Address by The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP- 2014 Lowy Institute Media Award

Address by The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP at the 2014 Lowy Institute Media Award

  • Malcolm Turnbull

Address by The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP at the 2014 Lowy Institute Media Award

  • Malcolm Turnbull
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Executive Summary

Speech by The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP 2014 Lowy Institute Media Awards

Lowy Institute

12 August 2014


It is an honour to be in presence of so many distinguished journalists and foreign correspondents.

And without singling out the guests may I acknowledge Andrew Greste whose brother Peter is imprisoned in Egypt after a trial that was no more than a shocking mockery of justice.

Peter Greste is a great Australian journalist who was simply doing his job, but had the bad luck to be working for the Al Jazeera a news organisation whose owners are regarded as political opponents by the new Egyptian regime. Our Government has condemned this decision to imprison Peter, not least because it is part of a broader attempt to silence a free press.

Our Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has met with her Egyptian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry as recently as last month to argue for Peter’s release. An appeal has been lodged and our officials will continue to provide every assistance to Peter’s family.

We are often reminded that our freedoms, our way of life are secured because our defence forces are prepared to put their lives on the line. We should not forget that the price of the news we read every day, of the transparency, accountability indeed democracy that only a free press can ensure is all too often paid in lives and liberty put at risk by journalists like Peter Greste.

In my youth I was fascinated by journalism, by newspapers, radio and television. Not just because, like so many young males, I was easily bored and naturally attracted to anything that meant I did not need to concentrate on one topic for too long.

The romance of news, the adventure, the power and influence were all intoxicating. I remember returning home from a hiking adventure in Tasmania in 1972 and spending a night in Melbourne - my first.

I remember going with my friends to Young & Jacksons to admire Chloe and drink beer in pints and then late in the evening we went down to The Age building, still owned by an independent David Syme & Co and edited by Graham Perkin, and we lay on the footpath to feel the thunder of the presses as they shook the street and in a few hours the whole city as the news of the day roared out on a fleet of trucks.

So I tried my hand at journalism, first at The Nation Review then with Radio 2SM and the Nine Network all the while studying law at the University. My first beat, as it were, was the State Parliament and while I was too young to evolve into the classic lobby correspondent - chronicler and conspirator in equal measures - I was thrilled to get to know and occasionally cross swords with the political greats of that time including of course my future friend and business partner Neville Wran.

My great hero was Harold Evans the editor of the London Sunday Times and of course his great hero, of whom he often spoke, was Nick Tomalin the foreign correspondent killed by a Syrian missile while covering the Yom Kippur war in 1973.

I first met Evans at the Cambridge Union in 1975. He was one of the guest speakers and I spoke later from the floor in the debate. A little after my speech I was handed a note on Sunday Times letterhead. “Come and see me in the Grays Inn Road if you want to be a journalist” and it was signed by Harold Evans. A summons from God.

When I met Evans, the next morning, he urged me to drop my legal studies and concentrate on journalism. He was very persuasive and he summed it up like this. “If you become a lawyer you will make much more money than you will as a journalist. But you will be bored out of your wits. You might become a judge - more boring still. Or, “and at this point his voice dropped ominously “worse still you could become a politician.”

He didn’t need to elaborate on that dread prospect.

My own efforts as a foreign correspondent were not distinguished. But I did have a few adventure. In 1974 my trusty Olivetti portable financed my travels through the USA including a visit to Montgomery Alabama.

I was shocked to see that the flag of the United States was barely present - flown only from federal buildings like Post Offices. Everywhere else they flew the Confederate flag and the state flag of Alabama. It was like a different country.

The Governor was George Wallace and I managed to crash a press conference he was holding and then secure an interview with him, we canvassed his future plans, a possible joint ticket with Ronald Reagan and the prospects of young Jimmy Carter. . In his wheelchair, he still radiated a menacing strength as he told me that everything I had read about the South was wrong and everything was different in Alabama.

So when he proposed to appoint me a Lieutenant Colonel in the Alabama State Militia, I felt it wise not to decline.

I did feel a long way from home.

