Opinion: ABC will regret Morwell closure

Some peculiar things have occurred throughout this state election campaign.

However I will be remembering this period for a development infinitely more outrageous than the wildest of candidate promises.

(And I’m not talking about a photo of Member for Morwell Russell Northe flexing his former football-star form in his jocks at a Traralgon pool funding promise last fortnight.)

It is the ABC’s decision to close its Morwell studio as part of a brutal round of nationwide jobs and service cuts.

Prompted by $254 million in funding cuts by the Federal Government over five years, ABC’s decision to target regional services (among others) has been justified in line with its plan to boost online and mobile content delivery.

Since the shock news emerged on Monday, the decision has been justifiably met with widespread disapproval from all sides of politics and walks of life in Gippsland and beyond.

In the face of the criticism, the ABC maintains the relocation of its Morwell reporter – a position currently held by the perpetually news-hungry Rhiana Whitson – to its Sale studio will ensure local news delivery will not be affected.

As any avid listener of our beloved 100.7 FM frequency will attest, every other Gippsland bulletin is top heavy with news from the Valley, a reflection of the area as the region’s population and industrial powerhouse.

The Latrobe Valley court complex – one of the busiest regional justice systems in the state – lies just around the corner.

For ABC to continue to delude itself with this head office fantasy – that removing one of its most strategic frontline outposts in the country will not impact ability to cover frontline news – is laughable.

Not a year goes by in the Valley without a major news story of national significance breaking.

From mine collapses to major industrial battles, each event has required the ongoing hands-on touch of a reporter in the field, working their local Valley contacts.

During the Hazelwood mine fire, ABC’s George Street studio (along with The Express office and every other building across Morwell) was filled with smoke and ash throughout the ordeal.

OH&S issues aside, this ‘in the thick of it’ environment had a profound adrenalin-like affect on local journalists.

I can personally attest to the countless hours of overtime Ms Whitson put in at the Morwell office to ensure up-to-date information continued to be broadcast into the community throughout the ordeal.

The ABC is essentially arguing this role could have been performed just as effectively from its Sale studio 65 kilometres away.

ABC’s Morwell reporter will now be expected to travel from Sale to the Valley and back on a daily basis, with travel costs which will surely outweigh any financial benefits of ending its George Street studio lease.

While ABC journos are known for their resourcefulness (they are often spotted recording last-minute radio bulletins from their car) to expect this can be sustained on a business-as-usual basis, without a nearby studio to fall back on, is highly misguided.

The calls to overturn the decision have been profound.

Yet with the closure only a matter of months away (one ABC spokesperson told The Express it sought to close the Morwell office “as soon as possible”) the chances look slim.

To resist these calls would be to strengthen the argument the organisation is indeed run by ‘Sydney centric’ minds out of touch with regional Australia.

Unfortunately it appears 20 George Street is set to become another empty Morwell shopfront and a depressive memorial of a once valuable news site.