Amid all of us old hands, it is very important to me to have with us today emerging journalism stars of the ABC and media students setting out on their adventures.
As I leave the newsroom, I wanted the theme of today to be a message to the future, and so it’s very important to me that you’re here.
Today, journalism is healthier than we feared it might be, not so long ago. The ABC is stronger, more relevant and as crucial to Australia than at any time in its history. The ABC News audience is bigger, broader and more diverse than it has ever been.
For the next generation there is so much to be excited about.
As I reach my destination, I wanted to share some reflections on the journey I’ve taken, full of so many experiences I never dared to imagine as I set out. I do this in the hope that it leads a few of you – and others out there listening – to try a little harder, reach a little higher and travel a little further than you otherwise might. I want you to imagine where it could take you.
So, let’s begin in Bethlehem – as so much has.
It’s the Spring of 2002 – the middle of the second Intifada. The Church of the Nativity is under siege. Inside, Palestinians accused by Israel of being militants, along with monks, civilians and church staff, are sheltering. Outside, the Israeli military have guns trained on the church, there to arrest the Palestinians.
I’m on the barbed-wire barricades and at the CNN rooftop live shot. I’ve been producing the coverage of military snipers picking off anyone who appears in a window, watching an ancient church that’s seen so much and waiting for a diplomatic resolution to be struck, far from here.
On this day, we know Palestinians have been bussed away, apparently set for a life in exile, never to return to their homes and families. In the Intifada, this is the imbalance of compromise.
I have the fortune of working with one of CNN’s most experienced camera operators, Christian Streib – now CNN’s Chief International Photojournalist – and I suggest to him we take a sneak-peek down a side street, towards the Israeli military’s restricted zone. We’re very aware if we venture down there, the Israelis are likely to fire on anything that moves. But as we peek, there’s no sign of the tanks and guns. So, I ask him out loud whether we venture a little closer.
Christian thinks I’m crazy – and green. I am. This is my third week on assignment in a Middle East conflict zone. This is how journalism works, sometimes.
We walk, we run, we clench our buttocks and turn a corner. The Israelis have gone – there’s no-one there. But there is a tiny, worn wooden door.
The Door of Humility is the most revered entrance to the birthplace of Christ. It’s just over four feet tall. We push on it, bow our heads and enter the church.
Inside we’re alone. Only make-do bedding and the remnants of five weeks of captivity. Christian turns the camera on and starts shooting, I explore further and descend into the crypt with a silver star on the floor – it’s the spot Jesus is said to have been born. On my own, in this place, I take a moment. I then dial up my correspondent, one of CNN’s legends, Walt Rodgers. “Walt,” I whisper; “we’re in the Church”. “Which Church?”, he barks back. “THE Church, get down here,” I say. Walt soon breaks the news to the world that the siege is over, all the final Palestinians have gone, the Israelis have withdrawn.
When a monk emerges and says it’s not safe, there are rumours of explosives, we head back towards the tiny door.
As we open it, Manger Square is now alive. Thousands of liberated locals are celebrating, and right at the front, fixed on the door – and us emerging from it – is the world’s media.
We strut through the pack, gathering their jealous glares, to rush the tape back to the satellite uplink. It’s a global exclusive, CNN has broken the story and we have the pictures.
It’s a long story of just a single day. One of the most extraordinary days a person could experience, but just one day in this great job. It’s what this unpredictable career can grant you – massive moments, etched in the world’s memory – witnessed and reported by us.
From Liberia to Lebanon, Iran to Argentina, Belconnen to Belfast, this job has taken me to places and moments we’re familiar with, sometimes for all the wrong reasons. It’s also the places few have heard of – Kalak, Vai Town, Bitterfeld, Balakot and Bingol – that often have had profound and lasting impacts on my life.
Journalism amazes but it will, at times, shatter your spirit. So, younger journalists, let’s talk about Bingol. One small city that I’ll never really recover from.
It’s 2003. I’ve been in Northern Iraq for the entire war. Saddam’s now deposed, it’s all winding down – mission accomplished, apparently. All the network stars have gone home, I’m exhausted and wrapping up CNN’s operation in Erbil.
Just north of us, a 17-second earthquake in Southern Turkey brings the CNN assignment desk to life. “A school has collapsed; they’re mounting a rescue operation for dozens of trapped children. Can you get there?”
It’ll be the miracle tale, kids rescued alive. Just what the world needs right now.
My crew and I travelled all night, glad to be finally out of Iraq. As we arrived in Bingol, our hope evacuated. The Kurdish school was built of sand because in this part of Turkey, that’s all Kurds are worth. It was barely a pancake stack.
