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Asia (& PNG) are places you fly over

Phil Williams was a highly regarded foreign correspondent for the ABC
Phil Williams was a highly regarded foreign correspondent for the ABC

| Pearls & Irritations

SYDNEY - By ignoring Asia and the Pacific, the Australian media is contributing towards the creation of a more insular and parochial and less understanding country.

Any examination of Australia’s media these days suggests the country’s news editors have adopted an adage attributed to former prime minister Paul Keating – that Asia (or Papua New Guinea) was a place you flew over on the way to Europe – or Washington in our case.

In the mainstream media, so scant is any serious coverage, commentary or analysis of our nearest neighbours in Southeast Asia or the Pacific, one might question whether, in the mind of news executives, these places have ceased to exist.

Fewer and fewer Australian correspondents in the region struggle to get fewer and fewer stories a run in the daily media.

In today’s digital world, a journalist’s work is judged – and often rewarded – on the basis of the number of ‘click-throughs’ it generates, or the amount of retweets it can garner on Twitter or mentions in social media.

Hence the tidal wave of ‘clickbait’ tabloid headlines pandering to the lowest common denominator – with content to match.

Stories on events and people from our immediate neighbourhood rarely make the cut involving, as they do, different cultures from the lesser-known and harder-to-understand countries of the Asia-Pacific.

Instead, much of our media turns to the familiar – the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States – predominantly white Anglo Saxon societies reported by predominantly white Anglo Saxon news.

Or as John Menadue has coined it, the ‘legacy white media’.

This preoccupation with the familiar means coverage of international affairs is more likely to focus on Meghan Markle’s latest utterances than the catastrophic humanitarian and economic toll visited on our nearest neighbours by the Covid pandemic.

The tendency is to stick with the familiar.

It begs the question as to whether Australian editors and news producers are uninterested or simply don’t have the background, experience or (in some cases) intellect to effectively manage international coverage.

The fact is that in today’s media, unless stories involve a natural disaster or some graphic ‘gee-whiz’ images, you’ll rarely hear about our neighbours.

The great irony is that, whilst the numbers of Australians visiting, living and working in Asia-Pacific countries are much larger than 30 or 40 years ago, our coverage and analysis of these places has steadily diminished.

As a result, our younger generations are potentially less well informed, less knowledgeable and less well-prepared to deal with and meet the challenges and opportunities presented in our own backyard.

It wasn’t always so. There was a time in the three decades that spanned 1970 to 2000 when Australian reporting on Southeast Asia and the Pacific led the world in terms of quality and depth of reporting.

The ABC (with Radio Australia) maintained a significant and well-resourced presence with correspondents and support staff in nearly a dozen cities across the region as well as freelance contributors elsewhere and specialist Asia-Pacific reporters in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

Fairfax (now Nine) and the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd (now News Corporation) also funded bureaus in Port Moresby, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Singapore, Jakarta and Delhi.

Correspondents reported, analysed and commented on the events and politics of the region from an Australian perspective for an Australian audience.

It was a sign that that Australian media, and thereby Australia, took the Asia Pacific region seriously, and in return, the region took us seriously.

Unlike their colleagues in London and Washington, who had the luxury of being able to rewrite or re-version material from the likes of The Times or The Telegraph and the BBC or The New York Times and the big America television networks, correspondents in our region mostly had to resort of primary reporting.

This meant cultivating their own sources, conducting on-the-ground interviews and pursuing original journalism relevant to Australian audiences back home.

The result was Australians getting their own boots-on-the-ground view of events as they unfolded in our own backyard.

Foreign-correspondentReaders, listeners and viewers had a greater comprehension of the political machinations of our Asian and Pacific neighbours – if not some deeper understanding of the respective cultures.

It was a time when most literate Australians could potentially put names to each of the ASEAN leaders, if not those of Papua New Guinea and Fiji as well. It is doubtful the same would hold true today.

The fact is that over the last two decades, Australian media has retreated from its coverage of the Asia Pacific.

The arrival of the internet and social media and the subsequent decline in the profitability of the big media organisations has led to a local media industry almost completely dominated by profit rather than editorial leadership and intellect.

On top of that, we’ve had a level of ideological bastardry in Canberra which has resulted in ever-shrinking funding for public interest journalism about the region.

