John Tulloh. Innocents abroad at the ABC.

Nov 16, 2014


‘Now we cross to an ABC correspondent in Beijing for the latest on the Japanese crisis…’

The Guardian the other day carried a report that the ABC planned to emasculate its foreign news presence as part of its budget cuts. While the ABC has not confirmed or denied the claim, the reporter concerned has had very good contacts at the ABC for many years.

If true, it means that at least 40% of the ABC’s foreign bureaux will be scrapped. Nearly half. Snuffed out. Just like that. It will mark the destruction of one of the most impressive and admired foreign news-gathering operations anywhere in the world. It has employed so many outstanding foreign correspondents and cameramen over the last half century that you wouldn’t know where to start. They have brought home to Australians the biggest international stories in that time as well as unrivalled and specialist radio and television reporting.

The report claims Beijing, Jakarta, London and Washington will become the news hubs. If so, that means the end of the long-standing ABC bureaux in Auckland, Bangkok, New Delhi and Tokyo. No mention was made of the Africa bureau. Incredibly, the bureau in the most volatile region of the world – the Middle East – is said to be ‘under review’.  All this follows the recent axing of the Moscow bureau despite the resurgence of Russia as an unpredictable power to be reckoned with.

In short, the ABC will end up with perhaps just six overseas news bureaux. Even Fairfax Media, which face even more straitened times than the ABC, have a presence in seven countries.

Again if true, the report means the ABC is once again taking what for its executives is an easy way out by going after ‘soft’ targets. These are out of sight and thus out of mind. The local staff mean little to ABC HQ. They have no union to fight for them and thus will go quietly and cause no discomfort to the bosses back in Sydney.

It seems the ABC is reverting to its old white bread reporting outlook with emphasis on Mother Britain and its new-found obsession with every political development in the US. The last US presidential campaign lasted for nine months and was covered to excess and at the expense of almost anything from Main St USA. The Washington bureau has become an American version of the ABC’s Canberra Parliament House bureau. It has four reporters, the same number as those on death row in Auckland, Bangkok, New Delhi and Tokyo.

Imagine a reporter based in Beijing trying to analyse with credibility the intricate political and economic moves in Japan. Or the same person being asked to report on events in Thailand because the Jakarta correspondent is tied up on a local story. Or the Jakarta person trying to make sense of Indo-Pakistan politics. Or London colleagues possibly having to keep tabs on news as far east as Vladivostok and as far south as Cape Town. It is only natural that reporters will become absorbed in developments where they are based rather than the region around them. What sort of quality reporting can ABC viewers and listeners expect then?

It is hard to reconcile the reported moves when you consider the following:

+ As every Australian schoolchild knows, our future is in Asia, including countries like India and Japan. That’s where we are focussing our trade agreements. That’s where our commercial interests lie. And that’s where topics critical to our future interests and well-being can be expected.

+ The biggest migration intake into Australia is now from India. The new Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is a reformist who has bold ideas to crank up the Indian economy into what will be the biggest transformation in the sub-continent in this century. It is reported that the leaders of Australia’s top 500 companies will attend a lecture he is due to give in Melbourne this week (November 18) which speaks volumes about India’s future and the economic opportunities for Australia. How is the ABC going to report the developments with any authority?

+ Tony Abbott has praised Japan as Australia’s great friend in Asia, while his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, has hailed the ‘special relationship’ which has led to closer economic and defence ties. Japan, as Australia’s second biggest trading partner, is critical to our economic security. Our close ties with Japan have been a matter of concern to China. Is the ABC going to walk away from this?

+ Apart from the Korean peninsula, the military flashpoint of any significance in East Asia is the Senkaku Islands administered by Japan and claimed by China. Again, how can the ABC interpret with any authority developments in this dispute from Beijing?

+ China cracks down on social media, still maintains strict internet censorship and     restricts access to foreign satellite broadcasts. Look what happened during the recent Hong Kong protests. Is this an appropriate working environment for a major news hub? You will find no such interference in Japan.

+ The proportion of Australians from English-speaking backgrounds is in decline yet the ABC is reverting to the old Anglo-Saxon mindset. Even Tony Abbott with his once limited outlook on the world has become stimulated by his encounters in Asia and the prospects for Australia.

