The ABC: soft targets and collateral damage

In 1963, the ABC’s then Controller of News reported to his superiors on the results of a wide-ranging visit to Asia. He recommended that the ABC undertake a major expansion of its overseas operations, driven by the belief that the journalists and camera operators of the national broadcaster were best equipped to keep Australians informed of the events, trends and decision-makers directly affecting them. This was seen as a core part of the ABC’s charter; few doubted it. Today, sadly, more and more of the ABC’s independent foreign newsgathering operations are being dismantled and the good work of decades squandered.

Here’s what the News boss wrote after his swing through Indonesia, Singapore, Borneo, Malaya, Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan and the Philippines: “I have been continually surprised in the past six weeks at the growth of the interest in and the consciousness of our country… Every thinking Australian knows that our destiny is linked with Asia. Now the Asians know it.”

Before long, the ABC would base correspondents in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, New Delhi, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Manila, Hanoi and Beijing. It would, at various times, also staff bureaus in Port Moresby, New York, Washington, Brussels, London, Moscow, Jerusalem, Cyprus, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Saigon and Wellington. The foreign correspondents were allowed to travel to seek out original stories, meet newsmakers in person, and live within the social and cultural milieu they were supposed to interpret for Australians; they were given time to reflect and make informed assessments of what was going on; and they were assisted by locally-engaged staff who provided language skills and research support.

The correspondents and camera operators, in short, were able to be creative, well informed and abreast of events. The ABC competed alongside the BBC, NBC, CBS, Visnews and others: a necessary competition because each of these broadcasters––American, British, Australian, etc.––took a different perspective and served the interests of a particular audience/client.

Today, to a terrifying extent, the thinning ranks of the ABC’s foreign correspondents are forced to become recyclers: desk-bound, “top of the head” commentators on a passing parade of events and issues they have little time or opportunity to inform themselves about, let alone reflect upon. The advent of so-called “instant” news (which is an oxymoron, since something does not become news until it is reported, and then everything depends on the quality of the reporting) has bled the purpose out of the foreign bureaus, laying them open to the slash-and-burn merchants who never really accepted the rationale for their existence in the first place.

Yes, we’ve heard about the Federal Government’s cuts to the ABC budget and how this is the sole reason why the ABC has to reduce its foreign newsgathering. I don’t buy it, because I have seen and heard it all before. The ABC receives a large budget and in recent years has invested in many new “broadcast” platforms (online, digital television, etc). During this time it has failed to face up to the fact that its wages bill is grossly over-represented as a proportion of its total spend. In certain program areas, so much of the budget is committed to wages a ridiculously small amount is available for discretionary spending on new content. News and Current Affairs is especially vulnerable since it is impossible to predict when and where a major news event will occur and how much it will cost to mount the special coverage Australian audiences expect.

ABC on-air personalities are not necessarily the highest paid in the industry, but the average salary and add-on costs of ABC journalists (to take one professional group as an example) are well above the industry average. The bell-curve of wage rates across the corporation swells above the median line. Now I’m talking like an accountant. Time, then, for a bit more history of the ABC’s international operations––because history, as well as budget expediency, lies behind the current push against the foreign bureaus.

The ABC, a big organization, has its fair share of professional and personal jealousy. Some of it goes back to the old craft divides (journalist versus broadcaster, reporter versus camera operator, etc.) Some is related to inter-divisional rivalries. The expansion in the number of ABC divisions has only intensified the conflict over policy priorities and budget allocations. The ABC’s shift of emphasis away from the traditional media of radio and television has opened the way for new, ambitious empire-builders who have very different agendas from the old content providers.

The ABC’s overseas bureaus were, to a large extent, established and maintained by the News division. I can say, from experience, that some senior executives of other divisions deeply resented this arrangement. What was in it for them? Calls for the disestablishment of the ABC’s overseas operation have arisen within the corporation on numerous occasions and certainly pre-date the current budget crisis. “Why not just take the news we want from the BBC or CNN?” I’ve heard asked. Better still get it free-of-charge from Al Jazeera. The supposedly swanky lifestyle of the privileged correspondent irritated those accountants and others who, as I say, never bought into the idea the ABC needed an independent newsgathering operation abroad. Their day has come.

