The hundreds of job losses announced by the ABC on Wednesday were the inevitable result of years of devastating funding cuts forced on the broadcaster by the Coalition government.
After absorbing more than $700m in cuts since 2014, ABC management made it clear that any additional reduction in funding could only be implemented by firing journalists and slashing programs, which is precisely what has occurred.
But there’s one decision announced on Wednesday that can’t solely be pinned on the government: the shuttering of ABC Life. After operating for less than two years, the unit will be rebranded as “ABC Local” with a different editorial focus and the team behind it will halve.
The move is a major victory for both the ABC’s commercial rivals and conservative politicians who have railed against ABC Life since its inception. By appeasing those critics the ABC board and management might think they’ve bought themselves some breathing space, but the long-term consequences of gutting a lean, digital team focused on connecting the organisation with audiences that don’t traditionally identify with the ABC will be far more significant.
Commercial rivals launched their attacks on ABC Life before it had even launched in August 2018. While News Corp, predictably, led the charge, the criticism of Life came from free-to-air TV networks, some youth media outlets and other major media companies that have historically been more supportive of the ABC.
This reflected how sensitive commercial media companies are in the current media environment, and in particular how lifestyle journalism is one of the few areas still able to pull significant advertising revenue.
ABC Life had two main goals. The first was to boost the organisation’s digital storytelling capacity. The idea was that Life’s team of digital journalists would work with already existing ABC programs to help their stories travel further.
The second goal was to help the ABC connect with audiences that had little affiliation with the broadcaster. The organisation is deservedly proud of the extremely high level of trust the Australian public places in it. Survey after survey shows that the ABC is considered the most trustworthy media organisation in the country. But what that figure masks is the fact that there are significant communities who consume very little, if any, ABC content.
Younger Australians (those aged 25-45), people who live outside of the inner-city, and those from migrant backgrounds are far less likely to engage with the ABC than the older, wealthier, white audiences who make up most of the broadcaster’s loyal fanbase. ABC Life’s KPIs were explicit: develop a relationship with these Australians by producing content relevant to their lives, and bring them into the broader ABC fold.
As well as being completely in line with the ABC’s charter (young Indian-Australian couples in Parramatta pay tax and deserve relevant ABC content as much as white retirees in Balmain), attempting to build inroads in these communities was a savvy political move.
The last six years of funding cuts are an indictment on the Coalition government, but they also reflect a failure on the part of the ABC and its allies to make the current situation electorally untenable. As loved as the ABC is, it’s also important to acknowledge that for many Australians its funding situation isn’t their priority at election time.
The same demographics who are less likely to consume ABC content also happen to be the people living in marginal seats. By focusing resources on them, the ABC was manoeuvring to ensure that a broader cross-section of the community would have a stake in the organisation’s long-term viability.
ABC Life adopted the radical idea that in order to reach diverse audiences it was important to build a diverse team. Journalists worked from most capital cities and a number of regional towns, a majority of the senior editorial team came from migrant backgrounds, there were parents, young people, renters, home owners, people from the city and from the suburbs. It was one of the most representative media teams in the country.
Being a part of that team was equal parts inspiring and terrifying. It was the first, and only, time in my career as a journalist that I worked with people who had similar background and life experience to me. I was encouraged to find and amplify marginalised voices, and tell stories about race and identity.
But the criticism of ABC Life, which came from both outside and inside the organisation, was draining. We didn’t know when we would wake up and read stories about the team being axed. Sometimes the attacks were personal, waged against individual team members. I often wished more senior figures in the ABC would defend us more publicly, and tell us the work we were doing was important. Ultimately, I just felt lucky to have a job at the public broadcaster that was about elevating the voices of people regularly locked out of the conversation.
Stories about people of colour produced by people of colour proved to be popular, and won awards. A sexual health series aimed at young women, produced by young women, helped attract a demographic that the ABC had struggled to appeal to. A dating column written by an Indigenous woman shouldn’t be radical in 2020, but it was. Collaborations with other internal teams saw ABC Life content regularly end up on flagship TV programs, featuring faces and stories that rarely get seen on mainstream television.
Reading the organisation’s five-year plan, released on Wednesday, further cements the idea that the decision to close Life is more about politics and appeasement than good outcomes. It calls on the ABC to “improve the relevance and promotion of its services to migrant communities who may have no prior relationship with the ABC”, and “commission more stories that show how different communities around Australia come together to tackle the challenges they face and support community-building initiatives”.
This is precisely what ABC Life was doing. And management haven’t outlined how slashing staff and shifting editorial focus in this area will help achieve those goals.
Lifestyle journalism will still exist at the ABC, but it will go back to being largely the domain of older, white audiences who consume it on local radio, RN and TV. Young Australians who are facing precarious economic and living situations, who need it more than ever, are being let down by one of the country’s most valued institutions.
Of course, we shouldn’t lose sight of the main culprit here. Diminishing resources mean the ABC will always struggle to maintain and grow its relevancy, and that’s entirely on the government.
But consider the fact that not a single member of the ABC board has any experience in digital media, and one of the biggest changes announced on Wednesday was the gutting of one of the most innovative digital media teams in the country, at a time when the organisation needs it more.
The ABC can’t just pin it all on the government. They have to own up to their mistakes. And the cutting of ABC Life is one of them.
• Osman Faruqi was formerly deputy editor of ABC Life