On another occasion working on a story for Channel Nine in New York I met Rupert Murdoch for the first time. He had just bought the New York Magazine and Village Voice and was declining all interviews. I had a good story in the can - I had even bumped into Robert Hughes in the street and obtained a typically colourful interview. But no Rupert. So I rang every extension I could think off at the New York Post until late in the evening a familiarly Australian voice answered. I quickly explained to Mr Murdoch my problem - without him I had no story, with him I had a scoop. Perhaps remembering what it was to be young and a reporter, the great man relented and we piled into a

cab and flew down to the Post’s office on the east river and I interviewed Rupert on the waterfront across the road from his office.

Later when I was at university at Oxford I continued to work as a journalist stringing for Packer’s ACP including The Bulletin and the Women’s Weekly. Harold Evans forgave me for going back to Law School and gave me a job on The Sunday Times.

In those days the Australian media companies had a substantial presence in London. The Packers’ ACP not only had an office on Ludgate Circus at the end of Fleet Street but their chief correspondent had a fine company house in the West End and a driver. And the Fairfax establishment was even grander as I recall. Those were the days.

Next door on Fleet Street was the art deco magnificence of the Daily Express building, immortalised in Private Eye as the black Lubyanka and the columns of the Daily Telegraph built to convey a message of money and power, and still doing so, but now alas as the home of Goldman Sachs. The world of which I reminisce is not so long ago in years from us today but a galaxy, or should I say an iPhone, away in so many other ways.

In those days an Australian abroad would find nothing about Australia in the local press apart from the cricket scores and then only if you were in a cricketing country. Australians at home learned about the rest of the world exclusively through Australian media.

Today the world is utterly changed. The Internet and the smart phone mean that most people in the developed world and soon most people in the whole world will be able to connect with each other 24/7. Australians can read The Wall Street journal or the New York Times as easily as they can read their local papers. Social media offers an avalanche of news: it seems that the modern warrior has a gun in one hand and a smartphone in the other tweeting and facebooking his opponents’ and, often as we have seen this week, his own atrocities.

It is a far cry from the world of Scoop when William Boot was sent off to Ishmaelia by Lord Copper of The Beast to cover what was hoped to be a war in Ishmaelia.

“What the British public wants first, last and all the time is News,” said Lord Copper “Remember that the Patriots are in the right and are going to win. The Beast stands by them four square. But they must win quickly. The British public has no interest in a war which drags on indecisively. A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side and a colourful entry into the capital. That is the Beast policy for the war.....We shall expect the first victory about the middle of July.”

The Foreign Correspondent Business Model

A recent feature on Indonesia’s President-elect, Joko Widodo or Jokowi, by Fairfax correspondent Michael Bachelard [1], noted his favourite method for cutting down on corruption and exposing what’s really going on in the bureaucracy was by conducting what is known in Bahasa as ‘blukusan’ -- the unannounced visit.

At its most fundamental, that is also the job of the foreign correspondent: To be immersed in a foreign, to speak to the elites certainly but well beyond them, to test the official narrative and statistics against the lived experience and to listen to those who would otherwise not be heard. The days of simply rewriting the local news are over - all of that is available instantly to your readers and editors back home.

But getting access is especially hard for a foreign correspondent. Everywhere in the world, politics is local and so is the media focus of the politicians.

It has always been expensive to maintain a foreign bureau and that is even without William Boot’s supply of cleft sticks.

The Harvard Shorenstein Center calculated in 2007 that it costs up to AUD $318,000 a year to maintain a very basic office overseas, and can cost up to AUD$1.6 million a year in a city like Baghdad [2], which has extra security requirements. One Australian correspondent said that a bureau in Indonesia costs over AUD $300,000 a year to maintain, once you take into account the cost of accommodation, children’s’ school fees, paying stringers and local assistants, rent and of course salaries.

Only the ABC now has a substantial international presence with twenty Australian and 35 locally engaged staff overseas; a good example of what a public broadcaster should do in my view. It is, of course, much cheaper to fly in teams to cover specific stories on an on-needs basis. A study by the Media Standards Trust in the U.K. found this has become much more attractive for news organisations to cover locations when there is a specific event or crisis - such as, say, Ukraine. But this comes at the expense of a deep knowledge of the country and the contacts needed to develop stories in depth [3].

