John Menadue. The ABC should stop kicking own goals.

Dec 1, 2014

There is not much doubt in my mind that the budget cuts to the ABC are part of a vendetta against the ABC and to oblige Rupert Murdoch who intensely dislikes quality competition. The ABC is the most trusted media organisation in the country and News Corp is the least trusted.

But the ABC looks to be kicking some own goals.

Walter Hamilton, John Tulloh and I have pointed to the very disquieting cut backs in the ABC regional coverage when it should be dramatically increased given the rapidly increasing importance of our region. We still have a ‘white man’s media that clings to the North Atlantic.

Another own goal is the retreat from specialisation and in-depth analysis of important public issues. In the SMH and the Age recently Quentin Dempster said that a ‘senior manager (at the ABC) had commented on the need to get rid of the stranglehold of specialisation’.

If anyone is looking for reasons why public broadcasting exists and why we need specialists more than ever, just take a look at Q&A on 29 September this year. Laura Tingle, Christopher Pyne, and Wayne Swan, agreed that there is a problem with current media in Australia: it lacks specialist depth. They all commented on the negative impact of the collapse of current media models, and specifically, the consequent loss of specialist journalism skills in the commercial media arena.

Tony Jones referred to the point raised by Wayne Swan about journalists ‘not being properly mentored and not being able to do proper analyses’.

Laura Tingle from the AFR said that media organizations are collapsing from within. She added ‘When I joined the Canberra Press Gallery the various bureaus I was in would have specialist writers who could write and know what was going on in health (or other fields). The AFR is now probably one of the few bureaus that has that sort of specialization. …  Now what does that mean? It means that when a story comes up, whether it’s Gonski, education funding or health funding, you have a whole heap of generalists who go in and say “What does this mean for Labor and the Coalition?” They look at it as a political story.’

Christopher Pyne said ‘There are very few specialists in the gallery today who actually talk about education policy. But six years ago there were actually quite a lot of journalists in the gallery who were education specialists. … I think Wayne has hit it on the head. It actually takes accountability away from governments and oppositions if you can get away with skating over policy because the questions are not going deeply into what governments are trying to do. … But we then see what the media does. It reports politics as a football game … rather than policy that’s trying to improve the lives of Australians. …’

They all made the point that as journalists have lost jobs, media outlets are falling back on generalist journalists to turn their hand to whatever story was needed, and this often resulted in a shallow approach to issues. With no real depth of knowledge of the topic the journalist falls back on the Us v Them, gladiatorial, party contest view.

They all made the point that this loss of specialist journalism was damaging the whole fabric of political and social debate in Australia. Yet, we have ABC management, according to media reports, actively considering taking the ABC down this same shallow generalist path that most of the commercials are well and truly on. What do they think the ABC exists for?

If politicians as disparate as Pyne and Swan can see this, and argue for it, why can’t ABC management?

I closely follow the public ‘debate’ about refugees. Many factors have contributed to the cruel position we have adopted. But one important contributor is that the media has few specialist experts who are able to sort the daily politics about boats from major policy issues underlying enormous refugee flows around the world.  The same is also true of health policy that I follow closely. The debate is invariably about short term politics and not policy. Politics is so much easier to report. Health is a complex issue but because there are so few well informed health journalists we get carried away with the immediate political issues like a shortage of hospital beds (when in fact we have too many) and delays in emergency departments. They ignore the more serious and deeper problems in general practice and health prevention. Because many journalists lack in-depth understanding of health issues they are dependent on the handouts and briefings of vested interests that abound in the health field. .

The public broadcaster, not constrained by the need for ratings to generate income, was designed to have the capacity to provide breadth of coverage, and depth of analysis which the commercial market could not. So why are we ditching it for a model that pushes the ABC  towards formulaic, presenter-driven lifestyle, interspersed with short news breaks, soft current affairs, and personality-based infotainment?

The model ABC management is working towards in both TV and radio would tie the corporation closer to a ratings and market driven model, just when that model is collapsing. This is particularly the case with Radio National, described by ABC managing directors from David Hill to Mark Scott as ‘the jewel in the crown’. The hollowness of that statement should now ring loudly around the ABC board room. The programs targeted for the chop seem to be those that are most content-rich and deeply researched. Where else in the Australian broadcasting landscape is such material available? What sort of Radio National would we have without the depth of content?

In Australia the ABC desperately needs specialist units in key areas such as climate change, health, education, refugees and economic management. We need experienced journalists in those fields to help us get beyond the special interests that dominate the debate in these fields…

It is around such specialist editorial units that the future of media will be determined, yet the current decision making process in the ABC reinforces the dated commercial models and old network structures.

Only the ABC is likely to save us from the stranglehold of glib generalists who invariably avoid the in depth analysis required and give us instead a diet of conflict, politics and personality.


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