After having spent 44 years with a news organisation, one would generally expect a journalist to have a grand farewell. But that is not what veteran Australian journalist Jim Middleton did after bidding adieu to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Instead he promptly got another job, this time, as he himself admits, a far more challenging one.
“I have been a reporter for a very long time,” Middleton says. In his over four decade-long association with ABC, Middleton had the opportunity to report from various parts of the world. The last decade saw him primarily report from Asia. Earlier, he was a foreign correspondent in the USA during the 1980s at the time of President Ronald Reagan.
Speaking of his stint with ABC, Middleton adds, “I had a very long and fruitful career with a very big media organisation. It’s Australia’s number one public broadcaster. It is funded by the taxpayer and is the Australian equivalent of the BBC.” Since Middleton served in various capacities and worked with several people, he feels that it was as good as working with several broadcasters rather than just one.
He has now moved on to presenting news for Sky News Australia. “The difference is that I’ve gone from a very big, very bureaucratic organisation to Sky News which is a very lean machine. It’s a 24 hour news service,” he explains. The new assignment is indeed a “great challenge” for Middleton but one that he admits he enjoys thoroughly.
Besides broadcasting, Middleton has also turned to education. He is Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne. The varsity plans to introduce a two-year postgraduate degree in international journalism aimed towards foreign students. Middleton is in India to give shape to those plans. The project is still being conceptualised and it is yet to be decided whether it will be online, partly-online or in Australia.
The newscaster believes that while teaching at a university is a slightly different exercise than practising journalism, he is at ease with it since he has continuously mentored and taught young journalists in newsrooms.
“When you are teaching, you are trying to pass on what you have learned to people who are just starting out and encourage them not to go down the wrong path,” he says.
News media representation
For long, the general grouse of those hailing from the East has been their inappropriate representation by the western media. Many feel that the East is generally portrayed only as a land of elephants and snake charmers and Middleton admits that a bias does exist.
“Public understanding of what has happened and is happening in this part of the world is still riddled with stereotypes about the past rather than the realities of the present and possibilities of the future,” he says.
He opines that ordinary Australians aren’t aware about the radical transformations under way in India to combat poverty. Though he concedes that there is a long way to go, he emphasises on due coverage in the news media.
“The media in Australia are partly to blame for these persisting misconceptions. But I do think there is a greater understanding among reporters like me to report on international affairs and about what is happening in this part of the world,” he says.
The global news media space has evolved with the entry of Asian broadcasters like Al Jazeera, Channel News Asia and CCTV. According to Middleton, they have succeeded in providing an “authoritative alternative” to western broadcasters. While maintaining that such channels are not “perfect”, he maintains that pluralism is good.
“It is a trend to be encouraged rather than discouraged,” he says. To many like Middleton, these channels are reflective of the growing economic and strategic clout of Asia. “The balance of economic power has been shifting from west to east,” he asserts.
Shouting spectacles on primetime news debates have become a regular feature on Indian news television. The Aussie journalist has also had a feel of it. In the words of Middleton, a lot of opinion is indeed being presented, which he thinks is interesting.
However, he jokes that “it’s sometimes a little difficult to know where to look because there is so much news”. Delving into the reasons behind debates getting priority over reportage, he says, “More reporting is good. Getting into the primary sources of news is important. But the problem is always resources and budgets. I do understand why there is a tendency to head down the path of discussion, debate and commentary.”
As online news consumption increases, so does the risk to print newspapers. Coming from a broadcast background, Middleton opines that television is a mature business like newspapers. “It’s not as seriously at risk in the way that newspapers are,” he claims adding that he can see it coming though.
Expecting a rise in internet penetration, he pictures a decline in the Indian newspaper business sooner or later. “I dare say that it is a challenge that will confront India as well,” he predicts. He feels young viewers don’t want to wait for a particular time period to watch or listen to a television show yet revenues on digital remains a concern since they are “exponentially smaller” when compared to print and television.
Broadcasters around the world are said to be obsessed with television ratings as they are supposed to be an indicator of a channel’s popularity. “There is no point in broadcasting and reporting if no one is listening, watching or reading,” Middleton says when asked about ratings. According to him, care has to be exercised while analysing television ratings data to know what it exactly means and represents.
The nature of the beast is such that journalists always work under deadlines. There is pressure to deliver. Very often, mistakes occur. Despite having a storied career, Middleton humbly admits that he has also committed several mistakes.
“Human beings are fallible and you can be the most experienced professional in the world but you can still make a mistake. With experience, however, one can cut down on mistakes but not eliminate them entirely,” he says.
Having had a long run in public funded journalism, he feels that it is here to say. His opinion is premised on the fact that public broadcasters have identified the new business scenario by offering attractive online and mobile services.
Concluding his observations, Middleton states that “the question is whether the private media can find a way of funding quality journalism” which they can’t anymore from classified and display advertisements and how “it translates into the digital world”.