All Over the Press Down Under
By Brendan Trembath
Brendan Trembath is an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio reporter basedin Sydney.
Australian journalists have come to dread Monday evenings, when they could well find their reporting scrutinized on "Media Watch: The Last Word," a much-feared 15-minute television program produced by the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). ###
Since 1989, "Media Watch" has critiqued everything from the way American and Australian correspondents dressed while covering the gulf war to the influence of the businessmen who own much of the nation's urban media. It also has brought to light some embarrassing cases of plagiarism, such as the editorial by an influential radio commentator in which passages had been lifted from a Frederick Forsyth novel.
Journalists can usually stomach coverage of issues such as ownership, but they often blanch when the criticism is aimed at their work. Relatively obscure print reporters have found their words being dissected over the airwaves by anchor Stuart Littlemore, who singles out questionable reporting that is read aloud in a tone to match the article. Items from Rupert Murdoch's tabloids, for example, are shouted.
A former journalist who now works as a lawyer, Littlemore says Australian reporters dislike "Media Watch" because he hits them with their own artillery. "I use the techniques of modern journalism to criticize modern journalism," he explains.
Television reporters seem to take the hardest hits. One of the latest was Steve Barret of the Nine Network, who was captured on videotape trying to obtain photos of a murder victim from the man's widow. Littlemore introduced the tape, shot covertly by a rival network cameraman, by explaining to viewers that "tabloids like Nine regard a picture of the deceased as essential" for their newscasts. He also noted that many reporters have no qualms about lying to get them, as Barret appeared to do.
The tape showed Barret, wearing a suit and carrying a cellular phone, just inside the woman's front door. Among other things, he told her that he needed photographs of her dead husband for "general police release." He was not heard identifying himself as a reporter, and Littlemore suggested that the woman could have easily mistaken Barret for a detective.
Ian Cook, news director at the Nine Network, insists the widow knew who Barret was. He accuses "Media Watch" of not using the same standards it claims to espouse.
"They're guilty of the worst type of journalism, where you start with a premise [and] then attempt to prove it," he says. Cook says that among other ethical breaches, neither he nor Barret was asked for comment before the tape aired.
Cook's criticism is echoed by Gerald Stone, one of Australia's leading producers of news discussion shows and a former Fox vice president in New York. Stone believes much of Littlemore's criticism is naive and relies too heavily on hindsight.
Stone, who worked with Littlemore in the late 1960s on Australia's first daily news discussion show, says that "even then, Stuart was one of the most aggressive and rambunctious reporters I'd ever come across." He says Littlemore's rigid ethical expectations can't be applied universally to Australia's diverse news indus- try, with outlets that range from "Hard Copy" and Rupert Murdoch's tabloids to highly respected newscasts and the mainstream dailies.
Stone's tone lightens a little when he suggests a change of scenery for his former colleague. "His reviews would best be given from a castle in Transylvania because he monsters just about every program," making most breaches sound worse than they
Littlemore remains unswayed. "My motive is frankly to – by exemplification, at times ridicule, at times barely disguised anger – raise the standards of journalism in this country," he says.
Needless to say, he's made enemies. There is strong evidence that even unhappy coworkers at the ABC have attempted to muzzle him. "I have criticized the ABC on precisely the same criteria as I have anybody else," which has caused backlash, Littlemore says. "We get ugly looks in the staff canteen whenever we've zapped anybody."