John Tulloh. The ABC on the slippery slope in Asia.

    ‘The overall objective for the International News initiative is to focus resources on original storytelling of the highest quality, ensure our international newsgathering operations are sustainable and ensure all audiences – digital, television and radio – are considered in our coverage’. ABC announcement, November 2014.

This is a worthy aim for that fickle and costly product called international news coverage. But how do you achieve this?

Amid all the bloodletting at the ABC, one trend is clear for international news: the days of the old specialist foreign correspondent are over. The new hunter and gatherer of overseas news is expected to be a jack (or jill) of all trades – someone who can report for radio and television, shoot stories and now be able to adapt to the germinating digital platforms which seem to have become the priority of the ABC MD, Mark Scott.

The most dramatic change is in Asia where Australia’s future lies, though you could be forgiven for wondering  whether the ABC really grasps this. The bureaux in Bangkok, New Delhi and Tokyo will be closed and transferred to the abode of the correspondent who in future will be not so much a correspondent as a video journalist (VJ).

For the ABC, the saving is the office rent , by making the local staff redundant, their salaries. But there is a four-fold price to pay apart from the pain for the victims.

The first is the heave-ho of a huge store of experience, local know-how, goodwill and contacts which the local staff have and perhaps in the case of Tokyo the relationship with the major broadcaster.

The second is the working environment. There is a big difference between working in an office – a bureau – and your spare bedroom at home. This applies not only to technical facilities, but also the attitude and outlook of the correspondent. Reporters work best in a media environment where they can compare notes with others and exchange information and even vision to improve a TV story. Working from home makes a journalist with daily commitments very much an outsider.

The third is the calibre of reporters who will be attracted to a job requiring both such demanding versatility and having to live not so much above the shop as in it. You would need only one guess what any partner or spouse thinks of it. Instead it will attract the younger journalists who are full of raw ambition and inexperience, but more at home with the changing technology and ease of using it. They have become a prime asset in broadcast newsrooms forever seeking to reduce costs and staff. The standard of reporting is now a secondary matter.

The fourth is that it deters seasoned reporters and thus professional maturity is wasted. That is, the capacity to see the wider picture of events, the ability to be able to interpret and analyse developments thoughtfully and to have the presence and credibility to be taken seriously by the radio and television audience back in Australia as well as government officials, diplomats and important contacts in the countries where the VJ is based. So much for the ‘highest quality’. 

Perhaps this does not matter so much these days to the ABC when it is focussing on appealing to younger demographics. This is the generation which is turning away from television for news and instead relying on websites and social media for news and information. But the ABC mustn’t lose sight of the fact that it still has a huge audience across Australia which treasures it for its news and information.

As someone who spent 19 years at the forefront of overseeing ABC foreign news coverage and resources, I was shocked that the new arrangements also applied in Japan, a country so vital to Australia’s future. The ABC bureau in Tokyo has had a longstanding and productive presence at the HQ of NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, with in-house access to its vast news resources. Walking away from such an asset is short-sighted to say the least.

Now the resident VJ no longer will commute each day to NHK. The person will simply wander into the spare bedroom which has become the news bureau. He/she will have to put up with a guest, namely the arrival five days a week of the local producer/interpreter/translator. The kitchen and bathroom will no longer be the VJ’s own. It does not have the makings of a stimulating working partnership.

It is much the same in Bangkok where the ABC for years has had a successful and productive bureau at an international broadcast media centre.

The ABC in its annual report will note that, despite the financial cuts, it has been able to maintain its presence in the three affected countries. But the new arrangement is really just papering over a new threadbare set-up with the inevitable loss in the scope of reporting and its quality. And possibly domestic harmony as well.

One positive change, however, is the intention to create an Australian-based production team to handle foreign news output to back up overseas colleagues so they can concentrate on original reporting. This makes sense. But a danger is that the ABC one day might conclude this is so effective that what is left of its overseas presence can be reduced even further. Having closed three Asian bureaux, the ABC is already on the slippery slope and even runs the risk of dumbing down when it comes to Asian news content.

How to divide government funding is an endless conundrum for the ABC. It is the same for the share the News department gets. In the case of international news, one wonders why four reporters are based in one country – the US – when they rarely venture outside its borders. It would be no bad thing to put this arrangement on the slippery slope and make an effort for a greater focus on Asia which more than anywhere else has our future in its hands.

FOOTNOTE: The ABC has never had a ‘foreign editor’. It has always been an ‘international editor’. The reason for the original decision was because the word ‘foreign’ might offend immigrants. So it is interesting to note that the ABC is now creating the post of Chief Foreign Correspondent.

 

Before joining the ABC, John Tulloh was in charge of news bureaux in Saigon, Singapore, Hong Kong and New York. None was at his abode.

 

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