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States of Neglect

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Last Sunday, for the first time since 2014, the 7pm News on the main ABC channel ran for only 30 minutes. ABC Alumni director Alan Sunderland, a former senior manager in the News division, argues that this is “the final surrender in a long ABC retreat” from holding powerful state governments to account. “Something needs to be done,” he writes, “and now is the time to look again at the problem”. However, in a response received by the Alumni, the ABC's Director of News, Analysis and Investigations, Justin Stevens, strongly disagrees, saying that ABC state and territory coverage is comprehensive and impactful, delivering to audiences the national broadcaster has never reached before. Read both views here.  


By Alan Sunderland / 31 October 2022

It was a small announcement that passed virtually unnoticed. A few weeks ago, the ABC quietly let it be known that it would be reducing its Sunday evening television news bulletins across the country from 40 minutes back to 30, to bring them into line with the rest of the week.

This weekend, that change came into effect. For many viewers, the reduction was unlikely to have a major impact – ABC TV news bulletins have always been 30 minutes, apart from the doomed mid-1980s experiment called The National, which saw nightly news and current affairs combined into a one-hour national program with state windows. The 40-minute Sunday bulletin was therefore something of an anomaly, and one that made the rest of the Sunday schedule a little messy.

But what might seem to many like a little bit of schedule housekeeping is, in reality, far more important. It marks the final surrender in a long ABC retreat from providing regular in-depth scheduled coverage of state1politics and state issues on the public broadcaster.

‘Holding the powerful to account’ and ‘speaking truth to power’ are two regularly quoted principles of public interest journalism. In Australia, power is exercised at a federal, a state and a local level through the three tiers of government, and so the ABC has a responsibility to provide comprehensive coverage of all three.

At a federal level, the ABC has always performed well. Its extensive and well-staffed Canberra bureau provides agenda-setting coverage of national politics, with programs like Insiders, 7.30 and national radio current affairs delivering analysis, long-format interviews and extensive coverage.

At a local level, the ABC has prioritised increased funding and staffing for its regional offices, combining content staff from the old divisions of Radio, Regional and News into expanded united teams that deliver great content onto both local and national platforms. All of this is to be applauded.

But in the capital city newsrooms around the country, it is a very different story. Shrinking budgets, falling staff numbers and the increased demand from national platforms like the News channel and ABC News Online mean that busy and talented reporters in places like Perth, Hobart, Brisbane and Adelaide have less time to develop in-depth coverage of state issues and almost no dedicated platforms to put them on.

None of what I say here should be taken as a criticism of the excellent, hard-working journalists covering state and territory politics across the country. Their daily news work is of a high standard. They break stories, they investigate issues and they uncover important information, and it regularly leads local radio, television and online news. But at a time when Covid has reminded us more than ever of the importance of politics at a state level, it simply isn’t enough. The ABC’s state newsrooms need to be given more staff, more funding and more opportunities to deliver in-depth coverage of state issues to state audiences.

In the 1980s, when The National experiment was discontinued, the ABC established state-based news bulletins and a state-based 7.30 Report to deliver the most relevant mix of international, national and local coverage. Presenters in each state were able to interview local political leaders, explore major local issues around health, transport and education, and investigate local controversies and scandals. Most importantly, they had the dedicated air time each day to deliver that coverage at length.

That lasted around a decade, until budget pressures led to the ABC merging all of the state-based 7.30 programs into a national edition, with state-based current affairs shoehorned into one night a week (Fridays) on Stateline. In 2010, Stateline’s name was changed to 7.30 as well, but it remained state-based until 2014, when state-based TV current affairs ended altogether and was replaced with the extended Sunday night news bulletin.

The 40-minute news bulletin, together with expanded online coverage, was meant to deliver the kind of in-depth coverage that state-based current affairs used to. With its demise, what are we left with?

In my view, we are left with a clear and obvious gap in the ABC’s news coverage. State and territory newsrooms, talented and hard-working as they are, are simply not being given the opportunity to deliver the amount and the depth of coverage that Australians need if they want to see all levels of government closely scrutinised and held to account. While the occasional online article or podcast can be helpful, nothing has the impact or immediacy of scheduled television current affairs. Live extended television interviews with political leaders, for example, generate extensive follow up and often drive the agenda for other news media to follow.

