Last Sunday, for the first time since 2014, the 7pm News on the main ABC channel ran for only 30 minutes. ABC Alumni director Alan Sunderland, a former senior manager in the News division, argues that this is “the final surrender in a long ABC retreat” from holding powerful state governments to account. “Something needs to be done,” he writes, “and now is the time to look again at the problem”. However, in a response received by the Alumni, the ABC’s Director of News, Analysis and Investigations, Justin Stevens, strongly disagrees, saying that ABC state and territory coverage is comprehensive and impactful, delivering to audiences the national broadcaster has never reached before. Read both views here.  


By Alan Sunderland / 31 October 2022

It was a small announcement that passed virtually unnoticed. A few weeks ago, the ABC quietly let it be known that it would be reducing its Sunday evening television news bulletins across the country from 40 minutes back to 30, to bring them into line with the rest of the week.

This weekend, that change came into effect. For many viewers, the reduction was unlikely to have a major impact – ABC TV news bulletins have always been 30 minutes, apart from the doomed mid-1980s experiment called The National, which saw nightly news and current affairs combined into a one-hour national program with state windows. The 40-minute Sunday bulletin was therefore something of an anomaly, and one that made the rest of the Sunday schedule a little messy.

But what might seem to many like a little bit of schedule housekeeping is, in reality, far more important. It marks the final surrender in a long ABC retreat from providing regular in-depth scheduled coverage of state1politics and state issues on the public broadcaster.

‘Holding the powerful to account’ and ‘speaking truth to power’ are two regularly quoted principles of public interest journalism. In Australia, power is exercised at a federal, a state and a local level through the three tiers of government, and so the ABC has a responsibility to provide comprehensive coverage of all three.

At a federal level, the ABC has always performed well. Its extensive and well-staffed Canberra bureau provides agenda-setting coverage of national politics, with programs like Insiders, 7.30 and national radio current affairs delivering analysis, long-format interviews and extensive coverage.

At a local level, the ABC has prioritised increased funding and staffing for its regional offices, combining content staff from the old divisions of Radio, Regional and News into expanded united teams that deliver great content onto both local and national platforms. All of this is to be applauded.

But in the capital city newsrooms around the country, it is a very different story. Shrinking budgets, falling staff numbers and the increased demand from national platforms like the News channel and ABC News Online mean that busy and talented reporters in places like Perth, Hobart, Brisbane and Adelaide have less time to develop in-depth coverage of state issues and almost no dedicated platforms to put them on.

None of what I say here should be taken as a criticism of the excellent, hard-working journalists covering state and territory politics across the country. Their daily news work is of a high standard. They break stories, they investigate issues and they uncover important information, and it regularly leads local radio, television and online news. But at a time when Covid has reminded us more than ever of the importance of politics at a state level, it simply isn’t enough. The ABC’s state newsrooms need to be given more staff, more funding and more opportunities to deliver in-depth coverage of state issues to state audiences.

In the 1980s, when The National experiment was discontinued, the ABC established state-based news bulletins and a state-based 7.30 Report to deliver the most relevant mix of international, national and local coverage. Presenters in each state were able to interview local political leaders, explore major local issues around health, transport and education, and investigate local controversies and scandals. Most importantly, they had the dedicated air time each day to deliver that coverage at length.

That lasted around a decade, until budget pressures led to the ABC merging all of the state-based 7.30 programs into a national edition, with state-based current affairs shoehorned into one night a week (Fridays) on Stateline. In 2010, Stateline’s name was changed to 7.30 as well, but it remained state-based until 2014, when state-based TV current affairs ended altogether and was replaced with the extended Sunday night news bulletin.

The 40-minute news bulletin, together with expanded online coverage, was meant to deliver the kind of in-depth coverage that state-based current affairs used to. With its demise, what are we left with?

