The origins of the 13-minute weekly television program that has monitored the Australian media since 1989 had more to do with the ABC managing director’s desire for revenge on his perceived enemies than concern over the standards of print and broadcast journalism. During 1988, the corporation’s new managing director, David Hill, endured regular criticism from the John Fairfax Group, and asked his assistant, Tony Ferguson, to explore the possibility of using the ABC’s own outlets to mount a counter-attack. Colleagues from his time as executive producer of This Day Tonight suggested a program based on the British What the Papers Say and Points of View, broadened to include radio and television.
After a series of established ABC presenters auditioned unsuccessfully, a Sydney barrister and former journalist, Stuart Littlemore, was appointed host. Littlemore sidestepped any indication that he should single out the ABC’s critics and devised the program’s tightly written ‘illustrated lecture’ format. Transmitted on Monday nights, the program was named Media Watch—The Last Word before the subtitle was dropped in 1992.
From the outset, Littlemore insisted that this was not news or current affairs, but rather a program of critical commentary and review—a platform for well-informed and properly researched opinion about the performance of the Australian media. The intention was that Media Watch should be told from the standpoint, and on behalf, of media consumers. For that reason, it maintained that the conventional journalistic requirements of ‘balance’ and offering a ‘right of reply’ were not applicable to its content. This position provoked sustained hostility from the mainstream media, and in 1994 ABC management decided to cancel Media Watch—a decision that was quickly overturned after staff objections. However, the program did disappear from ABC screens in 2001, reportedly because it had aired an aggressive interview with the then ABC chairman, Donald McDonald. Media Watch returned to air in 2002. Shortly after a former John Fairfax & Sons executive, Mark Scott, became managing director in 2006, the program was instructed to follow editorial policies more in keeping with those expected of current affairs. Media Watch continues to negotiate this difficult path: it is about, but also part of, the media. An additional—often uncomfortable—requirement of the program is that, in order to maintain its credibility and independence, it needs to be as critical of the ABC as it is of the commercial media.
The principal concerns of Media Watch are offences against the journalists’ Code of Ethics: plagiarism, undeclared conflicts of interest, media women’s action group intrusion, breaches of privacy, deliberately misleading reporting, sensationalism, undisclosed commercial influence, falsehoods, manipulation of images, unsubstantiated opinion, racial and sexual prejudice, and incitement. A secondary theme has been the consistent failure of Australia’s systems of media regulation to discourage and punish ethical lapses. This serious fare is punctuated by more humorous material that highlights journalistic ignorance, sloppiness and lapses of taste. David Salter, who produced more than 200 episodes, described the job of Media Watch as being ‘to bring the worst impulses and excesses of its colleagues to account in a public way’, and thereby to help lift the standards of Australian journalism.
Among the more notable Media Watch items over the past 20 years have been revelations that a newspaper column by Alan Jones was plagiarised from a Frederick Forsyth novel; that a Channel Nine crime reporter had implied he was acting for police to obtain photos of a shooting victim; that a Seven Network current affairs program had faked footage of being chased by police on Majorca; that ABC News had fabricated ‘live’ two-way interviews between its studio presenter and overseas correspondents; that a series of ‘welfare cheat’ exposés in the Herald Sun was without factual foundation; that the ABC’s then managing director, Brian Johns, had authorised coverage of a political function in contravention of the corporation’s guidelines; and that most Australian women’s magazines routinely invented stories about celebrities and published faked photographs. The most celebrated Media Watch revelation came in 1999, when the program presented proof that talkback radio hosts Alan Jones and John Laws had failed to disclose to their listeners that they had been handsomely paid to provide favourable on-air comments about companies including Optus, Foxtel, Qantas and the major banks. These ‘cash for comment’ exposures, which resulted in an Australian Broadcasting Authority inquiry, won Media Watch three Walkley Awards.
The presenters of the program have been Stuart Littlemore (1989–97), Richard Ackland (1998–99), Paul Barry (2000, 2013– ), David Marr (2002–04), Liz Jackson (2005), Monica Attard (2006–07) and Jonathan Holmes (2008–13).
REFs: S. Littlemore, The Media and Me (1996); D. Salter, The Media We Deserve (2007).