No miracles would emerge from that sandpit in Bingol – just 84 small bodies, one by one. Amid the aftershocks, I went to a funeral in one tiny hillside village. Thirteen children were buried at once – the entire future of that place.
The Bingol earthquake is worth about 300 words on Wikipedia. But I think of those people most days, nearly 20 years on.
I’m telling this not to discourage anyone, but to be honest about this privilege we’re granted and sometimes, the futility of it. Those families, their dead children and the story told to a global audience gave them a voice, if just briefly and possibly to no lasting effect.
But giving voice to the voiceless matters in journalism. It was the motto of Al Jazeera English, which I had the privilege to help set up. From the desert dust rose a news giant that vowed to report the global South as if it were as important as the dominant West. Which it is.
This adventure of journalism.
I’ve had machine guns in my face, been bombed, shot at, skimmed the desert in choppers with American generals, shed tears for lost souls I didn’t know, seen terrorism too close but also humanity in all its beauty.
As journalists, we experience these things and seek to explain them, even when they’re beyond our own comprehension.
I’ve covered Queens and Popes farewelled and dictators de-throned. Merkel elected, Keating defeated. Helped discover Silverchair (I’ll take that one to the grave) and introduced Australia to Bill Shorten as a very young man with very big ambitions.
I’ve been on Oprah and Larry King Live. Worked with Amanpour, Blitzer, Anderson Cooper and Richard Quest. Sir David Frost and Tucker Carlson. Lyneham and Olle. Tingle and Kelly.
I’m equally in awe of the cammos, soundos and editors that taught me so much. The sat dish engineers I’ve laughed and cried with, the subs and the producers so focused on excellence. The graphics magicians and studio maestros. And so crucially, the fixers – and local producers without whom international journalism would be impossible. My profound respect to them.
As I spend a few moments reflecting on all this, I wanted to remind aspiring journalists one thing.
When I decided to be a journalist, I’d never met one. I had no powerful patrons or networks – no-one in my family had ever been to university. I was proudly the son of a fireman and a secretary, often growing up in a single-parent home.
I was powered by curiosity – which, in my humble view, is the essential fuel for success in this business.
In my very first “paid” job in a newsroom, I was a copy kid for Fairfax newspapers in the press gallery. A constellation of journalism stars in the midst of the leadership contest between Hawke and Keating. I had a Parliament House pass that got me anywhere, yet I was the most anonymous 18-year-old in the building. I soaked up every minute. I observed how the leadership battle unfolded, saw the reported “anonymous sources” saying in front of me what I would cut out and glue onto a paper file the next day. I went to the press conferences, corridor parties and Christmas drinks – barely said a word, drinking it in.
What a way to learn.
So, here I am at the other end – and for the past 13 years, back at the ABC.
Having come home, I knew how vital the national broadcaster is to our understanding of the region around us and the regional communities within our borders. International reporting and giving local people a say in the national conversation. These remain the bookends of the ABC’s service no other media can or wants to do.
We are a service, a public service. Not a competitor in the media marketplace. I believe this so much – and as such, with every decision we take, every dollar we spend – we need to show all Australians we provide them with true value.
This is what drove my passion to launch ABC News 24 and to build a team and a strategy that could lead us to become the number one source of digital news and information. How could we be a taxpayer funded news organisation with 1200 staff and a $200 million budget and not provide comprehensive and trusted services around the clock for audiences on THEIR terms, not our deadlines and newsroom rhythms?
Barrie will remember with horror my first impetuous act on my return to the ABC. It’s October 2008 and the United States is about to elect an African American as President – a truly historic moment on any scale. It was the Yes We Can election but at the ABC it was the No We Can’t plan. ABC News had no desire or capability to provide extended coverage or live broadcasting of the Presidential election.
So, I decided we would. Barrie was on a visit to the US so I roped him in and stuck him on an icy kerb outside our Washington bureau with a view… of the traffic. We stuck Scott Bevan in a broom closet without a working control room and with a lot of help from CNN, we mounted a live coverage.
With no disrespect to Scott or Barrie’s efforts, it was the worst broadcast I’ve ever made.
That was it for me. Either the ABC was going to join the contemporary news world and provide Australians with much better value for money, or it would very rapidly die.
Today, the ABC News Channel has a weekly reach of almost 16% of Australians, up each of the last two years in a shrinking TV market. On top of that, add another quarter of a million daily livestreams of the channel on ABC iview and YouTube.
Over 50% of all Australians or 14 million people use our website and news app every month – well over double the number when we launched our Equal Digital Life strategy six years ago. ABC NEWS was the nation’s No 1 digital news brand every month in 2020 and for most of 2021 as well.
