The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is seriously considering organizing “town hall” forums ahead of the next federal election campaign to help it decide the issues that should be covered by ABC reporters.

In a speech as part of the New News 2010 conference in Melbourne last night, ABC Managing Director Mark Scott said the corporation was likely to adopt two ideas advanced by New York University academic Jay Rosen during his recent visit to Australia.

Rosen suggested that an appropriate role for the public broadcaster would be to become a “branded explainer”, providing reliable and clear briefings on important but complex issues.

He also suggested that well ahead of an election campaign the ABC should organise community forums to decide a people’s agenda of issues, which the media should then cover whether or not the politicians wanted to engage.

Scott said that these ideas were likely to be adopted by the ABC. Ahead of the next election, there might be forums, conferences involving experts and opinion leaders and other mechanisms to decide a people’s agenda of election issues, which the ABC would then focus on advancing.

But he also said that he believed it was still worthwhile for journalists to be on the campaign bus, despite the frustrations of being at the mercy of the political spin machine. Both in depth policy material and deeper issues needed to be covered, he said.

“It s important. The scrutiny, the performance under pressure, the way questions are answered and avoided, unexpected events are dealt with, managing the tiredness, the frustration, the disappointments — this is part of the political crucible our leaders must endure. Attention must be paid to this. There needs to be a bus, journalists need to be on it. Asking questions, waiting for the unexpected, watching it all and reporting back.”

But earlier at the conference, the Editor in Chief of the Herald & Weekly Times, Phil Gardner, had said that in future News Limited would seriously consider not putting journalists on the campagn bus, because no worthwhile journalism resulted.

Gardner described the frustrations of being media managed, given important policy material only minutes before announcement. New ways had to be found, he said.

*Declaration: The New News 2010 conference is being held as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival, and is the product of a collaboration between the festival and the Swinburne University of Technology Public Interest Journalism Foundation. I am the Chair of the Foundation.

**The conference continues today at the Wheeler Centre. The program is available on the Melbourne Writers Festival website.