It’s official: ABC managing director Mark Scott is the darling of new media. He’s been working on the image for some time, making regular appearances at media conferences and using every opportunity available to spruik his vision for the public broadcaster as a virtual "town square".
A year ago, I identified this trend and questioned whether it was the right direction for the ABC to be taking. Now that he has the support of a chorus of journalists and new media types it’s even more urgent that we scrutinise this shift for what it is.
Last week Scott spoke at the Media140 conference in Sydney about the ABC’s plans to transform the ABC into a hub for user-generated content, announcing that he would soon open at least 50 new positions for digital media trainers across the country. The ABC Open Project, to be launched next year, will see more than 50 digital media producers stationed in ABC centres around Australia. Their job will be to teach the punters how to upload their own content to the ABC’s website.
Scott announced: "Educating Australians to create their own media will in turn benefit other media organisations around the country as more and more people learn the skills to be able to engage using digital media."
Scott’s speech was warmly welcomed by most if not all of the journalists, new media pundits and academics in attendance at Media140. Not a single hard-hitting question was asked of him at the time — or indeed, since, in any coverage of the event that I have read (people seem to be too busy firing shots at the very soft target of News Ltd journalist Caroline Overington who dared to talk about her own media organisation’s digital ‘vision’). I find this bizarre.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Scott’s efforts to align himself with the cutting edge of digital technology are commendable — a good public broadcaster should keep on top of new media developments and the ABC has mostly done so pretty well.
But how is that going to contribute to the production of "quality journalism" that these very same people like to fret about? Missing from this debate — and from the uncritical applauding of Scott’s foray into community-driven content — seems to be a collective recognition that Scott oversees a very large part of a dwindling resource: that is, money to be spent on good, original journalism.
It has been suggested by some media commentators (Eric Beecher at Crikey and Jeff Sparrow at newmatilda.com, among others) that Australia needs a publicly funded newspaper to fill the gap in the market that will be left by the decline of commercial newspapers. But there has been little scrutiny by these same commentators of the journalism that the taxpayer already funds. How much of this can be defined as "quality" or "investigative", and is the ABC looking at ways to increase this output in response to an industry in decline? Indeed, how does the public broadcaster intend to fulfil its legislated role — as outlined in its 1983 charter — to step in where the market fails?
The ABC news rooms across the country do a great job of providing fair and balanced daily news. No serious commentator could question their commitment to this or the fact that they do it, in the most part, very well.
But what about investigative journalism? What about the journalism that isn’t based on a government press release but on information that has been dug up through the journalist’s own initiative — the kind of journalism that exposes things that those in power would prefer remained hidden.
Indeed, what is investigative journalism — and how do we go about measuring its health in the current Australian media environment?
James Ettema and Theodore Glasser, authors of a key text on investigative journalism Custodians of Conscience, argue that the difference between the daily news journalist and the investigative journalist is their relationship to those in positions of power. That is: the daily reporter ordinarily accepts statements from governments and other official institutions as true — or if not true, then at least as worthy of reporting — while the investigative journalist’s role is to test claims made by the authorities.
How much of the ABC’s journalism fits the latter definition?
Based on a very preliminary research project that I undertook looking at the output of ABC TV’s flagship investigative program, Four Corners, the answer is: not as much as should. Of the 30 Four Corners stories I analysed, only 15 fit all the criteria of investigative journalism. (The results of the study can be found in this month’s Pacific Journalism Review.)
Imagine what 50 new investigative journalist positions would do to turn this situation around.
It’s time the impressive body of academics, journalists and commentators who regularly gather to discuss the "future of journalism" turned their critical attention to the one organisation that will survive the predicted collapse of commercial media models.
Let’s help Mark Scott down off the pedestal and start asking him some hard questions about his budget commitment to investigative journalism. You know, like journalists.
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