ABC vital during pandemic


by Richard Dinnen

I’m taking my car down the rough track, at walking pace, over corrugations and wash-outs, squeezing through the ironbark and acacia trees. It’s a wet and windy afternoon in the far north Queensland high country, near the start of the Great Dividing Range.

Kookaburras shriek, perhaps amused by the sight of a family sedan in what is clearly 4WD territory.

I veer left and right, around rough ground, fallen branches, and the reptiles that resemble them. Forward speed, on the digital read out, is two kilometres per hour.

The "friendly" end of the bush track into my isolation spot

It's all peace and quiet. And then my heart stops. Well, it misses several beats, as the car radio comes alive. Even after all this time, I’m surprised by the suddenness with which one crosses the outer edge of an FM signal. The old AM takes ages to fade out or come back in. FM is here, or gone.

The previous quiet hiss is now the smooth, measured tones of Adam Stephen, at the helm of the drive show coming out of ABC Far North, a challenging two-hour drive away in Cairns.

I’m all the way out here because I am one of those with health concerns that mean a bad result, probably death, if I get corona virus. I’m not alone in this, but it feels bloody lonely sometimes. I need to isolate, to protect myself, and I need good information to do that, in an area poorly served by technology. Mobile, internet - sometimes. One bar, only when the westerly wind kicks in. Radio signal? Only if I go for a drive.

This afternoon, Adam Stephen is covering everything north of Mackay, west to the Gulf of Carpentaria, and on to the NT border. No-one knows for sure how far the signal travels, but he’s potentially talking to 400,000 people across half a million square kilometres of Queensland.

He’s serving his listeners well today, as he always does, delivering precise, considered, carefully researched answers to their questions about the corona virus and its impact in the northern tropics.

It’s conversational, confident, well informed, as all good radio is. It references online resources available to those with reliable internet connections, still a minority here, but he gives enough of the gist for the rest of us to make it work.

How many cases? Where? Why won’t they tell us where the sick people live? How does it spread? Should the schools close? Where has all the dunny paper gone? The best and worst of human curiosity, with a touch of the rumour-driven fear that can rip through small, remote communities.

It’s an impressive job, delivered on an ever-reducing budget, by Adam and his two producers. As often happens up here, during cyclones, floods, and now, a pandemic, the person in Studio 475 has to gather, filter and deliver crucial information people will use to make decisions about their well-being, their livelihoods. These may well be life-and-death decisions.

The ABC Far North studios in Cairns

Information. But no dunny paper

In half an hour, I’ve reached my destination – a toilet paper queue in one of the larger Tablelands towns. No success, but all bushies know there are alternatives. My 30 minutes with Adam Stephen gave me an abundance of reliable, locally relevant information, delivered with appropriate priority, urgency, and the wonderful feeling one gets from ABC Radio in the bush, that the presenter is one of us, who knows our place and our ways, what we need to hear and how we want to hear it.

Impressive at it is, Adam’s coverage is just one small part of a global operation, a vast, inter-linked network of people making radio, TV, online and social media. They’re at the 60 ABC stations around the country, and at the overseas bureaux, focussed on the corona story, of course, but maintaining their round-the-clock coverage of everything else, too.

There may be fatigue. Some of these people have only just stood down from the extraordinary summer of bushfires, or the more routine but equally dangerous northern wet season weather.

But you don’t hear, or see, the tiredness, the understandable fear that surely comes with reporting on a pandemic. Instead, we get the usual determination, the courage and insight, the skills required to tell this awful story.

This, despite the continuing, punitive cuts to the ABC budget, though management has found a way to postpone some of the pain.

ABC coverage continues despite unwarranted criticism, scorn and contempt from the usual commentators, who continue to push their agenda by accusing the ABC of having an agenda other than honest, reliable coverage.

The ABC delivers reliable, factual coverage, while some of its competitors prefer to incite fear, invoke old, racist tropes, or repeat the lunatic claims that corona is a hoax, or a leftist plot to demolish capitalism.

With Parliament closed, independent media is crucial

ABC coverage is even more important now the Federal Government has suspended Parliament, where democracy prevails, and scrutiny is possible. Now we are governed by Cabinet, an appointed executive of mixed abilities, accountable to a Parliament that is not sitting.

And there’s been no abatement of this Federal Government’s dislike of the independent national broadcaster. In times like these, the ABC ought to be the central plank in a coherent, national communication strategy. But communication does not come easily, or naturally, to many of the current ministerial line-up, who blame journalists for their own missteps.

Andrew! Andrew!

There is some comfort in the way the audience made sport with the Prime Minister’s chiding of ABC journalist Andrew Probyn for doing his job, asking questions. The resulting piss-take social media videos are inspired, and they are evidence the audience isn’t buying the Government’s “blame the ABC” line.

There is a long and honourable tradition of ABC staff going into danger to keep us informed. It started in World War Two, and continued through many conflicts, natural disasters, terrorist acts and civil unrest, and now in this pandemic, where the morning commute to the studio, and all the other day-at-work activities come with considerable risk. The ABC has wisely taken steps to mitigate risk, but no amount of precaution can eliminate it entirely.

As always, ABC staff across the nation and around the world, are doing a vital job for their country, for their fellow Australians.

ABC Alumni offers thanks for their service, and our best wishes for the safety and well-being of staff, their families and friends.

ABC staff need your support, your encouragement. Now, more than ever.

Communication is vital to reducing harm and ending the pandemic. The ABC is at the frontline of that effort. It is a big ask, but Australians should expect nothing less. We must all do what we can to support the ABC in this effort. Let’s hope our Federal Government will do the same.

Richard Dinnen was a journalist, foreign correspondent and broadcaster for 27 years with the ABC. He's now a freelancer, most recently with ABC Emergency.