood, and I feel it will not be without a local television production presence. Thanks.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Do you want to say anything, Mr Spencer?

Mr Spencer : Thank you very much for this opportunity. I joined the ABC in 1977 as a radio and television news cadet. I have done many different ABC things since then, and the national broadcaster has been a very central part of my life since I was a little boy in the 1950s. I support Andrea's submission. I will address the committee's questions as they are addressed or not by the radio network for whom I work. That is the one that has in its very name the word 'national'.

In my childhood, our fridge was kerosene powered, the lights went dim soon after we switched off the generator and I only experienced TV when visiting Adelaide. ABC radio and the Country Lending Service were my prime gateways to the world beyond the farm gate. Since 1981, I have worked to national programs, initially radio current affairs, AM, PM et cetera, as the more junior of two Adelaide based reporters and then, from 1983, as the more senior of two in Perth. I have made documentary features. I have been involved in various programs as a contributor, a producer, a producer-presenter and an initiator.

Hard current affairs and the arts, especially music, are personal passions and key aspects of my ABC life. In 1990 I co-conceived and was founder, producer and namer of what began as the The Nightly Planet. Since 2006, I have solo produced and presented the Weekend Planet. As of this year, I am also in effect RN's, or Radio National's, WA based arts correspondent. I have also reported nationally from two states and one territory and acted as a regional manager in Alice Springs and Kalgoorlie.

Imagine you are an alien, it is 30 years since you last dropped in on planet earth and you know that Australia's national broadcaster still exists and still works to the same charter. Over those 30 years relativities within Australia have shifted. Sydney is still the largest city, although it looks like Melbourne may well overtake it again soon. The big story is how much bigger Perth/WA and Brisbane/Queensland now are in absolute population, percentage of the national one and portion of the national economy. When last you visited Perth, Radio National's presence was—I think—the strongest outside Sydney and Melbourne. 'Boy, it must be really humming now,' you think. You are wrong.

I work on what has been described as the Mary Celeste floor. In 2005, when Perth's ABC building was new, it housed 10 Radio National people. There are now five, and they are very soon to be four. We all joined the ABC well before this present millennium. In the present millennium, one of us transferred from Sydney to Perth. No new staffer has joined us this millennium. When vacated, Perth based positions have gone unfilled or been transferred east. Once there were two busy, highly skilled drama and book-reading producers in Perth. Now, there are none. One full-time arts feature program maker is about to depart. The formerly two sound engineers are now one. When our imaginary alien visited this national radio network's Perth office, he or she would have seen a Perth based religion broadcaster, two social history broadcasters, education producer broadcasters and a science broadcaster. A little less than one full-time social history producer aside, all are gone, as is any dedicated locally based administrative support.

For a truly national Australian broadcaster, it and its audience are both, in a very real sense, in the same very big place called Australia. Broadcaster and audience are one big 'us', both in the same 'here'. Sadly, it is increasingly obvious that this is not just ABC radio's, but television network's, reality. On air it is often distressingly apparent that 'here' is Sydney, or Sydney and Melbourne, and everywhere else is 'out there'. Sometimes those of us 'out there' are simply forgotten. I can give you some telling examples. At other times, they/we are actively addressed and/or visited but we are still 'out there', part of a distant 'them', not fellow members of 'us'. This is at least as unfortunate for the minority of Australia's population who live in Sydney and Melbourne as it is for Australia's so-called 'regional' majority population. Thank you.

Senator BILYK: I want to refer to the submission by the CPSU, in which they state:

The CPSU believes that the ABC is NOT meeting its Charter obligations to reflect and represent regional diversity in Australia …

They then list a number of reasons, one of them being:

ABC management is out of touch with the needs of regional Australia

Do you have any comments to make in regard to that?

Mr Spencer : Yes. I would say that if you are talking about local regional radio in the ABC sense, meaning your Albany and Alice Springs stations, your 720 in Perth et cetera, those do a very good job. Subject to whatever arguments you could have about budgets, they do get it. They do actually talk with, and properly reflect back, their audience. Nationally I do not think that is true.

Senator BILYK: Is that because you think there is no local voice?