In my view, we are left with a clear and obvious gap in the ABC’s news coverage. State and territory newsrooms, talented and hard-working as they are, are simply not being given the opportunity to deliver the amount and the depth of coverage that Australians need if they want to see all levels of government closely scrutinised and held to account. While the occasional online article or podcast can be helpful, nothing has the impact or immediacy of scheduled television current affairs. Live extended television interviews with political leaders, for example, generate extensive follow up and often drive the agenda for other news media to follow.

This is an outcome which has been driven more by budget necessity than editorial judgement. State-based programming is expensive. The arithmetic is simple: if a national program costs $1 million to deliver, then producing eight different versions properly, from 8 different studios with 8 different presenters and reporting teams would not leave a lot of change out of $8 million. I know the reality of these kinds of tough budget decisions. I was part of ABC news management for many years and I personally share part of the blame for past decisions. I have a lot of sympathy for the tough decisions facing current managers.

But something needs to be done, and now is the time to look again at the problem.

There are many reasons why there may be grounds for optimism. The ABC has recently had its budget repaired somewhat and, while this doesn’t undo all of the damage done by past budget cuts, it does provide some breathing room and a chance to consider future priorities. On top of that, the costings and technical requirements of delivering state-based television current affairs have changed significantly since it was effectively removed in 2014. Automated studios, video-journalism, new editing techniques and a proliferation of flexible and cost-effective production and platform options all mean that it should not cost now what it cost a decade ago to deliver the content to audiences. The creation of a small, flexible team in each capital city, dedicated to delivering long-form content, does not have to cost what it once did. Any steps the ABC can take in this direction would do much to build audience trust and deliver on its responsibility to cover state politics with the same rigour and depth that it already does at a national level.

Response from Justin Stevens – Director News, Analysis & Investigations, ABC

Let’s start with where Alan Sunderland and I agree. Stateline, and the state-based editions of 7.30 into which it was folded in 2011, were fantastic programs in their day. They played an important role in holding state and territory governments to account in an age when our audience accessed the ABC via broadcast radio and TV and almost all of our budgets and resources were in those two platforms. 

Alan has correctly called out the services and platforms added to News in the past decade – and been typically forthright about his involvement in some of those decisions. 

For one, we now have ABC NEWS channel, which on average reaches more than 3.5 million Australians each week. The pandemic, the bushfires, the floods and many other stories and events have demonstrated the integral value of ABC NEWS channel in a digital, on-demand and streaming world where the audience wants immediate information on unfolding events.

He is also right to point out that we’ve moved to become a multiplatform news service. In addition to TV viewers and radio listeners, our journalism now reaches millions of Australians via our own and third-party digital platforms, such as the ABC NEWS website and app, ABC iview and ABC listen.

Alan writes that reducing the Sunday night edition of the 7pm News by 10 minutes to 30 minutes, in line with the other nights, “marks the final surrender in a long ABC retreat from providing regular in-depth scheduled coverage of State politics and State issues on the public broadcaster”.

With this, I strongly disagree. There is no retreat and no surrender. Our coverage of state and territory issues is impactful and comprehensive – and we are delivering it to audiences on their schedule every day of the week, not just to our schedule.

Here is just a sample of some recent original, impactful stories:

