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Watching a Brave New World with Jonathan Holmes

Q&A: The Media in 2013 – Part Two

Five and a half years is a long time in any job, let alone working a beat as watchdog over an industry of colleagues.

That’s Jonathan Holmes’s role, week in and week out. As host of ABC Television’s Media Watch, the veteran journalist tackles newspapers, eviscerates radio hosts, and generally holds to account journalists nationwide for the day-to-day reportage they produce. For those in the news business, Media Watch is a constant, quiet threat, the mere mention of the program sending humble reporters into conniptions.

Which most would argue is a good thing. As major media in Australia has consolidated itself into the hands of a relative few, Holmes’s wit and the thoroughness of his production team have become highly prized among consumers.

But Holmes is now set to leave Media Watch, putting a cap on a career of over 40 years working for both the ABC and the BBC in the United Kingdom. This Monday’s episode will be his last before Paul Barry takes over the chair. Holmes has arguably been Media Watch’s best host since Stuart Littlemore conceived and then hosted the program himself from 1989 to 1997. He has also stood guard during one of the biggest upheavals in media history, as the digital age eats into the business models of newspapers and television networks.

So Ideas at the House reached out to Holmes, asking him to reflect on his time with Media Watch and how the wider industry has changed since he took the job in 2008. Over the phone, Holmes sounded a little older than he looks on television. But then it was a Tuesday morning, the day after production day. And as our discussion ranged from retirement to regulation to resourcing, the indignant, acute sense of right and wrong that is his trademark came to the fore.

Jonathan Holmes on the Media Watch set

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You’re heading into your final week as host of Media Watch. Not to start things off on a ‘grand final’ note, but how are you feeling?

Mixed feelings, you know? It’s like anyone who’s basically retiring, it’s a fairly significant moment in your life when you actually stop working full time. But do you mean as far as Media Watch is concerned?

 

Well, I was really looking for your personal feelings about the show. I wasn’t aware that you were actually retiring, as such.

I’m leaving the ABC. Which is not to say that I’ll stop working altogether. But I’m not going to another job.

 

If you weren’t retiring would you envision yourself staying in the chair?

No, not really. In fact, it’s the other way around. I’m retiring because I’d decided I’d done enough of Media Watch. They were happy to have me on at Media Watch for as long as I wanted to stay. But I’d just had enough and there wasn’t anything else obvious around, so I said, “That’s fine. I’ll leave the ABC and no doubt stuff will turn up.” But five and a half years of being a policeman over your colleagues is enough, I think. It is a job that’s quite enjoyable in some ways, but it’s quite limited. You’re really looking at the same old, same old, week after week, in some ways (laughs). And you don’t get out of the office. So it’s a very different thing to being a Four Corners reporter, which is what I was doing before.

 

When you first started, did it come as a shock, that change?

Not really as a shock, because I think I knew that’s what came with the job. But certainly, when I first took it on I never intended to stay more than a couple of years. So the fact that I ended up staying five and a half – it’s longer than anyone else apart from Stuart Littlemore, so I think it’s long enough.

 

It’s a very personal format also.

It is. You’re setting yourself up. Look, the unique thing about Media Watch is that it’s the only television program, really, that I can think of, which allows one person to express a view and to do it for 13 minutes every week. That simply is not a liberty allowed to anyone else on Australian television, either on the ABC or anywhere else, except arguably Andrew Bolt on Channel 10. And that’s always been a part of the show – it is an opinion program as much as a factual and analytical program. In the end, people expect to know what I think about things. And that carries with it considerable responsibility, which is fine, but it can be quite stressful.

 

You took over on Media Watch in 2008, and the media has changed so much from that point until 2013. Has the job changed much in that time?

Well, arguably it hasn’t changed enough. The changing circumstance of the media world poses problems for Media Watch as it poses problems for everyone else. The problem that it poses for Media Watch is, how far do you diversify to looking at things like blogs and newsletters and so on? The problem being, of course, that the audience is diversifying, and more and more of those online offerings are really quite small niches of the audience. Now, it’s true that a lot of our audience never listens to Alan Jones or watches A Current Affair, but they’ll happily watch Media Watch’s view of that. But, the truth is that they could watch it anytime or listen to Alan Jones anytime they want – as long as they live in Sydney – and the fact that those are mainstream feels like that’s what the topic should be for Media Watch. And to us, so far at any rate, it’s felt wrong to spend much time looking at individual bloggers and that sort of thing.

