Tonight marks the end of state-based television current affairs on the ABC, with all eight Friday night 7.30 programs preparing to air their final episodes. The state editions, which for more than two decades have covered local politics, arts, sport and cultural issues that would otherwise miss out on coverage beyond the local papers, have been axed as part of the much-discussed (and criticised) federal government cuts to the ABC. Many of the program hosts are also leaving, including the award-winning, corruption-busting journalist and author Quentin Dempster, who has worked for the ABC for more than thirty years and who hosted the New South Wales 7.30 program (formerly known as Stateline) for over twenty years. While reports from the ABC have sought to soften the blow, implicitly suggesting the departure was mutual, the real story is that the veteran reporter was retrenched as part of what he has called an ‘industrial execution’. Adding insult to injury, the ABC is said to be in talks to replace the 7.30 Friday night editions with yet another national, panel-style, news-impersonating show, like The Project or that old ratings darling Good News Week.
It is an unfortunate move. At the end of October, when the cuts were first mooted, OzTAM ratings revealed that the state-based shows are generally more popular than the national edition hosted by Leigh Sales, especially in states and territories with a single local newspaper, such as the Northern Territory, South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland. While the $254 million cuts are clearly a broken promise from the Prime Minister, there has been considerable debate about whether program cutting is a necessary response – although a recent leaked document has suggested it was the only way to go.
While I am sympathetic to the ABC’s plight, I can’t help but think that the decision to axe certain programs is political. It is as if the ABC wants to expose the teeth marks of its fiscal flesh wound to the Australian public. Whatever the case, regional reporting and storytelling will suffer, and the diversity in the Australian media ecosystem will take another blow. Last week, Waleed Aly signed off for the last time as host of the intellectually invigorating show Big Ideas, a cheaply made, guerilla-styled television program and podcast that aired lectures and talks from festivals and conferences around the country. It has now been axed. Five regional radio stations will close, coverage of local sport and women’s sports will cease, and the radio program Bush Telegraph, which has long been the flagship for regional reporting on farming, mining, and social and environmental issues, has also been given the boot. Also on the way out is Encounter, one of the key religious affairs programs on Radio National, Into the Music, Hindsight, 360 Documentaries and Poetica, a radio program about poetry that boasted 60 000 listeners per week and which has become renowned for its live readings, interviews, experiments in form and for its engagement with sound and place-based poetic works. As Bronwyn Lea noted in an article published in the Conversation this week, the end of Poetica means that for the first time since 1946 ‘ABC radio will be without a dedicated poetry program’. As far as the ABC’s culpability is concerned, Lea spoke softly. Poet and former radio critic Barry Hill, however, did not. ‘Shamelessly,’ Hill wrote in The Age, ‘the Australian Broadcasting Corporation beheaded poetry.’ Hill’s gutsy, stinging rebuke is well worth reading.
These shows have diverse and rich online archives – you could lose yourself in them for weeks. I highly recommend that you do before they too are shelved. Here is Poetica and Quentin Dempster’s 7.30 NSW for starters.
On Tuesday, the Senate rejected Minister for Education Christopher Pyne’s controversial University deregulation package. Pyne – whom Senator Nick Xenophon describes as a ‘masterful salesman’ – remains undeterred and is vowing to have the measures approved. On Wednesday, he introduced a newly bundled version of the bill to the House of Representatives that, as he noted in a press conference earlier in the day, comprised ‘nine-tenths of the previous bill’. Asked why he expected the new (old) bill to get through in 2015 when it had failed this week, Pyne replied that the ‘crossbenches need more time to think about aspects of the reform’ and that ‘time and persuasion’ is what is now required to get the reforms over the line. The Australian public gained some insight into what Pyne-style ‘persuasion’ looks like, following Palmer United Party Senator Glenn Lazarus’s claim that Pyne had been ‘textually harassing’ him, which generated a series of spoofs and memes, especially on Twitter, many of which make for amusing reading.
Of a more serious nature was this week’s brave National Alliance for Public Universities Forum speech by Professor Stephen Parker, the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor, which found its way into print and onto the television news. Professor Parker robustly attacked the government’s budgetary measures and Universities Australia, which he claims has ‘lost its moral compass’. The Vice-Chancellor went on to say that he would not ‘attend a further meeting of an organisation with necrotising fasciitis; the condition where the body eats its own flesh’. He urged academics, politicians and voters to stand up against the reforms. ‘Join us at the table for a sensible conversation,’ he said, ‘without a gun at our heads, about how to make Australian public higher education great.’
To be fair, there is one point that Pyne can claim to have won this week and that is the pronunciation of Senator Zhenya ‘Dio’ Wang’s name. Anyone who caught the Minister on 7.30 on Tuesday night will have seen host Leigh Sales pointing out with clear delight that the Minister had mispronounced Wang’s name as Wong. Pyne replied that ‘some people pronounce it Wang, some people pronounce it Wong; it depends on where you are in the spectrum’. The Minister reproduced the pronunciation on Channel 9’s Today Show the following morning, prompting Sales to investigate. The outcome allowed Pyne to tweet: ‘sadly for @leighsales, Mandarin does not have hard “a” sound so it is ok to pronounce Wang as Wong. It’s s [sic] small thing. #wangorwong.’
