Of all the cuts to the ABC over recent years, Foreign Correspondent has been just one of the many programs to have suffered. From about 40 weeks a year of programs in 1993, it’s now down to two, much shorter seasons — one over summer. The timeslot has changed between seasons, making it hard to maintain audience loyalty.
It’s midway through its winter season now, and it features an irregular number of guest reporters — journalists not currently based in the ABC’s foreign bureaux.
Last night’s reporter, in particular, raised eyebrows among former and current foreign correspondents, raising questions as to whether the ABC is worried more about ratings — which have halved over the last five years — than content.
Former Wallaby and Fairfax columnist Peter FitzSimons went to New Zealand to report on deportees from Australia. Some former staff Crikey has spoken to aren’t too happy about parachuting in a “celebrity” to cover the story over established correspondents. Sophie McNeill — until recently a Middle East correspondent for the ABC — criticised the move too, tweeting there were “enough great foreign correspondents at the ABC. They should be given the time and resources to do long form”.
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Guest reporters for the program are not a new concept, either for working journalists or otherwise. Former NSW Premier and Federal Foreign Minister Bob Carr stepped in as a guest reporter between those two jobs for a report on Gore Vidal. Ray Martin, Jana Wendt, Annabel Crabb, and many other journalists not working in the bureaux have contributed reports to the program over the years.
Compared to when the program started, foreign correspondents are under far more daily pressure — they file reports for radio, TV and online, as well as working on live crosses to the news channel and radio.
But according to veterans of the ABC that Crikey spoke to, guest reporters alone can’t fill the void left by experience foreign correspondents.
Greg Wilesmith worked as a Middle East and then Europe correspondent, and later he spent 13 years as executive producer and a travelling producer for Foreign Correspondent.
“It’s regrettable that Foreign Correspondent suffered disproportionately in the job purges and is not on air for a major part of the year,” he told Crikey. “In my view that’s nowhere near enough consistency and regularity, which are keys to success in TV programming. Making it an irregular program is a very flawed strategy.”
He said the ABC needed to define itself by the quality of its work, with a product not replicated in commercial media.
“My view is that international reporting is essential and is a charter requirement,” he said. “Foreign correspondents develop, over time, some very good insights and experience and knowledge, which is simply not available to a person who flies in and flies out.”
He said that one of the great strengths of Foreign Correspondent was that it exploited the depth of knowledge of the ABC’s correspondents, and gave insight they couldn’t share in a short news item.
“[Without a long-form program like Foreign Correspondent] you lose perspective, and lose the insights that you can’t communicate in a two minute package or a Q and A.”
Former staff-elected director and Stateline host Quentin Dempster said that relying on fly-in fly-out correspondents to cover news events amounted to “churnalism”.
“You can’t engage with a country unless you’ve got a foreign correspondent there,” he said.
A bigger problem, though, was the irregular scheduling.
“You can’t build up viewer loyalty and support if you’re off-air,” he said. “They can’t get a bit of steam up. But it’s an absolute charter requirement to report internationally from an Australian perspective. That’s why it’s still lumping along with its irregular scheduling.”
Dempster said that if funding was restored to the ABC, the first thing that should be returned would be a full schedule of Foreign Correspondent, as well as state-based current affairs, which was axed at the end of 2014.
Asked if Foreign Correspondent had a future, an ABC spokeswoman said the ABC had committed to another summer and winter season — so it has at least one more year. “It is doing great work and the audience response is good,” she said. She also said the program had a “long tradition” of using guest reporters.