Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Talk is Cheap

Our public broadcaster is our most trusted source of news. So why does it spend so much time and money chasing cheap and predictable opinions from a small group of people who have plenty of other places to bang their tin drums?
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation received a net $840 million in revenue from the federal government last year. Its real funding has been cut 23% since the mid-1980s.
Aware of changing technology and of being required to do more and more with less and less, the broadcaster in its annual report talks about how audiences are expecting to access content wherever they are and across multiple platforms.
The annual report shows that by output, 51% of revenue from the federal government went to television, 27% to radio, 10% to digital TV transmission, 9% to analog transmission, 2% to online media and 1% to digital radio transmission.
The flagship is the still relatively bright and shiny ABC News 24, a network that according to the national broadcaster “reached” 13.1% of the metropolitan population last year. I am not sure how many of those being “reached” actually watched it, but that seems to me a fairly low figure for an institution that proudly brands itself as Australia’s only 24-hour TV news channel.
Apart from audience, it is arguable how much of the news channel features actual, you know, ‘news’. Highlighted programs include ‘The Drum’ – an opinion show on the issues of the day featuring “an ever changing panel drawn from all walks of life”.
In reality, The Drum is a talking shop where the same old faces from the same institutions – News Ltd, the IPA, the CIS and former party hacks – issue the same predictable talking points. In fact, Independent Australia did some interesting analysis, testing the ever changing panel concept here.
One can feel sympathy for the show’s producers. Getting talking heads into a studio every single day to blather on about stuff that the vast majority of the population has yet to catch up on (or indeed cares about) is a soul-destroying job.
But it’s not just The Drum. There are equivalent talking head forums on business, the environment, the arts, health, food and, of course, rural and regional ‘Straya’.
Now television is an expensive medium, the most expensive in fact. What TV does well (surprise surprise) is pictures, colour and movement.  Doing TV news properly means sending reporters out of the studio with camera crews and interviewing newsmakers in their natural settings. 
But when television just becomes a studio-bound talking shop, it looks like a very expensive version of a far superior medium for that sort of thing – radio. What’s more, it rarely breaks news. It is just yet another opinion-mongering echo chamber.
Now I know the ABC has a very high-falutin’ charter which requires it to appease every noisy constituency in the land, not the least of which are the grumpy culture warriors of the Right who resent the very existence of a national public broadcaster.
But I would argue that if Mark Scott wants to get more bang for his buck, he should ditch his expensive trophy 24-hour ‘news’ channel and put the money into more actual newsgatherers in the radio and digital space (not ‘producers’ who cut and paste from The Australian every morning).
That means more content along the lines of the excellent radio documentary Background Briefing, more youthful experiments like Hungry Beast and more established long-form TV current affairs like Four Corners. And it means far less of the cheap he said-she said, view-from-nowhere programs like The Drum and Q and A.
Yes, I know Scott has a vision of the ABC as a sort of town hall or village square, where people can air their opinions. But I’d argue that social media has made that vision redundant. Twitter features millions of points of view and users can customise their experience. This makes the idea of listening to Peter Reith and some IPA lackey every second night express predictable opinions on The Drum rather unappealing, no matter how it might appease the culture warriors in parliament and the nabobs of News Ltd.
The fact that the ABC is regularly polled as the most trusted news media outlet in the country is even more reason to transfer its limited and declining resources to actual news rather than making the national broadcaster a sort of empty echo chamber where old media hacks and Murdoch lapdogs repeat lines they have already churned out in their print editions.
This isn’t just about the ABC. Much of the commercial media is now in a death spiral, with its journalistic standards falling almost as fast as its life expectancy. Just look at The Daily Telegraph. When not brazenly making stuff up to play on its audience’s prejudices, the nation’s biggest selling newspaper dedicates a good chunk of its resources to ridiculous promotions that have nothing to do with journalism.
If public broadcasters don’t do serious public interest news, no-one will. Without the ABC pursuing stories that need to be told (stories like the untold Slipper saga), no-one will tell them.
I’d pay more than 8 cents a day for that. Wouldn’t you?

(Disclosure: I was invited onto ABC radio four times last year to pontificate on my views about media – three times on Jonathan Green’s ‘Outsiders’ and once on Richard Adey’s ‘Media Report’. But I’d sooner Jonathan and Richard spent their airtime and limited dollars in pursuing news).


  1. Agreed. Additionally, that trust figure is only in comparison with the dismal commercial media, and the more think tank/advocacy and former MP talking heads they get on, the more it will go down.

    Perhaps I'm getting dewy-eyed with nostalgia, but I definitely feel news standards have been on the fall for at least 5/6 years - regular items now include the MPs (often the opposition state or federally) quoting something: not the thing they are responding to, not a proposed policy, but merely saying something. "Abbott says Labor dirty liars", and the like. Not news by the most creative definition.

    4 Corners has been very hit and miss in the last couple of years, too, in my opinion. Some of their director/producers should be shot, with moves straight out of the ACA playbook - scary music and all. Depressing.

