February 9th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: Water - Australia's most urgent priority

Canberra Observed: Simon Crean faces a horrible year ahead

South Australia: Close contest looms in SA Election

A tale of two legacies

Straws in the Wind: Old crooks and new / Paying the piper

East Timor: Opposition warns of Fretilin power grab

MEDIA: ABC TV 'Media Watch' - Who polices the police?

Letters: Public servants defended

Letters: Population: asset or disaster?

Letters: Harris Scarfe retailing business

DEVELOPMENT: Privatisation and the national debt: what is to be done?

Comment: Terrorism, refugees and the the populist resurgence

The new Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh and The Colonel

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ABC TV 'Media Watch' - Who polices the police?

by John Styles

News Weekly, February 9, 2002

Obviously revelling in the regained freedoms of the post-Shier era, the ABC has appointed homosexual activist and Sydney Morning Herald journalist, David Marr, as the presenter of the new series of the TV network’s Media Watch. There, you can hear them say, take that, John Howard, Richard Alston, Michael Kroger.

That is not to suggest that Shier stemmed the flow of left-leaning political and social reportage and commentary from ABC news and current affairs. He didn’t. However, the easy, no-explanations-given appointment of Marr indicated that the programmers are feeling a whole lot more relaxed and comfortable since Shier departed.

As journalist Peter Lloyd explained on ABC Radio’s PM program in a story that focused on the appointment, "One sure sign that the Shier era is well and truly over is the return of Media Watch. Media Watch was axed by Sandra Levy’s predecessor, after criticism of the program by Jonathan Shier."

But even the ABC realised that a journalist on the Fairfax payroll full-time does raise questions of a conflict of interest. Marr dismissed the concern:

"There is always going to be a formal conflict of interest if a journalist presents Media Watch. Even, of course, a journalist employed by the ABC; because while I’m employed by Fairfax and will be criticising Fairfax, I’m going to be appearing on the ABC and will be criticising the ABC. That formal difficulty comes with the territory and it’s going to be for the audience and for many very, very sharp-eyed people in the media to comment if we stumble over those problems - ever!"

One of Marr’s colleagues at the SMH is Paul Sheehan, author of Among the Barbarians, the best-selling book that mercilessly slaughtered many of the Left’s sacred cows. While a PC journalist like David Marr scores the prestigious presenter role on Media Watch, the extremely articulate and presentable Sheehan is occasionally heard in brief - very brief - commentary roles on, for example, ABC Radio’s Australia Talks Back. One suspects Mr Sheehan is far too articulate on social issues for a lot of people at the national broadcaster.

So Marr will be presenting this coming season of ABC Media Watch. No doubt, the tabloids and commercial radio and TV current affairs will be once again under the microscope, with the usual special focus on Alan Jones. Expect the ABC to be pinged occasionally for some perceived minor misdemeanour in an attempt to present at least a token display of even-handedness.

But along with all the serious things, Marr says there will be the fun stuff, like picking up grammatical errors. "Poking mullock, I think, is a very important part of Media Watch’s role ... Plus lots of jokes. After all, the media are, whoops, the media is hilarious." Oops.

The national broadcaster is expunging from its corporate vocabulary one of former managing director Jonathan Shier’s favourite words. That word, of course is "ratings". Witness this piece of double-talk or gobbledegook from the ABC’s Director of Television, Sandra Levy, on ABC Radio’s PM program:

LEVY: The objective measures of success in television clearly are how much audiences enjoy a program, where they come back to it week-by-week. I think you can’t ignore the fact that if an audience is dropping on a particular program, then the audience is telling you they don’t want to watch it. I think they’re the things you have to look out for, you have to work out in terms of the audience response - are they enjoying it, do they value it, do they think highly of it and are they coming back to watch it?

JOURNALIST: So the ratings imperative is important to you?

LEVY: It’s not a ratings imperative, it’s an enjoyment imperative. Are they coming back to that particular show? And every time-slot has a different sort of audience.

Despite the claim of Sandra Levy, ratings are "the objective measures of success in television". What she is saying is that the ABC will continue to program for minority interests, no matter how small those audiences may be. The size of a program’s audience, she says, is of no consideration. The only measure is whether or not the size of that audience declines over time. Therefore, programs that promote the world view of the ABC’s left wing clique to small, but loyal, audiences of like-minded viewers and listeners are completely safe. In other words, at "your" ABC, it is business as usual.

When journalists abandon even the pretence of impartiality, it bears noting, even if the substance of the admission comes as no surprise.

Consider the refreshing display of candour when The Sydney Morning Herald’s Tom Allard took a look at the career path of Brendan Nelson, the recently appointed Minister for Education, Science and Technology in the Howard Government (SMH, January 26, 2002).

In the eyes of SMH journalists, Nelson, it seems, is not the person he once was. Any doubt about the Minister’s standing today in the media popularity stakes was removed by the caption writer for the Nelson pic that ran with the story. The caption referred to Nelson as a "former media darling" (my emphasis).

Allard explained Nelson’s demise. As the son of a communist and a former member of the Labor Party, it appears that Nelson had the perfect credentials to be a SMH media hero. "Nelson was a different man in 1995," Allard wrote, "a flashy media darling".

We all know what happened in 1995. Nelson gained preselection for a blue ribbon Sydney Liberal seat; and the rest is history - as was Nelson’s status as a role model for journalists at the SMH.

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