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24-hour party people

Kate Torney

ABC News director Kate Torney Source: Supplied

The ABC is about to launch an ambitious non-stop news service. Here's a preview

I AM wandering around the inner-Sydney newsroom of ABC News 24 as preparations are coming to a head for its launch. The mothership of the national broadcaster's continuous news service is hushed, tense, and people are a bit edgy. It reminds me of being on the set of George Lucas's Star Wars film Attack of the Clones, in which I played -- briefly -- Natalie Portman's father eight years ago.

Lucas told me the movie, the first to be successfully shot completely on a high-definition digital system, would change the way we understood the nature of cinema. The ABC makes no such grandiose claims about television journalism (Lucas was right, by the way) but it's clear that broadcasting ABC news on a 24-hour cycle is going to have a radical effect on the venerable institution, its critics, and on the local media landscape.

The Star Wars-like newsroom complex, with its banks of computer-editing screens and hi-tech monitors receiving feeds from journalists, is sleek and highly functional. Windows overlook the rather glamorous home studio in which presenter Jane Hutcheon is anxiously observing her own feed from a rowdy Sydney news conference.

Guiding me around is Kate Torney, ABC director of news. A journalist by training, she has worked as a radio and television reporter and producer, bureau chief, executive producer and news editor. Torney is also used to creating new enterprises inside the labyrinthine culture of the ABC. In 2001 she teamed with Barrie Cassidy to launch Insiders, the ABC's flagship weekly national affairs program. She was also involved in establishing Offsiders, Inside Business, Newshour (for Australia Network) and ABC News Breakfast on ABC2. ABC News 24, which will be available on digital channel 24, will deliver continuous, commercial-free coverage of important breaking stories in Australia and across the world. It will take advantage of the ABC's existing news operation, including more than 800 journalists in 60 locations in Australia and 12 international bureaus.

While many details were under wraps as Review went to print, we understand that a typical day will start with ABC News Breakfast presented by Virginia Trioli and Michael Rowland, which will continue to be broadcast simultaneously on ABC2. Mornings will be anchored by Joe O'Brien, delivering breaking news and analysis of the day's stories, including reports from ABC correspondents. News updates will take place half-hourly and the team will cover developments in state and federal politics and follow the Australian share market.

Ros Childs will present local, national and international news at noon, with special attention on business and the economy. Ali Moore will anchor Afternoon Live, crossing to ABC News 24's political editor, Chris Uhlmann, for the latest from Canberra. It is expected there will be discussion on public affairs along with news updates with Jeremy Fernandez during the afternoon and Juanita Phillips will present the evening bulletin. Built into this structure through the afternoon and evenings are a business program covering the Asia-Pacific region and maing financial markets; Annabel Crabb's The Drum, which comprises a panel of journalists and commentators chewing over the events of the day; and former Moscow correspondent Scott Bevan's The World, with reports from the ABC's network of international correspondents and offering a forum for extended news stories and interviews.

Lateline Business will appear in an earlier evening slot while still being seen on ABC1 after Lateline at 11pm, Monday to Friday. Hutcheon will present One Plus One, a weekly interview program looking at headline stories and interviews with newsmakers.

ABC News 24 will also timeshift existing news and current affairs programs, including The 7.30 Report, Four Corners, Foreign Correspondent, Lateline, Landline and Stateline from all states and territories. Federal parliament's question time and repeats of Catalyst, Compass and other documentary and factual programs will also broadcast on the channel.

While a large number of experienced applicants from the ABC and other media organisations were interviewed for the new presenting positions, those chosen were existing ABC journalists. This is something of which Torney is proud: the names include stars such as Uhlmann, Phillips (who will continue with her 7pm news presenter role in NSW), Crabb, AM host Tony Eastley and ABC Radio National Breakfast presenter Fran Kelly. Foreign affairs editor Peter Cave will also contribute.

"We have an extraordinary amount of material coming in daily from around the world and around the country, both in radio and in TV, but most of that doesn't reach the national audience," Torney says. "So we had the content; the challenge for us was in bringing it all together and presenting it in a dynamic and engaging way."

For the past four months News 24 has been in a complex technical rehearsal. The studios next to Torney's executive offices have been operating on a continual roster, refining and developing the new station's approach. "We started with blocks of programming and have now built it up into a 24-hours environment," Torney says. "This has allowed us to develop new skills involved in live 24 hour news, she says, stressing the words so the emphasis is not lost.

As she points out, until the development of ABC News Breakfast on ABC2, the news environment was structured around the midday and 7pm half-hour broadcasts. "We had to look at how we gather news; how to develop a culture of presenting it when it happens, rather than simply filing to particular deadlines. This is exciting for all ABC news outlets because we have become more responsive, open to the moment."