This is an outcome which has been driven more by budget necessity than editorial judgement. State-based programming is expensive. The arithmetic is simple: if a national program costs $1 million to deliver, then producing eight different versions properly, from 8 different studios with 8 different presenters and reporting teams would not leave a lot of change out of $8 million. I know the reality of these kinds of tough budget decisions. I was part of ABC news management for many years and I personally share part of the blame for past decisions. I have a lot of sympathy for the tough decisions facing current managers.

But something needs to be done, and now is the time to look again at the problem.

There are many reasons why there may be grounds for optimism. The ABC has recently had its budget repaired somewhat and, while this doesn’t undo all of the damage done by past budget cuts, it does provide some breathing room and a chance to consider future priorities. On top of that, the costings and technical requirements of delivering state-based television current affairs have changed significantly since it was effectively removed in 2014. Automated studios, video-journalism, new editing techniques and a proliferation of flexible and cost-effective production and platform options all mean that it should not cost now what it cost a decade ago to deliver the content to audiences. The creation of a small, flexible team in each capital city, dedicated to delivering long-form content, does not have to cost what it once did. Any steps the ABC can take in this direction would do much to build audience trust and deliver on its responsibility to cover state politics with the same rigour and depth that it already does at a national level.

Response from Justin Stevens - Director News, Analysis & Investigations, ABC

Let’s start with where Alan Sunderland and I agree. Stateline, and the state-based editions of 7.30 into which it was folded in 2011, were fantastic programs in their day. They played an important role in holding state and territory governments to account in an age when our audience accessed the ABC via broadcast radio and TV and almost all of our budgets and resources were in those two platforms. 

Alan has correctly called out the services and platforms added to News in the past decade – and been typically forthright about his involvement in some of those decisions. 

For one, we now have ABC NEWS channel, which on average reaches more than 3.5 million Australians each week. The pandemic, the bushfires, the floods and many other stories and events have demonstrated the integral value of ABC NEWS channel in a digital, on-demand and streaming world where the audience wants immediate information on unfolding events.

He is also right to point out that we’ve moved to become a multiplatform news service. In addition to TV viewers and radio listeners, our journalism now reaches millions of Australians via our own and third-party digital platforms, such as the ABC NEWS website and app, ABC iview and ABC listen.

Alan writes that reducing the Sunday night edition of the 7pm News by 10 minutes to 30 minutes, in line with the other nights, “marks the final surrender in a long ABC retreat from providing regular in-depth scheduled coverage of State politics and State issues on the public broadcaster”.

With this, I strongly disagree. There is no retreat and no surrender. Our coverage of state and territory issues is impactful and comprehensive – and we are delivering it to audiences on their schedule every day of the week, not just to our schedule.

Here is just a sample of some recent original, impactful stories:

