It’s hard to write about the health of current affairs when the programs that aren’t already dead are in God’s waiting room along with the black and white HG Palmer TV. While delivery systems have gone digital, current affairs programming remains steadfastly frozen in the late 20th century.
Almost everywhere the current affairs genre has been supplanted by news, often by rolling news — the empty calories of the industry. Just like food, good current affairs is better for you but costs more to make. On the commercial networks, some programs have gone down-market to survive. Others, such as Channel Nine’s Sunday, were left to wallow in terminal illness, with minimal support, until being put down.
The sector is still reeling from the Howard years — when, through both overt and underhanded pressure, dangerous "lefty" journalists were brought to heel. In 1996 before the Coalition was elected to government, Peter Costello, while wearing a live microphone, accused SBS’s Paul Murphy of taking all his instructions from Labor headquarters at Sussex Street and threatened to "get" him when he got into power.
Costello and Ministers like Richard Alston were true to their word. Boards were systematically stacked with right wing ideologues and networks were relentlessly attacked for bias. The ABC eventually succumbed and accommodated its persecutors. ABC and SBS current affairs programs retreated to the bland, became risk averse and fearful of challenging neo-conservative group-think. That superstructure remains intact and continues to inform program making today, even though Howard has gone. It’s hard to know just how long the rehab is going to take.
Take the ABC’s 7.30 Report for example, the grandchild of This Day Tonight. Every night begins with a predictable pull-together of the days events in Canberra, followed by the predictably good interview and then a couple of reports. Each report is as predictable as the last — opening with a few seconds of music over a montage of shots and then stentorian narration into that first crucial grab of interview. The reporting has become so formulaic it’s a topic of conversation around ABC water coolers.
Strangely enough, we could look back to the black and white days for a remedy to this predictability. This Day Tonight never took itself too seriously; it was The Chaser of its day. Carlton, Murphy, Luck and Bick were a match for Morrow, Taylor, Reucassel and Licciardello. During the dark days of the Howard government when ABC journalists felt obliged not to rock the boat, I looked to The Chaser team to say what the "serious" news and current affairs programs couldn’t. Nothing demonstrated the national security emperor’s lack of clothing more adequately than their Osama bin Laden stunt.
Still at the ABC, Four Corners has had an erratic year — one week a very good story, the next a long-form report that could have been told in 10 minutes. Matthew Carney and Sarah Ferguson’s video-journalism has provided a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stuffy line-up. I watch each week but most of my friends and colleagues in the industry find it too boring. Where, then, are the record ratings coming from? In its early days, Four Corners was often a two or three report program; it might be a format worth considering again. Above all else, it has to become much more aggressive in speaking truth to power. Four Corners has a big budget and an obligation to break more stories.
ABC insiders agree that Foreign Correspondent needs to harden up in the ‘09 season. Programs like Foreign Correspondent and SBS’s Dateline are discretionary viewing and their producers need to give us a few more good reasons to watch. Postcards just don’t cut it anymore.
My old program, Dateline, has had a lacklustre year. It couldn’t seem to make up its mind if it was principally a vehicle for veteran presenter, George Negus, or an international current affairs program produced by video-journalists. I guess its producers will have that worked out for the change in timeslot in next year. Dateline is moving to a very busy Sunday night in 2009 and while the available audience will be large, I wonder if, coming as it will after 60 Minutes and the new Channel Seven program, viewers will have had enough? Still, it has Negus and an excellent team — including Ginny Stein, who produced one the program’s highlights this year: yet another Walkley-winning clandestine report from Zimbabwe.
ABC’s Lateline continues to impress but has broken fewer big yarns this year. With presenter Tony Jones’s loyalty divided between it and Q and A, the program may start to suffer.
Q and A has been an unexpected success. Initially, I thought the format was a waste of one of the country’s best interviewers with the questioning left to the audience. But after a couple of early panellist malfunctions, it has bedded down and is rating well. Its competition, Insight, has had another solid if unspectacular season.
Both programs are good television but are they current affairs? I would argue that SBS has not had a national current affairs show since Insight became a talk show. I suspect that in the case of Q and A, allowing the audience to ask unpalatable questions means the program itself is not a target for those who might accuse it of bias. As long as the guestlist and the audience are roughly balanced in their political views, then the producers have done all they can.
I can understand the appeal of a live audience but it almost always generates more heat than light and, dealing as it often does in the general rather than the specific, rarely challenges. On the positive side, both programs are cheap to make and provide Australians with a chance to put the occasional question to those in power.
I always regarded Insiders as a sop to the right wing ABC haters and now the Coalition is in opposition there seems less reason to watch on a Sunday morning.
Which, of course, brings me to the sad demise of Sunday on Channel Nine. Ross Coulthart and producer, Nick Farrow, won the Gold Walkley this year for their excellent "Butcher of Bega" report. Whether it was just that Sunday had fallen off the radar or mean spirited competitors were loath to give it acknowledgement, this report didn’t become a "story" until it was picked up by the Daily Telegraph weeks after broadcast.
Fortunately, Channel Seven is giving this investigative duo a gig on the new Sunday night current affairs program. Co-producer, Mark Llewellyn says Seven will build the show around good journalism, breaking and telling headline stories. Still, it’s only at the pilot stage and will have to rate around the magic million to survive. While Llewellyn won’t give too much away, the program will be live, possibly with a live audience, and be interactive online. If the program can build a reputation for truthful and fair reporting in a world wallowing in spin then it might have a chance. Audiences are crying out for clarity, simplicity and honesty.
Although The Howard Years was not current affairs it did confirm that producers do not yet feel able to critically examine the Howard decade. While he may be gone, his boards and key appointments remain. Only after they go will producers come blinking out of their hidey holes into the sunlight.
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