RIP Media Watch – again
Thursday October 19th 2006, 11:00 am

ABC burning from the inside outMedia Watch, the most powerful 15 minutes in Australian weekly television, disappeared from 2000 to 2002. Presenter Paul Barry was sacked in 2000 and the program was cancelled in 2001 by Jonathon Shier, then ABC Managing Director.

Shier appeared to be retaliating against Barry for a hard-hitting inquisition of then ABC Director, now Managing Director, Donald Mc Donald regarding punitive ABC budget cuts, raising questions about the journalistic independence allowed the broadcaster by government. During Shier’s tenure, Friends of the ABC drew massive crowds to public protests, one in May of 2001 (which I attended) on the steps of the Opera House attracted more than 10,000 people to demand Shier’s ouster and a halt to ABC funding cuts.

Media Watch returned to the air in 2002 with columnist David Marr as presenter. Marr took leave from the Sydney Morning Herald to host the show after Shier himself was sacked in early 2002. Marr returned to the SMH in 2004, replaced by Four Corners reporter Liz Jackson for the 2005 season. Walkley Award winning ABC journo Monica Attard took over presenting for 2006.

New ABC editorial policy announced by ABC Managing Director Mark Scott, which purports to enforce ‘balance’ in ABC programming, looks like it may again kill Media Watch. The program may still be on the air, if in name only.

In the 18 October Crikey subscriber newsletter, original Media Watch presenter Stuart Littlemore QC comments:

Stuart Littlemore: How the ABC will castrate Media Watch

By founding Media Watch host Stuart Littlemore

Announcing his new ABC editorial policies, ABC Managing Director Mark Scott singled out Media Watch for comment, noting:

I have encouraged the Director of Television to work with the Media Watch team to review their format and content next year to ensure there is more opportunity for debate and discussion around contentious and important issues. It is a popular program, has a loyal following and I hope, a long future at the ABC.

Mr Scott plans, obviously, to abolish Media Watch and create something quite different.

My concept was the equivalent of an opinion column – all it ever was was one person’s opinion of media performance over the past week.

If Media Watch is to become a place where debate flourishes (rather than the expression of comments) and different voices are heard, it will certainly not be Media Watch. It will be The 7.30 Report.

Or it could be an entirely new program – possibly called “media issues”, in which Alan Jones is given yet another platform from which to say why it’s perfectly all right for him to take cash for comment, or to plagiarise other extreme-right demagogues, or to pass off Freddy Forsyth’s latest spy novel as his own real-world research.

It would be interesting to see the executive producer of A Current Affair justify the nasty garbage he broadcasts; and Piers Akerman explain himself; and the editors of Murdoch’s tabloids dissemble about newspapers’ right to exploit the community’s most offensive prejudices, I suppose.

But it certainly wouldn’t be Media Watch. The place for that would be Four Corners.

I created Media Watch as a critical review of the standards of journalism in Australia. The essence of the concept is that it is an expression of critical opinion – not the ABC’s opinion, not a debate or a diversity of views. The ABC under David Hill and Brian Johns gave total support to that concept. Jonathan Shier did not.

It’s nice that Mr Scott describes Media Watch as popular, and with a long future. It’s less attractive that he wants a new format and different content.

Mr Scott has no experience of television production, I understand, which must be something of a handicap. Can I simply suggest to him, from my perspective as someone with a little familiarity with the creation, writing and presentation of television programs, that his concept of a castrated Media Watch has absolutely no future?

A program as sharply critical as Media Watch could only exist on a fully-funded, commercial-free national broadcaster which is independent of government interference. John Howard has cut the staff-elected ABC board position and stacked the board with people of his own conservative bent who prefer the Fox News definition of ‘balance,’ not the one in the OED- in other words, if it doesn’t favour their mob, it opposes them. Hmm… that sounds sorta familiar.

Howard has had 10 long years to chip away at the independence of the ABC, through board manipulation and funding cuts though despite this sabotage, the ABC have maintained much of ther credibility and quality, if not the same quantity of hours of programming.

Through Scott’s new editorial policies, Howard may finally may have won a large battle in his culture war against the Australian people. Any military expert will tell you that when you are conquering a hostile populace, one of the very first things you do is seize the radio and TV stations so you can get your propaganda on the air. Boffo, Johnny… but will anyone actually watch the ABC if it becomes the Liberal Party’s version of Fox News?

There’s going to be a hell of a mess to clean up when the Liberals are finally kicked out of government. I reckon it’d be a full-time job for at least a year repealing Work Choices, Welfare To Work, media cross-ownership, sorting out the ABC board/funding/arm’s length relationship to government and so on. There’s a fair chance that Kim Beazley will be the next PM… but does Beaz have the political will to do the job? The ALP should probably be investing in bulldozers and recycling companies in anticipation of pushing out all the paper Howard has dumped on us.

Thanks much to all at Media Watch for speaking truth to power. Nice knowing you while it lasted this time around.


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