Ben Packham looks at ways in which Australian media coverage of PNG issues can be made better. This is the final in a three-part series.


It’s a dilemma that preoccupies journalists and public relations people everywhere – how do you achieve more and better coverage of an issue?

For those wanting to see uplift in the quantity and quality of Australian reporting on Papua New Guinea, it’s a particularly frustrating question.

As I’ve examined in posts one and two of this series, there are so many stories here and so few of them get reported in Australia.

Some news organisations are already doing their bit but if reporting on PNG in Australia is to be increased and improved, Australian journalists must ask more questions and demand more answers about events and issues in this country.

Australian reporters should ask what the impact will be on the region when exchange rate control and unrealistic expectations about commodity prices begin to threaten the PNG economy.

They should ask why PNG has failed to make any serious financial commitment to fighting drug-resistant TB, and whether Australia’s aid program will be forced to pick up the slack.

Fighting TB in PNG is a newsworthy issue (photo: Kahunapule Michael Johnson).

Investigative journalists should try to follow the money trail from Port Moresby to Cairns, and look at gun smuggling along the PNG-Indonesia border.

The timing is also right for a major re-examination of the bilateral relationship ahead of the 40th anniversary next year of PNG’s independence from Australia.

This could be a springboard for well-informed journalists to look at a broad range of PNG issues, like the uncertain future of Bougainville, or the modern trade, aid and cultural relationship between our two countries.

It’s hard to see Australian Associated Press re-establishing its Port Moresby Bureau, or any of the other major media companies making the kind of investment required to set up their own.

But editors should encourage a focus on PNG, and back their reporters to travel here whenever they can.

The payoff would be in stories, including some that could carry a front page or lead a television news bulletin.

Australian politicians, the bureaucracy, NGOs and big business would, for the most part, welcome more sophisticated coverage of this place.

And yet, the media cannot be relied upon to do all the heavy lifting. Media companies are increasingly under-resourced and journalists face particular barriers to reporting in PNG – such as security and access difficulties.

Those with an interest in seeing better coverage of PNG need to play their part in ensuring important stories are reported.

Much of the work of Australia’s diplomats must necessarily be undertaken behind closed doors. This is especially true in the case of PNG, whose leaders are extremely sensitive to criticism. But backgrounding senior journalists and specialist reporters can put the spotlight on an issue without leaving tell-tale fingerprints.

When a spokesperson is needed, it’s hard to go past Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, who has made Australia’s relationship with PNG a diplomatic priority. She is a strong performer and well respected here, making her the natural person to frame the debate on both sides of the Torres Strait.

When the minister and her senior colleagues come to PNG, and if their itineraries allow it, invitations should be extended to senior journalists to accompany them.

The Australian High Commission in Port Moresby deserves credit in this regard, having organised some successful trips in the past for senior journalists. A trip last year included tours of Australian-funded health facilities and a focus on defence and business ties.

Such trips should become regular events and invitations should be extended to senior editors and columnists who have a greater ability to influence the news agenda at home.

The Australian aid program provides support following a landslide in PNG (photo: DFAT).

A future trip should focus almost exclusively on Australia’s development program here. Journalists would welcome the opportunity to see more of what Australian taxpayers’ money is buying, now aid for PNG has been lifted to $500 million courtesy of the Manus island deal. It wouldn’t be uncritical coverage, and the Manus connection would be prominent in reports. But it would inform Australian audiences, promote awareness of PNG and show how the Pacific Solution has affected PNG economically, politically and socially.

Finally, Australia should encourage PNG to open up and assist journalists who want to enter the country and report freely here. Australia should be true to its own democratic values, acknowledging that greater scrutiny will improve public awareness of our nearest neighbour and support change on behalf of PNG’s people and our own national interest.

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About the Author

Ben Packham - Journalist - Lowy Institute

Ben Packham

Journalist

Ben Packham is an Australian journalist living in PNG as a diplomatic spouse. He has had a 15 year media career working for The Australian, The Herald Sun, AAP and The Geelong Advertiser. He hangs around Port Moresby while studying economics at the University of London over a very slow internet connection.