As a result, the country’s media organisations have reduced budgets for their own international newsgathering whilst retaining, and in some cases increasing, their reliance on content from international news agencies and major media brands.

The ABC maintains correspondents in the region but with modest newsgathering resources and limited travel budgets severely impacting their capacity to file original material.

The influence of the ABC on the region these days is minimal.

Significantly, the independent coverage we had of China from an Australian perspective was severely curtailed late last year following Beijing’s virtual expulsion of our two remaining correspondents there – the ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review‘s Mike Smith.

The frustration is that, even in places where our news media maintain their own correspondents abroad, editors have not for the most part been able to wean themselves off alternative coverage from the same legacy white media providers it has always turned to.

It is easier, and perhaps more cost-effective, in today’s digital world, to simply run with the feed from the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera or Fox News than empower and resource your own reporters to do the same – or better.

There are honourable exceptions, of course. For example, SBS World News, whose budget is a pittance, is adept at editing video from its international news sources then having its own correspondents’ script and voice-over to better provide relevant background, context and nuance for the local audience.

And to be fair, marquee programs such as ABC’s Foreign Correspondent and Nine’s 60 Minutes do make occasional forays into the region – but far too infrequently and too often on the basis of the ‘visiting fireman’ than the vantage of an embedded foreign correspondent.

Elsewhere, from an outpost in Jakarta, The Australian’s Amanda Hodge continues to stoically report on an area that stretches from Afghanistan and India to Thailand, Indochina and the Philippines.

Nine (owners of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald), appears to have little interest in day-to-day developments in the region unless they can be linked to a real estate yarn, a drug bust involving Australians or a former royal – of any nationality – behaving badly.

The result is that the Australian media is contributing towards the creation of an Australia more insular and parochial but less understanding of our place in the world and the relationship with our neighbours.

We increasingly see little of the world other than through the eyes of London and Washington.

Yet there may be some cause for optimism that Paul Keating did not only belatedly discover Asia, he became a champion of our continued integration with it.

Indeed, Keating was able to enunciate a vision that encapsulated a place for Australia truly engaged within the rise and rise of Asia-Pacific.

We need and deserve better, more comprehensive coverage of our region – to better inform and educate new generations of Australians whilst reminding our neighbours that we are serious about the world in which we live.

Any change will require leadership, vision and commitment not just from the government, but the business community and the Australian media itself.

Stay tuned – but don’t expect any changes to current programming – at least not in the foreseeable future.

Bruce Dover is an award winning foreign correspondent. He was vice president (China) for News Corporation, managing editor for CNN International and chief executive of the ABC’s international television service, Australia Network

Ian Macintosh reported for the ABC as a foreign correspondent based in the Asia Pacific, Europe and North America and as manager of its international operations. Later he was an executive with CNN International becoming its Hong Kong-based senior vice president for Asia Pacific


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Johnny Blades

Just a reminder, there's also Radio NZ Pacific (formerly called Radio NZ International) which covers the Pacific region, and Papua New Guinea on a regular basis.

And if you click on the PNG tag at the top of any story, you'll go to this page where all our PNG stories, news and sports, and radio news and sports stories (including in pan-tok pisin) are found:

Bernard Corden

One of my favourite memories of SBS involved Mary Kostakidis delivering the opening address for the Sydney Olympics from the steps of the Opera House back in 2000.

Mary steadfastly refused to repeat the address in French - as International Olympic Committee protocols dictated she must - and as a result was subjected to disciplinary action.

The following evening after delivering the SBS news, Mary ended the broadcast with a wry smile and exclaimed "a demain", which is French for 'see you tomorrow'.

Pure sophistication and light years ahead of the adversarial reptilian tactics employed by many of the current flowerpots who are often engaged just to look pretty for the cameras and the indoctrinated audience.

William Dunlop

I agree, Barbara, cranked up in Big Mal's time if I recall correctly.

I had a big spend with Alan Atkins in his trade store in Kundiawa in 1969. Paid $300 for a National Trans-Oceanic shortwave receiver so I would be in the big picture of the world and current affairs.

In those days it was the BBC and the ABC I listened mostly to. Voice of America and Radio Peking vied with each other on propaganda trash.

Barbara Short

Yes, thank goodness for SBS.

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