everyone loves it 'til they're on it
January 31, 2019 5:03 AM   Subscribe

30 years ago this May, an Australian barrister and former journalist, Stuart Littlemore, was given a small space on the national publically-owned broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to host a program about the media. Littlemore, now a barrister, was an idiosyncratic host, more like a well-connected uncle than a news anchor, and instead of feebly countering criticism of the ABC, he went for the throat of anyone that had, in his view, used their platform to lie to the public, including reporters at the ABC themselves. That program, now called Media Watch, is entirely unique in the world: a prime time, 15-minute program about media content analysis and critique.

It tackles often very dry topics like journalistic ethics with a wry and sarcastic tone, sometimes exposing major scandals. It draws a weekly audience of over half a million, sometimes out-rating its commercial rivals. While both the US and the UK have had their public debate coarsened by the operations of News Corp, its country of origin, Australia, still maintains something approaching fact-based public debate, for which Media Watch deserves at least part of the credit. Naturally, its targets absolutely fucking hate it.

A sample of its 2018 stories:
* Criticism of News Corp's national paper, the Australian, over its routine misrepresentation on climate change;
* Adjudicating criticism in the Australian media over sections of the media's role in the deposition of prime minister Malcolm Turnbull;
* Its exposure of Australian gossip magazines routinely fabricating defamatory stories;
* Its discussion of one of the year's biggest stories, the spectacular firing of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's managing director, Michelle Guthrie, who then leaked proof that the chairman had been trying to have politically inconvenient journalists fired;
* Its exposure of Daily Mail Australia's plagiarism as a business model, which drew a petulant response from the Daily Mail which they then deleted from the Australian site when they realised it made them look guilty as hell

A documentary produced during the 20th anniversary gives an overview of the program's history (including its proud inclusion of its critics, most of whom have been at the wrong end of Media Watch's inquiries). A full version of Stuart Littlemore's interview has also been released, where he explains the origins of the program.
From the documentary, some of Media Watch's best moments:
* Australian businessman Christopher Skase, after looting his publically-traded company, Qintex, fled to Majorca, Spain, where he resisted attempts to be extradicted by claiming ill health. Channel Seven's news magazine program Today claimed Skase had gone so far as to bribe police to retrieve footage they'd filmed of Skase on Majorca. Media Watch revealed that in reality, the sequence was constructed from footage filmed in Barcelona.
* Media Watch revealed that opinionated (and extremely influential) Australian radio presenters John Laws and Alan Jones were secretly taking large endorsement payments from the targets of their on-air vitriol. This became known as the 'cash-for-comment' scandal.
* It revisited the story when it revealed that the regulations put in place after the cash-for-comment scandal had a loophole, exploited by Alan Jones: if you're one of the station owners, and the station gets paid, it's not against the regulations. Media Watch then published a leaked draft report from the regulator that had argued it should be considered a breach, unlike the final report, and pointed out that the head regulator and Jones were friends. The lead regulator was forced to resign.
* After Media Watch repeatedly exposed plagiarism at Sydney News Corp-owned The Daily Telegraph, then editor Campbell Reid inexplicably sent Media Watch a dead fish. Media Watch promptly commissioned a commemorative trophy: the Campbell Reid Perpetual Trophy for the Brazen Recycling of Other People's Work ("Carpe Verbatim").

Media Watch also takes care to not present itself as above criticism, and it definitely has earned it. While much of the criticism it receives is sour grapes, there are genuine concerns over how it uses its influence, especially when criticising ABC staff. Media Watch has been accused of helping to launder political pressure on the ABC, via dubious or misleading criticisms of ABC staff who have upset the government.

Media Watch returns for its 30th year this Monday, although its Twitter account is already back at work, including its more manic sister show, Media Bites.

Previously, previously, previously.
posted by Merus (14 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
This is such a great idea, I hope the format catches on elsewhere. Here in the UK with the brexpocalypse rumbling on I am desperate to bash some heads together and yell "have you no idea how much Rupert Murdoch & cronies are profiting from your fear and ignorance right now?"

