There wasn’t a lot of detail in Mark Scott’s announcement yesterday that the ABC will be offering a 24-hour news channel. That hasn’t prevented a great deal of commentary appearing on the matter — opinions were even on offer in advance of the formal announcement.
The launch of Australia’s first free-to-air 24-hour television news channel will be one of the bigger media stories of the early part of the year. It’s one more bold step from Scott as managing director: it follows moves to renovate the ABC’s online presence, as well as new efforts to harness user-generated content like ABC Open.
Many commentators have rushed forward to say that a rolling news service "makes sense" for the ABC, both as a way of repurposing ABC content, and as a move in the chess game it’s playing with Sky over stewardship of the Australia Network. But, as news consumers and taxpayers, we’re entitled to pause for a moment and wonder whether it actually makes sense for us.
The new channel will provide a free-to-air competitor to Australia’s only current rolling news service, Sky News. There have been some catty comments about Sky’s stake in all this and as usual, the Murdochs make irresistible stage villains. But Sky actually has a lot to be proud of in leading the field and in building a 24-hour news service with diverse offerings where none previously existed. Particularly creditable innovations include the aggregation of hyperlocal, capital city news broadcasts in Sky Local, and A-PAC, which runs continuous coverage of Parliament and various public sphere events that fall outside the normal run of television news.
Admittedly and unsurprisingly, though, Sky and other Murdoch outlets have offered takes on the ABC’s move that have been more than a little cranky, including yesterday’s rant from Sky’s CEO, Angelos Frangopoulos. The ABC’s announcement constitutes a new skirmish in the running feud between Scott and News Corporation — and no doubt adds to the latter organisation’s gripes with public broadcasters.
Scott has given as good as he’s got over the last year, painting Murdoch as yesterday’s man in a speech last year, and attempting to underline his own credentials as a thought leader by expanding user-facing online initiatives despite News Corp’s dark mutterings on paywalls, and its Google- and blogger-bashing.
However self-interested Frangopoulos’s criticisms may be, though, they do contain a grain of truth. When he argues that the ABC is violating its charter by offering a competing service to a commercial player, he’s being a bit too cute. Sky isn’t free to air, so when we take access into account, Sky’s offerings and those of the new ABC channel will hardly be homogenous. When the ABC’s service goes to air, by contrast, those who don’t have pay television will have access to a local, continuous television news service for the first time.
But a more important, related question is this: Who will want or need such a service in a news and information landscape which is more and more characterised by an abundance of basic, headline-style coverage? This question is all the more pressing at a time when the Australian Government is moving to guarantee access to the bandwidth needed to access on-demand multimedia coverage online. In a fibre-to-the-home era, live news coverage — even video news — will no longer be the preserve of television channels.
We’re also entitled to ask questions about the size of the anticipated audience for this service — and about who will actually use it. The ABC’s initiatives should certainly not be constrained by the pursuit of ratings, but in a post-broadcast democracy like Australia, it’s likely that the audience will be small, and primarily composed of those who are already information-rich. There’s every indication that other similar initiatives, like BBC 24 in the UK, have struggled to transcend that audience — which is also the group that Sky relies on for its daytime ratings here. A 24-hour ABC news network will likely be part of the smorgasbord of specialised material available to news junkies like me whose appetite for political content is effectively bottomless. It will, in other words, be largely serving a niche market which is already well catered for. Is this the best way to use the ABC’s finite resources?
Frangopoulos is also right to point to the contradiction between the announcement and the clarifications surrounding it. We’re told that there will be new staff hired and a new Ultimo facility and at the same time an attempt to blunt criticism is made with reassurances that the channel won’t need special content or any resources that aren’t in place. It’s hard to see how this is an initiative that won’t involve additional costs. Even if it were, to wholeheartedly endorse it we’d need to grant that the ABC’s current news and current affairs offerings are satisfactory. Unfortunately, they’re mostly not.
The ABC’s flagship programs are becoming limper and limper: the 7:30 Report‘s political interviews are often little more than an empty ritual; 4 Corners takes a quarter of the year off and runs more and more overseas content. Local radio is generally understaffed, and, as a result of online initiatives, it carries the burden of increased responsibilities and thus struggles to break stories. With attention, if not money, flowing to a new service, will these issues be addressed?
Indeed, if the ABC really wanted to honour its charter and address market failures, it would seek not to provide the kind of shallow continuous coverage that, intermittent, "event" stories aside, characterises 24-hour news services and freely available online alternatives.
Instead, they’d be going for that more elusive quality in the contemporary information landscape: depth. By renewing the investigative remit of 4 Corners in order that it might pursue a greater number of important, complex national stories, the ABC would be providing something that simply doesn’t exist elsewhere and which Australian democracy urgently needs.
And if Kerry O’Brien had the support of an investigative team, he might be able to confront politicians with new information and curly questions, instead of leading all comers through the same, tired pas de deux. If additional resources were provided to local radio, collapsing local public spheres might be revivified. A continuous news service will not address these entrenched difficulties which are problems for Australia’s democracy as much as they are for the ABC.
True thought leadership from Mr Scott might recognise that what’s lacking in Australia’s public sphere is not another source of basic news coverage, but a commitment to providing new information, context, synthesis, analysis, and tough questions. More information on the new channel will reveal the extent of his awareness of these problems.
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