AT ABOUT 3am AEST (+11 hours GMT) on Saturday, February 13, the reign of Egytptian dictator Mohammed Hosni Mubarak came to an end. Thirteen hours later, the Australian 24-hour news channel, ABC News 24, was still struggling to cope with the developments.
Every 24-hour news channel of any repute had round-the-clock coverage of the historic events in Egypt as they unfolded; right until early Sunday (February 13) morning, the majority of the time was spent on discussing the fallout from the 18 days of protests, something unheard of in the Middle East.
The last time there was a simliar earthquake in Egypt was back in 1952 when one Gamal Abdel Nasser and his group of Free Officers overthrew the monarchy. Then, as this time, the older members of the armed forces backed the status quo; Nasser was supported by the younger elements.
But that isn’t what this post is about. ABC News 24 has struggled on many occasions – when then Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd was toppled in 2010 by his own party, the network was caught with its pants down. Sky News and the Nine network were much quicker off the blocks. This time, was even more embarrassing.
I switched on the network at midday; the fare available was a repeat of some anodyne programme shown on the analog channel, ABC1. At this time the BBC World Service was running hot with stories from Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian cities. On ABC News 24, it was a normal dreary Saturday.
I then had a look at the 4pm bulletin. It was tragic. The ABC correspondent in Cairo had gone AWOL – or so it seemed. The news was led with a story from Al Jazeera – yes, the hated Al Jazeera, the network that has often been linked to Osama bin Laden by the prima donnas in the West, the network whose office was shut down by the Egyptian authorities, the network that has caused more convulsions in the Arab world in its short lifespan than the ABC has caused anywhere, even Australia, in more than 80 years of existence.
The second story was from the BBC – and this was not even acknowledged. Unless one was aware of the fact that the reporter is a longtime BBC hand, one would never have known. The ABC’s contribution mirrored the cultural cringe that seems to afflict the whole of Australia – it was a report about US president Barack Obama’s reaction. Funny, one could get video footage from Washington, but not from Cairo where seismic events were taking place. Priorities, priorities.
And then, after a clip from the analog service, showing a demonstration by Egyptians in Sydney, there was a most curious interview conducted by ABC employee Jane Hutcheon with Lydia Khalil, an Egyptian woman from a think-tank. Khalil is obviously an American-Egyptan; your chances of getting on the ABC are better if you have a Western accent. The curious part of the interview came when Hutcheon asked “can you imagine what it will be like in cities like Alexandria?” This, when the BBC had reported four hours earlier exactly what has happening in that Egyptian city. Tells one a lot about Hutcheon’s news sense, and the reaction time of the network as a whole.
As I’ve said before, ABC News 24 has been set up to satisfy the ego of managing director, Mark Scott. Its resources are insufficient and when one really needs a 24-hour network – when a major story breaks – it is found wanting. It may be better to deploy those resources locally, shut down the network – and avoid repeating programmes so often.