In an online world, the Fairfax correspondent in Washington or Tokyo is not just competing against a competitor from News Limited or a wire service; they are competing against every conceivable source of news whether it is the NY Times, the FT, the Wall Street Journal or the English language online edition of the Asahi Shimbun.

The New York Times averages 50 million unique visitors to its website each month, of which, 17 million, or 34 per cent, are outside of the U.S. [4] The Guardian has 40 million unique users visit its website each month and a staggering two-thirds of them outside of the U.K. [5]

In June, the Guardian had almost 1.8 million unique viewers come to its site in Australia, more than visited the Daily Telegraph’s site [6]. The BBC had more than 1.6 million unique viewers in Australia - more than the Courier Mail. The Huffington Post was barely edged out by The Australian with 1.3 million unique viewers and the New York Times had 731,000 unique viewers.

Media companies on digital platforms tend to chase two things to get clicks: Cover immediate, breaking news on the one hand; and go for opinion and commentary, the more intemperate the better, on the other, to reap social media shares, likes and retweets. As I have said before, it often feels like the ‘news cycle’ has been replaced by the ‘outrage cycle’.

But there is a genre of news story that lies in the middle on these two extremes -- they are those stories which take a few days to put together, involve the skilful working of contacts and sources, and require a deep and nuanced knowledge of the subject matter. Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger describes the new media world as enshrining the ‘dumbbell model’ [7] of journalism -- all the weight has now shifted to the two ends of journalism, leaving not much in the middle.

As one very senior journalist in Canberra’s press gallery told me: ‘There has been a huge amount of complacency, a growing lack of media interest in policy, [and] a function of that is a most conspicuous lack of interest in what other countries are doing in a policy sense, and this is reinforced by the problems of the business models of newspapers’.

But interestingly, while there may be more of a focus on less weighty issues, consumers nominate foreign affairs as the most important reason for following the news. Although numbers in Australia are hard to come by, the U.K. regulator Ofcom does an annual survey on news consumption [8] which found ‘world-wide current affairs’ was:

● The topic mostly likely to be of interest to respondents (37 per cent), well ahead of celebrities (11 per cent) and ahead of U.K. politics, local current affairs, crime, sport and finance.
● The type of news that most people thought was important to know (49 per cent).

Foreign Correspondents: The Numbers

As a result of all these factors, the number of foreign correspondents working today is in decline.

The Pew Research Centre’s 2014 State of the News Media found that the number of foreign correspondents working for U.S. newspapers have fallen from 307 in 2003 to 234 in 2011, a drop of 24 per cent [9].

The situation is even worse when it comes to broadcast television in the U.S. The amount of time devoted to overseas reporting during evening newscasts in 2013 was less than half of what it was in the late 1980s [10]. During the 1980s, the big U.S networks - ABC, NBC and CBS - each maintained about 15 foreign bureaux but by 2007 they had six or fewer, with bureaux being shut down in Moscow, Paris, Tokyo, Beijing, Cairo and Johannesburg [11].

Definitive numbers in Australia are much harder to quantify.

In the 1960s the Herald and Weekly Times maintained five journalists in London, three in New York, full-time correspondents in Paris, Rome, Singapore and Rabaul, plus shared correspondents in Johannesburg, Tokyo, Toronto and New Delhi. Fairfax maintained large bureaux in London and New York.

But such an extensive foreign presence would be unheard of for a newspaper group today. In recent years, The Australian has closed bureaux in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, London, Bangkok and New Zealand but still has correspondents in Jakarta, Beijing, Tokyo, Southeast Asia, Jerusalem and of course a very extensive network of correspondents to draw upon from the wider News Corp stable.

Fairfax has correspondents in Washington, London, Beijing, Delhi, the Middle East and has reinstated Lindsay Murdoch in Southeast Asia, based in Bangkok. Over the years it has pulled out from Wellington, Tokyo and New York [12].

The Australian Financial Review no longer has anyone in Tokyo, our second largest trading partner. The ABC is the standout in this area. It has bureaux in Washington, London, New Zealand, Jakarta, Beijing, Bangkok, Jerusalem, New Delhi, Tokyo and stringers in many other locations.

