Lateline, the grand old lady of the ABC’s late-night current affairs programming, has been axed. There will be those who lament her passing but, really, her time had come.
Insiders at the ABC tell The New Daily they’re not surprised at this decision. After all, the show had a near-death experience in 2014 when public pressure saved it. But its budget was cut and the Lateline brand was damaged.
They’re relieved this isn’t a cost-cutting decision and jobs apparently won’t be lost.
Lateline was born as part of a suite of new programs set up by the then head of ABC News, the legendary Peter Manning, in 1990.
He also introduced Foreign Correspondent, a youth current affairs show called Attitude (I was the executive producer), and Landline. He also instigated the ABC’s incredibly successful website.
I mention Attitude because one of the new reporters we hired for that very young team was Gaven Morris – now director of news at the ABC – who, on Thursday, announced the decision to axe the show.
Times change and so must shows.
Consider the media landscape back then. No pay TV. No community TV. The internet was a baby being nurtured in universities and still on dial-up. Newspapers were still newspapers, on newsprint, which landed on doorsteps in the mornings.
Lateline was set up to showcase the considerable interviewing skills of the inimitable Kerry O’Brien and to give context to the issues of the day. Its role was very different to that of the then 7.30 Report, which was still state-based.
Fast forward 27 years and it’s an entirely different landscape with a new set of priorities for ABC News management.
In this age of 24/7 battering ram news, fake news coming at you from every direction, with everybody an instant reporter and analyst, the ABC has decided to put its resources into investigative journalism.
Two of the ABC’s most experienced journalists – Jo Puccini (formerly executive producer of 7.30) and Lisa Whitby (formerly executive producer of Lateline) – will run two specialist teams to report across all platforms.
They will be working under the recently appointed head of investigative and in-depth journalism, John Lyons – a veteran Australian newspaper journalist.
That makes eminent sense at a time when other media outlets are being forced away from longer-term investigations for financial reasons.
Watch a vintage 1993 episode of Lateline:
It’s a decision that has been years in the making. Back in 2011 when I was head of current affairs and we launched 7.30, Lateline (among other programs) was under scrutiny. Two nightly current affairs programs were a luxury even then.
Also gone is the Friday night news experiment, The Link, fronted by Stan Grant, which failed to fire this year.
Grant will front a primetime news discussion show at 9pm on the ABC News channel, which insiders say will be no replacement for the lost, long-form interview slot that Lateline offered.
Current Lateline host Emma Alberici will remain with ABC News as chief economics correspondent.
TV news is often regarded as the lazy sibling of newspapers and radio – merely regurgitating what others have already reported and spitting it out with pictures.
This new direction means the pressure is on ABC News to break stories, to uncover scandals and wrongdoing, to “keep the bastards honest”, to quote Don Chipp.
If re-directing the money from these two shows helps pay for what the ABC is selling as “the largest investigative daily news team in the Australian media” then it’s money well spent.
Denise Eriksen was Head of Factual at ABCTV, Head of Production and Development at SBS and Head of Current Affairs at ABC TV News.