DUNCAN GRAHAM Reporting from afar using mining models

The Australian Associated Press closure in June will shut Australians out of much domestic journalism. Courts, councils and commissions whose workings underpin democracy will often go unreported.

Margaret Simons commented in The Guardian: ‘We are lurching down a slippery slope. At its bottom will be a nation that doesn’t know itself’.

How about knowing the people next door? AAP closed its Jakarta bureau in 2017. The few remaining Australian newsrooms are shrinking and struggling, their bosses scratching to save.

One try is to rebadge Australian journos as ‘Southeast Asia Correspondent’ which is how The Australian’s Amanda Hodge is titled. From a wee office in the region’s largest city she’s supposed to cover the doings of 655 million people spread across eleven disparate nations. Don’t ask what she does in her spare time.

The Age and Sydney Morning Herald Indonesia correspondent Jewel Topsfield was replaced in 2018 by James Massola. He now has SEAC on his lanyard tag.

The Australian Financial Review shuttered its Jakarta bureau in 2009 but reopened last year. This wasn’t the result of Nine insiders discovering a need. That came from an outsider anxious about the dearth of Asian news.

Millionaire philanthropist Judith Neilson’s Institute for Journalism and Ideas has given AFR the cash to do its duty. Although stationed in Jakarta Emma Connors is another SEAC.

Anne Barker is labeled the ABC’s Indonesia Correspondent by-lined as SEAC when it suits, this year covering the Malaysian political crisis from Jakarta.

Meanwhile in Melbourne the ABC has an Asia Pacific Newsroom filing stories about Indonesia (and other states in the region) reportedly using more than 40 reporters and producers.

Some, like Erwin Renaldi a Muslim Indonesian (his words) and Melbourne Uni masters graduate, are native speakers. They read and watch from afar, pick up leads, make calls and file copy without having to leave Southbank Boulevard. There are substantial savings on translators and office rent overseas.

This media model is a bit like Rio Tinto’s Pilbara mine ops where driverless trucks are steered by mice palmed by screen jockeys in Perth 1,200 km to the south.

The other dollar-saver is Fly In – Fly Out reporting, another pinch from the mining industry. FIFO is the marriage-fracturing system that avoids remote housing expenses by keeping partners apart.

FIFO, aka ‘parachute journalism’, means dropping a hack into a foreign spot to file and flee.

The latest example is The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan giving us his insights after a short stay in the Big Durian ‘as part of a delegation of editors with the Australia Indonesia Institute’.

This sounds like a benign NGO but it’s an Australian Government agency run through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Travelling under that rubric helped score ‘several exchanges’ with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. The former Ambassador to the Netherlands is the source for much of the Australian’s commentary.

Apparently Marsudi is ‘reliable, steady, personable, across everything.’ Unfortunately Indonesia’s first woman FM is also a dot-and-comma controller demanding questions in writing before any interview with local-based scribblers.

We’re not told if her visitor had to labour under similar restrictions.

It’s immaterial because the bland comments he captured are thick in her local press columns: ‘We appreciate Australia’s support for ASEAN’s concept of the Indo-Pacific’ may comfort diplomats but leaves others unmoved.

Likewise: ‘We see IA-CEPA (the Indonesia Australia Closer Economic Partnership Agreement ratified this year) as strategic co-operation.

‘We want it to build strategic trust between the two nations. We understand that we need each other. Australia realises that you are part of Asia.’

That fine sentiment is sadly shattered by Lowy Institute surveys showing stratospheric levels of ignorance and distrust. This unnerving discovery seems to be moving Australian and Indonesian authorities not one meaningful whit.

Indonesians outnumber us ten to one, so staying friends is a practical necessity along with a moral responsibility. Fortunately advocates for a caliphate are currently hibernating.

Most locals see us as a rich, white European outpost, referencing kangaroos and bushfires above free trade deals. Strong nationalists – and there are plenty – remember our role in the 1999 East Timorese referendum which damaged the ‘UnitaryState’.

Film festivals and cultural exchanges are fine and worthy, but we’ve built a Trump-style ‘beautiful wall’ of visa restrictions unlikely to be bashed down despite personal pleas from President Joko Widodo.

Sheridan’s FIFO analysis has 12 mentions of ‘strategic’. They include his claim that the two countries ‘co-operate on a host of issues, not least development in the South Pacific’.

Independent analysts believe Indonesia’s wooing of nation states far outside the Republic is to neuter groups backing Melanesian demands for independence in West Papua.

The province remains closed to Western journalists keen to probe allegations of human rights abuses by the army, despite Widodo claiming all is open. (This writer’s application made a year ago still moulds in someone’s in-tray.)

Sheridan’s other confidante was a ‘senior Indonesian.’ About 20 million over-65s fit that category including my mother-in-law. A fine lady, though I wouldn’t pad my stories with her opinions.

There are some useful observations on Indonesia’s reliance on Chinese imports and Indonesia’s labour costs, but the Australian’s findings lack the substance keyboarded by his colleague Amanda Hodge.

However nothing comes within a bull’s roar of veteran Kiwi journalist John McBeth. Formerly with the prestigious Far Eastern Economic Review he now writes for the Asia Times, lives in Indonesia and doesn’t need government guides to open gates. His commentaries are rich with insights denied others and deserve syndicating.

If FIFO analyses and remote reporting are the new way of telling Australians about the world’s third largest democracy then we’ll stay clueless. The compensation is that we’re getting better informed about the US electoral system delivered effortlessly in English-language packages, warm, fresh and ready to swallow.

Sorry FM Marsudi, you’re wrong. We’re not part of Asia. We live in the Anglosphere.

Duncan Graham once worked for AAP in Perth. He now writes from inside Indonesia.

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Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia.

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