One of the ABC’s top radio presenters has described the broadcaster’s TV chiefs as “morally and spiritually bankrupt” following the axing of weekly science show format of Catalyst.
Science journalist Robyn Williams presents Radio National’s The Science Show and Ockham’s Razor and said the move “effectively halved the number of science journalists working in Australia”.
“This week up to 17 Catalyst staff will leave the building, one of the top teams in the world dedicated to science communication, with not a farewell, a handshake or a stale biscuit – like felons out onto the street,” Williams wrote in an email obtained by Fairfax Media.
“ABC TV, its bosses responsible for this travesty, are morally and spiritually bankrupt – so in their stead I would like to thank Catalyst staff for 15 years of top-rating, prize-winning broadcasting of huge range and significance.”
ABC’s science reporter Mark Horstman, let go in redundancies affecting Catalyst, says he has been “gutted” by the loss of Australia’s one-of-a-kind science specialist television team.
Horstman described as “bizarre” the decision to axe its half-hour, weekly magazine-style program format and “trash” the public broadcaster’s warehouse of science experience, given the show was “cost-effective, highly valued by the community, and one of the ABC’s most popular programs”.
“Strangely, it means that the ABC has decided it doesn’t need in-house scientific expertise to make science TV,” he said in a Facebook post mourning the loss of Catalyst’s reporting expertise.
“I’m gutted,” he said, “For my 15 colleagues, that their incredible skills and dedication are not valued by the ABC. And gutted that our warehouse of unique experience in science communication is trashed in one fell swoop.
“As a true believer in the role of the public broadcaster, I always trusted that science was at the core of what the ABC made. The media need more, not less science.”
Horstman says he was informed two days ago that his position was “no longer required for the efficient and economical operation of the ABC”.
An ABC spokesman confirmed seven positions in the science unit had been made redundant at this stage. Those staff affected by redundancy had the option to seek redeployment and the ABC was offering training and support to affected staff.
The ABC is advertising for a new executive producer responsible for developing, producing and commissioning programs for the new-look Catalyst, including internally produced and externally commissioned content for distribution across television, iview, online and mobile.
Replacing the old formatted Catalyst in 2017 will be 17 single-subject, one-hour documentaries.
In a previous statement, the ABC’s director of TV, Richard Finlayson, said the changes were driven by changing audience demands.
The new hour-long focus would enable Catalyst to explore a range of science ideas in depth, using leading expert subject presenters, rather than a fixed ensemble of science reporters.
The Catalyst team would also deliver short-form content around each issue and throughout the year to increase the ABC’s digital science offering, he said.
An online petition in support of Catalyst has gathered more than 7799 signatories, including the names of 64 eminent scientists including palaeontologist Dr Mike Archer, Professor Simon Chapman and Professor Tim Flannery. It calls for the ABC to reconsider Catalyst’s axing, and expresses deep concern for the loss of “at least 100 years of specialist knowledge and experience”.
The signatories say there is a “great risk” that the ABC would not own the science content that will replace Catalyst, and under the new format it could no longer guarantee the accuracy and balance in science stories.
It would also drastically reduce the number of stories told, and the breadth and diversity of the science topics covered.
Now, says Horstman, was the time media needed more, not less science.
The James Cook University science graduate came to the ABC science department as a cadet reporter in 2002 and joined Catalyst three years later.
Recent stories by Horstman including reports of coral bleaching, the endangered Swift parrot and and antibiotic resistance implicated in the rise of superbugs.
After 14 years, Horstman said he was grateful for the opportunities he’d been given.
“Where to now? We’ll see. But even when they sting you in the head, the show must go on.”