Mr Spencer : I think it is a number of reasons. A key reason is that we are almost like the Roman Empire that, as the empire shrank, retreated to Rome. But it is the reverse situation: as the country gets bigger elsewhere, the ABC centralises in Sydney, which I find truly bizarre. The problem is not even at the point of being properly perceived. It is not just a matter of 'us out there' wanting to see more from 'out there' heard in Sydney or Melbourne. It is also that we want a proper national service. For example, do you remember Cyclone Yasi? When Cyclone Yasi struck the pivotal moment was when the sun came up in the morning and you got some sense of what had actually happened overnight. If you were tuned to news radio anywhere in Australia you got up-to-the-minute coverage. If you were tuned to 720 here in Perth on the other side of the continent from the biggest event in the nation that day you got up-to-date coverage because they had the bottle to get on the phone, track down people in the affected area and speak to them from the studio in Perth. If you listened to Radio National that morning you heard a three-hour-old program and you were told that the sun had not come up. I find that truly disgraceful, and it is not an isolated incident. This is not happening because people are bone idle, it is not happening because these are people of ill-will, and it is not happening because they are bad people. They have not even got to the point of seeing the problem. This is an issue I have raised many times to nil effect. On that occasion I was moved to write to the managing director.

Another illustrative example of what I am talking about is: if you remember in 2010, in February, a big storm hit Sydney. In March a big storm hit Perth. If you lived in neither of those cities and you judged the importance of those events by the prominence given on national programs, you would have been in no doubt that the bigger event was the storm that hit Sydney. In fact, the storm that hit Perth was a much bigger event. It was, I think, the biggest insurance event in Australia that year and remains the worst natural disaster in Western Australia's history.

Senator BILYK: Do you think that the charter of the ABC should be reviewed? I say that taking into account the speed of technical change. The ABC management run the line that because of the changes in technology you can do these jobs out of Sydney or Melbourne and that should not make any difference. Do you think that (a) the charter should be reviewed and—you have probably just answered it—(b) the regional voice of Australia, whether it be Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Tasmania or areas in New South Wales and Victoria outside Sydney and Melbourne, is actually displayed through ABC programming?

Mr Spencer : Things are displayed, yes, but many things are missed. The contexts of many things are missed. The sense of Australia as a nation in which we get a proper national service regardless of where we live, I think, is often missed, particularly when we are talking about what is broadcast nationally. As I say, I think the local-to-local part of the ABC is something that the ABC generally does extremely well. If you look at a local day-to-day level of what happens or what does not happen, as of this year I report on arts matters for this network. That means that, because there is somewhere here whose brief that is, things get covered that otherwise simply would not. There are very real consequences and they can be covered in better ways. For example, there is a very major photographic exhibition here. Could you cover that from a studio in Sydney or Melbourne? Of course you could. It is the easiest thing in the world to get someone in the studio. Can you properly convey that exhibition vividly in the same way as if you have somebody who is actually at it and walking around with it? No, you cannot. Equally, and this is something that is not just from recent experience but from long experience, quite often if you are in a so-called regional part of Australia pitching something to someone nationally, there can be a distinct lack of enthusiasm for what you are pitching, because they cannot really see it, and if you persuade them to let you go ahead and do it, then often the story is in fact welcomed and run. But it does not happen in the first place if you do not have the people on the spot. Why does the ABC's coverage of Afghanistan stand up extremely well, I think, in comparison with most of the world's broadcasters? Because we have actually had people there on a sustained basis and have not just flown them in and out when a bomb goes off. These people really get to know their patch.

Senator BILYK: Do you think that charter needs to be changed—

Mr Spencer : I am not sure that the key question is the charter, to be honest. I think the key question is what the ABC actually does. It should not really require a debate about the charter for national networks to have rather more staff in places that are not Sydney and Melbourne. To answer your question it seems to me is that it is probably sensible to revisit the ABC's charter simply because it has not been revisited and has remained unchanged for a very long time. I do not say that as expressing any view as to what the outcome should be.

Senator BILYK: The Tasmanian CPSU called for regional consultation forums. Do you think that is a good idea for the ABC so that they get an idea of what is going on in the regions?

Mr Spencer : It probably is a good idea, but I do not think it is the crucial question. Where power lies in relation to the ABC is not in consultative committees and public forums. That is the reality, and I do not say that critically of the ABC, that is just a truth.

Senator BILYK: How does the ABC understand what is happening in the regions?

Mr Spencer : Very variably.

Ms Haynes : I would say it is a little bit more driven as a business, probably looking at how the budget can be spent in the most efficient fashion, hence a bigger filter goes on. All of the fine material, the good story content, drops underneath because of the impression and pressure to comply by what the eastern state or national managers have impressed on the staff.

ACTING CHAIR: What percentage of Western Australia would be covered by a regional radio service?

