Flat White

The ABC: still number four

9 June 2021

6:01 PM

9 June 2021

6:01 PM

A strange thing happened on the ABC’s Weekend Breakfast last Sunday. The regular news presenters – Johanna  Nicholson and Fauziah Ibrahim – are already overworked by ABC standards, having to read both the news and the weather bulletins. But, with sports presenter Jared Coote unwell, they also had to read the sporting results. 

This could never happen on a weekday, when the News Breakfast presenters – Michael Rowland and Lisa Miller – are surrounded by an extensive supporting cast: Tony Armstrong (sport), Nate Byrne (weather), and Madeleine Morris (finance). If this weren’t enough, they can also call on a range of walk-ons, actual or virtual: ABC specialist reporters like Andrew Probyn, Stephanie Borys and Matt Doran (federal politics), Norman Swan (medicine), Andrew Greene (defence), Antony Green (elections), and Casey Briggs (anything statistical); ABC local reporters like Daniel Ziffer (Melbourne), Michael Rennie (Brisbane) and Charles Brice (Adelaide); and the ABC’s network of international correspondents. 

Moreover, should the ABC lack home-grown specialists on a particular topic, they can always call a friend, whether it be a “permanent casual” like Zak Hepburn (movies) or Alice Zaslavsky (cooking), or any of the hundreds of self-appointed “experts” who jostle for position in the queue for a one-morning stand on the breakfast couch. As a result, Rowland’s and Miller’s contribution is limited to reading the headlines, exchanging mindless banter, and expressing thanks to the serried ranks of guest commentators. 

Given the wholesale generosity of Rowland’s expressions of thanks, one might suppose that all of these contributors are volunteers, actuated solely by altruism, offering their insights only out of the goodness of their hearts. This is plainly not the case, at least with contributors who are full-time ABC employees. Is there any other workplace where it is even considered appropriate, let alone necessary, for one employee to thank another, merely for turning up to work and doing the job which he or she is paid to perform? Elsewhere, an employee might be grateful when an outstanding performance is acknowledged by a superior, but would be surprised and quite possibly offended by a co-worker who is so presumptuous as to offer routine thanks for a job competently performed. 

When Rowland is thanking his fellow ABC employees, for whom is he speaking? If it is on behalf of the ABC – and assuming that Rowland has the authority to decide whether or not a co-worker’s performance warrants appreciation at an organizational level – then it should occur in private, in the same way that high-end designer watches are handed out (albeit only to senior executives) at Australia Post. And if it is on behalf of viewers, who elected Rowland as our spokesman to express gratitude – and to decide upon the appropriate level of gratitude to be expressed – towards his fellow ABC employees? 

Which brings us back to last Sunday, when Nicholson and Ibrahim had to read the sports results. Not surprisingly, being professional journalists, they did it competently enough. Yet neither of them felt an urge to thank the other, even for undertaking a task which fell outside their respective job descriptions. And the absence of Coote, as the specialist who would normally perform that task, left the viewing audience (few though we may be) no less well-informed by hearing the same results read by journalists who are not sporting specialists. 

The ABC is constantly whingeing about the inadequacy of their funding. Yet the lavish array of “talent” provided for News Breakfast is not suggestive of a network that is starved for funds. If two competent journalists like Nicholson and Ibrahim can read the news, the weather bulletins and the sporting results on a Sunday morning, it should be a cinch for more experienced journalists like Rowland and Miller to do the same each weekday; with their seniority and experience, they might even cover financial topics as well. Paying five people to do the work of one or two is the antithesis of efficiency, as is the practice of “crossing” to reporters in far-distant locations to provide reports which might as easily be read out in the home studio. 

The ABC also likes to promote itself as Australia’s “most trusted news source”. This claim is seemingly belied by the fact that more viewers choose to obtain their free-to-air breakfast news from each of Channel 7’s Sunrise and Channel 9’s Today. Yet it may be literally true: a good many Australians are comfortable with the accuracy of facts which the ABC reports as news; what they are not comfortable with is the grossly partisan commentary which accompanies such reportage. 

But, instead of differentiating the ABC from commercial free-to-air channels, News Breakfast attempts to emulate them by adopting a deliberately lowbrow ‘magazine’ format. This is absurd. On the one hand, that particular market is already saturated by Sunrise and Today; on the other hand, the ABC has neither the experience, nor the resources, nor the expertise, nor (frankly) the talent, to match Sunrise or Today as tabloid entertainment. Even Armstrong’s winsome smile, and Byrne’s two-sizes-too-small pink trousers, will not lure away David Koch’s and Karl Stefanovic’s legions of personal fans. 

