This is an edited version of a speech given by MEAA’s federal vice president Karen Percy to an ABC Friends panel discussion on the damage the attacks on the ABC have caused to the public broadcaster. Delivered on Saturday, May 8 at Melbourne’s Hawthorn Town Hall.
Thanks to all of you for being here and for the opportunity to speak to you today.
There are two days that really stand out for me in my long association with the ABC.
The first is the day in February 1987 when I got a call from the news chief of staff in Adelaide telling me I was the next TV News cadet. I was beyond thrilled. I remember it like it was yesterday – the call came to the café in the CBD where I was working between university classes. I cried with joy when I heard the news. I promptly called my parents – my dad sent me a telegram of congratulations! It was simultaneously exciting and terrifying. I was a journalist at last.
The second is September 11 last year – my last day at the ABC. Yes, I am one of those staffers who was made redundant in the last round of cuts – or the non-cuts as the government has tried to claim.
It was the strangest of times to leave an organisation you’ve loved for more than 30 years, shedding blood, sweat and tears. I was able to be in the office with some of my colleagues in the room but so many were on the other end of a Zoom call because of Covid. It was a farewell for the times, I guess.
They played a highlight reel of my career… there I was in Adelaide… a fresh faced 18-year-old; there I was in Alice Springs, in Darwin hosting the NT’s 7:30 Report; there I was reporting for the short-lived Business Breakfast program; there I was reporting on a coup in Bangkok; there I was outside a court for one of the many murders I covered as a court reporter.
I was fortunate to join the ABC when I did. Adelaide in the late 1980s was a hive of activity. There were productions and orchestras. Adelaide was the centre of the ABC’s all-important Children’s Education unit.
I opened my first bank account at Collinswood. it was big enough and busy enough to have a credit union branch located on site. Now that site is a shadow of its former self. There’s local radio, and local news and local sport – but not a lot more. Over the years more and more floors of the building have been rented out to others.
To be fair a lot of media organisations are in the same boat – the sector has contracted.
No organisation is doing as much drama or putting variety shows or music shows… or much at all really in comparison to the heydays.
We’ve heard tonight of how crucial the ABC is in times of crisis… bushfires, floods, a pandemic. All day every day, ABC staff are doing everything they can to inform you, entertain you, educate you. ABC audiences have never been stronger. The ABC has never been more important. The ABC’s investigative journalists are telling stories that are leading to fundamental shifts in our attitudes to the military, to the way women are treated in this country.
It’s not just news of course… children’s programming continues to be top notch.
Drama too… if you’ve watched Wakefield or Mystery Road or The Code, you’ll know how important the ABC is to local production, actors, crews etc.
But we’re doing less of it and we’ve lost the ability to do it in-house.
The cuts… hundreds of millions of dollars over recent years… are knobbling the organisation’s ability to effectively tell Australian stories. The relentless bashing by politicians, media rivals and idealogues is also hobbling the national broadcaster.
And that’s having a huge impact on staff. I was one of 250 to leave last year, 80 of us from the news division alone. Most didn’t really want to go, even if they out their hands up, but there are fewer and fewer opportunities.
More than 1100 jobs have gone since 2014.
We all know there will be more redundancies, either to adjust to more cuts or to shift direction. Every week another talented person leaves, citing a lack of career opportunities. Little is done to keep them.
I’m so lucky to have had such a rich career at the ABC. The day I left I was blunt with my colleagues, that most of them would not be so fortunate. There is a huge “churn and burn” factor in the ABC right now. Older, more senior staff are increasingly being let go, forced out, devalued and they are replaced with younger, less experienced staff. Budget cuts means the managers must find savings somehow.
You can hear it. You can see it. You can read it… the quality isn’t always what it should be. There aren’t the layers of checks and balances there used to be. Staff are stretched so thin… They are working so hard.
Despite the huge pressures and the dwindling resources. We must not lose sight of the fact that there is brilliant work being done at the national broadcaster.
The ABC I started at, is a very different one to the ABC I finished with last year.
But we must continue to fight for it.
Thanks to GetUp! and the Friends of the ABC for their relentless campaigning; for the great work done by my colleagues at the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance.
But most of all, thanks to you – our viewers, listeners and readers. Please continue to support the ABC, continue to demand the highest of standards from the ABC, continue to pressure your MPs, continue to talk up the value of the ABC to anyone and everyone you know.
This is a campaign we can’t afforded to let rest because the demise of the ABC will undermine our democracy, will lead to further erosion of community cohesion.
It will ultimately see the rise of the peddlers of disinformation or distorted, biased views – whether it’s simply to make mischief, to make money or to fit an ideology.
We can’t afford that to happen.