It’s official. Sky News channel A-PAC and SBS’s Studio will broadcast, on television, the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards this Monday night. The ceremony will be hosted by journalist and five-time Logie Award winner Ray Martin, and will air live on both programs at 7.15pm, with a highlights package following on SBS One. As noted last week, the ABC had pitched for the television coverage, but lost after it nominated the Book Show’s Jennifer Byrne as host.
Also taking place on Monday are the Queensland Literary Awards. As some might remember, the Queensland Literary Awards replaced the Premier’s Literary Awards in 2012 after the latter were abolished by the Newman Government. The 2014 Man Booker prize-winner Richard Flanagan is up for both the Prime Minister’s and the Queensland prizes for fiction for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
There was good news in Papua New Guinea on Monday following an announcement that PNG’s former Attorney-General Kerenga Kua has contributed almost US$8000 to the Crocodile prize – the country’s national writing award. The Crocodile recognises short stories, poetry, essays and journalism, heritage writing, book of the year, and writing on the arts, culture and tourism. The winner in each category receives a AU$2300 prize, a trophy and guaranteed publication. The best entries are published in the annual Crocodile Prize Anthology, which is distributed free-of-charge to schools, libraries and communities in PNG.
The prize – and, in particular, the publication of the anthology – had historically been supported by the Australian High Commission, particularly former High Commissioner Ian Kemish, but late last month the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby announced it was withdrawing its financial support, citing no reason. While the prize has other sponsors, the Australian Commission’s withdrawal was a blow to the Crocodile organisers, who have to deal with challenges that seem folkloric in Australia – stolen book shipments, book freights that winds up in Indonesia instead of PNG, and black market sell-offs of award-winners’ works. Kerenga Kua’s donation will help the Simbu Writers Association host the 2015 prize ceremony and will fund the travel and accommodation for prize-winners. The 2015 prize will be announced in September.
Some months ago I wrote about the many innovative library initiatives that have sprouted up around the world, including Estonia’s airport library, which encourages readers to take a book on a journey and then return it with a travel story. Now Sydney has its own unique library endeavor following the launch of the Coogee Beach open-air library. The library, which is six metres long, is open from 7am to 7pm. Users are invited to borrow from the collection of more than 1000 novels, non-fiction books, magazines, children’s books and non-English language titles – however, they are expected to return them for other users to enjoy.
This week in the Sydney Review of Books we feature exceptional review essays by two accomplished writers. Writer, poet and musician and ALS Gold Medal winner Gregory Day reviews Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster, a novel whose very title ‘rings out like an in-joke of the Irish middle class at the expense of the lacquered and iconic Anna Karenina by the socially utopian Tolstoy, and the tragically frou-frou Madame Bovary by the aesthetically utopian Flaubert.’ The novel begins in the aftermath of a family death, which leaves behind a wife (Nora) and her children. As Day notes, the reader is privy only to Nora’s thoughts and ‘the effect is excruciating’. Her constant worry about the wellbeing of her boys, now fatherless, is the driving force of the novel. But Tóibín’s masterful intimacy, Day goes on to argue, is both deeply personal and a brilliant demonstration of the way in which he has set about rejuvenating contemporary Irish literature:
Well over 100 years ago, W. B. Yeats envisaged a future for Ireland in which writers such as Tóibín and John McGahern, William Trevor and Claire Keegan, would come to the fore …. In Nora Webster, it is as if Colm Tóibín has set to the task of resolving Yeats’ caveats and perfecting this ‘new literature’.
Our second essay is from well-known Sydney-based journalist and former literary editor of the Australian Miriam Cosic. ‘Undue process’ is a review of Michael Mori’s highly-anticipated memoir In the Company of Cowards: Bush, Howard and Injustice at Guantanamo. Mori was the American military lawyer assigned to defend Australian Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks, and he has written a compelling account of his experience that combines legal, political and personal reportage. Cosic reads In the Company of Cowards in the context of recent attempts to introduce illiberal laws to deal with local and international terrorist threats, while paying close attention to Mori’s role in the four-year fight for Hicks under the most extraordinary circumstances:
In almost five years in the job, Mori had one job: to get the Australian detainee David Hicks out of imprisonment under conditions that defied not only international law but common decency. Hicks was left for years in solitary confinement, in artificial light that was left on 24 hours a day. He was given inedible food and allowed almost no human contact beyond what his lawyers could provide on brief fly-in-fly-out visits. He was charged with invented crimes, which morphed in front of Mori’s eyes.
From the Archives this week is an interesting companion piece to Cosic’s essay. ‘Don’t mention the war’ by Kevin Foster is an extract from Don’t Mention the War: The Australian Defence Force, the Media and the Afghan Conflict (2013), in which Foster asks: ‘How is it possible in the network society of the twenty-first century that the Australian public should have been so ill informed for so long about what its troops have been doing in Afghanistan, and why has this situation been allowed to persist?’
The image this week comes from an exhibition at one of Sydney’s best artist-run galleries 55 Sydenham Rd, which pays tribute to American artist Mike Kelley (1954-2012). The exhibition features works by Australian artists alongside screenings of a number of Kelley’s video works, many of which are being exhibited in Australia for the first time.