I've long held the belief that many of the problems we're facing in the west at the moment need media reform as a core component of change. The UK electoral system is a prime example - it's horribly broken and there's no appetite on the part of the people who currently benefit from its inequalities (and the millions they've tricked into voting aspirationally in case they also become rich people some day) to make changes.

Without media reform I don't think we have a chance in hell of changing anything about the way this "democracy" works. The comparatively tiny group of people who stand to profit so much from politics going a certain way certainly aren't going to be self-motivated to change things themselves; this needs to be something that happens at them.

Unfortunately I have zero ideas on what the reforms should be or how to implement them...
posted by terretu at 5:54 AM on January 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

i wonder if WNYC's on the media took some inspiration from littlemore?
posted by kliuless at 5:59 AM on January 31, 2019 [4 favorites]

In a string of offensive tweets by Mr Whittaker, he describes the Mail as the 'festering boil on the arse of Australian media', a 'skidmark' on the industry and repeatedly refers to its talented, hardworking journalists as 'sewer rats'.

Now I have read it in the Daily Mail, so it must be true!
posted by chavenet at 6:33 AM on January 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

On the media occasionally provides some good media analysis, but that doesn’t seem to be their primary brief anymore and the two hosts are sort of squarely in step with a lot of unexamined myths about journalism. They gave a platform to a ton of alt right people in the last couple of years apparently thinking if Bob Garfield took a stern tone they weren’t amplifying the alt right message. Someone seems to have finally talked them out of that, but I sort of gave up on them as media critics when then decided the right response to Trump was to do more of the same.
posted by maxsparber at 6:35 AM on January 31, 2019 [3 favorites]

Daily Fail:
Even Paul Barry tweets abuse at the Daily Mail despite leading a supposedly fair and balanced ABC program
The point here is that the Fail is a festering boil on the arse and a skidmark in the underpants of Australian media. That's just an objective truth that nobody with even a shred of literacy could plausibly deny. There is about as much bias involved in saying so as there is in suggesting that parts of the ocean might be wet.
posted by flabdablet at 7:43 AM on January 31, 2019 [7 favorites]

I live in Canada and Japan, but I love Media Watch. They broadcast episodes on Facebook! There is something about how Paul Barry wryly and sardonically takes the piss out of various political and media meatheads that is a joy to watch.
posted by JamesBay at 8:05 AM on January 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately I have zero ideas on what the reforms should be or how to implement them...

Who shall watch the watchers? who shall investigate the investigators? who shall report on the reporters? -- those would be bloody difficult reforms indeed. I mean, I just can't see a bunch of rules (and related layers of of enforcement bureaucracy) being up to it.
posted by philip-random at 8:10 AM on January 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

I mean the ABC publishes some absolutely disgusting centrist shill stuff and gives platform to some terrible people in the name of "fairness" but they do an awful lot of good work too and I think I'd count Media Watch among that.

My father always records them and wants to watch them with me, which I also enjoy. I'm slowly getting him to reconnect with his labour roots - he was telling me about one of his brothers going to see Jack Mundey give a talk last time this happened.

I don't always agree 100% and the show's not really designed to appeal to me, I don't think, but it is nice to see some of the distortions openly exposed.

There was one incident a while back (when were the Commonwealth Games?) when I think Media Watch commented on how Sunrise? had been very selective about their footage. They were shooting around protests at the games and whatever they were filming at Martin Place, they were replacing the background with stock because reality was filled with protestors, including some coms. I believe they might do that trick regularly, I don't know.
posted by AnhydrousLove at 9:13 AM on January 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

Perhaps it was inspired by Brian Priestley's show Fourth Estate in New Zealand, which started earlier in the 80s, but alas did not last to the present day. Radio New Zealand runs a popular segment also called Mediawatch every Sunday -- somewhat less acerbic but covering the same ground. (Sorry: Australian Mediawatch is great, but the claim to uniqueness made me do it.)
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:56 AM on January 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

I will watch a bit tonight, but wonder if this been commercialized stateside by John Oliver and Samantha Bee (and to less extends by the Daily Show, Seth Meyers and Colbert). I am all for more minutes of sharp commentary focusing on the damage both right-wing commercial propoganda and milquetoast bothsiderism is doing to the public discourse.
posted by 6ATR at 1:10 PM on January 31, 2019 [3 favorites]

It's a great show and all, but the only thing that will get John Laws and Alan Jones off the radio is death or disease.

