In 20 years time when they ask the trivia question “in what year did ABC start its 24-hour television news channel?”, I hope we will not remember the answer with a sense of nostalgia for something we’ve lost.
I certainly have no idea what television will look like in 20 years but I suspect whatever medium it transforms into it, its content would still include 7 x 24 news with some kind of local slant. The ABC “News 24” stationed launched today despite the grumblings of Sky News Australia’s owners (and there is no reason in time it cannot become the Al Jazeera of the Asia Pacific, especially if it can nail overseas broadcasting.
There are plenty of misgivings of course, and Sky's is not the limit. As far back as the 1840s Henry David Thoreau noted our inventions are pretty toys which distract attention from serious things. At time, the US was rapidly linking itself up by magnetic telegraph to Britain and also internally from Maine to Texas.
But as Thoreau reminded us the first news on these newfangled tubes may well have been that Princess Adelaide had the whooping while Maine and Texas, may have nothing important to communicate to each other.
Thoreau was right to sound his warning about the blandness of news into the “broad flapping American ear” but completely wrong in his guess - Maine and Texas had plenty of important things to communicate as they shared in the national imagining of a greater America. The ABC News 24 channel can fulfil a similar role here.
Visionary Managing-Director Mark Scott has no doubts about its raison d'etre. He told his own reporters there should be a 24/7 news channel on Australian free-to-air television and the public broadcaster ABC was ideal to run it “given our history, given our experience, given our resources given our integrity, given our independence.” He says News 24 will ensure the ABC's future in broadcasting.
Others are not so sure. Jason Wilson said the public is entitled to be sceptical about its long-term expansion. He said the broadcaster is already overstretched and no new resources have been allocated for the channel. It means the station must reuse content for other media, poach staff from other departments and expect the journalists to work longer hours.
Wilson wonders whether ABC are straying too far from “core business” and should be looking at more innovative ways of delivering content in the post-broadcast age. “There's no convincing case for creating yet another one-size-fits-all continuous news broadcaster when cheap, plentiful bandwidth will allow for the distribution of a plethora of niche, on-demand or streaming audiovisual content,” Wilson said.
As usual Wilson makes astute points. However this long tail approach leaves the audience feeling fragmented which leads to yearning for a more centralised delivery. ABC has a role in providing informed news across Australia. When the national broadcaster was set up in 1932, the newspapers at the time (led by Keith Murdoch) fiercely resisted moves for its radio station to include news. But by the end of World War II, it was increasingly clear the ABC had a mandate to produce despite Murdoch’s best efforts in his wartime role of Director-General of Information.
Keith’s son Rupert is still making his displeasure known about public broadcasting unfairly impinging on his turf, but that to me seems more of a reason to treasure the ABC. But taxpayers should not be expected to pay additional dollars for this new service. Working harder, repurposing content and shifting staff are all reasonable demands when the money is not there up front. For now, ABC News 24 may have to “fake it till it makes it” but with broad public trust and time on its side, the oily rag can one day turn into a silk coat. I welcome its addition to the public sphere.