The latest news from the ABC bunker is that while Lateline may survive the latest round of cuts, the bureaux in Tokyo and Delhi may be shut down.
The ABC Board met yesterday, reportedly to decide on measures to achieve efficiencies of up to $100m following the Budget and the Lewis Review, and in the wake of the Australia Network axing.
Many have been shocked by ABC management's post-Budget decisions. The slashing of Asia Pacific News Centre and Radio Australia services, as Jenny Hayward-Jones outlined back in July, has resulted in the decimation of news coverage in and from the region and the exit of veteran international correspondents and journalists such as Sean Dorney, Catherine McGrath and Jim Middleton.
The Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, insists that the requisite efficiencies can be met through administrative and back-office cuts. Others are less confident and hugely concerned at ABC management tactics.
The Minister has a deep and abiding respect for international journalism and an understanding of its importance for Australia. Below are some extracts from his speech here at the Lowy Institute in August, at the Institute's annual media awards for foreign policy journalism (you can read or listen to the full speech here):
Only the ABC now has a substantial international presence with twenty Australian and 35 locally engaged staff overseas; a good example of what a public broadcaster should do in my view. It is, of course, much cheaper to fly in teams to cover specific stories on an on-needs basis. A study by the Media Standards Trust in the U.K. found this has become much more attractive for news organisations to cover locations when there is a specific event or crisis - such as, say, Ukraine. But this comes at the expense of a deep knowledge of the country and the contacts needed to develop stories in depth.
Media companies on digital platforms tend to chase two things to get clicks: cover immediate, breaking news on the one hand; and go for opinion and commentary, the more intemperate the better, on the other, to reap social media shares, likes and retweets. As I have said before, it often feels like the ‘news cycle’ has been replaced by the ‘outrage cycle’.
But there is a genre of news story that lies in the middle on these two extremes -- they are those stories which take a few days to put together, involve the skilful working of contacts and sources, and require a deep and nuanced knowledge of the subject matter. Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger describes the new media world as enshrining the ‘dumbbell model’ of journalism -- all the weight has now shifted to the two ends of journalism, leaving not much in the middle.
And while management in media corporations might chase audiences through this 'dumbbell model', there is evidence that the audience itself values genuine foreign affairs coverage:
As one very senior journalist in Canberra’s press gallery told me: ‘There has been a huge amount of complacency, a growing lack of media interest in policy, [and] a function of that is a most conspicuous lack of interest in what other countries are doing in a policy sense, and this is reinforced by the problems of the business models of newspapers’. But interestingly, while there may be more of a focus on less weighty issues, consumers nominate foreign affairs as the most important reason for following the news.
The ABC, according to the Minister, has been the 'standout' in coverage of foreign affairs in Australia:
In recent years, The Australian has closed bureaux in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, London, Bangkok and New Zealand but still has correspondents in Jakarta, Beijing, Tokyo, Southeast Asia, Jerusalem and of course a very extensive network of correspondents to draw upon from the wider News Corp stable.
Fairfax has correspondents in Washington, London, Beijing, Delhi, the Middle East and has reinstated Lindsay Murdoch in Southeast Asia, based in Bangkok. Over the years it has pulled out from Wellington, Tokyo and New York.
The Australian Financial Review no longer has anyone in Tokyo, our second largest trading partner. The ABC is the standout in this area. It has bureaux in Washington, London, New Zealand, Jakarta, Beijing, Bangkok, Jerusalem, New Delhi, Tokyo and stringers in many other locations.
Perhaps no more. If the bureaux in Tokyo and Delhi are closed, there go two of the last remaining sources of first-hand news from two of Australia's most important partners and neighbours in the region: Japan, Australia's second largest trading partner and 'best friend' in Asia, and India, a rising power and Australia's 5th largest export destination, not to mention the soon-to-be recipient of Australian uranium following the recent agreement struck by the Government.
Last year Michael Fullilove touched on this issue in arguing the case for Australian eyes on the world, saying:
The rise of Asia means Australia finds itself a lot closer to the centre of geopolitical and economic action than in the past. It is vital to the national interest, therefore, that Australians understand what is happening beyond our shores...But we cannot simply rely on the homogenised worldview of international wire services...
The big international wire services might bring us news from around the world, but they won't necessarily cover the news that's of significance to Australia, because – gasp – Australia often doesn't figure in global news. When an important source of news and information is lost, so is an important input into the foreign policy debate in Australia. And we are the losers.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Brian Smith.