But on the other hand, an outlet like Crikey has become sufficiently mainstream for Media Watch to take it within its ambit, just as it has in fact just joined the Australian Press Council. But it’s still an issue. We tend to use the hardcopy newspapers as our onscreen illustrations, rather than the online versions. I don’t know why that is – maybe it’s just a prejudice on my part that it looks more solid if you use a newspaper. But of course, as the media world changes, Media Watch will have to change. And the other thing that’s affected it in the last decade is the growth of the competition. We used to be the only people looking at the media in a critical way; now there are dozens of blogs and other such outlets doing that job, and indeed it’s much harder for us to come up with those quirky little stories that we use to kick off the program that haven’t already been completely exhausted on Twitter or Crikey’s got hold of them or whatever. So that’s one of the reasons we’ve gone for a more considered two or three items in a program rather than four or five quickies, because those quickies have already been gobbled up by social media.

 

I think your team decides on the stories on the Wednesday before the program, and of course a lot can change between then and the Monday.

Well, we decide what we’re going to go for on the Wednesday, but if other stories come along we’re quite capable of changing course. We’ve done a whole program [on a story] that broke on a Sunday.

 

There’s a lot more media being pumped out these days, but then it’s arguably of a lot poorer quality. Is your job and that of the Media Watch team easier or harder than it used to be?

Well, we don’t spend a lot of time on simple, little mistakes anyway. Certainly, I think it’s much tougher now than it used to be for journalists to get it right first time around. But that hasn’t really given us much ammunition. I think one of the things that we’ve spent a lot of time on over the last couple of years is the disintegration of the wall between editorial and commercial – in newspapers, in television, everywhere. As the business models have collapsed and as the pressure to raise revenue has increased, so that former principled stance that editorial has nothing to do with commercial has basically disappeared. You get the impression that editors-in-chief and feature editors are constantly being bombarded by the commercial side, saying, “If you did this, we could raise revenue.” And at times that’s OK because it’s signalled to the reader and at times that’s not OK because it’s not signalled to the reader. We did a piece only the other week about when is a special feature actually advertorial and when isn’t it. And honestly, there’s no way of telling. There’s no way of telling, in other words, if the editorial copy has been paid for as well as the ads. And that’s in Fairfax media, but it’s a real issue all over the mainstream media now because they’re just desperate for cash.

I don’t think it’s ever been that hard to fill the show. But as I said, there is a lot more competition around and quite often we won’t do things simply because we feel they’ve been done to death already by the time we get to air. Mind you, there are some really big stories where even if everyone has been chewing them over all week, people still want to hear what Media Watch has to say. That’s a judgement we tend to make come around Friday: have we got something new to say? Or, should we do it anyway? That’s when there’s a big story around.

 

I think a lot of people trust Media Watch to cut through that clutter.

Well, sometimes if you actually look at what happened and who reported what and when, you can produce some clarity. We did that with the Boston Marathon for example. Now, a lot of that work was actually done by an American blogger for The Atlantic Wire who’d gone through the tweets in minute detail, and he’d done it very quickly – about 15 hours after the event – so certainly, he can take a bow. But when we set out – “OK, this happened and then this has happened and then this has happened. And this is how the Australian media reported it at a particular time of the day” – yeah, it adds some clarity that nobody else really has time to do.

 

It’s my observation that Media Watch maybe seems to be under fire more these days – particularly from the News Ltd papers – is that your observation?

Oh, I don’t think so actually. There was a very torrid period, especially in The Australian, when Tim Palmer and Monica Attard were involved in the show – Tim as producer, Monica as presenter – and they took against Tim Palmer, in particular. And there were endless fulminations and editorials about it. And before that when David Marr and Peter McEvoy were doing the job – David Marr was regarded as a left wing cultural warrior and was constantly attacked by the right. I don’t think we’re any more under fire than we’ve ever been. I can’t remember myself back as far as the 90s, but obviously the Cash For Comment story was bitterly resented by the shock jocks. I think News Ltd has always felt that Media Watch is a Fairfax-ABC stitch-up, and that their bloke – an ex-News Ltd person – never gets the chair. I guess historically that’s probably fair enough – I can’t think of anyone who has sat in the chair who isn’t either ex-ABC or ex-Fairfax. Although Paul Barry, who’s taking over from me, did actually work for News Ltd for a while. He’s worked for Seven, he’s worked for Nine, he’s worked for Fairfax, he’s worked for the ABC, he’s worked for the BBC, and he’s worked for Crikey. So he’s got a fairly broad spread (laughs).

