Following the government’s decision to allow the ABC to continue running the Australia Television International service, ex-Treasurer Peter Costello and current Deputy Opposition leader Julie Bishop damned it as another Labor stuff-up. Senior journalists, such as Daniel Flitton and Michelle Grattan, tended to agree and sagely added that it was another result of the perennial Rudd-Gillard power struggle.
This framing of the episode by politicians and journalists indicates the intensely parochial nature of Australian politics and journalism. As one angry respondent said to Grattan: journalists should be analysing policy and not keep writing personality-based trivia. There has been precious little comment on what ATV actually broadcasts and as Costello, Bishop, Flitton and Grattan reside in Australia they’ve probably never seen it more than briefly.
Since living off and on in Thailand for more than five years I’ve been a regular ATV viewer. What is definitely most valuable is the news services. Otherwise, the ‘drama’ programs are rooted in the culture of the Howard years – border security, brave policeman and firemen and lifesavers etc. – keeping the nation safe from wogs and whatever. The lighter spots are ‘The Wiggles’ and ‘Mercurio’s Kitchen’, but the weekends are full of football. Once a week they’ll drag an old ‘70s Oz movie out of the closet and plug it as a masterpiece, while the ads in the news breaks crudely flog real estate or financial services to Asian buyers.
So – in the immortal words of Roy and HG – apart from the news ATV is a joke! And even then the news has its problems. There’s an over-emphasis on foreign news, much of which is just a blow-by-blow account of the latest economic misery in the Eurozone, or the Thai floods, or Obama’s most recent visit. There’s little insight in most of these stories. When the sports news is announced you can see the news readers visible relief at not having to pronounce those dreadful foreign names before launching into the latest Ollyroos trivia. What’s missing is any extended coverage of Australian domestic politics at the national or state levels. Those of us living overseas can stay informed about foreign news via the BBC, CNN, Deutsche Welle, Aljazeera and several other English-language TV news channels (but not FOX!). What we can’t get is detailed coverage of Oz news, but that’s not coming from ATV most of the time.
TV international news from any source is often little more than brief grabs illustrating the latest natural disaster or the most recent bad economic news. It's only in the longer analytical sections of these programs where commentators discuss the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of current afairs instead of the ‘what’. ATV’s analytical part is Jim Middleton’s ‘Newsline’ broadcast after the evening news bulletin. Middleton is an experienced journalist and can draw on reliable correspondents, such as Sean Dorney in the Pacific, Emma Alberici in Europe, and Zoe Daniel in Southeast Asia, yet mostly their reports are brief statements of what’s happening with little analysis. This is left to Middleton and his guests. He can appear to be on top of complex issues, yet at times he lapses into superficiality, as in his on-the-spot reports from Thailand during the July elections.
The ABC also has its own agenda. ATV followed the recent UK inquiries into the Murdoch phone hacking scandal in grim detail with live coverage when the politics of the ABC’s bid for retaining ATV against Sky-TV were up for grabs. There was a similar media inquiry proceeding in Australia yet this barely was mentioned on ATV. Yes, it’s good that the ABC has kept ATV out of the hands of the Murdoch demon, but the channel has a long way to go before it provides any more than light entertainment for expats and wacky wildlife shows for its Asian viewers. The image of Australia its projecting is still too skewed towards showing a nation of brainless Rugger Buggers and gormless McLeod’s Daughters.
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