THEY call it ABC News 24. I call it ABC News 23. I think my nomenclature is more accurate since the ABC depends on the BBC to fill up an hour of its news broadcasts late at night, the 1am and 2am slots. But even at those late hours, the BBC tends to highlight what’s wrong with the ABC’s 24-hour effort and exactly how pathetic the latter is.
For one, the ABC’s footage from abroad is always stale. One never gets to see more than one turnover every 24 hours. Indeed, it often goes to 30 or even 36 hours. With a 24-hour channel, one depends on coverage of foreign news quite a bit – there isn’t that much happening on the domestic front.
And the ABC is ill-equipped to cope with such a channel. The spread of correspondents is very thin – for example, one person looks after South Asia, a region where nearly a quarter of humanity lives. This region encompasses two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, that are crucial to the future of the West. Afghanistan is a country under partial Western occupation and Pakistan is terrorism central.
Being the only Muslim state that has nuclear weapons, Pakistan is of great significance news-wise. If any other state in the region or the Middle East does obtain nukes, you can be sure that Pakistan will be the source. Yet, the ABC has no full-time correspondent there. Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence controls events in Afghanistan but the ABC, which claims to champion good old-fashioned news values, does not rate it important enough to station someone in Islamabad.
And let’s not forget India which is some kind of a bulwark to these countries. It is impossible for one person to spread themselves across this terrain and do anything like justice. Most of the time the correspondent, Sally Sara, is reduced to reading scripts from agency wires while stale footage creeps across the screen.
The ABC News 24 network appears to be a product of the ego of the corporation’s managing director, Mark Scott. He swore to implement it using the available staff. But the ABC is now cutting support staff in various bureaux abroad and also expecting increased output. The gruel will be spread thinner by the addition of water. Never mind if it tastes bad.
Another thing that Scott has championed is the airing of opinion: he obviously feels that ABC staff should have a site where they voice their opinions. Hence the Drum was born. It compromises ABC staff to a large extent as they, being employees of a government-funded body, are not expected to show political bias when it comes to reporting. Yet, via their opinion pieces, their biases are on open display.
The Drum also makes its appearance on the 24-hour TV channel and illustrates the old adage – you can’t make a carpenter out of a plumber, they are two different trades. Steve Cannane, an extremely competent radio broadcaster, is a tepid and boring interlocutor on the program, stiff and evidently uncomfortable and out of place.
The main contributor to the Drum, Annabel Crabb, is also unsuited for television; she was recruited as chief writer for the Drum website and does an excellent job there but her long-winded sentences do not work on television. She ends up monopolising the program and, even then, often cannot complete what she means to say. She is periodically cut off in mid-sentence by Cannane who appears to be obsessed with trying to discuss X number of topics on a given day. Result? The discussion lacks any depth.
The guests on the Drum are, by and large, a boring lot too; even when there are people who can be a bit unconventional (like the chaps from the Chaser, for example), everyone tends to take a cue from Cannane and it becomes boredom central. Members of the Institute of Public Affairs, a right-wing think-tank (stink-tank would be more accurate) appear to have a kind of permanent booking for one seat on the Drum and, as most right-wingers do, tend to make the program as dull as ditchwater.
The way staff have been allocated jobs on News 24 is evidence of hasty decision-making. Virginia Trioli, one of the best and brightest in the ABC, one who can interview people with charm and ferocity, one who has more than a passing knowledge of world affairs, is reduced to reading the news. And then there’s Aly Moore who tends to regard the studio as she does her sofa at home – nothing else can account for the way she tends to lounge on the news desk every few minutes. Moore should always be behind a camera and needs some voice training to tone down the squeakiness of her delivery.
Competing with Cannane for the title of wooden man of 24-hour channels is sports news reader Paul Kennedy. In fact, Kennedy may well have the edge on Cannane. Sport is heavily Sydney-centric, reflecting the traditional bias that led to the nation’s capital being built in Canberra. Kennedy often seems to be operating in the past tense, so frozen is he, something like an animal caught in the glare of headlights.
The hurry with which the ABC set up News 24 is evident in some of the names it has chosen for its programmes. Al Jazeera has a interview programme called One On One; the ABC could do no better than pinch and modify it to One Plus One. This is just one example. One Plus One could also have given its host, Jane Hutcheon, some voice training to speak on a lower key. It grates on the ear.
One lesson that the ABC could have learned from Al Jazeera, which has grown to be a great success because of the journalism it produces, was to pick its correspondents from the areas it covers. A man knows his own home much better than an outsider. But given that Scott pledged to set up the channel with no extra expenditure, the ABC is reduced to recyling and re-recycling. You see the same footage tagged differently on every news programme on the ABC – and it does have a fair few channels.
So what’s new about News 24? You can see Lateline and Lateline Business a few extra times. You can see the 7.30 Report again if you happen to be suffering from insomnia – and what’s more, you can see Four Corners and Media Watch on an HD channel. Forget the fact that the last two named programmes are repeated on the analog channel ABC1 as well.
And before I forget, you can also get the time from ABC News 24 because it has a digital clock on-screen. I find that the most useful bit of the channel as I do not possess a watch.