Alan Sunderland has written about the ABC’s coverage of state and territory issues, suggesting it is time to look at investing in more scheduled TV current affairs. I’d like to address some of the points he has raised and talk about our approach to state and territory coverage.
Let’s start with where Alan and I agree. Stateline, and the state-based editions of 7.30 into which it was folded in 2011, were fantastic programs in their day. They played an important role in holding state and territory governments to account in an age when our audience accessed the ABC via broadcast radio and TV and almost all of our budgets and resources were in those two platforms.
Alan has correctly called out the services and platforms added to News in the past decade – and been typically forthright about his involvement in some of those decisions.
For one, we now have ABC NEWS channel, which on average reaches more than 3.5 million Australians each week. The pandemic, the bushfires, the floods and many other stories and events have demonstrated the integral value of ABC NEWS channel in a digital, on-demand and streaming world where the audience wants immediate information on unfolding events.
He is also right to point out that we’ve moved to become a multiplatform news service. In addition to TV viewers and radio listeners, our journalism now reaches millions of Australians via our own and third-party digital platforms, such as the ABC NEWS website and app, ABC iview and ABC listen.
Alan writes that reducing the Sunday night edition of the 7pm News by 10 minutes to 30 minutes, in line with the other nights, “marks the final surrender in a long ABC retreat from providing regular in-depth scheduled coverage of State politics and State issues on the public broadcaster”.
With this, I strongly disagree. There is no retreat and no surrender. Our coverage of state and territory issues is impactful and comprehensive – and we are delivering it to audiences on their schedule every day of the week, not just to our schedule.
Here is just a sample of some recent original, impactful stories:
- The SA newsroom’s investigation and exposure of the MP expenses misuse led to an ICAC investigation, the resignation of five MPs and a complete overhaul of the remuneration system. Two MPs are also currently facing criminal charges of making fraudulent claims. Both have denied the allegations against them.
- Gabriella Marchant’s reporting “Rhys’s Final Wish” had enormous impact as voluntary assisted dying laws were being debated in the SA Parliament.
- David O’Byrne resigned as Tasmania’s Opposition Leader after Hobart-based Investigative Reporter Emily Baker broke the story of a sexual harassment complaint.
- The ABC’s investigation into Tasmanian Liberal MP Adam Brooks dominated the final weeks of the State’s 2021 election campaign and also led to his resignation.
- An investigation into successive home building failures in Tasmania led to the reintroduction of warranty insurance in the State.
- The Victorian newsroom is rolling out a series of specials for all platforms on key election topics and how the major parties plan to address them. The issues to be covered were determined by our community engagement efforts and include cost of living, health, state of the suburbs, the economy and energy. The specials complement our core election coverage of the campaign trail and analysis from our state political reporters.
- Following Jessica Longbottom’s stories this year about the inadequacies at one of Melbourne’s TAFE colleges there is now a potential class action and the State Government stepped in to conduct weekly checks.
- Geelong reporter Rachel Clayton exposed a loophole in insurance cover that means households may not be covered if a business is being run at the property – even if it’s selling free-range eggs using an honesty box.
- The investigation into the Orroral Valley fire last year, and the ABC’s revelations on what Defence knew and communicated to fire authorities after one of its choppers sparked the blaze, led to an inquest by the ACT Coroner.
- Our stories on the mismanagement of COVID in the Jeta Gardens Aged Care facility in Queensland were raised in Federal Parliament and Senate Estimates and two managers stood down.
- Coverage sourced from Right to Information documents exposed failures by Queensland Government authorities in controlling the bushfire in the K’gari (Fraser Island) National Park.
- The expose on serious injuries sustained by women giving birth at Mackay Hospital led to the Director of Obstetrics being suspended, the health board being stood down, the Minister apologising and a compensation scheme for victims.
- An FOI request by the ABC into grants to the Darwin Turf Club which led to an ICAC investigation.
- Our reporting of leaked draft documents revealed negotiations relating to fishing rights in Aboriginal waters across the Top End.
- Again using material obtained under FOI, the ABC confirmed the NT Government knew of structural flaws in Darwin buildings long before it publicly disclosed its concerns.
- An ongoing investigation into the sexual abuse of primary school students in Fremantle has resulted in dozens more victims coming forward.
- Samia O’Keefe’s investigation of allegations of historical abuse at the WA Institute of Sport helped bring about an inquiry into abuse claims by former WAIS gymnasts.
- The NSW newsroom has established dedicated Bushfire Recovery and Flood Recovery teams to regularly report on progress and hold all levels of government to account over relief spending.
- Data Journalist Catherine Hanrahan’s data-led investigation into zoning around the new Western Sydney airport exposed investment and infrastructure issues.
- Kathleen Calderwood’s ongoing investigation has exposed tragic failures in Western Sydney hospitals.
Our national teams also investigate state stories, for example:
Paul Farrell’s dogged reporting for 7.30 was instrumental in revealing NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s role in the awarding of a grant to former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire.
Hagar Cohen’s investigation into Bathurst Council and allegations of blackmail, also for 7.30, resulted in the resignation of the Mayor.
The investigation by Anne Connolly and Stephanie Zillman of the Public Trustee system, which included a Four Corners report, led to a public apology from the Queensland State Government and has triggered two inquiries.
Josh Robertson and Mark Willacy’s investigations into Star Casino Brisbane led to Queensland’s Attorney-General ordering a fresh investigation in August.
Attorney-General ordering a fresh investigation in August.
As the ABC navigates the increasingly fragmented media environment, asking how we can afford do more scheduled TV current affairs is not the right question. Even assuming we could get the many millions of dollars it would cost, it would not serve the needs of most our audience members, given where they are today compared to a decade ago.
While Alan argues “nothing has the impact or immediacy of scheduled television current affairs”, in fact journalism strategically rolled out across our platforms daily has measurably greater impact and immediacy, reaching audiences the ABC never has before. For a Four Corners episode or 7.30 story that might be seen by a million viewers on scheduled broadcast, there is another million – mostly under the age of 50 – who consume the journalism via digital.
In this age of multiplatform journalism a key consideration into the future will be how to keep doing the best journalism and make it accessible to the biggest possible audience while ensuring our operations are sustainable, so our people and resources aren’t stretched too thin and we can maintain standards.
Trustworthy public interest journalism is our remit and holding all levels of government to account will always be central to that.
It’s also crucial to ensure that all Australians can access and benefit from that journalism, where and when they want it.