With one the largest disaster stories in memory unfolding on
Australia’s doorstep, the TV current affairs are doing their best of
out do each other with their dynamic coverage.
Yes the Nine Network is doing better than anyone else. Seven is
struggling and the ABC has fallen back on its complacent self. But Nine
is also guilty of some of its usual over-hyping.

For example the special, “Tsunami, the Seven days that Shook the World
at 7.30pm Monday hosted by Mark Ferguson,” as promoted during the
cricket on Monday might have been a special, but it was for the ITN
audience in Britain, not Australian viewers.

Its use and the way it was promoted revealed Nine at its cynical best.
Where were the reports of the half dozen or so Nine correspondents in
the region who have done some impressive work? Simon Bouda, Nina
Stevens, Scott Bevan, Brad Schmidt?

This is not to say that the ITN special wasn’t good reporting. It was.
But it suffered from the Australian disease last week, anchored from
Phuket where western tourists go and many have died when the real
tragedies remain in places like Aceh, Sri Lanka and south-east India.

And yes, they covered some of these, but shouldn’t the story be anchored as close to where the story is biggest?

Nine’s use of the special was understandable. It saved on resources and
working the already hard-working reporters, producers and camera people
even harder.

But an Australian-directed and voiced special would have really rubbed it in the noses of Seven and the ABC.

At least Ray Martin, for better or for worst was anchoring A Current Affair on Monday night from Aceh. He had to, last week’s host Helen Dalley was on holidays.

In contrast, Seven’s Today Tonight Anna Coren was in Thailand at
Phuket. A bit of a knee-jerk decision, but given the internal battles
within Seven to step up its coverage, that was a triumph of sorts.

TT tried to move Coren into Thailand on Saturday when Nine moved
Ray Martin into Aceh but, the lack of any decisive action at Seven has
caused a drop in morale in the news and current affairs areas, despite
the stirring defence of Sydney news boss, Chris Willis of his network’s
performance. Questions will follow when the dust has settled about why
Meakin refused to allow any expansion in coverage.

Certainly he has been shown up by the extent and breadth of Nine’s
coverage, even if it did gild the lily with that Monday night
Special. Television, after all, is about smoke and mirrors as
well as content!

It is also a victory for Nine CEO, David Gyngell, who has been driving
the coverage, as he did the coverage of the second Iraq war in March
2003.

Over at the ABC, the 7.30 Report has another good go at the story, anchored from Sydney by fourth stringer Mark Bannerman.

But this showed a lack of flexibility in the ABC. The ABC clearly has little interest whatsoever in anchoring the 7.30 Report remotely,
say from Thailand or Aceh. It is a problem that restricts them from
achieving their true potential, especially after the very good work by
Tim Palmer and Shane McLeod and other reporters.

Why hasn’t the ABC put to air a longer format special report? Is it
that the News and Current Affairs division is dominated by News
executives, while the current affairs skills have been allowed to
wither?

Meanwhile, Ray Martin’s experience has been explained. He offered his
services to Nine, which David Gyngell understandably had to accept. For
better or for worse our Ray is now there gathering experiences and war
stories for his CV.

That is probably a touch unfair but after watching his performance on
Monday night when it veered from the intelligent and sympathetic, to
the banal, a degree of scepticism about his performance is deserved.

To some of his studio crew in Sydney, Ray is known as “sad story” for
his unfortunate habit of grinning after a particular sad or tragic yarn
on ACA and occasionally uttering the world “sad story” in a particularly meaningless tone.

And on at least two occasions on Monday night on ACA Ray back announced
harrowing stories with a grin and then words. The grin isn’t needed and
I wish Gyngell or someone else had the guts and strength to tell him.
It detracts from his obvious empathy and intelligence.

During Monday night’s ACA Nine promoted a program the voiceover called Battle of the Bulge, Etreme Makeover.
Given the problems in Aceh, Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the region a
story about fat, wealthy first world over-eaters losing weight in some
sort of prime time challenge, it was highly inappropriate.

On ACA Scott Bevan again stood out. Chris Hill did a reasonable, if
slightly florid, story from Thailand. But the Bevan story from Aceh was
solid, understated and quite moving.

TT’s reports were solid, but why did they go to the much promoted (over
the New Year weekend) of the lower prices starting on January 1 from
tariff cuts. Highly inappropriate!

Ray’s comments swerved from the banal, to the solid and sober, like all
good reporters. But I wish he’s understand that he doesn’t have to
continually try for the killer phrase. The story is so large and so
dramatic that the pictures will always tell the story.

Finally, a brief story in Monday’s Sydney Morning Herald raised the next step in the media’s coverage of this story.

It said that in Aceh western reporters, print and electronic were
clambering on aid convoys, helicopters etc in trying to cover the
story, with more individual reporters appearing from the US.

That these people take up space and weight that could be allocated to
aid deliveries goes without saving. That they will roam across Aceh
unchecked, but needing support and assistance in travel, and possible
hinder relief efforts, also goes without saving.

Do we need this, or is it a sign of a sluggish media slowly reaching
out to cover the biggest story for years in their usual “American” way?

Peter Fray

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