The BBC is now committed to disclosing the pay of its on-air stars from next year. So can our ABC continue to claim that the pay of Tony Jones, Phillip Adams et al is a state secret? It sure can, until we have conservative politicians with the will and the Senate numbers to bring ABC pay levels into the daylight.
In the UK, Theresa May’s government is amending the BBC’s charter to force the BBC to reveal the pay of all on-air talent getting more than £150,000 ($A240,000). There are about 110 of these high-fliers whose pay will have to be disclosed in £50,000 bands; after that the bands will narrow. The BBC is funded to the tune oif £3.7 billion a year by licence fees of £145.50 ($A235) per household. The ABC is funded directly by taxes.
The BBC previously won a disclosure battle with the limp-wristed David Cameron government, which wanted a £150,000 trigger for disclosure, but the BBC managed to increase it to £450,000 ($A722,000). This caught only seven BBC presenters, the most familiar to Australian viewers being the winsome Fiona Bruce of Antiques Roadshow , whose modest remuneration runs to around £500,000 ($A811,000).
Theresa May’s culture secretary, Karen Bradley, says broader disclosure will make the BBC “more open and transparent about its operations”, explaining that “licence fee payers have a right to know where their money goes. By making the BBC more transparent it will help deliver savings that can then be invested in even more great programs.”
The pay of senior BBC executives is already disclosed. The UK government says the secrecy around talents’ pay is an anomaly. Some BBC talent will continue to evade pay disclosure because they are packaged in production companies that sell shows to the BBC. A local equivalent is The Chaser on the ABC, which is made by production company Giant Dwarf.[i]
BBC Director General Tony Hall bleats that the forced disclosure will lower the BBC‘s competitiveness “and this will not make it easier for the BBC to retain the talent the public love.”
In Australia, the ABC staff are a well-heeled bunch, even before their controversial new enterprise bargaining agreement, with its 2% annual pay rises, one-off $500 gift, and various leave increases. According to the ABC’s 2016 annual report[ii], three in ten staffers (29%) are pulling salaries of more than $100,000, and that is before all the add-ons (such as super). Last year, 176 executives also received performance bonuses, which averaged close to $9200. It is hardly surprising that the ABC is rated Australia’s fifth most attractive employer by the Randstad survey.
In Australia the only facts about ABC staff salaries relates to 2011-12 pay levels for some 100 Individuals in on-air roles and in the bureaucracy, all earning more than $170,000. The big names included Tony Jones, Q&A, $355,789; Juanita Phillips, newsreader, $316,454; Richard Glover, 702 Drive host, $290,000; Jon Faine, 774 Mornings host, $285,249; Leigh Sales, 7.30 host, $280,400; Chris Uhlmann, 7.30 political editor, $255,400; Fran Kelly, Radio National Breakfast host, $255,000; Barrie Cassidy, Insiders and Offsiders host, $243,478; and Virginia Trioli, ABC News Breakfast host, $235,664. Note that they have all stuck to the ABC like fleas to a dog, notwithstanding that the pay disclosures allegedly made them prime targets for poachers from commercial TV.
The pay disclosure was anything but deliberate: the ABC for years had fought off freedom-of-information requests about pay. But an Adelaide ABC pay office staffer in October, 2012, sent SA Family First MLC Robert Brokenshire some harmless data on regional staff numbers, overlooking that sensitive payroll data was embedded in the same spreadsheet. This data found its way to The Australian.
ABC stars like Tony Jones, Emma Alberici, Fran Kelly and Barrie Cassidy top up their pay with speaking gigs for external parties at $5000-$15,000 a time. Google shows Tony Jones listed with Celebrity Speakers and with Saxton, Platinum, ICMI and Ovations bureaus. Alberici is with Platinum, Claxton and Celebrity. Cassidy is with Saxton, Claxton, CMIC and Celebrity. Holmes is shown with Saxton, ICMI, and Catalyst. Leigh Sales is with Claxton, Salesforce and Platinum. Amounts paid are not public but FOI has elicited that presenter Dr Karl Kruszelnicki got $10,800 for a single speech in mid-2014. Alberici got $14,300 for hosting an awards night for Austrade in 2013, and $15,000 for a two-day Wesfarmers conference in 2012.
Apart from their comfy salaries, long-standing ABC staff are also aboard the gold-plated public-service super scheme for federal public servants. This gives them an indexed life pension. For someone retiring at 61 and with 33 years service, the indexed pension is 47% of salary, say $70,000 for someone finishing with a $150,000 paypacket. When you die, your spouse/partner picks up the lifetime indexed pension at a reduced rate of 67% – 85% of the original pension. The spouse continues getting the lifetime pension whether or not he/she remarries. The cost of this largesse to the ABC, and hence to taxpayers, is about 20% of a staffer’s salary.
