When Malcolm Turnbull hosts the ten leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for an unusual summit in Sydney in March, the Australian public will know virtually nothing about most of them or the current state of affairs in their countries.
That’s in large part because the Australia media is still shutting down what remains of detailed, persistent coverage of a region both sides of politics and a majority of strategic and economic analysts identify as the great security belt and trade prospect for later this century, the Plan B if things go seriously bad with China.
The same goes for India, Japan and South Korea – the other countries in the quadrilateral of big democracies in the region. The ABC remains, but the print media long ago pulled out of Tokyo and New Delhi.
At the end of the year came the news that the redoubtable Fairfax correspondent Lindsay Murdoch has finally taken a voluntary redundancy, ending the flow of quick and perceptive analyses he’s been pumping out from his Bangkok base and brilliant reporting forays with photographer Kate Geraghty, recently on Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug mayhem in the Philippines and Myanmar’s anti-Rohingya pogrom.
Earlier in the year, Australian Association Press shut down its Southeast Asia bureau in Jakarta.
The ABC, Fairfax and The Australian still have full bureau in Jakarta, but correspondents seem to be struggling to get editors to run anything beyond Australians in trouble.
AAP’s closure of its Port Moresby bureau in 2013 remains a keen loss. Sometimes it gets a run on the ABC, which keeps a correspondent in Port Moresby, but the print media and commercial broadcasters have no regular source of basic factual news on PNG politics, its tortured finances, its kaleidoscopic society.
News Corp owns the biggest newspaper in PNG, the Post-Courier, inherited with the old Melbourne Herald group, but hasn’t converted it into a news-feed for its Australian papers. It largely relies on Rowan Callick, an old PNG hand, to keep a watch as a sideline to his main job as China correspondent. At least he doesn’t seem to have an editor disparaging the inner region as “the arc of irrelevance” as he used to experience on the Australian Financial Review.
When something happens, it takes days to get visas and figure out the numbers in PNG politics, as we saw with the recent expulsion of Australia’s asylum-seeker hostages from their Manus Island camp.
Should we blame the media when so many other Australian sectors don’t put their money where their mouth is about the importance of Asia’s rise? Where is the government money for a true, system-wide investment in Asian languages, starting at primary school? What does it say when one of our big four banks, the ANZ, makes its second retreat from retail banking in Asia, to the hearty applause of the Australian investment community? (The first was the sale in 2000 of the Grindlay’s Bank network, which had 48 branches across India, also to share market applause).
If Australian business lacks interest and staying power in Asia, why should we expect our big print media companies to be any different, when one is owned by an America and the other by institutional profit-seekers?
Neither print company is in great shape – Fairfax desperately jettisoning assets, and News papers cross-subsidised by Rupert Murdoch’s disruption-threatened cable arm. The shrinkage affects more than just Asia: Fairfax quietly closed its Jerusalem bureau some time back, and converted its London position into a super-stringer one.
And perhaps the traditional model of foreign correspondent is headed for the museum.
There are plenty of good local journalists, superbly well-educated and literate in English, at least the further west you go in Asia. Reuters, Bloomberg, AFP and The AP put out comprehensive coverage from the region, with websites like Asia Sentinel touching the more risky subjects. Our academic community provides plenty of good analysis, on sites like The Conversation, pro bono.
But it takes editors with the interest and experience to curate these sources into news for Australian audiences, as SBS does with its multiple streams of video news.
In recent years, Toronto’s Globe and Mail pioneered the sustained use of roving foreign correspondents to spend long spells in the field and dig out original stories, in contrast to the parachute model we see in PNG.
A couple of years back, AAP looked at a new model of foreign coverage: Young graduates with Asian languages and at least some basic journalism training hired on modest starting salaries (and heath/insurance cover) to go and live in Asian cities, on local housing and other standards, and file reports on what Australians were doing there in businesses, NGOs, whatever. Some could be expected to progress into regular correspondents and editors, others to divert to different fields. Australian would gain a new generation of Asia-literate journalists.
The idea seems to have foundered when AAP bean-counters gold-plated the cost to full expat entitlements and thus shot it down.
We need to work on this. Our government, business and media leaders are failing us.
Hamish McDonald is world editor of The Saturday Paper. His career as a foreign correspondent began in 1975 when he moved to Jakarta as a freelancer on his accumulated holiday pay from the Sydney Morning Herald and the sale proceeds of his VW Beetle.