Some journalists and editors I have spoken to have mused whether foreign news is less important in the local media than it used to be. Not because Australians had lost interest in the rest of the world - that has increased - but because there are so many other sources of foreign news available thanks to the Internet.

One senior journalist I spoke to said that it was routine for the Sydney Morning Herald to have at least one foreign story on the front page every day. Now it is possible to go many weeks he said without a single foreign story on the front page.

Impact on our Understanding of Common Policy Challenges

The vast volume of online news keeps us up to speed about what is happening anywhere and everywhere, but it does have limitations.

There are places where the local media are not well informed and/or are not available online in English. Knowing what is going on in New York is easy. But what about Cairo or Aleppo? Or closer to home, Hanoi, Taipei or Jakarta?

It is noteworthy that the Australian no longer has a correspondent in London or New York, in part no doubt because it can rely on other News Corporation publications in those centres, but it does keep a correspondent in Jakarta.

And then there is context. What does news in a far flung place mean for Australians? Of course some of this context can be injected by seasoned and knowledgeable writers at home. The New York Times’ Tom Friedman was one of the first to do this and he has local counterparts like Greg Sheridan and Peter Hartcher, who are based in Australia but read widely, have a lengthy list of foreign contacts and travel enough to keep those relationships and connections fresh.

But there is one aspect of reporting on the rest of the world and placing information in an Australian context that I believe is underdone.

Let me start with a little background. When I was first elected to Parliament, one facet of the policy debate that I found quite striking was the lack of interest most policy makers in Canberra had in other countries’ choices and outcomes. The same was largely true of the reporting of public policy in the press.

Compare this to the business world, which has long necessarily been international – not just because of cross-border integration and the fact that so many businesses are global, but because we all appreciate that what works or sells in one market is highly likely to work in another.

These commonalities are more nuanced in public policy – widely varying cultures, histories and political and economic institutions are more influential. Nevertheless, the truth is that most policy challenges particular jurisdictions confront are not unique or unprecedented, whatever local politicians may say – other policymakers have grappled with them, or with very similar issues, and over time have tried different approaches yielding different results.

The Australian media rarely reports how different countries have approached what are usually shared and very familiar issues that are topical in our own country, even if the issue is dominating the news.

And the little such reporting there was in the past has almost disappeared in the digital age. Think about the example of contemporary New Zealand. In the 1980s and 1990s there was at least a modest but useful flow of information about the radical economic reforms that transformed new Zealand from the most regulated, rigid capitalist economy in the world to the most open and free – and the political convulsions that followed. Earnest and sprightly young economics writers such as Michael Stutchbury, Alan Mitchell and Ross Gittins would periodically be despatched across the ditch by their editors to report back from the front line.

Over the past decade, New Zealand has faced many of the same policy challenges and far stiffer economic headwinds than Australia, and started from a much weaker position. Yet the Kiwis have managed to deliver a far superior record of economic performance and reform since the GFC than Australia, particularly under John Key.

Since 2009 New Zealand has managed to execute significant tax reform – increasing their GST to 15 per cent to shift their revenue mix toward indirect taxes, and broadening the bases and lowering the rates of direct taxes on personal and company income.

The New Zealand Budget has shifted from a deficit of 9.2 per cent of GDP four years ago – twice as much red ink as Wayne Swan ever managed – to surplus this year [13]. Although the worst deficit year was distorted by the Canterbury earthquakes, [14] New Zealand’s fiscal consolidation since the GFC (most of it coming from curtailing spending) is one of the most exemplary in the developed world. [15] Economic growth is forecast to exceed growth in Australia next year.

Economic policy success in New Zealand has received only the most cursory coverage in Australia. An analysis by the Parliamentary Library found that from 2009, only 15 articles in major Australian newspapers explored tax reform in New Zealand - and almost half were opinion pieces written by think tanks or lobby groups.

Likewise, consider media coverage of the car industry over the past few years in Australia. One could gain the impression that Australia’s experience has been unique – that we are the only nation in the OECD where automobile manufacturing has suffered steep decline.

Perhaps this is due to the paucity of Australian correspondents in the US, Japan, Germany and France – economies which have been far more emphatically shaped by the ebb and flow of global vehicle production, as some nations gain and others lose.

