Fears over ABC rural coverage

LOCAL communities are at risk if the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reduces its focus on rural areas, according to Wellington Shire Council.

In its submission to the Senate inquiry into the working of the ABC in rural and regional areas, council claimed there had been a reduction in the level of local coverage of emergencies.

The submission was in support of amendments proposed by Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie.

The aim of the Private Senator’s Bill is to strengthen the mandate on the ABC to deliver a high level of broadcast service in the regions.

Among the proposals is to establish a rural and regional advisory council to advise the board, increase the number of local news bulletins on radio and roster effectively in emergency broadcast situations.

The inquiry and introduction of the bill came after the national broadcaster announced changes to its regional radio services for 2016, including merging local Mornings programs into a longer Breakfast show, with a one-hour feature-based Local Life program from 10am.

The number of local radio news bulletins was also reduced to two a day, with no local news bulletins broadcast after 8.30am, with the rest of the day covered by news headlines from across the state.

The changes were made to enable journalists to be “on the road more” to gather stories and report in to radio programs, online and social media on events as they happen.

In its submission to the inquiry, council said it was “imperative that local ABC stations can be rostered effectively” during times of emergency to ensure community safety.

“Information can mean the difference between life and death to any community facing emergency,” the submission stated.

“In 2015, ABC Gippsland was recognised for 10 outstanding years supporting the Victorian community as an emergency broadcaster. Due to changes in staffing arrangements, the station is now unable to provide those same award-winning services.

“During Wellington Shire’s most recent emergency events, notably the Jack River fires in February 2014 and Whitelaws Track fire in November 2015, the dedicated local content relied upon by our community was not provided.”

“During recent events, the station has no longer provided a local service during afternoons, evenings and weekends, with cross-state emergency broadcasting now taking place from Melbourne.

“This results in intermittent references to events in our local area; smaller events (yet no less critical for those impacted) receiving limited exposure; mispronunciation of place names and therefore a lack of relevant critical information to our community in times of need.”

Council stated the level of service was not the fault of local staff “who strive under great pressure from a lack of resourcing to bring relevant content, news and issues to the fore”.

The submission was endorsed during council’s meeting last Tuesday night. Councillor Peter Cleary said the decline of local bulletins was a concern.

“I think it’s important that we do get that (local) information, it just keeps us informed of what’s going on,” he said.

The move towards providing information online, Cr Cleary said, would affect older people.

“There are lots of people in this community who prefer the traditional way of communicating, and that’s called the wireless,” he said.

Cr Cleary feared the local ABC could become like a box of chocolates gradually being emptied.

“A little box of chocolates, not as many news local bulletins, another bit of the chocolate comes out of the box. There goes our emergency broadcast.

“Eventually there will be nothing, it will all come from Melbourne.

“We have to be very careful about those little blocks of chocolate in the box, and make sure they don’t take too many out.”