 

Is it that old adage that if you’re under fire you must be doing your job properly?

Oh, yeah. The thing is not to care about it too much one way or another, and to take it both with a pinch of salt and a bit of humour. That’s what I try to do. It’s not particularly pleasant to be bashed by three editorials in The Australian in a week. But when you think about it, it’s so out of proportion and so ridiculous that I think the only sensible thing to do is give it my professional smirk and move on. We try not to let it bother us, really. And equally, we try not to react by getting into a feud. I try not to react by saying, “Well, they’re going to have a go at us. We’ll have another go at them!” We try to do our stories on their merits. I mean, last week I had another go at The Australian’s climate change coverage, but I haven’t done that for about eight months. We’ve let some pretty horrendous stories through. But when they simply didn’t report the Climate Commission’s 2013 report – which they no doubt regarded as some sort of alarmist waffle – and everyone else reported it, I thought, “Oh, well. Let’s have one more go before I go.” But really, it is a disgrace, I think, what they do. But that doesn’t mean I’ve got an obsession with doing it every week, at all.

 

The Australian seems to regard you as a climate change warrior of sorts, but the climate change debate taps into something that I wanted to ask you about, and it’s this issue of false balance in journalism.

Yeah. That’s a very important issue. As far as climate change goes, we have never talked about policy – what’s the right policy, what’s the wrong policy, the carbon tax and those kind of things. That’s not the issue from Media Watch’s point of view. Obviously, some News Ltd newspapers have waged an unashamed campaign against the carbon tax, and we could have, I suppose, said, “Well, that’s unfair reporting.” But we haven’t. It’s just too political and I haven’t gone near that. What we’ve focussed on is the reporting on climate science, which seems to me a non-political issue. Or it shouldn’t be a political issue. And the tendency of some News Ltd newspapers, not all, and a huge number of the shock jocks on commercial radio – particularly Alan Jones, but many others – [to give a distorted impression of the issue] is completely weird.

Anyone who tried to get any sort of notion of what the science is actually saying by listening to Alan Jones – who regards it as not only wrong but actually fraudulent – it’s a weird situation that we have these people who reach large numbers of Australians with this kind of conspiratorial fantasy every day. But I resent and reject the implication that because you accept the scientific findings of the vast majority of scientists who specialise in this issue that you are left wing or right wing. It’s just bizarre and I don’t know how we got to that situation. And conversely, it is patently absurd that people are rejecting the science because of their political views – because they’re right wing people they reject the science because they say it’s invented by lefties. It’s just bizarre.

 

This issue of false balance – it often feels like it’s keying into society in general becoming more partisan.

On the false balance issue: part of the problem with the whole climate change debate is that there is a view that there are two sides to this issue that should be reported in a balanced fashion. And there is a view that there is only effectively one side if you look at the peer-reviewed literature and at the genuinely well-qualified scientists – there is such an overwhelming preponderance on one side that to report it as though it were a balanced argument is to misreport it. That’s the fundamental conflict that’s going on, and to report this as though it’s a 50-50 balance or a 50-50 argument is just straight-up misreporting, and yes indeed, false balance.

 

I interviewed a freelance journalist last week who spoke about the false balance issue being partly one of resources. Journalists don’t have the resources to research the facts and therefore they present a story and feel like they have to present another side to the story.

Well that’s certainly true of the sort of he said/she said journalism, which is a slightly different but highly related issue. I think false balance is where you go out of your way to introduce the other side, as in that anti-vaccination/Win TV story. They didn’t need to introduce anyone from the anti-vaccination movement at all – the story was a perfectly good story about a measles epidemic and the need to get kids vaccinated. But somebody there goes, “Oh! Vaccinations. There’s that mob. Let’s put them in.” That’s false balance.

What I think is subtler and more difficult to counteract is he said/she said journalism, which is what you get all the time, in any kind of political reporting. The opposition says this; the government says that. It is rare that journalists are expected to choose between the two. That’s what all these fact-checking units have now been set up to do. They’re actually an attempt to go further than he said/she said to say who’s right. Which ought to be a part of what journalists do. If you’ve got the opposition saying we’re going to drop all these taxes and still produce a surplus, and you’ve got the government saying they’ve got a $70 billion black hole, one of them has got to be more right than the other. But it’s always considered sort of too politically dangerous for a journalist to say which. So you just report what one said, and what the other side said.

