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August 13, 2003

Figures change in ABC funding story

From: The Age, Australia - Aug 13, 2003

By Annabel Crabb

The ABC gave four different accounts of its financial circumstances while attempting to extract a funding increase from the Federal Government, it has emerged.

An internal analysis compiled for Communications Minister Richard Alston, viewed by The Age , reveals that the ABC did not mention some of its most pressing funding shortfalls until after this year's budget, when its funding submission had already been rejected by the Government.

The initial ABC funding submission, released publicly in January, asked for $250 million over three years, to finance new programming and coverage ventures.

But on February 19, ABC managing director Russell Balding told Senator Alston in a private meeting that the broadcaster could make do with a much smaller increase - only $15 million in the first year.

According to the analysis, the chairman of the ABC, Donald McDonald, wrote to senior ministers on March 12, urging them to approve a $15 million increase.

But after the wholesale rejection of funding requests in the federal budget on May 13, the ABC appears to have changed tack.

Mr Balding told a Senate estimates hearing in late May that the broadcaster would have to find up to $25 million in cuts to keep its head above water.

When the federal Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts sought further details at the request of the minister, it was told that the ABC had identified $14 million that it needed to spend on new programs to make up for the "run-down" in stock that had been occurring ever since the 1997 Government budget cuts to the broadcaster.

The ABC also told the department it needed $4 million to cover the cost of mandatory captioning on prime-time and news services and $3 million to cover increased costs of its online site - neither of which had appeared as funding requests in its original submission.

The revelation about the fluctuating accounts of the broadcaster's finances comes as staff within the broadcaster grapple with confusion about the precise effects of last week's $26 million of internal cuts announced by Mr Balding.

Mr Balding's office declined to comment last night, but Senator Alston said the ABC had an obligation to declare where the cuts would occur, and how the proceeds from those cuts would be used.

"It's very puzzling that while the ABC only asked the Government for $15 million in additional funding, it has now made cuts of $26 million, and that the original funding request did not indicate that extra funding was needed for captioning and ABC Online," he said.

Copyright © 2003 The Age Company Ltd