    PS Mr D, you have to do something about the Captcha settings. Honestly, I'd have better luck reading chicken gizzards.

    1. The IPABC is every bit as bad as Mr Denmore says, and in my opinion, worse.

      The so-called "news" channel (which Mark Scott was keen to get up and running in time for the 2010 election campaign) is a pale version of Fox News. The omnipresent right-wing talking heads, hacks, commentators and spinners make it unwatchable for the average non-partisan or political centrist or leftist.

      The coverage of politics on the ABC - whether it be "Fox"24, radio, TV or online - stinks these days, frankly. The Coalition spin that dominates, whatever the issue, the cheap "He said, she said" rubbish, the avoidance of important matters of public policy, the smarmy "wear my conservative heart on my sleeve" bearing of some of the presenters.. It is an insult to the generations of fine, professional journalists who worked hard to endow the ABC with an enviable reputation for impartiality and integrity which is now in the process of being trashed.

      Sack Mark Scott for perverting our public broadcaster, and shut down his offensive handiwork "Fox"24.

  2. I like the concept of Q&A and The Drum as it discusses topics in a bit more detail than the average news byte. What I don't like is that there is no variety of people involved in the discussion. It is not very balanced at all. The fact that Peter Reith is on The Drum all the time is the perfect example, he rarely contributes anything meaningful or inciteful to the dicussion, just rants the same 'this govt is bad, get rid of Julia' mantra which is just not helpful.

    They ask people to contribute on Facebook & Twitter, yet I have not seen them raise any issue or query at all that I have seen on the #TheDrum hashtag, so why bother. If they actually did interact or at least discuss what was on the hashtag as well, people might be interested as at least they would be discussing, dissecting what people want to know more about?

  3. i remember the days when the abc was the only channel and radio station we tuned in to. no more.
    may be the problem is they have too many channels.also i wonder why they have a breakfast programe let the commercials do that, the abc could have an indepth news programe , and a quick news for busy people wanting to head of to work at that hour of the morning.
    igave up writing to them acouple of years ago as it seems complaints fall on deaf ears and back comes a standard reply
    i have pointed out that the abc actully belong to the tax payer and also fed up with other peoples opinion on the abc.

    IS it time to sell off part of the abc,? and just keep the news dept. and thats not reporters talking to reporters just one person reading out the news.
    how refreshing that would be.

  4. So very true. As a news junkie that is regularly checking the TV, radio, internet or even social media to see what has been going on, it's a bit sad that I don't even bother with The Drum on TV. When someone as addicted to news and opinion as I am decides that you're not worth the bother, chances are you are probably doing something wrong.
    I think Mr D has identified the problem here, with the growing use of social media, we already have a newly forming public sphere in which to debate issues, what we need from news and current affairs is the information and facts that allow us to debate in an informed way.

  5. Its significant what the ABC does not report.

    There were 62 threads for the Gillard Rudd spill yet not one mention at the same time about the accounting firm caught out in collusion with the LNP over the $11 Billion black hole audit.

  6. I agree; I have some different experiences though. I was asked to write a piece for 'The Drum' after their on-line editor noticed my grumblings on Twitter - so I found that was a positive thing. I didn't get paid of course, despite the fact I'm a professional writer, but regardless of that I was a happy camper to find myself socially engaged for a day.

    What really annoys me of late (say the last three years or so) is the very wet, low-end level of reporting and the completely weak stories on the morning ABC News Breakfast - a long program with most of the presenters foaming at the mouth to chat about Sport while reporting the same three or four stories for a couple of hours ia awful. I am a community broadcaster and we cover a vast range of news stories, national, international and local in an hour. I counted four stories being repeated on ABC News Breakfast the other morning and the top story was a French man being saved after three days in a boat... Couldn't understand why that was the big story for the day. A day later and it is still being recycled on the evening news as if it is some kind of mind-blowing story. I have a love/hate relationship with The Drum. I find it laughable a lot of the time.

    Hacks commenting on Hacks commenting on Hacks. News seems to have shifted into the sphere of Variety/Magazine programs. I dislike QandA because of the Variety aspect - always a comedian or a pop singer - utter rubbish when trying to have a worthy debate about a social issue. Can not abide having people like Johnatan Biggins or others of that ilk sounding off as if they are there on merit and not to plug their show or book or new album at the end of the show.

    I don't enjoy commercial television because of the adverts so I watch a lot of ABC and SBS, but ABC seems to be a seedling plot for weak performers, who grow their celebrity (sans credibility mostly) until they get picked up by a commercial network. It frustrates me because the quality is lax. Mostly I do not think the ABC should be sold off - I think it should just be directed much better. I tweet Mr Scott frequently offering him my views. Sometimes I do think there is a positive reaction, but not very often.

    I remember interviewing Wil Anderson once for community Radio and being critical of The Glasshouse making lots of homophobic jokes. He didn't agree. One thing he said was "when you're on a good thing stick with it," which could be why I don't like seeing him on the ABC all that much with the same format of a show, but just a different title.

