New ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie gave a thoughtful speech at the Lowy Institute Media Award dinner last night (read the whole thing here). The Australian's coverage of the speech focused on Guthrie's remarks about the ABC's profile overseas, saying she had 'outlined plans to renew an international expansion into overseas markets like China as part of a “soft power push” to influence Australia’s standing on the world stage.'
As was appropriate on a night honouring Australian foreign correspondents (congratulations to this year's winner, Fairfax Indonesia correspondent Jewel Topsfield, as well as to the shortlisted Amanda Hodge, Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker, Michael Bachelard, Daniel Quinlan, Eric Tlozek, and Philip Wen), Guthrie also talked about the ABC's commitment to reporting world events:
It is far too easy to claim, as some have done, that the instant access to a world of information makes obsolete the need for the ABC to invest in its own coverage and to devote the time, energy and money to explain complex global events. Yes, it is possible to go straight to the New York Times website for the latest Donald Trump outrage or to London’s Financial Times for the next Brexit development.
However, context and relevance are important. What the ABC does through its investment in programs like Q&A and its international reporting infrastructure, is provide Australians with a continuous rich flow of information and analysis, explaining the relevance of events and issues. It can link continents and through its array of programs, delve deep into policy. Hopefully, this contributes to a far more informed domestic debate about security, defence and other matters.
Guthrie's acknowledgment that news consumers have a vast array of options when they want to learn about world events is important, because it cuts against the common narrative (also acknowledged by Guthrie in this speech) that coverage of overseas events by Australia's commercial media outlets is declining. It is clearly true that commercial media outlets are reducing their overseas footprints, yet it is far from clear that news consumers have suffered as a result. In fact, the internet has vastly improved the options open to those of us who follow world news.
Which raises the question: what unique role can Australian foreign correspondents fill in this environment? Guthrie's answer is that Australian correspondents can bring 'context and relevance' for an Australian audience. The ABC's foreign correspondents, she says, 'provide Australians with a continuous rich flow of information and analysis, explaining the relevance of events and issues'.
If I understand Guthrie correctly, she is saying that coverage of overseas events created specifically for an Australian audience will better speak to the concerns and priorities of Australians. That sounds right to me, yet it raises some important questions, which are illustrated by the examples Guthrie cites.
Trump and Brexit are both huge international stories with any number of shared, global implications that transcend a specifically Australian reading. So do Australian audiences need those angles to be covered by Australian reporters, or can they rely on the significantly greater resources of foreign outlets?
Should the scarce foreign-reporting resources of the Australian media be used to cover big international events in the same thematic way that far larger organisations do, but on a smaller scale? Or should they instead focus on niche stories that are directly relevant to Australia? In the case of Trump, for instance, should ABC reporters cover his views on American gun rights, or should they focus more on what he says about the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
I don't have firm answers to these questions. From a Lowy Institute perch, it is easy to say there should be more focus on our region, and it is easy to bemoan the lack of policy substance in the news media. But the ABC does more than anybody in Australia to cover Asia and to add that policy substance. And we policy wonks also need to acknowledge that journalism is about news — which is to say, it will always focus on breaking events. That agenda will not always align with what us policy purists consider 'important'.