Australian media passes its big test

Tim BurrowesOverall, Australia’s media outlets did themselves proud in one of their most challenging days, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes   

In its 58 years, there will have been few days as tough for the Seven Network as yesterday.

Thrown into live programming moments after the Sydney siege began opposite its Martin Place studios, the network’s team barely put a foot wrong in the rolling coverage which as I write has now been going for 24 hours. Even after having to evacuate its newsroom, Seven kept it together.

The first test came just 60 seconds into that broadcast.

Morning Show hosts Larry Emdur and Kylie Gillies were on the air as armed police began to gather in the background of their shot.

It became clear they were dealing with a hostage situation of some sort right over the road from their studio.

My best guess is that somebody spoke into Emdur’s ear and told him they could see a flag with Arabic writing on it. To say so on air would have immediately sent out a dog whistle that this was some kind of terrorist incident – and spread panic.

Emdur seemed to take the first of many responsible decisions by Australia’s media that day.

“We’re hearing that it appears to be…” And then he stopped himself. “We’ll just wait for confirmation of what we’re seeing there.”

The pair then continued to report what they were seeing – and resisted the temptation to speculate. (Emdur has written a good piece about the moment here). They stuck with the word “gunman”, not terrorist.

It was one of many judgement calls made by all of Australia’s media outlets throughout the day, as the hostage taker attempted to use the media to get his demands to the public. Even after hostage videos appeared on social media after midnight they held off.

Like most viewers, I channel surfed, so everyone will have different perspectives on how the media did depending on what they watched and listened to.

From my perspective as a TV viewer, Seven and Nine both deserve great credit.

Former Sunday Telegraph editor Neil Breen added an experienced news voice to Nine’s early coverage, while they also delivered solid national coverage throughout the evening. But I spent more time with Seven so am not as well placed to comment on Nine’s achievements.

Because of their location, Seven faced all of the big tests. Despite having to evacuate the newsroom and switch control of the broadcast to Melbourne, the network continued to convey the facts and capture the horror and the drama even as they raced to set up an emergency newsroom in its nearby Jones Bay corporate headquarters.

By the time evening came, Mel Doyle was the trusted face anchoring Seven’s coverage. She was calm and authoritative. Chris Reason, meanwhile was back in the eerily abandoned Seven newsroom with just a cameraman and – it later transpired – police sniper for company. It was compelling.

It was a big test of the networks’ commitment and ability to cover news. Seven, Nine, Sky News and the ABC stayed with it. Ten had dropped its rolling coverage by late evening. It stayed off the air when the siege ended in the early hours of this morning.

It was painfully obvious that the deep cuts to Ten’s news division this year had stretched it beyond breaking point. Its journalists and presenters did their best. And Ten improvised by bringing Studio 10 on air several hours earlier than scheduled this morning so they could at least have something on at breakfast time. Studio 10 got the tone right, from what I saw. I’m afraid I didn’t watch enough of Sky News or ABC News 24 to give a fair assessment.

But it was a big lesson that the reason you invest in news is that you have enough resources to lean on in tough times.

Lisa Wilkinson proved a calm voice on Today this morning – although co-host Karl Stefanovic’s non ratings period holiday absence felt obvious.

Over on Seven’s Sunrise came a human moment this morning when presenter Natalie Barr – in the co-host chair because Samantha Armytage is also away – broke down when she learned that the identity of a victim was a friend of the network.

In Sydney, the only radio station to listen to yesterday was 2GB, as Ray Hadley put in a marathon 9am to 6pm shift. I was in a taxi on the fringes of the Sydney CBD as news broke. I asked the taxi driver to put on a talk station. He first went to 2UE. They were talking to callers about something else entirely. Like many others I suspect, my taxi driver switched to 2GB and Hadley, and didn’t go back.

Hadley did a compelling job. He did make missteps including reporting arrests in Lakemba. And he made responsible decisions not to put hostages on the air when they called in. Indeed, his was the radio broadcast that the entire city listened to.

Just a couple of days ago, I was thinking to myself I would never again see the day where a newspaper felt compelled to publish a special daytime edition. Despite there being no business case for it (you wouldn’t sell enough copies to cover the costs) – Sydney’s Daily Telegraph went for it because it’s what the readers expect. (Update: the editorial direction of the cover itself has been highly controversial in the 24 hours since)

And across the country this morning, News Corp’s papers have done a string of extra editions to capture the end of the siege – a 3am edition of the Courier Mail in Brisbane; a 5am edition of the Daily Telegraph; and a 7am edition of the Herald Sun in Melbourne. The Adelaide Advertiser will publish an 11am edition.

tele 5am edition


herald sun siege edition

advertiser siege

Perhaps as a signal that Fairfax’s priorities have swung from print to digital, there was no late edition of the Sydney Morning Herald. But readers certainly turned to smh.com.au. At one point yesterday afternoon, I noticed that 35,000 people were reading its live blog. (You can see more on web traffic to the major news sites via this link.)

Of course, in all the hours of broadcast time and columns of print, I’m sure things went wrong. But I saw on awful lot more that went right.

Yesterday showed most of Australia’s media at its best.

  • Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella (declaration of interest: Seven, Nine and Ten all advertise with Mumbrella)

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