The car industry is global and intensely competitive, and so international trends are the trends that matter. Large manufacturers are consolidating factories and manufacturing locations: General Motors will cut its total number of production facilities by more than half by 2018, as it opens new plants that achieve increased economies of scale by churning out more than 400,000 vehicles a year. That is twice the output of our entire industry.

So even as we acknowledge the impact the closure of car makers in Australia will have on affected employees and communities, we must also remind ourselves that our industry accounts for barely a quarter of 1 per cent of global auto production. [16]

And even setting scale and distance aside, we should bear in mind that the viability of our industry has been significantly shaped by the cost in our economy – relative to other economies – of regulations such as safety and environmental standards imposed on the industry, and additional expense imposed by our industrial relations regime.

When the Productivity Commission looked at the local industry’s relative position, the very first line of its report noted: “Global forces are driving (and are likely to continue to drive) dramatic changes in both the demand for motor vehicles and the size, scale and location of production.” [17]

Despite all of these relevant forces, debate in Australia mostly centred upon the most visible, simplistic of domestic influences – the level of subsidy Australians are willing to provide to the industry. Coverage of the closures of Holden and ford was shorn of context and a deeper understanding of the policy issues raised.

Finally my favourite example – broadband policy.

The previous Government made a commitment in 2007 to spend billions of taxpayers’ dollars – 4.7 billion of them to be precise – to upgrade broadband infrastructure. This is not exceptional; many (although far from all) advanced and emerging economies are doing likewise.

But from 2009 onwards, a series of extraordinary policy choices resulted in Australia tackling a familiar and shared problem – how to achieve widespread access to very fast broadband – with a policy of exotic uniqueness.

No other country created a Government-owned start-up to deliver the upgrades; no other country is spending as much per premise for the upgrades and most other countries are encouraging infrastructure-based competition rather than paying competitors with sunk costs to close down their fully functional networks.

Broadband was we were told a vital issue at the last election. The Coalition had a comprehensive policy which had been derived in large part from my research into what other countries were doing. In particular I noted that considerable savings were made by not taking fibre into every premises as the Labor government had planned. Our fibre to the node approach was ridiculed and attacked as unworkable, out of date, a technological absurdity.

So if this was the big issue surely the international experience was relevant. Surely any level of journalistic curiosity would have caused an editor to send a reporter to interview BT or ATT&T or Deutsche Telekom about their experience.

And so I issued a challenge to journalists and our major media organisations - who do have the requisite reporters and networks overseas to do the story justice - to do a comparison of what other countries are doing and what technologies are being deployed.

After three years of frustration and complaints, the only two people to actually do an international comparison were not from the mainstream press at all: They were Phil Dobbie and Josh Taylor, who write for industry publications CommsDay and ZDNet.

The ABC was no exception. They devoted hundreds of hours to talking about broadband but with the biggest international news gathering network in the nation, they resolutely failed to do anything to give Australians the comparative information they deserved.

We should, intellectually, get out more.


There is an argument that in a world where everyone has access to social media and google, that foreign correspondents are no longer really needed -- that it is a relic that no longer reflects the realities of how news is gathered or what the economics of media organisations will allow.[18]

This is an issue that many, many journalists - particularly senior journalists - have raised with me and there is a tendency particularly among younger journalists to rely on Google rather than forging their own contacts and wearing out their shoe leather.

Although the author gives a nuanced argument about economic pressures of newsrooms in maintaining foreign bureaux, he presents an optimistic view of these being replaced by social media and local reporters, stating: “The social media phenomenon has turned the 140 characters of Twitter into an effective news source. We are increasingly guided by our friends and peers through recommendations and links. Everyone now has access to the public space, giving rise to citizen journalism and more” (p.27).

Indeed the world has changed and it would be foolish to think that digital platforms are useless when it comes to news-gathering. But there is something admirable in the tradecraft developed by generations of journalists who didn’t source-check their stories via the Internet.

Most people now agree that the spring of citizen journalism has turned out to be like many of the recent ‘springs’ that have occurred in the Middle East: Nuanced, multi-layered and not lending itself to simplistic narratives.