Although the two gold-plated defined-benefit schemes closed to new entrants in 1995-05, they are still costing the ABC more than the successor “accumulation” scheme paying earnings pro-rata with contributions. The numbers are $34m liability in 2015-16 for defined benefit schemes, vs $33m for accumulation schemes.
A special lurk involves an anomaly in the system enabling ABC staffers to retire at 54 years and 11 months and still get a better lifetime payout than if they kept working to 60 or 65. If you notice that a retiree at the tennis club seems strangely youthful, you can bet he/she has pulled this age-55 trick, which can propagate an extra benefit of up to $200,000 from the taxpayers.
It is well-nigh impossible to terminate an ABC staffer for non-performance or bad behavior. Under the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act (1983), there is not only tenure for staff but a “Tenure Appeal Board” (s57) consisting of a paid chairperson and one rep each from the commission and the staff. Thus sacking a tenured ABC worker would precipitate a bureaucratic battle. For a successful sacking, the ABC would need grounds such as a jail sentence for child pornography, as was handed in 2012 to a leading ABC personality in Tasmania. Some observers claim the protections against dismissal for ABC workers are even better than in the federal public service.
Staff made redundant have the consolation of uber-generous payouts. An ABC staffer is entitled under the previous (and presumably the new) enterprise bargaining agreement to four weeks salary for each year’s service up to five years, and three weeks salary for each year thereafter, to a maximum of 24 years service. Thus a 15-year staffer would get 20 + 30 + 5 weeks notice = 55 weeks pay. Nice!
Another perk is the talents’ extensive “well earned break” for one sixth of the year, when high-profile programs take long holidays. Media Watch folded its tent last November 23 and didn’t return till February 1 – a handsome nine-week furlough. Q&A went to the beach on November 25 last year and didn’t reappear till February 1. Lateline went on hols last December 4 and re-appeared February 1. Compass did the same from November 29 to February 28.
So come on, Malcolm Turnbull, start the ball rolling and let’s all see what our taxes are paying for at the ABC.
Footnote: The chore of reading ABC annual reports did elicit that it’s well-paid work writing post-mortems for the ABC board on ABC stuff-ups. For example, TV ex-star Ray Martin and SBS ex-managing director Shaun Brown trousered $98,400 for their 108-page report into Q&A impartiality last year, according to some fine print. For some reason the pay was split $30,000 to Martin and $68,400 to Brown. The inquiry followed the notorious invitation to ex-gaol bird Zaky Mallah to join the live audience and ambush federal minister Steve Ciobo with a question. Martin summed up the notoriously left-leaning Q&A as “mostly excellent… balanced, entertaining and informative”.
The pair looked at 23 episodes and reported that all was well on the impartiality front. But they were able to pad this nothingburger with recommendations for more women and more ethnic and geographic perspectives.
Pay for other consulting reports included
- Ex-Age and ex-Herald editor Steve Harris: $30,000 for a review of the ABC’s coverage of the Higher Education Research Bill (2014).
- Journalist Kerry Blackburn (assisted by former ANZ CEO Mike Smith), $60,470 for a review of impartiality of ABC business coverage, with more work in progress this fiscal year.
- Freelance writer Mark Skulley, $21,600 for a review of ABC coverage of the proposed Shenhau coal mine during 2015-16, with more work in progress this fiscal year.
- Ex-journalist Peter Cavanagh: $25,000 for a review of the ABC’s coverage of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreeement
However, the 2014-15 report did not disclose the amount paid to ex-AFR editor Colleen Ryan for her review of the ABC’s 2015 federal budget coverage.
Tony Thomas’ new book of essays, That’s Debatable – 60 Years in Print, is available here
[i] About 15% of the ABC’s commissioned broadcast hours go to independent productions. Shows include We Can Be Heroes, Summer Heights High, Angry Boys, Enough Rope, Year Of The Dogs, Kath & Kim, The Slap, Sea Change, Hungry Beast, Lawrence Leung’s Unbelievable, Two Men In a Tinnie, On Trial, Gruen Nation, Lawrence Leung’s Choose Your Own Adventure, Two In The Top End, and Three Boys Dreaming.
[ii] It is jaw-dropping to also read in that report that
“The ABC’s commitment to impartiality and diversity of perspectives reflects the need for a democratic society to deliver diverse sources of reliable information and contending opinions. Aiming to equip audiences to make up their own minds is consistent with the public service character of the ABC.”