  • The SA newsroom’s investigation and exposure of the MP expenses misuse led to an ICAC investigation, the resignation of five MPs and a complete overhaul of the remuneration system. Two MPs are also currently facing criminal charges of making fraudulent claims. Both have denied the allegations against them.  
  • Gabriella Marchant’s reporting “Rhys’s Final Wish” had enormous impact as voluntary assisted dying laws were being debated in the SA Parliament.  
  • David O’Byrne resigned as Tasmania’s Opposition Leader after Hobart-based Investigative Reporter Emily Baker broke the story of a sexual harassment complaint.    
  • The ABC’s investigation into Tasmanian Liberal MP Adam Brooks dominated the final weeks of the State’s 2021 election campaign and also led to his resignation.   
  • An investigation into successive home building failures in Tasmania led to the reintroduction of warranty insurance in the State.  
  • The Victorian newsroom is rolling out a series of specials for all platforms on key election topics and how the major parties plan to address them. The issues to be covered were determined by our community engagement efforts and include cost of living, health, state of the suburbs, the economy and energy. The specials complement our core election coverage of the campaign trail and analysis from our state political reporters. 
  • Following Jessica Longbottom’s stories this year about the inadequacies at one of Melbourne’s TAFE colleges there is now a potential class action and the State Government stepped in to conduct weekly checks. 
  • Geelong reporter Rachel Clayton exposed a loophole in insurance cover that means households may not be covered if a business is being run at the property – even if it’s selling free-range eggs using an honesty box. 
  • The investigation into the Orroral Valley fire last year, and the ABC’s revelations on what Defence knew and communicated to fire authorities after one of its choppers sparked the blaze, led to an inquest by the ACT Coroner. 
  • Our stories on the mismanagement of COVID in the Jeta Gardens Aged Care facility in Queensland were raised in Federal Parliament and Senate Estimates and two managers stood down.  
  • Coverage sourced from Right to Information documents exposed failures by Queensland Government authorities in controlling the bushfire in the K’gari (Fraser Island) National Park.  
  • The expose on serious injuries sustained by women giving birth at Mackay Hospital led to the Director of Obstetrics being suspended, the Minister apologising and a compensation scheme for victims. 
  • An FOI request by the ABC into grants to the Darwin Turf Club which led to an ICAC investigation.
  • Our reporting of leaked draft documents revealed negotiations relating to fishing rights in Aboriginal waters across the Top End.
  • Again using material obtained under FOI, the ABC confirmed the NT Government knew of structural flaws in Darwin buildings long before it publicly disclosed its concerns.
  • An ongoing investigation into the sexual abuse of primary school students in Fremantle has resulted in dozens more victims coming forward.   
  • Samia O’Keefe’s investigation of allegations of historical abuse at the WA Institute of Sport helped bring about an inquiry into abuse claims by former WAIS gymnasts.  
  • The NSW newsroom has established dedicated Bushfire Recovery and Flood Recovery teams to regularly report on progress and hold all levels of government to account over relief spending.   
  • Data Journalist Catherine Hanrahan’s data-led investigation into zoning around the new Western Sydney airport exposed investment and infrastructure issues.  
  • Kathleen Calderwood’s ongoing investigation has exposed tragic failures in Western Sydney hospitals.  

Our national teams also investigate state stories, for example:  

  • Paul Farrell’s dogged reporting for 7.30 was instrumental in revealing NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s role in the awarding of a grant to former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire.
  • Hagar Cohen’s investigation into Bathurst Council and allegations of blackmail, also for 7.30, resulted in the resignation of the Mayor.
  • The investigation by Anne Connolly and Stephanie Zillman of the Public Trustee system, which included a Four Corners report, led to a public apology from the Queensland State Government and has triggered two inquiries.
  • Josh Robertson and Mark Willacy’s investigations into Star Casino Brisbane led to Queensland’s Attorney-General ordering a fresh investigation in August.

As the ABC navigates the increasingly fragmented media environment, asking how we can afford to do more scheduled TV current affairs is not the right question. Even assuming we could get the many millions of dollars it would cost, it would not serve the needs of most our audience members, given where they are today compared to a decade ago.

While Alan argues “nothing has the impact or immediacy of scheduled television current affairs”, in fact journalism strategically rolled out across our platforms has measurably greater impact and immediacy, reaching audiences the ABC never has before. For a Four Corners episode or 7.30 story that might be seen by a million viewers on scheduled broadcast, there is another million – mostly under the age of 50 – who consume the journalism via digital.

In this age of multiplatform journalism a key consideration into the future will be how to keep doing the best journalism and make it accessible to the biggest possible audience while ensuring our operations are sustainable, so our people and resources aren’t stretched too thin and we can maintain standards.