Indeed a recent study found that not everything is always as it seems with the social media images coming out of Tunisia and Egypt. Supposed grassroots social media posts are increasing in their professionalism and media organisations struggling to verify the credibility of their posts [19].

The term that has arisen to describe the reliance on social media for reporting - “accidental journalism” - has never seemed so apt. In tough economic conditions when consumers have access to a deluge of information, credibility for media organisations is more important than ever, not less. I am reminded of the sardonic quip of the veteran CBS correspondent Morley Safer, when he said: “I would trust citizen journalism as much as I would trust citizen surgery”[20].

And it is worth noting that while Australian news organisations are pulling back from maintaining foreign bureaux, most of the journalists that I have spoken to are genuinely surprised at how many still remain, even though there have been deeper cuts elsewhere in the business.

It was the world-weary English journalist Thomas Fowler in The Quiet American who summed up why you can’t always rely on a writer popping in and out of a foreign country to tell their stories: “They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived.”

On returning from China where he worked for six years with Fairfax, John Garnaut wrote a beautiful piece about his time there, echoing these same sentiments and reminding us that a foreign correspondent lives and breathes each story more than just about any other journalist on any other beat:

“Each night,” John wrote, “my head reeled with the implications of information absorbed but not fully digested. Where was China going? Was I doing justice to the story and getting the balance right? Grey hairs appeared, the skin under my eyes grew darker and I found myself jolted wide awake, bathed in sweat, in the pre-dawn hours each morning. With every road trip and each deep interview, I discovered afresh how little I'd known before.”

We all, as citizens, depend on John and his colleagues getting those stories right and that is why it is such an honour to be here tonight.




[1] Bachelard, M., (2014), “Joko Widodo: A Man With a Mission”, in The Sydney Morning Herald, available online here:

[2] Carroll, J., (2007), “Foreign News Coverage: The U.S. Media’s Most Undervalued Asset”, p.8, available online here:

[3] Estimates for a fly-in team to cover specific stories is as little as £6000 (AUD$10,800) per story - see: Moore,

M., (2010), “Shrinking world: the decline of international reporting in the British Press” available online here: international-reporting.pdf

[4] NY Times, (2014), “Innovation Report”, p.19 available online here:

[5] Doctor, K., (2014), “The Newsonomics of the Guardian’s New ‘Known’ Strategy”, available online here:

[6] Nielsen Online Ratings, (2014), “Unique Audience for News Sites - June 2014”.

[7] Quoted in Sambrook, R., (2010), “Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant? The Changing Face of International News”, published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, p.8, available online here;

[8] Ofcom, (2014), “News Consumption in the U.K.”, available online here: Figures cited are available in the data tables, pp.28-32

[9] Pew Research Center, (2014), “The State of the News Media”, p.5, available online here:

[10] Ibid

[11] Constable, P., (2007), “Demise of the Foreign Correspondent’, in the Washington Post, February 18, available here: dyn/content/article/2007/02/16/AR2007021601713.html

[12] D Warner, (1965), “Foreign news”, in L Revill and C Roderick [eds] The Journalist’s craft: a guide to modern practice, p. 207.[13] NZ Treasury, (2014), “Budget Economic and Fiscal Update”, available online here 

[13] NZ Treasury, (2014), “Budget Economic and Fiscal Update”, available online here

[14] NZ Treasury estimated that half of the 2010-11 deficit could be accounted for in one-off effects due to the Canterbury earthquakes:

[15] MF, (2013), “Fiscal Monitor”, p.5, available online here:

[16] PC, (2013), “Automotive Manufacturing in Australia: Preliminary Findings”, p.27: available online here:

[17] Ibid

[18] For instance: Sambrook, R., (2010), “Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant”, available online here: %20The%20changing%20face%20of%20international%20news.pdf. 

[19] Bossio, D., and Bebawi, S., (2012), “Reaping and Sowing the news from an Arab Spring: The Politicised interaction between traditional and alternative journalistic practitioners”, Global Media Journal, Vol 6, No 2., available online here: 20 Quoted in The Economist, (2013), “Foreign Correspondents”, available online at: foreign-correspondents

[20] Quoted in The Economist, (2013), “Foreign Correspondents”, available online at: foreign-correspondents