On Monday this week, an advocacy group composed mostly of television and media veterans accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison of buttering up Australian media barons with public funds just ahead of a general election.
The PM, said the Supporters of Australian Broadcasting in Asia and the Pacific, “has handed out a lucrative multi-million dollar contract to political mates without expertise or appropriate experience.”
“This time”, the press release continues, “it’s $17.1 million dollars to Australia’s commercial TV stations (through FreeTV Australia) to send 1000 hours of Australian content each year to established media networks in the Pacific for the next three years.”
A Guardian Australia article subsequently reported that the agreement was at an ‘embryonic’ stage, and little was known about the deal, even among those involved.
The CEO of FreeTV told the newspaper that his organisation didn’t request the funding, and wasn’t quite sure what benefit—if any—there was for his member networks.
Bruce Dover is former CEO of the Australia Network and chronicler of Rupert Murdoch’s disastrous attempt to break into China’s media market. Speaking on behalf of SABAP, he asked, “Does this policy really meet any of the needs of the South Pacific? Will episodes of ‘Home and Away’, given for free, change lives in the region?”
On the face of it, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with focusing on entertainment as much as—or even more than—simply reporting the news. More than a few Vanuatu households have binge-watched Tidelands, Pine Gap or Raked over the Christmas break.
And any suggestion that Mako Mermaids or H2O have no place on Vanuatu TV screens would have to talk over the loud objections of a crowd of teens and adolescents.
At the core of it, though, there’s a serious and valid point. Better TV shows on local screens at affordable prices is a commendable idea, and Pacific islanders aren’t likely to be very fussy about how that comes about.
But if the goal is helping Pacific islanders know more about Australia—and helping Australians know more about the Pacific—then a different approach is needed.
Veteran reporter and media educator Jemima Garrett is a key member of SABAP, and someone who’s spent years working side by side with up and coming Pacific journalists, training them in skills that aren’t easily developed at home.
She feels that the key here is not simply to dump content on Pacific islanders. Instead, she advocates for an approach that was once commonplace: Build a network of reporters and commentators throughout the Pacific comprising both mainstream Australia media staff and Pacific island media professionals.
The approach would require Australian taxpayer money, and a significant portion of it would have to be spent overseas. But there’s no other way to ensure that Australians get accurate news.
A substantial side-benefit of this would be the added backbone offered to Pacific newsrooms and broadcasters.
More than one sensitive story has broken in the islands via the ABC, SBS, RNZ or TVNZ. ABC veteran Bruce Hill recounts how his newsroom fax machine would sometimes spin up late at night, and spit out documents or reports too sensitive to break locally.
But once the story had broken regionally, the local organisation would dutifully recount “Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat reports that…” and proceed to tell their own story.
All well and good, but as anyone can tell you, the cost per minute of television production is so high that it’s nearly impossible to make even a token effort to generate for-profit original content in micro-markets such as ours.
Likewise, skills are in short supply. And salaries may be competitive locally, but they don’t compare to what the World Bank or DFAT can pay for a good communications or PR consultant.
Jemima Garrett insists that SABAP’s proposal isn’t just a return to the bad old days of an intrepid corro armed with jungle fatigues and an expense account reporting from some far frontier.
Innovative approaches are needed, she says, and it may be that so-called mainstream media will have to adapt significantly in order to remain relevant. New money needs to be preceded by new thinking.
Independent initiatives may offer a way forward. The recently announced Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism & Ideas is backstopped by a AUS $100 million endowment from its philanthropist founder. Word on the street is that it’s looking to make a big splash, and to shake up the stodgy old ABC as much as any other organisation.
Whatever happens, it’s going to cost money. And with media markets already approaching saturation in the islands, new sources of production funding could make a big difference. Especially if these funds are helping to create a new generation of hungry young investigators with a little more edge than their forebears.