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Whatever Happened to the Arts on ABC News?

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On 23 April 2024, former ABC National Arts Reporter Anne Maria Nicholson spoke to the Central Coast branch of ABC Friends NSW in Gosford.  This is an edited version of her speech.

Today I am going to try to answer three questions: Why do the arts matter?  Why should they be reported?  And is the ABC doing the job well enough these days?

In the darkest days of the pandemic, when at times all hope seemed lost, people around the world turned to the arts for comfort.  The most basic of human cries from the heart were heard in Italy when lonely people in lockdown started singing from their balconies, desperately seeking connection with others.   

During the international lockdown, we were all anxious and afraid.  We saw mass graves in New York, Italy and India; people locked and left in Chinese apartment buildings; and world leaders stricken with the virus. 

Then, on Easter Sunday 2020, something magical happened. 

The Italian opera singer Andrea Boccelli was filmed standing alone in front of a single microphone in the empty plaza in front of the Milan Cathedral.  Looking smaller, greyer, and his blindness more evident in the stark daylight, Boccelli sang the hymn of hope, Amazing Grace, his voice shaky at first then strengthening as it rose to a crescendo.  His song was broadcast globally with images of many of the world’s great cities’ streets empty for the first time ever.  It was an astounding moment of human connection: it showed that the arts do matter.

The lockdown changed everything everywhere, both physically and psychologically. Offices, theatres and sports arenas were empty.  People were forced to stay home.  In Australia we watched our borders close, saw foreigners expelled, experienced separation from our families and loved ones both within Australia and internationally.

So, what did we do?  We walked a lot in our 5 kilometre allocations; we made bread and scones and did virtual wine-tasting; we also read more books, and started  bingeing TV drama shows.  The streamers like Netflix boomed.  Online choirs formed, orchestras gave virtual concerts.  The arts were a balm to wounded spirits.

When the vaccines came, the virus was tamed and things returned almost to normal. But the wider arts world had been decimated.  Theatres, music venues, cinemas , festivals had all closed or been cancelled.  Artists – who have always struggled to make a living – were almost literally starving in the garret.    

But sport…well, after the Covid interruption, it prospered.  The big money – including gambling ads – flooded back.  The media followed.  And the arts companies?  They waited and waited and waited.  Eventually some government money flowed belatedly and temporarily into the arts, like a cortisone injection for an inflamed hip. 

As we’ve seen with the cancellation of music festivals everywhere and ticket sales in live entertainment floundering, the arts have still not fully recovered. 

And now… latest figures show musicians in Australia earn $6000 a year, if they’re lucky. Writers, $12,000 … and the picture is much the same for all artists.   The incentive to study arts at university ­– whether it’s a liberal or a fine arts degree – has been brutally squashed.   HELP fees were doubled.  Study business, law or medicine and it’s comparatively cheaper.   Get yourself a real job!  Or if you’re lucky enough to be really talented at sport, the taxpayers will subsidise your study.

Coincidentally, it’s been an excellent month for Australian arts with Archie Moore and Bluey experiencing global success and proving once more that arts matter – and are newsworthy.  First Nations artist Archie Moore has won the Golden Lion for Australia at the Venice Biennale – that’s like winning an Olympic Gold medal.  And the Bluey TV Show has continued world success and is now acknowledged by the federal government as being a key player on Australia’s global soft diplomacy.

I was a news and current affairs journalist at the ABC for 20 years, reporting, producing and presenting for Foreign Correspondent, Lateline, 7.30 and all the news bulletins.  For 15 of those years I was also the National Arts Reporter, covering all aspects of arts and culture for television news.  My primary focus was the 7pm TV news bulletin. I was a specialist national reporter in the Sydney newsroom, initially at Gore Hill and later at Ultimo.  For some years, I sat with other specialist reporters including Alan Tate and later Sarah Clarke, environment; Paul Lockyer, regional; Sophie Scott, health; and Cathy Bell, indigenous affairs. 

The point is, that arts then was front and centre with all the other areas of public life that the ABC believed were essential to cover.  The specialist reporters, including myself, were known to viewers and the industries we covered.  We were respected for our knowledge and commitment.

I gave some priority to cover the national companies like The Australian Ballet, Opera Australia, the symphony orchestras, the state theatre companies, Bangarra Dance, Bell Shakespeare, Circa Circus, the Australian Chamber and Brandenburg Orchestras, Company B Belvoir and the Sydney Dance Company in Sydney and Black Swan in Perth.  I covered government arts policies, the Australia Council’s initiatives, the film and television industry, major exhibitions at our national and state galleries; art auctions and arts awards like the Oscars, the Grammys, the ACCTAs, the ARIAS, the Miles Franklin, architecture, fashion and celebrity interviews.  There were all kinds of festivals … literary, music, theatre and unusual ones like Garma in Arnhem Land and Crocfest in Moree, and once I got to go to the Venice Biennale.

How to make a reasonable living as an artist was a perennial issue.  One of the struggling artists I met early on was Ben Quilty, who evolved into one of our leading painters.  I spoke regularly to cultural leaders like John Bell, Cate Blanchett, David Williamson, Simone Young, Neil Armfield, Richard Tognetti and Wesley Enoch.  And I’ve already written for ABC Alumni about my trip to Majorca to interview the Sydney Opera House architect Jorn Utzon.