She rebuts the many rumours that resources have been stretched to establish this complex new infrastructure.

"Inevitably there were concerns about what this would mean for reporters on the ground," Torney says. "The most important thing for us is to maintain, and build, those high independent standards audiences have become accustomed to with ABC1 news services; we don't want to do anything to undermine what is delivered there," she says. "But we feel adamantly that ABC News 24 will make the news service that viewers get across the board more efficient because we will be delivering news as it happens."

She is at pains to stress, constantly, that ABC News 24 is committed to breaking news that is not to be found anywhere else.

Torney points to the success of the conversational and sometimes quite improvisatory nature of shows such as The Insiders and Q&A. They have developed their own new, niche, audiences. "You have no real idea where the conversations are going to go and there's something quite compelling about that."

As she suggests, the best TV journalists are those, like Cassidy and Trioli, who are happy to follow their subjects wherever they go, relishing digressions that turn their interviews into conversation. Torney views this as one of the "real benefits" of the more open and interrogatory style of rolling news coverage, and she's excited by the way the ABC as an organisation is being made to think more laterally. Dynamic and courageous are words she uses frequently. "We are looking at different formats, different ways of communicating news and to ensure that we remain relevant in the way we interact with our audience," she says.

"Everything is changing so rapidly but we have no intention of alienating audiences on ABC1 who expect a certain style for the 7pm bulletin. But we also know we need to look at different ways of engaging audiences, that we're listening to them, and that they have an opportunity to contribute."

She hopes News 24 will bring a new audience to the ABC at the same time as it revitalises the existing regular one, "but without at all undermining the product itself"'. She's unapologetic about News 24 being used for the timeshifting of ABC1 news programs, especially shows such as the The 7.30 Report and Lateline, giving audiences that missed them the chance to catch up. "I understand the criticism but I believe our responsibility is to make sure that all that rich content reaches as many Australians as possible. We don't want to be churning through the same stories every 15 minutes on News 24 but I believe we have such a rich array of content we don't need to do that."

This might make some ABC critics splutter even more splenetically than they already do at what they see as a smoke-and-mirrors approach to making the corporation seem more productive than it actually is. But Torney makes good points about how the flagship ABC1 shows will fit easily into the more dynamic context of News 24 without needing to be rejigged or altered. "The challenge for us is in making the most out of every breaking story and getting them to as wide an audience as possible."

WITH the World Cup semi-finals being played next week, set the mood with The Team that Never Played tomorrow night in the Compass slot. It's a wonderfully elegiac documentary that celebrates, if sadly at times, the glorious South African players never allowed to represent their country. And the wonderful game they played.

Written by Tony Barrell and directed by Greg Apel, who together brought us the successful Bombora: The Story of Australian Surfing, producer Frances Green's film revisits the tragedy of apartheid by looking at the lives of a trio of now middle-aged street football geniuses. They are players whose careers were taken from them as the racist system degraded and diminished their lives but they seem to hold no grudges, just hopes for a better future. There's a wicked sense of humour about them, too, as sly and as devious as the way they played the game.

Keith Broad, Smiley Moosa and Vusi "General" Lamola all played during the 1970s when many commentators thought the national team could have won at least two World Cups. Like hundreds of other athletes they played "township football" around the streets of Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria for teams such as the Orlando Pirates, the Kaizer Chiefs, and the Moroka Swallows. They played in dust-bowl stadiums, often without boots, on grounds with no lines and no grass in front of huge crowds singing freedom songs.

Football was a game that became a way of fighting the terrible, corrupt racial system, its culture largely responsible for developing the cohesive and energising spirit of people living in the townships during that repressive time.

As the film reveals there was something almost magical about the way street football defied the times; those who disdained it simply had no understanding of the power the mercurial game possessed. Like the music that came from these streets, artfully used in the film, the beautiful game transcended the cruel reality of apartheid in ways that seemed almost mystical.

And what a game they watched as the startling and often touching archival footage reveals.

It was all about invention and flair and free-flowing improvisation, that African quality of pace, grace, style and eccentric brilliance. The star players' nicknames were derived from their eccentric and individual styles: "Mr Executive", "Ace", "Let them Dance", "The Trouble Maker" and "Computer". The black and white historical footage of the joyous encounters suggests a game that was bewitched, full of dancing wizards with dazzling tricks and astonishing intuition, who in their sublime playfulness somehow affirmed the energy and curiosity of the human mind.

ABC News 24, expected to launch mid-July.
The Team that Never Played, ABC1, Sunday, 10.20pm.

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