John Menadue. The media, our region and the PM’s visit.

The Prime Minister’s visit to Japan, the Republic of Korea and China, highlighted for me the problems of media reporting and understanding our region.

I have posted blogs on our media. See April 17, 2013, ‘Media failure: the tale of two bombings in two cities’; May 17, 2013, ‘Truth, trust and the media’ and January 31, 2014, ‘Murdoch and Abbott versus the ABC’. I posted a blog on April 10 this year, specifically on Tony Abbott’s visit to Japan and the political shortcomings of Free Trade Agreements which usually have more hype than substance. That continues to be the case.

Our international media coverage is dominated by news out of London, Washington and New York. As I posted before, ‘An outsider and independent observer would conclude that Australia is an island parked off New York or London’. Our media coverage continues to be dominated by North Atlantic sources.

Although it is inadequate, the ABC is far ahead of other media in Australia in coverage of our region. It has fully-fledged correspondents based in Jakarta, New Delhi, Port Moresby, Tokyo, Bangkok, Auckland and Beijing.

None of our commercial TV or radio networks have full time correspondents based in Asia.

The SMH/Age have correspondents in China, Indonesia, New Delhi and Bangkok.

The Australian and other News Corporation publications obviously tap into the company’s foreign reporting assets such as the London Sun. The Australian has a correspondent in Tokyo. But News Ltd can hardly claim to be a serious and professional news organisation. It is the largest and least trusted media organisation in the Western world.

As mainstream media is squeezed the trend will be to reduce regional coverage. Closures are ongoing.

Tony Abbott’s Asian visit was principally covered by journalists from the Canberra press gallery. The gallery is increasingly fixated on politics, with very little interest in policy, let along policies in the foreign affairs, trade or defence areas. Embedded in the Abbott touring party, it is not surprising that they gave us an unprofessional coverage of the Abbott Asian visits, and particularly any understanding of Free Trade Agreements.

The embedded gallery journalists obviously had not read the November 2010 Productivity Report on Bilateral and Regional Trade Agreements. (This is a different name for Free Trade Agreements.)

The Productivity Commission Report concluded ’Businesses have provided little evidence that Australia’s Bilateral and Regional Trade Agreements (have to date) generated significant commercial benefits … net benefits are likely to be small … the direct economic impacts from services and investment provisions in Australia’s BRTAs … have been modest …’.

Following the Productivity Commission Report, the Minister for Trade, Dr Emerson, told the Lowy Institute in December 2010 that he was not interested ‘in collecting trophies for the mantelpiece, empty vessels engraved with the words “FTA” if they are nothing of the sort and of only token value to our country.’

In my blog of April 10, I drew attention to the exaggerated benefits that our embedded journalists attached to the FTAs with Japan and the ROK. The former Trade Minister said the same thing two and a half years ago.

The conclusion of the FTAs with Japan and the ROK with their exaggerated benefits did not occur with the stroke of Tony Abbott’s pen. Ian McAuley in New Matilda pointed out those negotiations had been ongoing for many years under previous governments. If anything, Tony Abbott’s public eagerness in advance to sign the agreements weakened our bargaining position. The Australian journalists with Tony Abbott didn’t make this point.

Further, the journalists paid little attention to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) that the US is discussing with Japan and ten other countries, including Australia. The US Trade Representative, Michael Froman, in commenting on the FTA between Australia and Japan said ‘Clearly, we are looking for a level of ambition in the TPP which is significantly higher than [what Australia achieved] in access to Japan’s farm sector, notably for beef’. If President Obama achieves this concession under TPP, the short-term benefits we have achieved in beef access will be quickly overtaken by our major competitor in beef, the US. But did the journalists with Tony Abbott understand this about the TPP?

I was in Japan immediately following Tony Abbott’s visit. The issue which struck me was not that the Japanese were so concerned about relations with China and the ROK. Their concern was the effect of the ultra-nationalist policies of Japan’s PM, Shizuo Abe, on relations with the US. I have not yet seen anything about this by the journalists who travelled with Tony Abbott to Japan. Did they speak to anyone but the public relations people working for the Australian and Japanese governments?

In the last day or two we have seen odd comments from a media commentator, Harold Mitchell, about the agreement between Australia and China for the Australian Network of the ABC to be made available to the entire Chinese population. This is something which only the BBC and CNN have been able to achieve. Not surprisingly, after twenty years of trying, News Ltd failed to get such access. Harold Mitchell said that ‘This agreement [with China] is one of the greatest ways we can continue on the PM’s very successful visit to China last week.’

The Abbott Government is threatening to cut ABC funding. Tony Abbott has accused the ABC of being unpatriotic. Julie Bishop has said that the government is assessing whether the $223 million contract with Australian Network in promoting Australia’s interest in the region is of value. The government has made it clear that it is seriously considering changing the contract with Australian Network and the ABC and giving a leg-up to News Ltd as an alternative to the Australian Network.

In short, the arrangement between the ABC and China would have been achieved in spite of and not because of the Abbott Government or the PM’s visit to China. But the members of the press gallery who travelled with Tony Abbott to the region have said nothing about this quite significant breakthrough by the ABC.

Apart from the ABC, we are not well served by the media in its coverage of our own region. That has shown up in the coverage of Tony Abbott’s visits to Japan, the ROK and China.

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