My goal was to make arts and culture as worthy of news coverage as politics, sport, environment and finance.

I left the ABC nearly 10 years ago to pursue writing, board memberships and my love of travel and ocean swimming!  My colleague Adrian Raschella, who had worked alongside me on many occasions, took over the position when I left but was never officially appointed as a full-time national arts reporter – he always had to do other tasks.  Sometime later Michaela Boland, formerly of The Australian, was appointed.  But her tenure was brief.

So, what’s changed?  Simply this: arts coverage in Australia’s mainstream media has been shredded; arts journalists are a dying breed; arts news in major newspapers has shrunk.  At the ABC there is no dedicated national arts reporter.  Arts stories are covered occasionally and randomly by different reporters, I’m assuming assigned on the day.  When Archie Moore won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, it wasn’t covered at all in that day’s ABC TV 7pm News.  It took another 24 hours before it was featured in the 7pm News.

By contrast, there seems to be a small army of sports reporters.  Every bulletin has, in my view, a disproportionate amount of sports news, bright jumpers emblazoned with sponsors’ names, breathless coverage of injuries, fitness, competitions everywhere and results of matches no-one I know has any interest in. There’s no escape: every radio bulletin on every station.  I always turn on the 7am radio bulletin and every day, rain hail and shine, we MUST have sports news.  Flick over to Radio National and it’s the same.  Even the presenters seem obliged to share their thoughts on the weekend footy teams they support.

We also have obligatory finance reporting everywhere, all the time.  I don’t know how we survived all those years without a ten times daily dose of the exchange rates, the price of iron ore and rising and falling share prices. 

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that ratings are falling for ABC news.  Anecdotally, so many rusted-on ABC viewers and watchers have let it go.  Of course, I acknowledge that viewing patterns have altered fundamentally with the freedom now of checking the news online whenever you want to.  But it’s still the variety of content that matters and let’s not forget, it’s part of the ABC’s Charter to promote the arts.

I put out a question about arts coverage on my Facebook page over the weekend.  I was inundated with responses from people – many whose names you would recognise – who are so depressed, angry and deluded about the ABC’s abandonment of arts coverage and its obsession with sport. One of them, Merran Regan, presents an arts show on Sydney’s Northside community radio station.  She interviews people from all artforms and says the companies are so grateful because hers is often the ONLY station that will give them airtime.  And of course, no-one working on that program is paid.

When asked on an ABC Alumni webinar recently about the ABC’s news arts coverage, Editorial Director Gavin Fang  pointed to Creative Types with Virginia Trioli.  As welcome as that is, it’s one six-part produced interview show with well-known artists – no substitute, surely, for regular, ongoing coverage of the arts. 1  

ABC TV’s Breakfast is an exception. Artists do, thankfully, get a decent look in on a program that has three hours to fill each morning.  On ABC TV, 7.30 also delves into the cultural world from time to time.  Local radio does its share and Radio National has some excellent arts programs. 

I will finish with an anecdote about one of my last stories, a short profile about an up-and-coming soprano in her 20s, Nicole Car, performing with Opera Australia and chosen to perform at Covent Garden in London.  My editor at the time was quite scathing and saw no news value in her.  This was quite a common reaction from news editors to what I saw as a decent arts yarn.  Nicole Car has since risen to be one of the world’s leading sopranos and performs in all the great opera houses and is a real asset to Australia.       

If Nicole had been an up-and-coming athlete or cricketer, I doubt I would have had the same difficulty selling the story.  The stereotype is that we are a sport-obsessed country; yet more of us attend galleries, watch TV shows, read books and go to concerts. And we are home to the world’s oldest living culture, with an increasing flow of First Nations stories in print, on screen and on canvas.

There has been some progress in Canberra with the money from the Creative Australia policy, but it often seems that many of our political leaders who hold the purse strings, and editors who control programming in the media, don’t really care about our creators, our thinkers, and our intellectual life. 2

One outstanding exception is the ABC’s new Chair, Kim Williams.  He has a background as a clarinettist and a composer; he’s a former Chair of Musica Viva and a former CEO of the Australian Film Commission; he’s a philanthropist who personally supports the Australian arts and film industries; he’s a passionate believer in the importance of Radio National, and of the ABC in general.  Kim has already said publicly that he doesn’t think the ABC’s arts programming is adequate.  There is every reason to hope that there are better days ahead.

And a parting thought: if anyone tells you that no artist will ever compete in the popularity stakes with a sports star, just say two words: Taylor Swift.


  1. Virginia Trioli’s Creative Types has been commissioned for another season in 2025.
  2. The recent Federal Budget announced $115 million over 4 years for performing art schools as well as an additional $36.9 million in ongoing annual funding.

Anne Maria Nicholson is a Sydney-based journalist and author.  She worked for the ABC full-time from 1994 to 2014 and as a producer for Foreign Correspondent in 2018.  She is the author of three novels, “Weeping Waters” (2006), “Pliny’s Warning” (2009) and “Poker Protocol” (2022).

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