ABC’s extensive emergency coverage of the bushfires in Australia across television, radio and online services is in no doubt lifesaving, with staff working tirelessly to provide accurate, reliable and rolling coverage under incredible pressure and in precarious conditions.

Since the bushfires began in early September last year, the scale of the crisis has been unprecedented. More than 20 people have been killed, close to 2000 homes have been destroyed and wildlife and livestock have been majorly affected across the country. Conditions are predicted to worsen. 

As of 3 January, the ABC had already provided over 670 emergency broadcasts within this financial year, nearly double that of the previous year. According to the Guardian Australia, the ABC delivered over 100 emergency broadcasts in just one week since Boxing Day. When the organisation’s emergency broadcasting policy was created in 2011, the emergency division ran for six months of the year – now it runs for the entire year.

ABC staff have gone above and beyond to deliver much-needed information about the bushfires. Last month, an ABC team in Canberra resorted to hosting an “impromptu outdoor broadcast” for its 7pm News programme due to bushfire smoke triggering the studio’s smoke alarm. The crew had to evacuate the studios moments before broadcast.

Judith Whelan, Director of ABC Regional & Local was quoted in a press release as saying: 

“Thanks, too, to the ABC broadcasters, reporters, presenters, producers, staff and crew who continue to deliver emergency broadcasting services to communities under threat. People turn to the ABC at such times and we are proud of our role in helping to keep them informed and safe.”

But these additional recovery broadcasts do not receive any extra funding, despite the lifesaving impact they can have. As an ABC spokesperson explained:

The cost of the ABC’s emergency broadcasting coverage come out of base funding – there is no specific government funding for this coverage… We will always prioritise coverage of emergency information and will continue to speak with government to ensure that we are adequately funded to serve the Australian public.”

Special programming and content

While the ABC News channel features rolling coverage of the bushfire emergency, they have also aired special programmes on the crisis. This includes a dedicated feature on the ABC’s 7:30 show, the broadcaster’s flagship current affairs programme as well as on ABC Radio’s PM podcast.   

During its New Year’s Eve live broadcast, the public broadcaster also partnered with the Australian Red Cross and the City of Sydney to drive donations towards the Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund. Between New Year’s Eve and 4 January, it had raised over $13 million. The broadcast reached 3.5 million viewers on the night. 


The public broadcaster also utilised its social media accounts as a tool to disseminate breaking news, share footage, photos and advice. This includes ABC Emergency’s Twitter account, which compiles information from emergency services. ABC accounts on Facebook also provide specific local and regional updates and advice.

This demonstrates the important opportunity there is for public media to collaborate with and utilise social media networks and other multi-platform services to provide fact-checked and reliable content for the public.

ABC under attack

However, the ABC has also received ongoing criticism by News Corp media outlets, which have published stories critical of the public broadcaster’s programming. 

While former ABC radio and television journalist, John Simpson, praised the public broadcaster for its “outstanding” coverage on its regional and national networks in his opinion piece in the Australian, he also pointed out that: “While Radio National may be delivering the goods (despite its glitches, faults and repeats), when it comes to ABC Television, many of us are switching over or ­switching off.”

His comments were written despite reports about increased viewing rates for ABC’s breakfast shows and current affairs programmes compared to last year’s average viewing figures.

Nonetheless, the ABC has been inundated with unprecedented and deserved support online from their reporters and the general public, recognising the vital role they have played in covering the bushfire emergency.

The essential role of public media

It is at times like this when the importance of independent and accountable public broadcasters, like the ABC, becomes most evident.

Public service media organisations are accountable to the public that pay for them and therefore in a unique position to provide accurate, reliable and rolling coverage of crises and emergency situations. Their role is to report on the facts, and in a challenging media landscape that simultaneously faces the challenges of disinformation and public anxiety, their ability to work effectively is paramount. 

The Public Media Alliance will continue to support and report on the incredible work that the ABCis doing during this time of crisis to ensure that the public stay well-informed by  sourcing and sharing critical information on a regional and local level. 

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Header Image: Aerial view of the Australian 2019/2020 bush fire destruction with empty road and small dam. Cool Heights – NSW, Australia. 7 January 2020. Credit: mikulas1/iStock