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November 02nd 2014 print

Geoffrey Luck

The ABC’s Declining Foreign Coverage

Mark Scott's ever-expanding list of stations and programmes is taking its toll on overseas news coverage. Yes, we still get on-the-spot reports, but with so many outlets to satisfy, the reporting is too often a shallow re-hash of information gleaned from newsagencies. Why pay so much for so little?

abc leans left smallDid you listen to the ABC’s Correspondents Report on Radio National this morning? (Sunday, November 2) If not, you should have. You can listen, or read the scripts here. The ABC spends a great deal of money maintaining a corps of foreign correspondents – in London, Washington, Tokyo, Bangkok, Delhi, Jerusalem and Africa. This programme demonstrated how some of that money — quite a lot, actually –is being wasted.

Derivative, narcissistic, trivial – three words that sum up the three contributions this week. All failed the basic test of journalism: if they had not been broadcast, would it have mattered? Would anyone have noticed?

The first was a nostalgic little story, valid enough, about Sir Nicholas Winton, the Briton who in 1938 saved hundreds of Jewish children by organising trains to take them from Czechoslovakia to Britain and safety.  The new angle to the story was that Winton, at age 105 was in Prague to receive the Czech Republic’s highest honour. The story was competently told, as always, by Phillip Williams – actuality sound of fanfare, announcement in Czech, and train noises, with a flashback to a British TV programme many years ago in which Winton was brought face to face with many of the children he had saved, now grown up.

Was Williams in Prague? No. The story was cobbled together, second-hand, from a BBC TV report of the event, complete with the Beeb’s archival footage of the earlier studio reunion of Winton and the people he saved.

The second story, headed “The logistical jigsaw faced by foreign correspondents” was a conversation between the programme’s executive producer, Elizabeth Jackson, and Washington correspondent Lisa Millar. Originally recorded for university journalism students (why?), Elizabeth thought we would be interested in it. We might well be interested, but not for the reason Jackson presumed: the public’s need to know  how hard-working and clever are the ABC’s reporters, one of whom, Millar, had just endured 48 on the road, with just six hours sleep, in order to cover two major international stories in two countries.

Problem. Lisa Millar arrived in Ottawa at least eight hours after the shooting at the Cenotaph and in the Parliament building. She started filing straight away, doing live crosses and interviews. Where did she get her information? “Oh you gather it everywhere,” she explained. In this case, it was from a taxi driver whose son was in a government building “near” the Parliament. This insight was gleaned during Millar’s 20-minute drive from the airport. By the way, the driver was of Middle Eastern heritage, the relevance of his lineage never being explained.

The action was all over when she arrived, the gunman dead, the hero who stopped the rampage revealed. Millar did a piece to camera to show that she had been there, but the pictures ABC viewers saw that night – the shot soldier, the CCTV video of the gunman, the chaotic scene in the Parliament building – all came from Canadian television and newsagency footage. Nevertheless, she worked until 5.30am to fulfill all the demands from various ABC radio and TV programmes.

With that story dead, Lisa was switched immediately to the story of ebola victim, Dr Craig Spencer, and ordered to fly to New York. She landed just after 7am Australian time on the Saturday morning and was put straight to air in a dramatic live Q-and-A for News 24. Ten minutes later she had to perform the same routine for AM.

The first question Liz Jackson asked her for that programme was: “Are New Yorkers jittery about ebola?” Asking a reporter to generalise about the feelings of a whole city is always one of the most stupid questions. To ask it of a reporter who arrived just ten minutes earlier …… well, you fill in the adjectival obscenity to describe such pointlessness.

Millar had to dodge the question, turning instead to what New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said about ebola and talking about other things she already knew. The segment maintained the illusion that the ABC had a correspondent on the spot who was reporting authoritatively on a major running story. We were not to know that it was Lisa Millar who was running, and hard, from airport to stand-up to airport and then to more of the same.

The third story in Correspondents Report was from the indefatigable George Roberts, the reporter who brought us the “exclusive” expose that Australian sailors had been torturing refugees by burning their hands on engine exhaust pipes. This time he told of a Jakarta ‘parking attendant’ (one of the many running what amounts to an extortion racket, as in ‘pay me and your car will be in one piece when you return’) who has branched out into selling drinks. That’s it.

Australian taxpayers might believe that the ABC sends some of its best and brightest reporters overseas to explain, interpret and background the news in countries and regions they cover. Not a bit of it. The corps of correspondents is almost totally occupied in chasing and “reporting” hard news stories already being covered by other news outlets. The ABC’s need to appear as if it is on the ground and on top of every breaking event is why the weary Lisa Millar was shuttled to Ottawa and then straight on to New York.

Not only do these excursions rarely add anything to  newsagency coverage, they also use those sources unashamedly as their basic factual material. Reporting? Well, technically, it is reporting – but only to the extent of reporting what other reporters have already made public. Put simply, we are paying a lot of money to attach an Australian identity and accent to foreign stories that might just as well be presented, with the same newsagency film, by the newsreader in the studio.

It’s not clear who directs coverage in the overseas offices, but we can be certain the multiplication of programmes under the Mark Scott regime has added enormously to the problems. Every new outlet launched during his tenure – from ABC News Breakfast to News 24 — demands access to the broadcaster’s team of overseas reporters, adding to the regular reporting for radio and TV news, AM and PM, The World Today, 7.30 and Lateline.

The ABC now has only two programmes with time for in-depth analysis and interpretation – Correspondents Report on radio and Foreign Correspondent in television. Although its standard is uneven, the television programme often reaches heights of superb journalism. Correspondents Report on the other hand, increasingly and lazily talks about itself.

In recent months, Sally Sara has bared her battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, Samantha Hawley recapped her experience with surrogacy, George Roberts reflected on not interviewing President Joko Widodo, and a whole programme was devoted to Sean Dorney’s reminiscences. It manifests an inferiority complex, this need to explain how they work, and how hard they have to struggle. But that’s your problem, Correspondent’s Report. The rest of us hear about what your reporters were sent overseas for.

There have been many good stories – human-interest stories – on Correspondent’s Report, but almost no political insights. It’s as if correspondents don’t have the time, the contacts or the encouragement of management to think about actually explaining developments.

The home page of the Correspondents Report website asks: “Got a story idea?” Well, here’s one for George Roberts, of tortured-with-a-hot-muffler fame.  What has happened to the flow of asylum seekers smuggled into Indonesia as a stepping stone to Australia since the ‘Turn back the boats’ policy succeeded?  If it has stopped or substantially slowed, it means Australia has done its neighbour a good turn. That’s a story the ABC should be only too anxious and happy to tell.

Sorry, just joking.