Mr Spencer : I could not give you the figure, but it would be the overwhelming majority of the population.

ACTING CHAIR: Has that diminished in any way over time?

Mr Spencer : No. I may be wrong—

Ms Haynes : Radio wise, the stations I read out are the key points of distribution. There are unlucky pockets that may rely on other technologies to get that, but I would say the coverage is actually quite good in terms of reaching the people.

ACTING CHAIR: So, from a radio perspective it is quite good. Has there ever been any opportunity with the resources currently in the regional area, from a radio perspective, to feed them into a more visual perspective using modern technologies?

Ms Haynes : They do. Some of the stations—I do not have up-to-date information on which ones they are—do have satellite technology. You usually have people who are multi-skilled in terms of what content they will bring back. But feedback from editors is that they need more training to do a quality product. Again, there is probably a bit of risk management around how much investment they make in terms of what product comes back. But in terms of a visual thing, audio levels might be out. So, the editors receive this material, and this does not look like it did 10 years ago or even five years ago. But these people on the ground in those places are having to do what they do with much less training and much less investment in them, I suppose, and in their career, and the media platforms they have to cover.

ACTING CHAIR: With increased training resource or whatever, though, the network actually exists from a radio perspective to possibly do something—that is probably my question, more so than asking you to tell me about lack of resources. Should the will be there to use that platform, do you believe that it is a strong and robust platform within the community in Western Australia that could be used should there be a desire to use it?

Mr Spencer : Yes, I think so.

Senator BILYK: I am not sure if you are going to be able to answer this, but what is the relationship between ScreenWest and the ABC with regard to producing dramas and things like that?

Mr Spencer : I am not competent to answer that.

Senator BILYK: It is probably a question that I need to put on notice to the ABC.

Senator LUDLAM: Perhaps we could just tease that out a bit, because I got the sense when it was first launched that ABC Open was going to push a little down the track of where the chair was heading—that you would distribute cheap handycams to people right across the continent who could then use the ABC's infrastructure to start feeding back much more fine-grained stories into the network overall. Has that happened, from your point of view? And is there a bit of a way forward, do you think, in that model?

Ms Haynes : I think the production is there, as in you could get content that would be suitable for a news situation or a current affairs situation. But with production, which is typically looked at carefully in terms of how we are going to do this in such a way, there is a particular topic or focus. I do not think that is an acceptable way, certainly from a staff base point of view. It is not what has been done before.

Senator LUDLAM: No, and I want to be careful to make the distinction between professional production—which I guess you folk are here to represent, in a sense—and current affairs work, journalism that takes years and years to get any good at, as opposed to a kid with a handycam who happens to be in the right place at the right time. But I have never quite understood why, just at the time when cheap, very high-quality editing equipment and broadcast-quality camera equipment is being sold in Dick Smith and Harvey Norman, we are being told that all TV production has to happen out of Sydney. The tools are becoming cheaper, and the training no less so, yet the tide is all washing back across to the east coast. Maybe that is a statement more than a question. But I do not understand why we are not able to distribute production capabilities—not just radio but audiovisual—out in regional areas, starting with Perth. Does it just come down to a training question, where you were heading before?

Ms Haynes : Possibly training. I still think that some of the equipment would not reach that aim, or reach that goal to deliver that product in the end—or a good-quality product in the end, anyway.

Senator LUDLAM: One of the other senators put this question to our previous witnesses: the ABC did get a bit of a kick in funding—we think it should go a bit further, but it did get a bit of a lift that started to wind back the real declines that had occurred previously—but if you were having to manage the station's budget as insiders, who would you cut loose? What would you cut back on in order to keep doing what you wanted to do?

Mr Spencer : Without having access to the data, which I do not, I cannot answer that sensibly. But one thing I certainly can say is that if you proceed from the basis that it must be cheaper to centralise everything in Sydney, that will of course become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you do not have a reasonable level of skills and people around the continent, then of course it will become more expensive. I would also say that some of the things we do are becoming more expensive to do, and some of the things we do are becoming cheaper to do. It is cheaper to capture images, and lots of editing systems are more time-saving and are cheaper than they once were.

Senator LUDLAM: What is more expensive?

Mr Spencer : Making a television program of a highly produced nature is more expensive than it once was. If you are making a highly produced drama program, it is going to be more expensive than it once was.

Senator LUDLAM: Labour costs?

Mr Spencer : If you look at the figures for any—

Senator LUDLAM: It is a million bucks an hour or something.