There really is a limit to the influence of MediaWatch, and it's that if the audience of the programs or newspapers it targets don't give a shit, then nothing really changes.
posted by awfurby at 2:41 PM on January 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

Unfortunately I have zero ideas on what the reforms should be or how to implement them...
Who shall watch the watchers? who shall investigate the investigators? who shall report on the reporters? -- those would be bloody difficult reforms indeed. I mean, I just can't see a bunch of rules (and related layers of of enforcement bureaucracy) being up to it.
One of Media Watch's most disappointing (& hypocritical) failures was railing against the Finkelstein Inquiry, the subsequent Convergence Review, and the recommendations that came out of both.

Even in light of all their own examples to the contrary over many years, Media Watch came down heavily on the side of 'the media must be left alone - it's independent, the very idea of government regulation is an abomination, and journalism is sacrosanct'. But even Blind Freddie could see that that was crap - Media Watch themselves had always highlighted that actual journalism in Australia was practically non-existant; that the existing 'independent' (i.e. industry bought-and-paid-for) regulator - the Australian Press Council - was both owned by the very worst of the operators its meant to regulate, and underfunded, understaffed, and underpowered; and that the problems with both journalism here and 'self-regulation' were structural, inherent, and couldn't be remedied by the usual ineffective piecemeal patchwork of platitudes and half-measures.

Actual regulation - to push the expectation that media organisations, in the words of the then-current PM, "don't write crap" - was necessary. And Media Watch campaigned strongly against it, in the name of 'journalism must be free'.

Well, yeah, I tend to agree. But even by that stage there wasn't much of any journalism left to be had in Australia. The issue faced wasn't 'how can we keep journalism alive?' - it was 'how can we stop the still-growing cancer that killed journalism?'.

Media Watch did their best to join in and cripple the response - in the name of ideology.
posted by Pinback at 3:25 PM on January 31, 2019

Pinback, Government regulation of the media is tricky at best, and can lead to authoritarian outcomes at worst. The Convergence Review (which I skimmed just now) has some good ideas, like a regulator regarding media ownership that considers the public interest, but seemed really focused on mandating a level of Australian developed programming for Australians. It suggests an industry lead body to oversee standards, paid for mostly by the industry, and a federal authority only as a last resort, but that's basically the APC, right?

The report doesn't spend any real time on sunshine, exposure, as a means of combating issues like the phone hacking. Particularly on reporting mechanisms/legislative oversight, or censure mechanisms by which institutional bad behavior (in the case of the former) or individual malfeasance (in the case of the latter) could be addressed. There's no mention of professional development courses or university educational requirements; frankly mandating ethics training for both future and current journalists and reminding people what to do if they see something that's not right seems like a nobrainer. Not that every eventual journalist will go through that, but your universities are free for Australiams, right?

As well, I think it fails to really consider how the development of broader digital content and social media sharing also means a lack of accountability because of the lack of a centralized authority or clear funding source, and how that can side step pretty much any efforts to prevent issues. Some racist asshole can go create a new Australian digital magazine or email newsletter or youtube channel tomorrow and cherry pick news stories or editorial content to slant my coverage, like finding crimes committed by indigenous peoples, or immigrants and reporting them and I can't see any means to stop that in either your current regulatory framework or in what was proposed.

There are Australian white nationalists who are absolutely doing stuff like that on youtube, and not hard to find (took me all of 40 seconds). And that's obviously bad stuff, not more subtle dark money efforts to support a particular viewpoint like domestic surveillance, or in support of a particular industry's wishes. Of course that's not just an Australian issue.
posted by gryftir at 5:25 PM on January 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh look, the Fail has nothing better to do with itself two decades on but to have another go at the Paxton family. And they have the unmitigated gall to accuse Shane of being lazy.

The right: projection all the way down.
posted by flabdablet at 11:07 PM on January 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

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