Who benefits from the ABC’s rural journalism?

Nov 11, 2022
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, The sign at the entrance to the ABC Southbank building. The ABC is the Australian national government broadcaster

As part of the ABC’s financial deal with tech giants Google and Facebook late last year it committed to investing the revenue in regional and rural Australia. Brian Burkett, Emma Mesikämmen and Lisa Waller analysed ABC Rural’s radio programming around the recent federal election to find out who benefits from the ABC’s rural journalism.

This analysis of daily Rural Reports was conducted for six weeks prior to the recent Federal election and for three weeks afterwards. The Rural Reports are fifteen-minute radio programs aired at 6.15am weekdays on ABC radio in regional Australia from the Pilbara to Gippsland and from Esperance to Townsville and beyond.

The findings suggest that in the recent federal election ABC Rural Reports used their discursive power to control how the Australian ‘rural’ world should be imagined by privileging agricultural producers, their lobbyists, their traders, their bankers and their scientists. The discursive construction of the ‘rural’ to mean ‘primary production’ marginalises and silences those with a different appreciation of the rural space – e.g. think many First Nations people. At the same time the Reports provide the enabling discourse necessary to license the on-going destruction of Australian ecosystems on a vast scale.

These findings are summarised in the table below:

In March 2022, just a month before the Federal election was called, the Chairman of the ABC – David Anderson – and the Minister for Agriculture and local member for the electoral division of Maranoa – David Littleproud – were the prominent dignitaries at the launch of the ABC Charleville office. We are not told why Charleville was accorded the honour of being the location chosen for the launch of the rollout of “10 new locations for the ABC” but the obvious campaigning presence of Littleproud provides a clue.

The ABC’s regional expansion came after a decade of budget cuts and ‘pauses’ delivered to the public broadcaster by Littleproud’s Liberal National Party government. However, the Nationals had been reported as pushing to ensure any cuts did not affect regional services. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the national broadcaster advised then Communications Minister Paul Fletcher that it “was prepared to invest tens of millions of dollars more outside capital city centres if the Morrison government was prepared to reverse its budget cuts”.

David Anderson and Littleproud are smiling at the Charleville launch: “It’s easier to cover issues for this community by having a presence here” says Anderson.

Two months after the Charleville launch and after the federal election when David Littleproud was elevated to leader of the Nationals in the Australian Parliament, ABC Rural in Queensland dedicates generous airtime to stories where Littleproud is praised and boosted by regional worthies. One is the former member for Maranoa and National Party elder Bruce Scott:

“David grew up in a National Party family. His father was the member for Condamine…he understands quite intimately I’m sure the challenges that so many farmers have been facing…I have a great deal of confidence in not only his ability but his ability to listen to people…he’s had a wonderful career in agriculture including water…”

In a story originating on the ABC’s North West and Western Rural Report and broadcast across Queensland Littleproud is valorised by a former head of the National Farmers Federation and prominent local businessman:

“He should grow into a strong and effective leader…He won’t lose sight of who his constituents are”.

In stark contrast when Murray Watt, the incoming Labor Minister for Agriculture, in an interview aired on Rural Reports on 1 June, has to introduce himself and describe his own roots and relationship to the rural space, there are no accompanying stories with party elders to vouch for him and give him standing. A Rural Report presenter from Western Victoria canvases views on Murray Watt from the chairman of GrainGrowers. The presenter leads the discussion by highlighting that Watt comes from an urban electorate

ABC presenter: “With no rural background Gold Coast MP Murray Watt will need to hit the road running – that’s according to GrainGrowers chairman…”

In the first edition of the North Queensland Rural Report after the May 23 election the presenter dedicates the program to canvassing the views on the change of government from Growcom (a growers advocacy group), FNQ Growers (another advocacy group) and Georgie Somerset – also an ABC Director – providing a view from Agforce (yet another farmer’s lobby group). This is the same Agforce whose CEO, in an Orwellian piece of image-making, paraded in a green shirt to declare that the science of climate change isn’t settled.

On all three editions of New South Wales Rural Reports (broadcasting from the North Coast to the Riverina) the first story on May 23 after the election went to James Jackson the President of NSW Farmers. He didn’t waste the opportunity to denigrate the Labor Party:

“There’s a long road ahead to educate Labor on issues affecting all Australians…it’s a challenge with a government with very little understanding of rural issues…they are woefully undermanned the Labor Party on rural issues”

An interview with Fiona Simpson of the National Farmers Federation allows her free rein to scaremonger on the issue of water buybacks in the Murray Darling basin if Labor wins. It is broadcast by seven editions of Rural Report from Queensland to South Australia in the lead-up to the election. Simpson declares:

“People are very nervous about the Murray Darling basin…there’s a lot of checks and balances in place …we (the NFF) are opposed to (water) buybacks”.

There are no difficult questions from the rural reporter, no references to learnings from the academy or the South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray Darling.

Broadcasting from Alice Springs, the nearest regional centre to Uluru of all the ABC’s stations, the settler’s ‘terra nullius’ ideology is normalised and reproduced daily on the Outback NT Rural Report.

Linda Burney, the new government’s Minister for Indigenous Australians isn’t named or given an opportunity to speak on Rural Reports in the study period. She is afforded no standing, no power in this imagined rural world.

Voices which run counter to the preferred story – environmental and conservation groups and academic experts, people who live in towns and whose opinions challenge the profit dominated rural discourse – are very sparse.

Australians seeking policy direction for sustainable ecosystems in the Great Barrier Reef or the Murray Darling Basin or Northern Australian river basins or a future for the cassowary outside a zoo shouldn’t expect to hear ABC Rural Reports championing their stories. ABC Rural Reports continue to manufacture consent for last century’s destructive and profit driven imaginaries.


This is a shortened version of an article first published on Michael West Media 

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