Mr Spencer : It is lots. You can employ me for a year and I can produce a lot of material for a lot less, and that is not because I am a very clever fellow; it is because it is a cheaper medium. I have difficulty answering your question, because I am not sure how useful it is for me to pontificate

Senator LUDLAM: You haven't had much to do with the Senate then, have you!

Mr Spencer : But perhaps I can give you some illustrative examples of what happens if you do have this too-centric view of the world. I often listen to news bulletins. If a nationally read bulletin originates in Perth, which some do, then I know by definition that it is not going to include a story about a single-fatality, ordinary car crash; it is not going to include a story about a $30,000 warehouse fire. Those sorts of things, if they happen here, are interesting for people who live in Perth, but they are of no consequence for those who do not. I do hear those sorts of stories on nationally read bulletins out of Sydney—and no prizes for guessing where the single-vehicle accidents and the warehouse fires were.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay, so there is that skewing, but I guess what we have been tasked to do is come up with a set of recommendations for a national broadcaster with a limited budget that is citing cost pressures left, right and centre. Maybe there is ideology at work; we do not really know. But it is citing cost pressures as the reason for pulling everything back. You have acknowledged that that might actually be having a compounding effect. As we run capacity down everywhere else, the expense of building these production facilities all over the country and then abandoning them is another issue.

Mr Spencer : And that is not only an ABC issue, by the way—just quietly. It is true of a lot of a lot of cultural facilities Australia-wide. Australia is blessed—or cursed—with a great many recently constructed excellent theatres and the like, which the people who are meant to use them cannot afford to use as much as they wish to.

Senator LUDLAM: So, is it just a budget question?

Mr Spencer : No, it is not just a budget question; it is a state-of-mind question and it is a critical-mass question. I think it is simply wrong, wrong, wrong in principle. To use the TV drama example, there may be excellent reasons to centralise that in Sydney or Melbourne. I just cannot for the life of me see why that is true of radio nationally, in a general sense. I think it is very important not just that the 'regions' get heard and that regional content is 'put out there' but that content that could happen anywhere, conceptually, does not all just happen in Sydney or Melbourne. People who are in a place and who think nationally know that place rather better than other places. If an organisation is increasingly skewering the number of people who are physically based in a particular place and that is more and more Sydney and Melbourne, it is not because they are bad people. These are not people with bad intent; they are not people who are indifferent. Increasingly, though, in my particular network, we are becoming one that visits and associates itself with major events, with major festivals. The inevitable consequence if you are always or more commonly the visitor is that you go for what you already know; you go for what is already prominent. And if you are a publicist this is a wonderful thing. You capture the ABC, because you have a less sceptical, less well-informed ABC. If you are a member of the public it is not such a good thing. We are, I think, as a broadcaster, becoming more and more skilled at schmoozing our audience and we are becoming less good at properly informing our audience and ourselves.

Senator LUDLAM: I will put this to you both. What do you think is the most important thing that could come out of an inquiry like this? You have heard senators from three parties all expressing consistent views and the same concerns. It was a unanimous Senate reference. There was no argy-bargy. Everybody accepted that this needed to happen. That is the second one like this that I have been involved in where we have traipsed around the country asking similar questions. What do you need us to do? What do you think that we should recommend?

Ms Haynes : We need to acknowledge that regions have a lot more to give and have not been given the opportunity to display, for whatever the reason that is within the organisation, our capabilities and what makes that particular place.

Mr Spencer : We need to ensure that the nation is able to view itself not from a single window looking out, but from lots of different windows that reflect back to all of ours. That perforce requires that you have a spread of skilled, responsible, well-trained people not largely concentrated in the two cities. That is as important for the people living in those two cities as it is for those who are not. This is often presented as if it is some kind of special pleading. It is part of being a properly informed nation. You are not going to understand America if you do not get out of New York except on a trip. You are not going to understand Germany if you do not get much out of Berlin except on trips. I do not understand a place by visiting it. Yes, you can send in the marines, so to speak, but the marines, through no fault of our own, do not have the same depth of understanding.

Senator LUDLAM: It has been really useful. Thanks.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you very much for your evidence. That now concludes proceedings for today. Thank you very much to Hansard, Broadcasting and the secretariat. I move that we accept documents. That motion is carried. I also ask for a motion that answers to questions on notice need to be returned by 11 March.

Senator BILYK: So moved.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you. The motion is carried.

Committee adjou rned at 13 : 32