A few weeks ago, the Solomon Islands went to the polls for the first time since Australia’s 14-year security mission in the country ended in 2017. But if you get your news from the mainstream Australian press, you probably wouldn’t know it. A Google search only shows up the few ABC stories published on its website — the only Australian outlet with a correspondent in the region — and local news.
The ABC’s former Papua New Guinea correspondent Sean Dorney, who covered the region for 40 years, told Crikey that coverage of Australia’s closest neighbours had “almost disappeared completely”. “Cost is one factor, but it’s the lack of interest which really disturbs me,” he said. “Australian taxpayers paid an enormous amount to bring stability to the Solomon Islands, but you wouldn’t believe anything had happened there if you were looking at the papers.”
A new grant for reporting on the region was announced earlier this month by The Walkley Foundation, named after Dorney, in an attempt to encourage Australian journalists to look just beyond our borders for stories.
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The ABC is the only Australian outlet with a correspondent in the Pacific, after wire service AAP pulled out in 2013. When Dorney was first posted to Port Moresby in 1974, there were six Australian journalists based there.
“One of the reasons no one has any correspondents in Port Moresby is because it costs a lot — travel is expensive,” Dorney said. “What the grant is aiming to do is provide this money to cover those costs that news organisations are saying now prevent them from doing the stories.”
Walkley Foundation CEO Louisa Graham said that part of the reason they were funding the annual $10,000 grant was to help newsrooms that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to cover stories in the region. “We know all newsrooms are feeling the pinch financially, and the Pacific is an area where travel is neither easy nor cheap,” she said. “The region is poised to be one where increasingly there are critical stories to be reported, from climate change to China’s outreach. I think it will only grow in importance and so we’re glad to play a role in encouraging better coverage.”
Dorney, who is now a Lowy Institute non-resident fellow, said that while the cost of travel in the Pacific was prohibitive, there were many stories worth covering of direct relevance to Australian taxpayers and to Australian history.
“Australia gave birth to another country [PNG], but a lot of Australians don’t know that,” he said. “PNG has almost disappeared from general Australian consciousness … you can go weeks without any stories appearing in the paper about Papua New Guinea.”
Papua New Guinea was administered as a territory by Australia until 1975, when independence was declared. Australia had controlled the eastern half of New Guinea for 70 years before it granted PNG independence.
Over several weeks earlier this year, Dorney counted the stories covered in the international news section of The Australian, and only found one story about the Pacific that wasn’t about Manus Island and asylum seekers (it was to do with a delay on the proposed referendum vote on Bougainville). By comparison, about a third of the stories were about North America, a third about Europe and the Middle East and 20% about China and the rest of Asia.
“We get far more news out of wherever the other news agencies have their correspondents, that’s what goes to the newspapers and the rest of the media,” he said.
Dorney said he hoped the grant would show newsroom bosses that Australians would be interested in what was happening in their region if they knew about it: “This is actually about Australian journalists taking a greater interest in covering more issues for an Australian audience. If some journalists get this funding and can get out there, they can convince their audiences it matters, and some of the chiefs of staff and news bosses might be surprised about what their audiences are interested in.”
He said Australians’ lack of interest was partly down to our politicians’ attitude too — their disinterest has given room for the Chinese to move into the Pacific, building infrastructure and investing, to the point that Australia is now showing interest again. Earlier this year, Pacific Islanders were bemused by the Australian government’s response to their requests the ABC restore its shortwave radio services — the government gave $17.1 million to Australian commercial broadcasters to provide TV content.
Applications for the Sean Dorney Grant close on May 7.
What stories do you think the media is missing in the Pacific? Send comments (with your full name) to [email protected].