Australian media continues to see itself as overwhelmingly tied to the events, policies and fortunes of those in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Between 1 December 2020 and 28 February 2021, 53 per cent of COVID-19 foreign news coverage across selected Australian media outlets studied were of the United States and the United Kingdom. Australian mainstream media coverage of its neighbours in South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific is low in comparison. Only 5 per cent mentioned Southeast Asia and 1.5 per cent mentioned South Asia.
The declining and reduced coverage of the Asia Pacific region is not recent, nor is it a direct consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Australian mainstream media has for the past decade reduced the number of its reporters in the Asia Pacific and has steadily dismantled programs and positions that allowed for reasonable coverage of the region.
The decline in coverage of Australia’s region by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is of growing concern.
In 2014, the Australian government cut the Australian Network’s AU$223 million (US$160 million) funding over ten years, giving the tender to the Murdoch-owned Sky News to broadcast the Australia Channel internationally. The ABC’s coverage of Asia has since suffered. Graeme Dobell estimates that in 2010, the ABC spent AU$36 million (US$26 million) on international broadcast services. By 2018, the figure dropped to around AU$11 million (US$8 million).The subsequent restructuring of its international division made many journalists with years of experience covering the region redundant. In late 2019, ABC Chair Ita Buttrose called for more funding to ‘increase [the] ABC’s role in the Asia Pacific’.
The ABC’s Asia Pacific Focus program, which was broadcast nationally in Australia and the region, was axed in 2014. Amid ongoing cuts to its budget from the federal government, the ABC’s long-running program Foreign Correspondent has seen original episodes reduced, even though its stories would very often make the nightly news.
The ABC scaled back its foreign bureaus in 2014, including selling off its Southeast Asia office in Bangkok. As COVID-19 cases in India surged to record levels in 2021, the Australian mainstream media’s on-the-ground coverage of the devastation relied heavily on Delhi-based ABC correspondent James Oaten, who was ‘working around the clock’.
In the print media, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age previously employed a specialist Southeast Asia correspondent as well as an Indonesia correspondent, before the roles were merged in 2018. Both now employ a ‘Southeast Asia’ and a ‘Northeast Asia’ correspondent, both based in Singapore. The Australian’s Jakarta correspondent is expected to cover all of Southeast Asia and South Asia. The Australian Financial Review relies on grant funding to maintain a Southeast Asia correspondent, having previously closed down the bureau in Jakarta.
The decline in the number of Australian journalists in Asia could be filled by a growing number of highly competent and English proficient Asian journalists, commentators and columnists. But research shows that Australian newspapers are rarely even using Reuters or Agence France-Presse stories from these countries, let alone allowing for more Asian writers in their news coverage. Conversely, it is more common to see interviews with US politicians and analysts on the ABC, as well as stories by US and UK writers in Australian newspapers. This suggests that the narrow coverage is more than just a resourcing issue.
For the Australian mainstream media and the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Kingdom and the United States are most likely considered ‘newsworthy’ because it captures an Anglo-Saxon audience or readership. The United Kingdom and the United States are part of the developed world and these countries being unable to handle a pandemic is seen as shocking and makes headlines.
The ABC 7.30 Report introduced a COVID-19 story in the United Kingdom in January 2021 as ‘ripping through the country on a scale difficult to comprehend’. Yet COVID-19 was ‘ripping through’ many other countries, notably Indonesia, South Africa, the Philippines and India. It was only ‘difficult to comprehend’ perhaps because the Western, developed world was expected to be able to handle a global pandemic better than countries in the developing world, including Southeast Asia. This skewed worldview may lead to editorial justification for more reports on the United Kingdom and the United States.
Seen through the prism of how media reports emphasise Australia’s place in the world, the findings show a largely Anglo Saxon-centric coverage. Consequently, lives in the developing world — even those on Australia’s ‘doorstep’ — are underrepresented.
The Australian mainstream media’s COVID-19 coverage reflects a broader issue in Australian society that continues to emphasise the stories of nations with Australia’s ‘colonial ties’ and the plight of white, English-speaking Australians in them.
The declining trend in media expertise on Asia and funding for Asian bureaus is indicative of a wider trend in Australian society in the 21st century previously noted by scholars of Asia–Australia relations. Australia does not systematically prioritise engagement with, or knowledge of, Asia and continues to see itself as overwhelmingly tied to the events, policies and fortunes of those in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Ross Tapsell is a Senior Lecturer at the College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
This article was published in East Asia Forum on February 26 2022