The ABC must be relevant to all – but that doesn’t mean telling people what they want to hear | Jonathan Holmes


If there’s one phrase likely to raise the hackles of ABC journalists, it is “inner-city leftwing elites”. They hear it all the time from their most dogged denigrators. According to the Chris Kennys and Andrew Bolts in the Murdoch press, and the Eric Abetzes and Barnaby Joyces in the Coalition ranks, ABC journos are themselves members of the inner-city elite, and share its preoccupations and biases on a host of topics – in favour of action on climate change, in favour of same-sex marriage, against tough policies to deter boat people, and so on.

The very word “elite”, used as a pejorative, has become a cliche of the culture wars in Australia, as in the US.

So to be told by their own boss, the ABC’s director of news, Gaven Morris, that they pay too much attention to the concerns of the inner-city leftwing elites was bound to shock.

It’s no surprise that a version of Morris’s remarks was leaked to Nine’s Sydney Sun-Herald. And, according to my own soundings, plenty of people who heard Morris’s briefing reckon the story by the Herald’s Michael Koziol was spot on.

Morris and his allies in ABC News management, on the other hand, say it’s a beat-up. That Koziol’s informants got entirely the wrong end of the stick.

Everyone agrees that the subject of the briefing was ABC News’s new strategy: More Relevant to More Australians. Morris has been briefing his newsrooms and network teams for months on the topic. He’s been using, he claims, the same basic stump speech all along.

The starting point is that, according to ABC audience research, its news and current affairs coverage engages big audiences in our major cities and in the bush, but much smaller ones in the outer suburbs and regional towns. That’s a situation, argues Morris, that the ABC should strive to overcome.

It’s a question, urges Morris, of story choice, and style of storytelling, not of dumbing down. It’s also about pursuing a digital strategy, reaching audiences on the platforms they do use, rather than focusing exclusively on radio and TV, which most of them don’t.

But at the briefing last week one journalist made the point that the outer suburbs are much more socially conservative than the inner cities. There’s a political dimension to the problem, too. How should reporters deal with that?

That’s when Morris talked about “inner-city leftwing elites”. Morris tells me he was deliberately echoing the rightwing meme. We don’t want to give ammunition, he says he told his audience, to those who claim that we’re pandering to the inner-city elites. The more the ABC can resonate with a broad audience, the less traction those critics will have.

If that’s what he meant to convey, it’s not what some of his audience heard. Especially when he went on to contrast the preoccupations of inner-city Sydney with those of central Queensland.

What’s the most obvious difference between the two? It’s their attitude to climate change, to coalmining and to the proposed Adani mine. Morris didn’t expressly mention climate change or coal during the briefing. He tells me that the thought didn’t occur to him. It certainly occurred to his listeners.

During the summer of 2018-19, as Guardian Australia reports, I was commissioned by the Australian Conservation Foundation to analyse ABC News’s coverage of climate change. I looked at two programs in detail: 7.30 (on television) and AM (on radio).

The ACF shared my report with the ABC – and it undertook not to publish it elsewhere. I don’t know where Meade got her copy from, but it wasn’t from me, and the ACF tells me it wasn’t from it.

I still don’t feel at liberty to discuss the report in any detail. I will confirm its principal finding: that between October 2017 and December 2018 7.30’s coverage of climate change was “inadequate” and AM’snot more than barely adequate”.

I haven’t done any detailed analysis since then but my impression is that the ABC’s climate change coverage has somewhat improved: given the devastating bushfire crisis last summer, that’s hardly surprising.

But there’s a lingering feeling at the ABC, my feedback tells me, that climate change is one of those topics that Morris perceives as an “inner-city elite” preoccupation.

What Morris is trying to do is, on the face of it, entirely appropriate – to broaden the ABC’s reach, to engage those who pay for the ABC through their taxes but are not receiving a commensurate benefit. And I don’t believe he is buckling to political pressure: the Morrison government, though undoubtedly no friend of the ABC’s, is much less given to complaining about its reporting than the Turnbull government was.

But a strategy that emphasises the need to be “relevant” can all too easily mean telling people what they want to hear. Many of the residents of central Queensland believe their future is tied to coal. They may be unwilling to listen to the facts of climate change – especially when other media outlets are feeding them myth and fantasy.

Well, so be it. There may be ways of conveying the facts that feel relevant to their lives. But the facts must still be told and, in some parts of the country, if the ABC doesn’t tell them, they won’t be told at all.

Meanwhile, for what it’s worth, here’s a tip for Gaven Morris: if you’re going to use the enemy’s war cry in a pep talk to your troops, make really sure they understand you are doing so deliberately. Otherwise they might think you’ve turned enemy yourself.


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