Save Us from Visiting Firepersons

by 8 Degrees of Latitude

Judith Sloan, contributing economics editor at The Australian, is someone who should be read regularly for her insights on matters within her portfolio. She generally makes very good sense. But in a piece in her newspaper on April 17, she breaks a fundamental rule of considered comment. On the basis of “travelling around Asia for the past three weeks,” she judges that the government should axe the ABC-run Australia Network and save taxpayers millions of dollars.

She’s making a political – or perhaps it’s a corporate – point. But it isn’t one that has any basis on a broader view. It panders to the assumption that Sky News, which had tendered to produce the service before Julia Gillard’s overly muddled government cancelled the process, would do a better job of presenting an Australian face to the region than the ABC. That’s a moot point. Sloan says Australia Network’s news coverage is below par. So it is – and ABC24, from which it draws some of its content, could certainly improve. But Sky News does not inspire one with confidence that what is being broadcast is necessarily the distilled essence of a better pile of dung.

Sloan bemoans being assailed (as an apparently infrequent viewer of Australia Network’s fare over three weeks – wow! – in the near abroad) by ancient programming drawn, as it must be on Australia Network’s deficient funding, from the bottom drawer. Watching four-year-old rebroadcasts of that advertising industry self- love-in The Gruen Transfer is neither edifying nor informative, agreed. Watching “reruns” of Sea Patrol isn’t either – except that for most of Australia Network’s audience they’re first-run shows. We’ve only just got to the series where the fine folk of HMAS Hammersley get to wear their “new” RAN-cam spotty uniforms. What’s old to Sloan, who presumably views television most of the time from safely within the  wall-to-wall reality show environment of the Special Biosphere, is not necessarily old to others.

In her gratuitous polemic promoting Sky News as a better alternative – it is part owned by the Murdoch empire which publishes the paper in which her words appear – she also says this:

“For anyone interested in Australian politics, the coverage is scant and unsatisfactory. It almost seems that the programmers regard it as unseemly to cover too much Australian politics. By contrast, the rescue of orang-utans in Kalimantan or melting ice sheets in the Antarctic – this opinion segment was carried in the news – are given lengthy coverage. I also stumbled on some sort of basic English-as-a-second-language teaching programme.”

In the utter vacuity of that comment, she exposes herself as a visiting fireman of the worst sort, the kind of blow-in to whom the lowest assessment is awarded: She doesn’t have a clue that she doesn’t have a clue.

Sloan might be good at economics (well, she is, and eminently readable about it too) but she’d be woeful as an editor or programmer, on her analysis of what might interest overseas neighbours. Australian politics are parochial, mundane and peripheral to the broadcast region, except in exceptional circumstances or when – as for example on the excellent news analysis shows broadcast by the network – some deeper coverage is warranted.

In her article in The Australian, Sloan also wrote this: “As far as the Australia Network is concerned, there is simply no case for its continued existence. The content of the network is second-rate and any notion that a contribution is being made to the soft diplomatic effort of Australia is simply laughable.

“It is very likely that Sky News would have produced a more interesting and vibrant range of programmes, which would have attracted a wider audience. But the bottom line is that we should be ditching this endeavour altogether and saving the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.”

There’s the rub.  Australia Network is not presented for an expatriate audience – though some of us watch it from time to time – or for wandering warblers, such as Sloan in this instance. And it’s very unlikely that news flashes about another traffic accident on the F3 (or whatever) would add anything to a foreign viewer’s perception of Australia.

Of course Australia Network could do a better job. Some lateral thinking is certainly required. An effective merging of the cerebral efforts of the ABC and SBS, for example, and creation of an international broadcasting division formally including both Radio Australia and Australia Network, could do the trick.

But that would need more funding, not less. It’s unlikely to get it while ever Australians – including, apparently, the otherwise cerebral Sloan herself – take the view that it’s not worth presenting a measured face to the world.