At the same time, we are sustaining our loyal broadcast listeners and viewers.
In 2021 the key Radio News/ CAff programs reached an average of 2.3 million Australians every week across the metro networks. ABC Local Radio reaches more than 3 million Australians outside the capital cities each week.
We’ve got enduring, loved brands: Australian Story turned 25 this year. Four Corners, 60. Sixty! AM and PM punctuate our day, as they have for so long. The 7pm News and 7.30 is still the ABC’s most popular hour of television, day in, day out, all year round.
On my last day on Friday, I’ll listen to that long majestic fanfare on the 7am radio news and reflect on all it stands for, 90 years of public service and the small part I played in it.
We have newer services, kicking incredible goals: ABC Investigations, led by Jo Puccini, the Specialist Reporting Team, led by Lisa Whitby. Searching for, and telling, incredible stories in the public interest not for broadcast deadlines, but in ways across our platforms that suit the audience’s habits.
I am so very proud of all these teams. They rarely get recognition but have raised the value of what ABC News does on behalf of all Australians.
I’ll say one thing to our increasingly shrill critics from the vested interests of the media to the unhinged rantings on social media: we’re not your target because we’re failing, but because we’re succeeding.
We don’t have to remember too far back when the criticism of ABC News was its audience was too small, too niche, too urban, we didn’t break stories, we didn’t have an impact, we were too narrow. I don’t hear those criticism now. We’re too big, too popular, too successful on digital, too impactful in our journalism, too many stories leading the agenda, too omnipresent in Australian’s lives, too diverse.
All with lower budgets.
ABC News is also setting the standard for the Australian media in our initiatives to reflect the full diversity of modern Australia in our workforce, in our content — including through projects such as 50:50 Equality, and in reflecting our Indigenous heritage and culture.
The ABC has made more progress here in the past five years than we made in the 50 years before. And it’s about time.
In our content and in our workforce as well. Bridget Brennan, who was Australia’s first Indigenous foreign correspondent, is now on the News Leadership team. Isabella Higgins, our London correspondent. Stan Grant, well, everywhere in primetime.
Nas Campanella is Disability Affairs Correspondent and the Chair of ABC Inclusive. Charles Brice is an excellent reporter in SA for News Breakfast. Both with lived experience of having a disability.
Behind them we’re bringing in other talented young journos with very different life experiences. From the suburbs, from the bush, from cultures and backgrounds that all Australians can relate to.
Watch them rise!
Finally, we’ve transformed.
Not so long ago, we were a linear broadcaster worried about our ageing and declining audiences – now we’re a digital leader, an innovator ready for the on-demand future.
Amid all the Harvey Norman advertising flooding commercial media, there’s an unspoken truth: not a television they sell needs an aerial on the roof. We all buy app-based, internet connected smart TVs with on-demand choices that suit our lifestyles.
You can’t listen to AM radio in a Tesla yet how many of us will own electric cars in the years ahead?
At the ABC we spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on linear broadcast transmission. Necessary now. But for how long? And what content might we otherwise invest that money into?
Imagine an ABC where the ‘B’ doesn’t define us. What might we be if not a broadcaster? The post-broadcast world isn’t as far away as we might think – who’s ready for it?
I think the ABC is better placed than just about any so-called legacy broadcaster to be an outstanding audience service to all Australians in this digital, on-demand and personalised media future. Great value to each and every one of us.
So, young journalists – let’s end where we began: with your opportunity.
In 2001, I stood in the CNN newsroom and watched live as the second plane silently glided into the World Trade Centre. Less profoundly than many others, my life changed in that moment.
There were no camera phones that day, no social media. Radio still ruled, and satellite television was back following the dotcom bust of the previous year. Those few and rare TV images captured on the day still define our understanding of the horror.
For a moment, imagine that day unfolding today – through millions of random postings on Twitter and Facebook, on YouTube and Insta. The dying, the surviving, the eyewitnesses – the opinionated.
In one generation, everything has changed. The way we gather the news, see stories, interact with audiences and interpret the meaning.
In 1996, I was awarded the Melbourne Press Club Young Journalist of the Year.
If I could pass back to myself then a message or to one to the young journalists of today, it is this:
Amid the never-ending change, the new platforms, the old rancour, some things will stay the same.
Facts matter most. The truth will prevail. Lived experience resonates. Narrative storytelling speaks to people’s emotions. Beautiful writing cuts to heart. Great pictures and audio are worth a thousand words. Opinions are cheap.
Curiosity – and the quest to keep chasing it on behalf of others – is never going out of fashion.
And this career – journalism – is the greatest privilege.