Knives out for ABC funding

The Abbott government has launched a cost-cutting study into the ABC and SBS, following attacks by the Prime Minister on the national broadcaster.

The timing of the announcement — which has added to speculation the ABC’s budget will be cut — could not be worse for Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who has taken pains to distance himself from his colleagues’ remarks about cutting, dividing and even privatising the ABC.

Mr Turnbull was planning to delay announcing the “efficiency study”, given ABC management has been under attack by the Coalition this week. But the announcement was rushed forward after inquiries from Fairfax Media yesterday afternoon.

“There is no assault on the ABC,” Mr Turnbull declared in a hurried interview with the ABC soon after the story broke online.

“It is simply about ensuring the ABC gives its viewers — the taxpayers of Australia — the best bang for their buck”.

Mr Turnbull is expecting the efficiency study to be completed by April, which makes it unlikely it will have much bearing on the May budget. He is understood to have commissioned the study to prod the ABC into making difficult decisions that have been forced on commercial media organisations in recent years.

There is a view within government that SBS is already running on an “oily rag”, but that parts of the ABC’s operations are less efficient.

In recent days Mr Abbott has accused the ABC of taking “everyone’s side but Australia’s” and arguing journalists should give the navy the “benefit of the doubt” when it came to claims of wrongdoing.

Further pressure piled on the ABC yesterday when News Corp reported that cabinet planned to strip the broadcaster of its $223 million Australia Network contract — the country’s international television service.

Mr Turnbull has been keen to assure the public he is a staunch defender of the ABC and appears uncomfortable with his government’s recent attacks on the broadcaster over alleged bias.

According to the terms of reference, the efficiency study “will seek to clarify costs, provide options for more efficient delivery of services”.

The Department of Communications will conduct the study, assisted by Peter Lewis, formerly chief financial officer of Seven West Media.

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