Trustworthy public interest journalism is our remit and holding all levels of government to account will always be central to that.

It’s also crucial to ensure that all Australians can access and benefit from that journalism, where and when they want it.

Thursday 3 November 2022

1For the sake of brevity, it should be understood that when I speak of ‘state’ newsrooms and ‘state’ issues, I am referring to both state and territory newsrooms. The issues in Darwin and Canberra are as important as those in Hobart, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.

Alan Sunderland had a long career as a reporter and editor at SBS and the ABC. He was the ABC’s Editorial Director from 2013 to 2019, and is a board director of ABC Alumni. His book The 10 Rules of Reporting is being published this week by Simon and Schuster.


  1. Hi all, re ‘States of Neglect,’ here’s a perspective from an ex E.P. of state current affairs and national current affairs programs. I now live in the distant, small state of Tasmania. I am a reasonably objective consumer of ABC news product across all its platforms.

    Of course there is merit in both cases but I do think Alan is correct to highlight a sad and glaring deficit that becomes more noticeable the further you get from Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra.

    As a small state with very low literacy rates Tasmania has a much documented history of crony capitalism, corruption, nepotism and sometimes breathtaking incompetence ..all combined with a hollowed out commercial media environment .

    It’s not unlike Joh’s Queensland in some respects. But what’s different is that there is simply no media platform on which politicians can be regularly and consistently held to daily account. Local radio does its best but Cabinet Ministers know they can get away with simply declining to appear, so that’s what they do.

    As Justin says, good stories certainly are broken and if they are of sufficient interest they get a national airing. Great as far as it goes.

    But that dodges the point?

    Day by day there is SO much going on down here that is of vital importance to Tasmanians. But it wouldn’t interest audiences in Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane in a pink fit.
    What’s obviously missing is regular, consistent, longer form scrutiny. The occasional yarn that claws its way onto national 7.30 is no substitute. Too much falls through the gaps.

    Of course Aunty can’t wind back the clock. But does it have to be a zero sum game? Might there be a way to reimagine and reinvent state caff coverage for the 2020s?

    Shouldn’t ABC news management at least be willing to entertain that conversation; to acknowledge an inevitable deficit?? Believe me it is keenly felt in places like Tassie.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Deb. I agree that Justin (who inherited this challenge and is not responsible for it) is right to highlight all the great stories that state and territory newsrooms deliver, but I agree there is still a gap for regular in-depth holding to account of government at that level. I also agree that a conversation about a new model makes more sense than trying to go back to the past. The 40 minute Sunday bulletin was the solution we came up with years ago – now that’s gone, what else might be possible?

  2. As a Tasmanian resident for more than a decade, I endorse the comments of Deborah Fleming.

    I am a heavy consumer of ABC news and analysis, especially via audio and online platforms, and TV (although hardly ever the news channel). Regrettably, much of the ABC’s state-based news output is shallow and limited in scope. That notwithstanding the talent evident in some of its Tasmanian reporting staff (Justin cited Emily Baker among them).

    Example: this state with a population of about 520,000 has just concluded local government elections for its 29 – yes, 29 – councils. In Hobart alone, significant issues begged for proactive reporting, including: policy analysis and interrogation of candidates who were distributed across broadly ‘pro-development’ and ‘progressive’ lines; campaign funding and the possible role of vested interests (certain candidates appeared to have much deeper pockets than others); urban planning as an issue that crosscuts specific others, including the University’s controversial intention to abandon its main Sandy Bay campus, urban transport, and Hobart’s future as the most fire-prone state capital; value for money in a city where, for example, our household pays rates at more than three times that of our previous holdings in Victoria and South Australia, per dollar value of property; integrity in public office, an issue raised by some people in the form of sweeping, unsupported allegations. And that’s just what comes to mind in relation to local government, as distinct from statewide issues, in one city.

