The ABC restructure: In the end, it's all about spine

This image released by SundanceTV shows Celia Pacquola, right, and Luke McGregor in a scene from "Rosehaven." The series is set in Australia, where McGregor's character returns to his rural hometown to run his ailing mother's real-estate business. Meanwhile, Pacquola's character lands on his doorstep after her marriage goes bust. (Scott Bradshaw/SundanceTV via AP)
This image released by SundanceTV shows Celia Pacquola, right, and Luke McGregor in a scene from "Rosehaven." The series is set in Australia, where McGregor's character returns to his rural hometown to run his ailing mother's real-estate business. Meanwhile, Pacquola's character lands on his doorstep after her marriage goes bust. (Scott Bradshaw/SundanceTV via AP)

Though it has been flagged as "the biggest shake-up in the national broadcaster's history", there is at first glance little in Michelle Guthrie's long-anticipated restructure of the ABC to startle the horses.

No job losses. Earlier-than-planned recruitment of additional staff for the regions. No cuts to programs or networks. What's to fear in any of that?

The devil, of course, will be in the detail.

Guthrie's new structure pivots the organisation away from broadcast channels and towards content areas as an organising principle. Staff won't work for ABC TV or radio or online any more, they will work for one of three teams: news, analysis and investigations (where the likes of Four Corners and Q&A will live); entertainment and specialist (hello Gruen, Compass, Rosehaven); and regional and local (where your local AM station will find its home, as well as local news, for use across all platforms). The Google-ish content ideas lab, an in-house structure to foster innovation, can only be a good thing.

Guthrie claims these moves will help the ABC fulfil its charter obligations, which require it, in the words of the act, "to provide a balance between broadcasting programs of wide appeal and specialised broadcasting programs".

And this is where the detail kicks in.

Since the "pivot to digital" under previous managing director Mark Scott, the ABC has struggled to do more - web, 24-hour news, iview, a dedicated kids channel - with static or declining funding from the federal government. If this restructure works as planned, reduced duplication should mean staff are freed up to produce more content, some of it in areas that are currently under-serviced, and within the existing budget. (Lord knows the broadcaster is unlikely to get any more money from a government dependent on the support of an ABC-phobic One Nation to pass its legislation.) Having reporters and producers with the greatest expertise in a subject able to parlay their wisdom across web, TV, radio, podcast, and whatever comes next makes enormous sense.

There will be some losers in all this, of course, especially middle managers, who are likely to find their domains collapsing beneath them. Also perhaps Radio National, whose glorious aloofness might be somewhat diminished. How it impacts on local radio, which relies on a melange of elements from all three areas, remains to be seen. And the finer details of the commissioning process are yet to be worked out.

But the biggest issues facing the ABC aren't addressed by the restructure, at least not directly. Michelle Guthrie has said in the past she wants the broadcaster to reach 100 per cent of Australians (as opposed to the 70 per cent or so it does now). But in seeking to be all things to all Australians there's a danger the ABC could drift into a muddled middle ground that shuns controversy lest it offend someone, somewhere.

Arguably, we've seen that already with its over-reliance on light entertainment. The bigger risk is that it happens in its news and current affairs coverage, where the ABC's resources are second to none and its work often fearless.

Reports earlier this year that Guthrie had urged Four Corners to be "kinder to business" don't augur well for independence. Increasingly shrill calls for "fairness" and "balance" are little more than attempts to neuter its newsrooms. If the ABC loses its ability or readiness to call out corruption, shady dealings and deliberate misinformation at a time when spin is on the rise and most rival newsrooms are shrinking, the country will be infinitely poorer for it.

Ultimately, it won't be structural reform that determines how it performs on that front. It will be the willingness of the people at the head of its new structure to stand up to the critics and ensure it remains "the provider of an independent national broadcasting service", just as its charter demands.

It takes sturdy souls to do that. Here's hoping they haven't just been restructured out of existence.

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This story The ABC restructure: In the end, it's all about spine first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.