The ABC’s 24-hour news channel came in for a kicking today over its weekend coverage of what is surely the biggest breaking story of recent times, if not the decade — the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Some of that kicking is deserved.

On Friday and Sunday, ABC24 did a good job covering the earthquake. Indeed, figures show that ABC24 topped the digital ratings on Friday night. But on Saturday, its coverage was embarrassing.

For the brickbats, see Tim Blair here and here and Caroline Overington in The Australian’s Media Diary. Blair describes it as the “most abysmal performance by the Australian public broadcaster in its 82 year history” and details how, as the world was “screaming for news from Japan”, ABC 24 on Saturday screened old footage, including on Belgium’s national identity problems.

I watched ABC 24 pretty continuously on Friday night, and thought the coverage was excellent. Even by then, though, the limitations were becoming clear — not only on the ABC but also on rival Sky News.

What does one do on television with a really big story when there is only a limited amount of footage available, even when it is extraordinary footage? All news channels, including the ABC, played the same pictures, and the same interviews, over and over again. It was still riveting because of the sheer magnitude of the story. But by Saturday, not only the ABC but also other services like BBC World, had stopped running continuous coverage.

Yet there is no doubt ABC 24 looked particularly wrong-footed.

It is partly about resources. The channel relies largely on repackaging of content already screened.

I am of the view that the ABC was right to introduce a 24-hour news broadcast. These days, a news service that isn’t providing around-the-clock news coverage is hardly a news service at all. Yet we know it was done on the smell of an oily rag. In fact, we don’t know the total cost because the ABC won’t tell us. We do know the butter of existing journalistic content was spread over yet another platform.

There’s no doubt there were problems on Saturday, but it wasn’t the journalists. They were on deck, as anyone listening to ABC Radio could tell. Rather, it was the ABC 24 schedule and the failure to ditch it.

It seems the station lacks the ability, or the brief, to make the brave decisions, to ditch the schedule and put together, raw and repetitive and questing as it may be, the best rough draft of history that can be cobbled together. Yet that is what should be done when a big story breaks. There seems to be little ability or willingness to throw the switch to maximum effort, roll in fresh resources and jump off the cliff into the unknown. On Saturday, the B-Team seemed to be in charge. What were the A-team doing with their weekend?

To be fair, even on Saturday, ABC 24 was not a news-free environment. As one would expect, the headlines were there at the top of the hour, but in between there was a lot of material that, in the context of thousands of deaths and imminent nuclear meltdown, could only seem banal.

ABC insiders today are admitting that Saturday was not good. Part of the problem — but surely not a sufficient excuse — was the limit in the amount of BBC footage it can use. There is a quota, and it was quickly eaten up.

The Japanese network NHK was also, understandably given what they were facing, not providing much new footage.

By Sunday, ABC24 had recovered. The coverage was much better, and back to Friday night levels of quality. Perhaps somebody hit the telephone and ordered changes.

Criticism of the ABC, and News 24 in particular, from News Limited faces must always be taken in context, and the current backdrop is that tenders will close shortly for the Australia Network contract, which SkyNews is attempting to take off the ABC. SkyNews, remember, is one-third owned by BSkyB, which is controlled by News Corporation, and probably soon to be 100% owned by them.

But that doesn’t dispose of the issue. ABC 24 should have done better. And it’s not the first time there have been problems with breaking news. Someone needs to be given the authority, and the brief, to take risks and make unilateral decisions when big stories break. Yes, the coverage may be repetitive. Yes, there are limitations. But the viewers understand and expect that. What they want is to know all that can be known at that moment. That is what 24-hour news means.