Assignment editors and news executives have become defensive: pulling a correspondent out of the Middle East just as the lid was about to blow off the place; shutting the Moscow bureau just as Vladimir Putin was about to reconstitute the USSR; cutting local staff from the Tokyo bureau, so the non-Japanese-speaking correspondent is left to pull together his reports from the Internet at Starbucks maybe.

OK, the ABC can’t be everywhere and can’t spend recklessly. But that’s not the issue here. The simple fact is the foreign bureaus offer ABC management a soft target, a quick fix. The collateral damage will be the diminishing of the Australian public’s right to be informed by journalism that is relevant and trustworthy.

Once a bureau is closed––local staff laid off, leases cancelled, contacts lost and trusted relationships foregone––often there is no way back. In a day the planning and work of a generation is forfeited. What will move in to fill the vacuum? Internet polls? Quizzes? Reader rants responding to blog sites? Interviews by remote control with untested and unchallenged “experts”? Agency coverage provided by any Johnny-come-lately? Or just silence? (Once upon a time the ABC had a bureau in Hanoi. How much news about Vietnam do Australians now receive, following its closure?)

The ABC’s new foreign newsgathering model, according to reports, will rely on correspondents travelling out of a few selective hubs to report. This, of course, is not a new idea. The corporation once went through the expensive exercise of building up a large presence in Singapore, as a regional news hub. Now it has nothing in Singapore at all. Put all your eggs in one basket and you can find the basket is constantly in the wrong place and the costs of keeping it there––and moving reporters and camera operators in and out––grow way out of proportion to the alternatives.

But the major argument against the “hubs” model is that correspondents become fly-in, fly-out “instant experts” who lose credibility with audiences. Before long, managers are thinking: “Why not keep them all at home in Australia, and only send them away to the fire once it has broken out?” Heard that one before too.

Turning foreign correspondents into “firemen” (I use the term in the journalistic sense) can mean only one thing: they end up covering just “fires” (i.e. wars, riots and disasters). We all know, surely, that these are the exceptions, the tiniest part of the daily lives of most people in the world. Do we imagine we can really know what an Indonesian thinks or what a German believes––and therefore how they might vote, invest, travel, plot, reform or whatever––by concentrating on the exceptional moments in their lives, never knowing them, except as hapless victims or incomprehensible zealots?

Fashions and technology change. Newsgathering is done very differently, in a technical sense, today compared with the 1960s: no more teleprinters and trunk-line calls, thank goodness. But news is not all, or even mostly, about the means of reporting; it is about the commitment to report accurately, fairly and responsibly. It’s about the calibre of the professionals charged with the responsibility, where they are deployed and how they are directed and supported. A former senior executive at the ABC, who thought deeply about these matters, once wrote:

It is irrelevant in the philosophic sense how the truth is

communicated. It is relevant only as to the practical but it

does not mean and has never meant that smoke signals

must take a particular form and ballad singers must only

use a particular tune and that words to be printed on paper

must never undergo change or even that the paper must

always remain the same.

What is important and what must be properly understood

is that news demands good smoke signals and good ballads.

It demands the smoke signals and the ballads that are

appropriate to the time and are best understood by the people

of that time because the communication of news is important

in no esoteric sense. It is important primarily to make certain

that truth is communicated and understood.

In these times, when foreign news events seem more complex than ever and Australia’s direct stake in regional and international affairs is more diverse than ever (through military engagements, trade deals, emergency responses and security and diplomatic entanglements), the ABC needs to be focused on the quality of the smoke signals, and not sacrifice its foreign newsgathering tradition to the budget quick-fix. It should look harder at its structural budget problem and consider whether too much money, time and effort is going into propping up personal empires in Ultimo and elsewhere.

 

The writer is a former ABC correspondent.

 

 

 

 

 

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