 

When you were speaking up in Queensland a couple of weeks ago, you were despairing of how partisan the environment has become.

I think in a way that the he said/she said is an attempt to get around the partisanship. It’s an attempt to not choose sides by journalists. It comes from that feeling that we shouldn’t be saying who’s right or wrong, because that would be to choose sides. I’m not saying that people should always do it. But there is a desperate need, if you can come from a position that people trust, for a unit that says, “OK, this side’s right on this occasion; the other side’s wrong.”

But the trick for the ABC fact-checking unit or PolitiFact or any of these other ones is how do they establish sufficient trust that they’re not simply put in a partisan basket themselves? That’s why that incident with Russell Skelton’s tweets were so unfortunate. It helps the Coalition say this bloke’s biased from the get-go, so, “Every time his unit finds that we said something that isn’t true, we’ll just ascribe it to bias.”

I’ll tell you the person who has been able to establish an impeccable reputation – I’ve never seen anyone question his impartiality – and that’s the ABC’s Antony Green, who’s this kind of nerdy psephologist. Antony is quite astonishingly knowledgeable, but no one thinks that Antony is on one side or another. They never have. How he’s been able to establish that almost uniquely nonpartisan reputation, I’m not sure, but that’s what we need in the fact-checking units. We need to steal the sort of Antony Green’s magic.

 

I think a lot of Media Watch viewers, maybe not journalists so much, are taken aback by your views on the debate over regulation of the media. In many weeks Media Watch has been looking at a case where the press has gotten it seriously wrong and maybe not apologised. The WIN TV/vaccination/ACMA example is a good one. Yet you don’t think there should be a statutory body.

I don’t, and indeed I think we do have a statutory body at the moment called the ACMA. I don’t see any reason for it. I think that we should have non-statutory self-regulation for all media, including television and radio. That’s because, frankly, I can’t point to a single occasion when the ACMA has done any bloody good. It takes forever – and that’s not its fault – because it’s very legalistic and it’s very legalistic because it is statutory. When it comes out with its judgements, it doesn’t have sufficient power to make people apologise or whatever. It’s either got this great huge stick of taking away a license, which has never been used, or it’s got little ticklers. In any case, I just don’t see what good it does.

I think that the idea of a self-regulating body that at least is a bit quicker and has a bit more respect from the practitioners, that’s ideally what you’re looking for. I do think you need a court of appeal, somewhere for people to go who [have] made complaints and don’t feel satisfied with the response. But the idea that it should be some kind of taxpayer funded statutory regulator; I’m amongst the many journalists who feel the cure would be worse than the disease, in that respect.

Of course, you’re right: a lot of people who are Media Watch viewers can’t understand this. They reckon, “Why should the media be different from anyone else?” and, “Everyone else is regulated, and why shouldn’t the media be?” I’ve got a lot of sympathy for that point of view, but I suppose having been at the receiving end of some of this regulation – it just doesn’t work. I don’t think it would be at all easy to make it work. I think you’ve got a better chance of getting an effective recourse by something along the lines of a press council. I think it should be sort of compulsory for the big players. I thought the Convergence Review was the nearest to getting this right, where they said the big players have to join but there’s no distinction between television, radio, online, newspapers. They’d have a very distant oversight by the statutory regulator, but very much one removed. I thought that could’ve worked.

 

Tapping into that, you have an interesting take on what’s called information siloing. These days, most people think that the internet makes that siloing worse, that people stick to their own lanes in terms of their beliefs and what they read and watch. But you seem to think the opposite is the case.

I don’t, really, but what I’m saying is that the idea that there is a substantial difference between television, radio, newspapers, online; these are all currently regulated differently, as though they were different media. And as we all know, what convergence is doing is it means there is less and less difference. The broadcasters all have lots of texts online and the newspapers all have lots of video and audio; it’s becoming a meaningless distinction. In that sense, I’m saying there is a convergence and that should be reflected in the regulation.

