Late last year, the ABC’s managing director, Mark Scott, launched a campaign for the broadcaster to engage in what he described as “soft diplomacy” — a plan, he said, to use “the media to put our nation’s culture, values and policies on show”.
This week — in a superb piece of journalism by reporter Eric Campbell that could be called anything but soft diplomacy — the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent aired what it described as “one of the most difficult reports we’ve ever set out to make … the great untold story of Thailand”. As presenter Mark Corcoran explained in his introduction to Tuesday’s program …
“How do you tell the story of Thailand’s royal family when any criticism of the royals can bring a a hefty jail sentence in that country … But with Thailand at the crossroads, we’ve resolved that it’s time for a detailed examination of the laws that gag analysis of the laws, and their pivotal role in Thai politics.”
The report means that Campbell, Foreign Correspondent and possibly the ABC’s Bangkok bureau are now persona non grata in Thailand. And today, reports The Australian (curiously not online), Thailand’s ambassador-designate in Canberra has complained angrily to Scott “that an organisation of the ABC’s stature has lowered its own standard by airing the said documentary, which is presented in a manner no different from tabloid journalism.”
The cold hard truth about foreign coverage is that it cannot operate in a soft diplomacy zone. Especially in a region where governments in countries such as China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore and Thailand are far from democratic and deserve constant editorial scrutiny.
If the ABC wants to retain the reputation it has earned through programs such as this week’s Foreign Correspondent, it should forget about being a diplomacy organisation and stick to being what it already is — an excellent journalism organisation.