For some weeks in the early stages of the Covid panic in 2020, News Breakfast demonstrated that there is a place for Australia’s “most trusted news source” in the morning news market. For the first and only time in its history, News Breakfast gained a larger audience share than Today (both remained well behind Sunrise). Media analysts attributed this result to the fact that “in times of crisis, many people turn to the ABC”. 

If anyone had been awake at the ABC, they would have seen this for what it was, rather than what they hoped it to be. It was not a vindication of News Breakfast’s marketing strategy. People were not tuning in for Rowland’s lame jokes, or for Byrne’s adolescent enthusiasm over all things meteorological or astrophysical, or even for the strait-laced sufferance with which Miller tolerates the puerility of the environment in which she is compelled to work. All the audience wanted was the facts. And – just this once – they were prepared to put up with the dumbed-down format, with the sneering green-left editorial bias, with the thank-yous that Rowland continued to dish out to his professional colleagues, in the hope of more accurate and reliable news reportage than was offered on the commercial stations. 

Needless to say, that hope was a vain one. Rather than taking the opportunity to give substance to the ABC’s promotion of itself as Australia’s “most trusted news source”, News Breakfast resolutely remained an echo chamber for the ABC staff’s self-imposed woke orthodoxy. The ABC could not bring itself to blame China for releasing this virus to the world, either deliberately or through incompetence; they could only poke fun at the difficulties faced by right-of-centre world leaders (Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson, and, of course, Scott Morrison) in attempting to deal with a problem not of their making. 

Some, like Daniel Andrews, who saw the solution in ever-increasing measures of totalitarian control, immediately became the ABC’s pin-up boys. Nor did it matter that the Andrews Government behaved with the sort of demagogic inconsistency typical of totalitarian dictators: turning a blind eye to a “black lives matter” protest rally attended by an estimated nine thousand people, whilst continuing to enforce restrictions that limited back-yard barbecues, church services and funerals to twenty people; and choosing an Aboriginal-owned and controlled security firm to oversee hotel quarantine, despite the firm’s having previously been rejected from the State Purchase Contract panel of approved contractors, rather than accepting the Federal Government’s offer of defence forces personnel. 

Predictably, the viewers who drifted to News Breakfast in the early stages of the Covid panic promptly returned to Sunrise and Today, none the wiser, but with all of their expectations about the ABC fully vindicated. For Australia’s “most trusted news source”, some tens of thousands will not quickly repeat the mistake of turning to the ABC, whether “in times of crisis” or at all. 

In a recent excoriation of News Breakfast published in The Spectator Australia in March, prominent journalist and economist Judith Sloan noted that “Another dreary aspect of News Breakfast is the extraordinary amount of promotion of other ABC programs carried every day”. But, if that were the only or greatest criticism, the programme would be almost tolerable.  

Three decades ago, the ABC broadcast The Late Show, populated by a generation of Australia’s up-and-coming comedians: Rob Sitch, Tom Gleisner, Tony Martin, Mick Molloy, Santo Cilauro, Judith Lucy, Jane Kennedy and Jason Stephens. It was arguably the last successful ABC comedy sketch and satire show, before the National Broadcaster opened its doors to such profoundly unfunny would-be humourists as Shaun Micallef, Charlie Pickering, Tom Gleeson, Luke McGregor, Benjamin Law and Josh Thomas. For the first episode of the second season, The Late Show created a mock ABC promotion with a catchy tune and the theme “still number four”. The lyrics included: 

We’re still number four, we’re still number four, 

Watching our ratings going through the floor, 

We’re the station you just have to ignore, 

We’re still number four. 

We’ve got spills and thrills (shot of Songs of Praise) and fresh comedy (shot of Dad’s Army) 

Ground breaking drama (shot of Bananas in Pyjamas) 

And sport for you and me (shot of lawn bowls competition). 

Still number four, still number four, 

Even SBS is knocking on the door. 

We’ve got loads of glamour (shot of sheepdog trials) 

And celebrities to spare (shot of Don Lane) 

We’ve got sharp-edged satire (shot of Late Show toilet joke), 

News and current affairs (shot of news cancellation notice). 

Number four, number four, 

Who do you think we barrack for? 

It’s the ABC! It’s the ABC!! 

Little has changed over three decades. But, if anyone at the ABC bothers to wonder why they are “still number four”, News Breakfast offers all the answers. 

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