Like Margaret Simons, I too was surprised to see Eric Beecher featured so prominently in The Australian’s Media section on Monday. And I too was surprised that Beecher was critical of the ABC’s The Drum, which is edited by Jonathan Green, a former Crikey editor.

I have worked with Beecher and Green over the years and I respect both  as journalists and editors. Beecher and I have discussed the challenges facing journalism many times and I know Beecher has a genuine and long-standing concern about where journalism, public interest journalism in particular, is heading and how it will be funded in the future.

Simons has indeed written regularly about the battle between commercial media companies that are struggling to work out ways to erect paywalls for their online journalism and public broadcasters such as the ABC that can provide quality online journalism without charge, because the ABC is funded by taxpayers. It has a business model that works!

So the fact that The Australian featured Beecher’s criticism of the ABC’s The Drum, is not surprising, even if The Australian, in the main, considers Beecher something close to the journalistic devil incarnate. Simons reckons Brian McCarthy, the Fairfax CEO, can’t stand Beecher either. I have no idea whether this is true, but I do know that there is a long-standing enmity towards Beecher at Fairfax. Beecher has been a long-time critic of the Fairfax board and the direction in which the board has taken the company. It isn’t only The Australian or News Limited in general, that reacts badly to any criticism. Being thin-skinned is a widespread malady in media companies.

All that said, the question remains: is Beecher right?  Should the ABC be devoting resources to The Drum, which in many ways, is no different to several online commentary and opinion sites including The Punch owned by News and yes, to a certain extent, Crikey, both it’s subscription-based newsletter and its free website? For those of us with no commercial skin in this battle, there are several issues here.

First, for all its weaknesses, the commercial media remains a major source of public-interest journalism. It’s survival is important. If it can successfully erect paywalls for its online journalism and as a result, make it more likely that public-interest journalism will survive the decline of print, that’s a good thing.

As for the ABC, it is and we must hope will remain, a crucial source of quality public-interest journalism. And because the business model for newspapers is broken, the ABC, we must hope, will be able to in part at least,  to provide the sort of journalism that newspapers will not be able to produce in the not too distant future.

So where does The Drum fit in all this? It seems to me that The Drum is competing with commercial online commentary and opinion outfits. It has moved away from what I had hoped would be its mission; to provide quality analysis of major issues by people with expert knowledge who would otherwise, without The Drum, not be heard. The Drum is just another opinion site, often featuring voices that also appear elsewhere in the commercial media.

When The Drum was launched, Green and others were at pains to argue that what The Drum would be about was analysis and not opinion. It was never clear what exactly that meant. Jonathan Holmes indeed wrote a piece for The Drum in which he made the point that the line between analysis and opinion was fuzzy and that ABC reporters writing opinion might be a problem.

It is a problem. When I was editing The Age, I tried not to have reporters writing opinion as well basically because I believed the line between reporting and commentary and opinion needed to be clear — at least as clear as possible. Perhaps that’s old-fashioned and in the new digital world, such demarcation is not possible. But the ABC ought to aim to maintain the principle that reporters do not do opinion. I think we have the right to expect that from the public broadcaster.

It seems to me that the resources devoted to The Drum would be better spent on ABC journalism — on ABC News 24 for instance. Journalism, as opposed to commentary, is expensive, and we need as much quality journalism from the ABC as possible. What we don’t need, I believe, is an ABC opinion and commentary site, doing more or less, what the commercial sites do. The internet is awash with opinion. It is not awash with quality, Australian based, public-interest journalism.

Peter Fray

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