Here's a tale of two polls, and the Australian media's reaction to both.
The first is the US elections, the second is the looming change of leadership in China which is arguably of greater importance to Australia. One tells us where, in the Asian Century and the media's carping about the government's white paper, the local media sees the easy yards; the coverage of the other tells us where the media doesn't see easy gains for itself. Nowhere is this choice more starkly illustrated than at the national broadcaster.
There's nothing like a US presidential race to get Australian journos tugging at the bit (and at the bean counters' tight reins) in an effort to cross the Pacific. The campaign leading up to the first November Tuesday every four years is a big deal, a chance to get close to the candidates and even stand near the future president of the world's most important country at a time when security is much lighter than after the poll for the winner. "War stories" can last an entire career.
But our big papers seem to have resisted any attempts by some big names to cover it, running US coverage on tight budgets with a single correspondent whose work is fleshed out by using syndicated services from major international titles. Despite the pretensions of some former and current Australian correspondents in the US, they don't, or rather can't know or cover everything, so the availability of the other services helps offer readers in Australia a more rounded picture.
But what of our ABC? There seems to have been an almost unseemly surge of reporters criss-crossing the US. At last count around five, perhaps six or seven have reported.
There's reports from Craig McMurtrie, who seems to be the head correspondent in the US for the ABC. Lisa Millar has popped up as well (she was also sighted reporting from the UK recently). And last week Ben Knight seemed to be teleported from somewhere in Australia (Melbourne), to report from around Atlantic City during Sandy. Kim Landers, a former long-time Washington warbler for the ABC, is another who has been teleported to the US from Australia where she staffed the News 24 afternoon program. She will apparently anchor the US coverage for News 24 from Washington tomorrow (her US experience will be very handy).
That's seven reporters have have been travelling around the US, or who will report on the election results tomorrow. It's easy to understand why the ABC is devoting these resources (despite it claiming to have budget problems in news and current affairs). Combined with the BBC, and the US networks, plus the cable networks, TV news here will have the US poll sorted out well before the newspapers can publish on Thursday morning, which could very well be out of date by what happens on Wednesday, US time. And the ABC is ensuring it will win the coverage by devoting a lot of resources to it.
By way of contrast, the Australian commercial TV network newsrooms will be second-class citizens for this story, with a live cross or two from the morning shows during the day and at 5pm or 6pm tonight.
But what of another transition at a world power, one you could argue will be of more immediate and longer lasting interest to Australia? From Thursday, November 8, China will start revealing the shape of its new leadership team, from the top of the country all the way through to small local government units. China is our biggest export customer and the emerging superpower of our region. The change of leadership will be especially important.
But so far I have yet to see a major ABC documentary about the power change in China and what it could mean for Australia and the region. Our newspapers have been reporting on the change and the papers have been running intelligent backgrounders from the likes of Financial Times
, New York Times,
Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal
and other major papers and newsagencies.
The ABC is very lucky it has the best foreign correspondent it has had for years in China in the shape of Stephen McDonnell. He has been fearless in reporting on China, but so far there's been no sign of ABC management attempting to support him or sourcing reports from another network on China.
It is hard to get extra correspondents into China (as the ABC has done with the US poll). The upshot is the Chinese change (over six days or less) will be a story for newspapers, with TV on the sideline in this country, except for the reporting of McDonnell. That's the reverse of what we will have ready seen from the US and will see tonight and tomorrow, especially on the ABC. But regardless of the relative importance of China to Australia over the US, reporting a change of power in America always looks better on a CV (and has a superior type of "war story" for reporters) than reporting on a very opaque one-in-five-year change in the Chinese leadership.
The bottom line sums up nicely the Asian Century debate in Australia and why the media's view of the argument generally can't be taken seriously at times. Reporting on America's change of leadership is glamorous (it will lead the bulletin), easier to do and gets you better known. America is an old economy, a bit player for Australia in our version of the Asian Century. Reporting on China's change is tougher, with tighter controls from the government and difficult pictures. But it can be done. It might not lead the bulletin, and will only look good to insiders in journalism and foreign policy and some areas of politics and not the wider public. But it is of greater importance to ourselves, our future and our place in the region if we do it and try to explain the changes that will happen (even if first impressions are wrong or not quite the story).
China and Asia generally are our future, not the US at this election, or the next.