The ABC’s Sally Sara on location in Myanmar for Foreign Correspondent earlier this year

International coverage by Australian journalists was one of the big winners of last week’s Walkley awards. But while the journalism fraternity appreciates the insight Australian correspondents can bring to the world, in an age of tightening budgets, extensive international coverage produced by on-staff journalists is increasingly something legacy media — and our public broadcasters — can no longer justify.

Foreign correspondents picked up a slew of awards at the Walkleys, and not just the ones quarantined for international coverage. Fairfax’s Middle East correspondent Ruth Pollard picked up a gong for best short feature for a piece she did on the Gaza war. Fairfax’s Indonesian correspondent Lindsay Murdoch also got a Walkley for best international journalism (for his baby Gammy scoop), while ABC cameraman Wayne McAllister got a gong for his work in hostile situations in Bangkok and the Ukraine. The ABC’s Matt Brown and Mark Solomon got a Walkley for best news report for a piece on Australian fighters in Syria, while the ABC’s broader Middle East news team also got a Walkley for their reporting of the Gaza conflict.

There is some measure of politics in deciding who gets Walkleys gongs. The journalism fraternity who decides on the winners can decide to award areas they feel are under threat. And as the entire legacy media looks set to cut costs, international coverage, traditionally of only limited interest to Australian audiences, is being rethought.

The ABC is reconfiguring the structure of its international bureaux, at least partly to save costs. And SBS’ Dateline is going to a half-hour format next year with a largely new cast of journalists after the current staff did not have their contracts renewed.

Dateline’s equivalent show on the ABC, Foreign Correspondent, is also losing resources. Four of its producers finished up last Monday. But its executive producer, Steve Taylor, has dismissed suggestions his program’s loss of resources next year will lead to a diminished product, telling Crikey the changes will lead to a more flexible program better able to dive into hour-long programs when required.

“We delivered 15 hours of Foreign Correspondent this year. We’ll do the same next year,” Taylor said.

Instead of the 30 half-hour shows the program has put to air, it will in 2015 air 22 half-hour episodes and four hour-long episodes. It’s not the first time the program has experimented with such different formats, Taylor adds. In 2012, for example, it sent Annabel Crabb to the United States to cover the presidential campaign. “That was a cracker,” Taylor said. And another investigation, the program’s “Globesity” series allowed it to investigate in depth the aggression of multinational food companies’ expansion into developing countries, and the health consequences of that. Taylor hopes the program will be able to do more things in this form in the future.

Meanwhile, the half-hour episodes will allow the program to dive into “big-ticket, breaking yarns,” Taylor says, “like the team’s magnificent effort on the Greste/Al Jazeera judgment earlier this year”. That half-hour-special was shot, cut and put to air within six days. Taylor nominates it as one of the most successful programs Foreign Correspondent has ever done.

“The hours are a great way of showcasing Foreign Correspondent’s sophisticated storytelling as well and enabling us to tackle global issues more deeply and in different ways,” he said.

Taylor’s comments come after former Middle East correspondent Greg Wilesmith, one of those producers losing a job on the show, took a parting shot on the way out, telling The Guardian Australia that Foreign Correspondent was being “cut disproportionately”. “I can’t see any rationale for it,” he said. That same report suggested Foreign Correspondent’s budget had been cut by 10% in 2015, though Crikey understands some  new roles are also being created at the show.

In her comments to staff a fortnight ago, Foreign Correspondent was one of the shows news boss Kate Torney flagged would be targeted for “savings” (others included Landline, ABC Fact Check, Four Corners and Australian Story). In a further leaked staff proposal, Torney said efficiencies were being found within Foreign Correspondent’s budget “to ensure the program’s sustainability, without changing the level of output”:

“In order to achieve this, we propose making four full-time positions redundant. We also propose creating two new positions and re-classifying one position, to help build digital production and video journalism expertise within the team.”

The changes to Foreign Correspondent come as the ABC reconfigures its international bureaux, creating hubs in London, Washington DC, Beijing and Jakarta while downgrading Tokyo, New Delhi, Jerusalem and Bangkok to be “home-based posts”, staffed only with one local video journalist and one local producer. The New Zealand bureau has been shut down to make way for a new one in Beirut, while a new role of chief foreign correspondent will be created, based in Australia. Staff have been briefed that 18 positions will be made redundant while 14 new roles are being created.

Correction: Foreign Correspondent’s Peter Greste special from earlier this year was half an hour long. An earlier version of this piece said it was a one-hour special. The piece above has been amended. 

Peter Fray

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