+ The ABC’s foreign news coverage more than ever will become bland and be much the same as that of the commercial networks. The value-added reports by ABC correspondents away from the main news of the day will become a threatened species. So will specialist reporting and analysis of trends and developments in the countries where the bureaux face closure. The ABC seems bent on foreign news suicide.

+ Australians are among the most widely-travelled people in the world. More went overseas last year than ever before. Partly because of our isolation, we have an abiding curiosity in other countries and what is happening there. The leading destination for Australian travellers is New Zealand. Thailand is the fourth most popular. So we may well ask: why close the bureaux there?

The Guardian report suggests that the threatened bureaux may be replaced by Video Journalists working from home. If so, I cannot imagine reliable ABC reporters queuing up for that sort of working existence or a partner or spouse happily sharing an abode with a daily news operation and possibly, if the budget will permit, a translator.

It is not unreasonable for the ABC foreign news operation to contribute to funding cuts, of course, but to take a sledgehammer to it is wanton vandalism. As I recall, the Auckland, Bangkok and New Delhi operations are the least costly of all, while the Tokyo bureau has had a long-standing and successful tie-up with NHK, the Japanese equivalent of the ABC.

As a former ABC colleague observed elsewhere in Pearls and Irritations, once you dismantle a bureau you cannot put it together again. Nor can you under-estimate the value of the local staff’s contribution to a successful reporting operation with their local know-how, contacts, ideas, language skills, versatility, dealing with program requests from Australia and ability to assist at all hours for the good of the ABC.

ABC foreign news-gathering has done far more than its fair share towards saving money in recent years with the closing of bureaux in New York, Moscow, Brussels, Singapore, Hong Kong, Hanoi, Nairobi, Amman, Kuala Lumpur and Nicosia. Some were because of changing times and news demands, but the majority were to save money. Have there been comparable savings or sacrifices elsewhere in the ABC? I doubt it.

The ABC London bureau once had three reporters to cover mainly Britain and Ireland. They were supplemented by two in Brussels to focus on Europe and two in Moscow to cover the old Soviet empire and later Russia and its former states. Now the ABC has just three reporters to cover those regions, based in London. It is not because it makes news sense. It is to save money. The price is a wholesale dilution in the extent and scope of ABC reporting.

Furthermore, the ABC correspondents overseas set the example years ago of bimedia reporting instead of serving just radio or television outlets. This made the operation less wasteful, more efficient and saved a lot of money, especially on off-base assignments. Domestic reporters later followed the example.

While I am not privy to the ABC’s budget, I imagine the financial elephant in the room is the 24-hour news channel which costs the ABC far more than anticipated. Certainly news staff elsewhere under threat of cuts resented having, as they saw it, to bail out the service.

In an ideal world, the ABC could have a foreign news unit in Sydney or Melbourne to package the general news of the day for radio and television just like SBS’s excellent example. That would leave the overseas correspondents to focus on interesting, meaningful and interpretative stories that the international news agencies never touch. Among the Australian broadcast media, the ABC would stand out like a beacon in the desert rather than being just another player.

It could be revealing to learn how much the ABC estimates it will cost to staff the proposed news hubs and fly in reporters and camera staff to cover countries where bureaux face the axe and compare that with the cost of maintaining the bureaux. At least twice since the closure of the Moscow bureau the last correspondent, now the ABC’s social affairs reporter, has been sent back from his Melbourne base to report from Russia.

Once upon a time, the ABC despatched a camera team from Singapore several times a year to Tokyo and New Delhi to link up with the local correspondents who otherwise worked mainly for radio. It seemed so quaint. Who knows, now the same could start happening, with cameramen travelling hither and thither to help some harried Video Journalist working out of a flat.

The ABC’s reported decision to look inward while Australia takes on a greater role in international matters – think Julie Bishop at the UN – is puzzling. It is all the more so when the same Guardian report says the ABC’s superb Foreign Correspondent program is going to be cut back from 30 weeks a year to 26. All this comes at a time when the only other television foreign affairs program, SBS’s long-running Dateline, is said to be under threat and, if it does survive, will focus on light rather than hard-hitting stories.

I once attended a meeting of ABC news executives from all over Australia. I was asked if the ABC had to close a foreign bureau, which one should go. Launceston, I suggested. As my former colleague has concluded, the ABC should take a closer look at some of its domestic practices if it wants to save money.

John Tulloh was the ABC television news and current affairs international editor from 1985 to 1999 and then head of international operations until 2004.

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