The ABC’s foreign bureau in New Delhi is facing closure nearly 50 years after it opened in 1966, due to the Coalition’s $254 million budget cut to the national broadcaster.
Over the years, the bureau’s correspondents have covered the biggest news stories across South Asia, including a bloody military operation playing out in Punjab’s Golden Temple in 1984, the ocean suddenly rising up and swallowing whole villages in the 2005 Boxing Day Tsunami, and troops entering Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11.
Now the bureau office will shut, with South Asian news instead covered by, “a home based VJ [Video Journalist] with local fixer/translator,” according to Quentin Dempster, a former senior state reporter for ABC’s 7.30 Report who lost his job in the recent upheaval.
“The ABC has had a functioning office in Delhi for decades but now apparently the lucky correspondent is expected to cover the entirety of South Asia—India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal etc… from a back bedroom,” Dempster said in a parliamentary submission to the Abbott government’s budget cuts.
In early 2013, the bureau boasted one ABC correspondent, one camera person, and one correspondent for the Australia Network (which went off air in September after the government withdrew funding), as well as local staff and fixers.
ABC Managing Director Mark Scott did not respond to requests for comment from The Indian Sun, but sources said the changes to the bureau had not been finalised.
At the end of November, Scott announced that 400 people would lose their jobs across the ABC, with some radio programs scrapped altogether.
Of the broadcaster’s 11 foreign bureaus, Delhi is not the only one targeted for cost savings. Offices are also being closed in Bangkok and Tokyo and changed to home-based VJ models, according to Dempster. The bureau in New Zealand is being scrapped altogether.
Dempster criticised the VJ reporting model—where a single correspondent acts as both the reporter and camera person—saying it resulted in lower quality coverage.
“When the ABC’s camera people, editors and few remaining sound operators get together a constant for discussion is the collapse in technical standards. Many think we should be ashamed of what we are now putting to air,” he said.
Cuts to ABC’s Foreign Correspondent current affairs show and Compass, which covers religion in modern life, add further blows to the overall coverage of South Asian news and culture on Australian television.
Dempster said Foreign Correspondent would be pared back to 22 episodes starting mid-April.
Compass, which this year showed viewers the spectacle of the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, and Durga Puja being celebrated by Hindu-Australians, will also have its season reduced.
“Compass is just one of many departments throughout the ABC that have suffered substantial cuts,” Series Producer Jessica Douglas-Henry told The Indian Sun.
“Our Executive Producer Rose Hesp has been made redundant. We have also had to make budget reductions and our 2015 season is reduced from 40 to 37 episodes.
“I can understand Australia’s South Asian community would be concerned by the current uncertainty at the ABC, and the potential ramifications,” said Douglas-Henry.
But she insisted Compass was committed to quality and, “maintaining the diversity of stories we cover”.
ABC bosses are also cutting the radio religion unit, which will reportedly result in a 40 per cent loss of staff and 70 per cent loss of resources.
Prof. Nihil Agar and Prof. Raja Jayaraman, chairman and vice chairman respectively of the Hindu Council of Australia, were among 30 religious leaders who recently came together to plead with the ABC’s board to refrain from cutting religious programming.
“It has never been more important for Australians to have access to content that builds a deeper understanding of the role of faith in the lives of individuals or society,” they said in an open letter to ABC chairman James Spigelman.
Meanwhile, Sunil Badami is losing his Sunday evening presenting gig at ABC Local Radio.
He is being replaced by Rhianna Patrick, the Indigenous Australian host of the long-running ABC Local Radio show Speaking Out.
Badami told The Indian Sun he was “really pleased” for Patrick’s appointment, and wouldn’t be disappearing from the airwaves entirely himself when his show Sunday Takeaway wraps up.
“After my contract with the ABC has expired, I’m also filling in on the afternoons shift at Brisbane radio station 4BC [part of the Fairfax Radio Network],” Badami said. He will also pop up on ABC as a fill-in presenter, starting with a week of overnight timeslots in January.
“I should add too that I’ve been advised that my show (along with James O’Loughlin’s long running Sunday Evenings show) were cut as a normal process of commissioning, not anything to do with budget cuts (my show wasn’t that expensive to produce),” he said.
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