Friday, April 27, 2012

The Courier Mail versus the ABC

Last weekend, the Courier Mail ran an editorial with the provocative headline, "ABC has Failed to Deliver".

It's no secret that I'm a fan of the ABC, so I was appropriately provoked by the headline. I'm rarely a fan of Queensland's only statewide daily, either - also public knowledge. Here we go, I thought. My respectable and respected ABC is up against the lowest-common-denominator tabloid Courier Mail. Quite prepared to be transported by a wave of righteous indignation on Aunty's behalf,  I started reading the editorial.

Nothing happened. No rising blood pressure, no bad out-loud words, no urge to hurl my precious iPad against the nearest wall. Nothing. 

It certainly wasn't that I agreed with the Courier Mail's editorial attack. I don't accept the premise of the criticism; it feels more like a manufactured opportunity to undermine a rival.

I blinked, and wondered who the Courier Mail thought had been failed by the ABC, and what constituted an editorial-worthy failure.The answer is in Paragraph 2:

The ABC's journalistic presence in Queensland is disappointing. It has walked away from news breaking and retreated to basic coverage of some news events.
So says the Courier Mail editorial. Okay.

Where does my ABC stand? What is the ABC's responsibility as a news organisation? Are they failing by their own standards, or is this a standard being imposed from outside the tent? 

But we should expect more of such an important public institution which is benefiting from government largesse to expand in every area but its core of local news coverage.

"Benefitting from government largesse"? It's a little more than that; the government funds the ABC. In return for funding, the ABC is required to provide certain services. The basic requirements can be found here.   It's relatively short - about the length of a Courier Mail editorial - and I encourage you to read it. I have, and there is no mention at all of journalistic presence or breaking news in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 (Section 6 - Charter). 

Digging further, I read the Act in more detail, as it pertains to provision of news services.  It's every bit as dry and non-specific as you'd expect the Act to be, and in amongst the legalese you won't find any obligation or objective to fulfil the the requirements suggested by the Courier Mail.

And yet, they are disappointed. Has the ABC somehow failed to meet the standards set down by the Courier Mail?

I suspect that David Fagan and his team at the Courier Mail is judging the ABC against its own objectives. The Courier Mail - and all of its News Limited cousins in Australia - are part of a now-infamous global operation headed by Rupert Murdoch. The ultimate objective s profit. 

Nowhere on the Internet was I able to find a News Limited equivalent to the ABC's Charter. There's simply nothing on display to indicate what News Limited staff should look to as guiding principles. Where's the Mission Statement? The poster with the Company's Values? Yes, they're a corporate cultural hangover from the end of last century, but they mean something.

Okay then. So it's not that the ABC is failing to meet the Courier Mail's standards. Perhaps then, it's the personnel at the Courier Mail who are disappointed. 

I can't answer that, other than to suggest that a newsroom is, like any workplace, a hothouse environment. Every input is filtered through a unique lens of industry and employer: what does this mean for me, for my colleagues, for my employer? Do i need to recalibrate? If the Courier Mail is committed to breaking news, is there a simple expectation that the ABC must be committed to the same goal?

I'll leave defence of the ABC's news service to Mark Scott, who responded to the editorial. Here's part of his response:

The ABC Queensland news team comprises more than 130 radio, TV, online and specialist current affairs reporters including the hardworking people in our 11 regional newsrooms who provide vital news and information for those in rural and remote communities.

I could indulge us all in a spiteful round of favourite preschool games, headed by It's My Train Set (So We Play By My Rules), ranging through You Started It, and finishing with My Dad's Bigger Than Your Dad. I won't. I crashed a tricycle at preschool 40-something years ago. I still have a scar on my left knee, but I've grown up. Let's do this the grown up way.

News isn't generic, and neither are the consumers of news. We can - and do - choose how and when we want our news delivered. Online technology allows us to tailor our content even further. In short, we can get the news we want.

If the ABC news service disappoints the editorial team at the Courier Mail, then that's okay. It's their opinion. It's not mine. I believe the ABC is a modern news service that meets the needs of its audience now, and is positioned to continue to meet the changing needs of it's audience into the future.

What you see depends on where you stand.


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