  • The SA newsroom’s investigation and exposure of the MP expenses misuse led to an ICAC investigation, the resignation of five MPs and a complete overhaul of the remuneration system. Two MPs are also currently facing criminal charges of making fraudulent claims. Both have denied the allegations against them.  
  • Gabriella Marchant’s reporting “Rhys’s Final Wish” had enormous impact as voluntary assisted dying laws were being debated in the SA Parliament.  
  • David O’Byrne resigned as Tasmania’s Opposition Leader after Hobart-based Investigative Reporter Emily Baker broke the story of a sexual harassment complaint.    
  • The ABC’s investigation into Tasmanian Liberal MP Adam Brooks dominated the final weeks of the State’s 2021 election campaign and also led to his resignation.   
  • An investigation into successive home building failures in Tasmania led to the reintroduction of warranty insurance in the State.  
  • The Victorian newsroom is rolling out a series of specials for all platforms on key election topics and how the major parties plan to address them. The issues to be covered were determined by our community engagement efforts and include cost of living, health, state of the suburbs, the economy and energy. The specials complement our core election coverage of the campaign trail and analysis from our state political reporters. 
  • Following Jessica Longbottom’s stories this year about the inadequacies at one of Melbourne’s TAFE colleges there is now a potential class action and the State Government stepped in to conduct weekly checks. 
  • Geelong reporter Rachel Clayton exposed a loophole in insurance cover that means households may not be covered if a business is being run at the property – even if it’s selling free-range eggs using an honesty box. 
  • The investigation into the Orroral Valley fire last year, and the ABC’s revelations on what Defence knew and communicated to fire authorities after one of its choppers sparked the blaze, led to an inquest by the ACT Coroner. 
  • Our stories on the mismanagement of COVID in the Jeta Gardens Aged Care facility in Queensland were raised in Federal Parliament and Senate Estimates and two managers stood down.  
  • Coverage sourced from Right to Information documents exposed failures by Queensland Government authorities in controlling the bushfire in the K’gari (Fraser Island) National Park.  
  • The expose on serious injuries sustained by women giving birth at Mackay Hospital led to the Director of Obstetrics being suspended, the Minister apologising and a compensation scheme for victims. 
  • An FOI request by the ABC into grants to the Darwin Turf Club which led to an ICAC investigation.
  • Our reporting of leaked draft documents revealed negotiations relating to fishing rights in Aboriginal waters across the Top End.
  • Again using material obtained under FOI, the ABC confirmed the NT Government knew of structural flaws in Darwin buildings long before it publicly disclosed its concerns.
  • An ongoing investigation into the sexual abuse of primary school students in Fremantle has resulted in dozens more victims coming forward.   
  • Samia O’Keefe’s investigation of allegations of historical abuse at the WA Institute of Sport helped bring about an inquiry into abuse claims by former WAIS gymnasts.  
  • The NSW newsroom has established dedicated Bushfire Recovery and Flood Recovery teams to regularly report on progress and hold all levels of government to account over relief spending.   
  • Data Journalist Catherine Hanrahan’s data-led investigation into zoning around the new Western Sydney airport exposed investment and infrastructure issues.  
  • Kathleen Calderwood’s ongoing investigation has exposed tragic failures in Western Sydney hospitals.  

Our national teams also investigate state stories, for example:  

  • Paul Farrell’s dogged reporting for 7.30 was instrumental in revealing NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s role in the awarding of a grant to former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire.
  • Hagar Cohen’s investigation into Bathurst Council and allegations of blackmail, also for 7.30, resulted in the resignation of the Mayor.
  • The investigation by Anne Connolly and Stephanie Zillman of the Public Trustee system, which included a Four Corners report, led to a public apology from the Queensland State Government and has triggered two inquiries.
  • Josh Robertson and Mark Willacy’s investigations into Star Casino Brisbane led to Queensland’s Attorney-General ordering a fresh investigation in August.

As the ABC navigates the increasingly fragmented media environment, asking how we can afford to do more scheduled TV current affairs is not the right question. Even assuming we could get the many millions of dollars it would cost, it would not serve the needs of most our audience members, given where they are today compared to a decade ago.

While Alan argues “nothing has the impact or immediacy of scheduled television current affairs”, in fact journalism strategically rolled out across our platforms has measurably greater impact and immediacy, reaching audiences the ABC never has before. For a Four Corners episode or 7.30 story that might be seen by a million viewers on scheduled broadcast, there is another million – mostly under the age of 50 – who consume the journalism via digital.

In this age of multiplatform journalism a key consideration into the future will be how to keep doing the best journalism and make it accessible to the biggest possible audience while ensuring our operations are sustainable, so our people and resources aren’t stretched too thin and we can maintain standards.

Trustworthy public interest journalism is our remit and holding all levels of government to account will always be central to that.

It’s also crucial to ensure that all Australians can access and benefit from that journalism, where and when they want it.

Thursday 3 November 2022

1For the sake of brevity, it should be understood that when I speak of ‘state’ newsrooms and ‘state’ issues, I am referring to both state and territory newsrooms. The issues in Darwin and Canberra are as important as those in Hobart, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.

Alan Sunderland had a long career as a reporter and editor at SBS and the ABC. He was the ABC’s Editorial Director from 2013 to 2019, and is a board director of ABC Alumni. His book The 10 Rules of Reporting is being published this week by Simon and Schuster.

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