On the ABC TV news recently, the newly bespectacled Juanita Phillips promoted the following ‘7.30’ program by stating that the program would cover four issues concerning Australians. Asylum seekers, the carbon price, the leadership debate and the sort of sex that women really want.
At 7.30, Leigh Sales flagged the program’s bonus segment which was the growing food allergy problem among Australian children. Political Editor Chris Uhlmann then spent seven minutes giving the history of the asylum seeker, carbon price and leadership debates using past footage and interviews. As riveting as it was to see interview grabs from 2007, nothing new was offered.
Five minutes was then spent covering the children’s allergy issue. While a short piece, reporter Nikki Wilson-Smith at least didn’t rely on footage from 2007. The longest segment of the program, a hefty eight plus minutes, was spent with Leigh Sales interviewing novelist Nikki Gemmell about what 7.30 described as “the long awaited follow-up to The Bride Stripped Bare”. Strangely enough Nikki Gemmell is an ex ABC journalist. If the novel becomes a best seller and Ms Gemmell pays off her mortgage, some thanks must go to the 7.30 team. Well done. Copies of the extended interview are also available on the 7.30 program’s website and on Ms Gemmell’s facebook page.
Now I fully realise that Australia is a big place and that many may well see these issues as pivotal in their lives. 7.30 and its predecessor ‘The 7.30 Report’ have a history of quality journalism and they really shouldn’t be questioned.
Yet I will.
If the asylum seeker issue is on the tip of everyone’s tongue I’m prepared to eat my cat. While the issue may be interesting (to a point) and while it does revolve around bigger issues of justice and human rights, it is not a large issue driving everyday Australians. As a matter of fact, it probably isn’t even in the top 40. The leadership debate on the other hand is quite different. The asylum seeker debate at least exists. The leadership debate may not.
Several stakeholders drive the current affairs agenda. On commercial TV, the agenda is driven by owners and shareholders needing to attract viewers who will buy the products advertised in the program. This translates to more advertisers, higher add rates and greater profit. As women are the ones who are often the ‘family shoppers’ and therefore more susceptible to advertising, it’s no shock that issues of family, cosmetic surgery, weight loss, and grocery prices are commercial current affairs favourites. The ratings say so.
On tax-payer funded TV like the ABC, TV not dependent upon ratings to sell airtime, current affairs content is more determined by actual news and public interest. The stakeholders here are often political parties, special interest groups, big business PR consultancies and anyone savvy enough to spin an issue into one of significant news value.
There’s no doubt that Asylum seeker advocacy groups and the opposition have a real interest in escalating the border security debate. A barrage of media releases and media-trained talking heads chatting smartly on an emotional issue offer easy pickings for current affairs producers.
Any leadership debate is nearly always driven by the opposition, a disgruntled government back-bencher or business interests feeling threatened by impending government policy. Issue of National interest? Probably not. Issue of special interest? Most certainly.
While what women want in bed may be a saucy dinner party topic, it’s not a topic of national interest worthy of the ABC’s flagship current affairs program. Ms Gemmell would definitely fit the content profile of ‘Today Tonight’ or ‘A Current Affair’, but not tax-payer funded television. The Gemmell-ABC connection, while probably innocent, is also troublesome. Relevance aside, an eight-minute book promo on prime-time TV by an ex ABC staffer is worth investigation. It’s not the actuality of the relationship that matters, but the perception. We could easily be forgiven for assuming an incestuous connection.
The Australian conversation is about health, education and youth alcohol culture. It’s about our struggling retail sector and the exorbitant wages paid to senior executives. It’s about transport systems, childcare and identity. It’s increasingly about the elephant in the room – our aging population and the potential for 70% of us to live our last years in a nursing home we didn’t choose and don’t like. It’s not about what Kevin Rudd said in 2007 and we’re not all awaiting a new novel.
Perhaps ABC current affairs’ staff should get out more. Perhaps they could be reminded that what interests them may not always constitute the national conversation. Whatever the case, ‘7.30’ should be wary of becoming a ratings driven showpiece. We can tolerate ‘A Current Affair’, but ‘A 7.30 Affair’ will not be an affair to remember.
Postscript: On lodging a formal compaint to the ABC, they replied that “It is a mystery to the ABC what you base your claim on, that this interview does not fall within “the content parameters” of the program. This broadcast contained no unduly frequent or unduly prominent commercial references.”
You be the judge.