    I'd like to see more real people from the village rather than the same lot year after year after year just growing more poisonous and egotistic... oops back on QandA again.

    1. No argument with most of what you say David, but I think I should defend the ABC when you say:

      "I counted four stories being repeated on ABC News Breakfast the other morning and the top story was a French man being saved after three days in a boat... Couldn't understand why that was the big story for the day".

      Stories on breakfast news programs - radio or television - are on high rotation for a good reason. The audience has a high turn over factor. I believe the average time spent watching is no more than 20 minutes (it might be less these days). That means you will see the same story pop up every 20 minutes (or whatever the curent interval is) - and that's fair enough. I also disagree with you about the yachtsman rescue story. While it might not have been the most important story of the day, it was certainly the most engaging - and it had pictures. What more could television want?

  7. Four years ago I was asked by the editor of Unleashed to write a piece with evidence that helping refugees is not people smuggling but the consequences of jailing the Indonesian fishing crews were well known to be dreadful.
    They spiked it because it didn't follow government spin and lies.

    Today we see another of the dreadful consequences of having a populist law passed through the senate against all legal advice.

    Children as young as 13 were jailed in adult prisons in breach of the law, they are now suing us.

    Which was predicted at the time by the experts in law.

    Then we had Sarah Ferguson's two lying programs claiming that Abdul Kadem is a smuggling ring leader when in fact she knew very well her spy person had his refugee status cancelled by the UNHCR because of claims of war crimes, Kadem was a victim a number of times over.

    And now the ABC like everyone else reports a legal challenge by the PNG people against jailing refugees in a colonial style prison on Manus as if it is an outrage because everyone knows we white folks can set up prisons wherever we want and those black people should be grateful.

  8. I want the 24news to be mainly news & especially news that is important, not the same crap over & over about things that have very little import to the average person.There is so much going on in every community that it would be possible to show all Australian news for 24 HOURS although I dont think that is preferrable either.Surely with reporters in every state we can have lots of stories that would interest most people. If I wanted to watch inaccurate waffle & political bias, I only have to turn to the commercial channels, I expect more from a tax payer funded organisation.

  9. The Drum were up to it again today. James Paterson from the IPA, Sue Cato PR for business, and David Marr. 7.30 were a real surprise (not) with just one commentator on the National Security Strategy - Rory Medcalf, from the Lowy Institute. At least it wasn't Hugh White!

    A little research from last year on the diversity of opinion: Think our political debate is tanking? Ask the s(c)eptic celebs

  10. I disagree with your disclaimer. The two people you mention are doing what they should do - seeking out professional opinion to inform their program. Keep up the great work here BUT keep accepting their invitations.

  11. The Dumb ... I understand that news is difficult, but surely its not *that* simple?
    Mr Jobling (I could try that @ thing but why?) and I find common ground on the RN Morning with the fatuous Kelly. That Doyle (sour & supercilious) does better interviews suggests standards are not set or applied.

  12. That Independent Australia research on exactly who constitutes the talking heads on the ABC/Drum is pretty darn revealing and depressing.
    Basically I take from it that my tax dollars are subsidising the reach and influence of the far right via the extremist IPA and Murdochistan and Fairfaxia and my world would probably be better informed if ABC 24 did not exist.


  13. I do not want to make a public comment. This is to check if i can contact u/send an email without it being automatically published.

  14. Yes, email is

  15. ABC News 24 is more like ABC News 11.5
    Even then I'm being generous. There is so much happening across this great brown land of ours but instead of covering the top stories from each state and territory, they keep repeating the same old stuff time and time again...not to mention the damn news bar at the bottom of the screen that quite often is highlighting yesterday's stories that have been done to death!

    The Drum and Q&A are shockers!

    ABC local radio isn't much better, but it's about the best thing around in Melbourne which isn't saying much is it....
    I'd be happy to pay 20 cents a day for a better Auntie.

  16. Producers most certainly are slack at the ABC.
    4 Corners presented a commercially made program about the late UK DJ Jimmy Savile.
    While having no knowledge of Savile's activities- the 4 Corners program was a re-hash of the same questionable claims that the BBC dropped for good reason. (although their failure to follow was rightly questioned).

    It was like the ABC deciding to indulge in the tawdry tactics of a downmarket tabloid.

    This was a program full of accuracy holes, exagerations and blatant untruths. On such important matters we should able to expect the ABC & 4 Corners to produce something with genuine investigations rather than cheap's what they do so well. Yet this indicated the future 4 Corners may take.

  17. I didn't believe this when I heard it so I got a transcript. It is the opening lines of the ABC 7pm TV news.

    Sam Distefano who lost his job at Ford three months ago doesn't need statistics to tell him what's going on.

  18. I wrote about the ABC's political culture ten days ago on my website (, and it is certainly germane to the post above and to many of the comments.