ABC News 24 started out on Friday evening, like everyone else, carrying live vision from the Japanese public broadcaster, NHK. These were extraordinary pictures from the air showing the tsunami swamping coastal areas, burning refineries and general devastation. In a Tweet, ABC Managing Director Mark Scott has said the ABC couldn't show more because it didn't have streaming rights to the NHK feed. It was evidently obliged to source material from elsewhere and turned to the BBC, which was mounting its own live coverage, freely available to its global audience on the Net. Then for some reason, the ABC had the idea that they could better manage things themselves. And so began one of the most miserable viewing experiences in living memory.
This consisted of a succession of youthful, inexperienced presenters bumbling through as best they could, parroting the same script lines again and again. Yes, we'd already known for hours that "Japan has been hit by the biggest earthquake in many years that triggered a deadly tsunami". OK, tell us more. What we needed was more detail and background. What we got instead was the same headline ad infinitum from anchors so green around the gills that they were swamped by the scale of the story. The producers tried to improve things by wheeling in some local academic opinion. But these people knew as much as the rest of us, which watching News 24 wasn't much. So the sum total of knowledge they brought to the proceedings was perilously close to zero.
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Now, as broadcast journalists ourselves, Grubsheet appreciates the challenges and pitfalls of live television. But for a 24 hour news channel to stick with normal programming on a story this big beggars belief. All weekend, an audience crying out for more information on the Japanese catastrophe - including Australian families frantic about their missing loved ones - was aghast to find a range of programs on ABC News 24 that were so totally off the wall as to resemble a Pythonesque "not the news" spoof.
The Australian's Caroline Overington highlighted one of the miserable low points - a debate on the national identity of Belgians and whether the Dutch language is superior to Flemish. Columnist Tim Blair over at the Daily Telegraph wondered why enraged ABC journalists didn't storm News 24 and seize control of the station. What? And spoil their weekend?
If history is any guide, the ABC is certain to cry conspiracy about Overington and Blair. Well, they're from News Limited aren't they? They're doing Rupert Murdoch's bidding on behalf of our competitor, Sky News. It won't work this time, fellas ( oh and Kate Torney, head of ABC News). Too many people were watching.
When News 24 was launched, Mark Scott made a virtue of the fact that the ABC was providing such an ambitious undertaking without any increase in public funding. The national broadcaster's bean counters squirrelled a bit from here, a bit from there and ABC news staff were required to do more for less. Bad mistake. Cut corners in news and ABC News 24 is what you get - a clutch of ingenues and pimply wannabes rather than seasoned veterans oozing natural credibility and commanding audience respect.
Scott and his lieutenants sorely need to re-learn the virtue of that old adage "less is more". Fewer hours of bland news programming and more resources devoted to ground-breaking journalism. That's the role of a public broadcaster in the digital age, not to ape its slicker competitors and wind up looking like a monkey itself.