    I note the contribution of the Hobart Mercury newspaper, which stands out from its interstate stable mates by publishing a sometimes surprising diversity of opinion. But ultimately it remains the product of its commercial business model. My question remains: who will contribute actively to the agenda of public interest journalism, if not the ABC?

    It is likely one or other ABC platform serving Tasmania (radio in the morning?) provided local government coverage that I missed. But, viewed through the corporation’s digital-first prism, you would never know ABC Tasmania was out there kicking rocks or holding public officers to account.

    Like all members of ABC Alumni, I am keenly aware of the corporation’s financial constraints and the always hard management decisions to be taken in the allocation of resources. That said, let’s put aside the Cool Aid when discussing the adequacy of coverage beyond Ultimo.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Geoff. I do think we need to think and talk some more about what news bulletins can deliver, compared with what current affairs programming can deliver.

    2. Thanks Geoff, I heartily concur with pretty much all of that. On almost any given day I could list half a dozen stories well worth much deeper scrutiny than they’ll ever get on local news bulletins… if they make the cut at all. And obviously pigs will be flying in triumphant squadrons before any of these topics can be squeezed onto 7.30. It’s a mathematical impossibility.
      There is so much in this little state that is contentious and that could be illuminated by debate and some serious media scrutiny. You list a few. But add to that the imminent AFL dictated waterfront stadium, wildlife slaughter (by government permit), the contentious cable car, UTAS, fish farms, logging, anti protest laws, the nation’s weakest integrity commission etc. Tassie seems caught at a crossroads between the old and new ways but there is no platform for sustained media scrutiny of any of it. It’s rather tragic.

  3. Between 1961 when I joined the ABC and when I left in 1982, I had worked in every State and Territory capital (except Darwin) for varying periods of time. I was in Canberra in 1967 with an active role in the beginning of our first daily TV current affairs program, This Day Tonight (TDT) and moved through its variety of State versions as a reporter, executive producer plus a couple of years as a State Program Director. Later I was involved in Nationwide and Statewide, and a couple of short stints as acting Head of TV Current Affairs.
    Others have commented on the ABC’s responsibility to provide “comprehensive services for all Australians”. So, as Alan asks, why not at State levels as well as nationally and regionally? Plus, the ABC has seen the need to provide a direct presence in outer urban areas and isn’t that what the move to Parramatta is all about? If not, why is it happening? Incidentally, I have to congratulate Alan for conceding his role in this contentious change, just as I acknowledge Justin has inherited some debatable decisions that he is left to deal with.
    Given my background, I appreciate both sides of the arguments. There is, however, one basic editorial question that needs to be considered when we look at Justin’s impressive list of State based issues that have deservedly gained national coverage.
    We know a national editor has to often make edits to best suit the national audience interests. But what if the final cut of a State of origin story doesn’t cover that State’s interests comprehensively enough when shown there or is perceived to have not been given enough priority in the final rundown? Doesn’t help the ABC’s reputation in that state – or the local team’s blood pressure, as I well remember in the first years of TDT (and this was when Victoria was actually part of the “national” program). Another reality: straight news coverage often doesn’t have the time to be in-depth enough (that’s one reason for complementary current affairs), to say nothing of issues that have no interest to a national audience, but are of same day importance to a State and require further exploration in a following current affairs slot. Neither can a weekly program always adequately cover important State current affairs issues of a transient nature. Besides, we all know what happened when The National tried to combine news and current affairs in the one program.
    I think I can speak for my fellow Alumni when I say our comments are not directed at personalities, but are made in the best interests of the ABC and for its continuing high regard right across the Australian community. We want to make it even more so by fully supporting our dedicated ABC staff at all levels. As Alan says, that doesn’t mean simply resurrecting old ideas even if they were right for the time, but by collectively using our experience and adding imagination and vision to come-up with high quality and practical solutions to fit contemporary realities – but some old ideas may still work.
    #One small correction to Alan’s comments if I may. He mentions establishing (sic) daily State current affairs programs following the demise of The National. Actually, they became the norm in 1967 when TDT began.

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