But at the same time, I absolutely accept that one of the dangers of the digital era is what you meant by siloing, which is people no longer needing to go to any of the media which have a broad cross-section of views and topics, but just sticking to hearing what they want to hear. For the sake of an argument: if you have doubts about climate science and you just focus on all of those endless websites that will confirm your views, you’ll actually get a highly distorted picture of what the science is. I suspect that’s what my former chairman Maurice Newman has done. He shows every sign of having read vast amounts of stuff from the sceptic websites and nothing whatsoever from the others. Then he accuses us, people like me, of groupthink. It’s bizarre.

 

One aspect that sometimes gets brought up with Media Watch is the question of resources. You’ve spoken yourself about the pressures and time constraints journalists are under. I think there’s perhaps a perception that the fight’s unfair, so to speak; that it’s all well and good for Media Watch to stand in judgement, but it can throw far more resources at its stories than any single journalist can. Is that a fair criticism?

No. I mean, I think it’s fair but it’s not a criticism. Yes, of course we have more resources to throw at 2,000-odd words every week than probably anyone else in the Australian media. We do that because it’s absolutely crucial that we get it right. And that when we make judgments against our peers, we have thoroughly researched them and thought about them. And that’s why that level of resourcing is essential. It should be taken as a compliment by our fellow journalists that we’re so well resourced, not as some kind of unfair competition.

I’m sure that Paul [Barry] will be even more aware than I am, because he’s worked in online journalism in recent years. But I’m sure we’re all conscious of the pressure that journos are under. What are we supposed to do? To say, “Oh well, we know you guys have got five deadlines a day so we’ll just not worry if you get it wrong?” The more pressure that people are under, the more I think it’s essential that Media Watch provides, if you like, a counterweight to their own editors who are pushing for more and more in less and less time. So that they can say, “Yeah, but if I do that, we’re going to end up on Media Watch. We’ll look terrible.”

 

There seems to be almost this tug of war, where sometimes the papers, when they criticise Media Watch, they try to drag you into the fight; whereas, you guys actually stand as referees, so to speak.

They sometimes want Media Watch to be a media issues program. For example, there was the fury when we didn’t address the mass sackings at Fairfax. The news came through about 10:30am in the morning on a Monday. We record at 1:30pm in the afternoon. As it happened, we had a special that week, which is unusual. We had a whole 13 minutes devoted to one topic, which is very hard to cut. If we’d had a normal program with three or four items, we might have been able to drop one and devote two or three minutes to Fairfax. But the truth is, we had nothing more to say about it than was going to be said on the 7:30 Report, on Lateline, which are programs that are actually geared to same-day coverage in a way that we’re not. We don’t have the ability to do interviews. We thought it’s not our problem, but there was fury amongst 50 Fairfax journalists.

The thing is, we’re not there for journalists. We’re there for the consumer. And the consumer doesn’t care as much as they do about the fact they’re losing their jobs. The consumer cares about what they’re reading in the paper and whether it’s right or wrong. We had to try to keep focused on that and not get sidetracked into championing the causes dear to the heart of our fellow journos, necessarily.

 

Do you think Media Watch, compared to ten years ago, is more powerful or more influential?

I don’t know. I think it’s changed a lot in the ten years, partly because we can afford to be far more current. When Stuart Littlemore started there was no Internet. People used to send in cuttings from North Queensland via the mail. So a lot of what featured on the program was a month old or even longer. Whereas, now if things are more than two weeks old we junk them. And the vast majority of what we do relates to the previous ten days.

But whether we’re more powerful: as I said, we’re no longer unique in the way that we used to be. There are plenty of other ways in which the public can get back at what it sees as bad media, particularly through social media. Then you’ve got the examples of what happened to Alan Jones and what happened to the 2Day FM DJs, what’s happened to other mainstream media outlets where protest has gone viral. They can suddenly find themselves under huge attack, and their advertisers under huge attack in a way that never used to happen. There are other ways the public has got of getting back at the media that didn’t exist even five years ago.

 

Talking about Stuart Littlemore, he wasn’t a journalist. Could you ever see the program returning to that? Do you think it’s better to have a journalist in the chair?

I do. Stuart doesn’t. He feels that Media Watch should simply have stopped functioning once he left. He’s never watched it since. He certainly has the view that anyone who’s a journalist has too much of a vested interest, in that they have to be re-employed when they leave so they’re not going to upset people. I think that’s a legitimate point of view. The problem is Stuart is a unique animal in that he did work as a television journalist for five or ten years in the ’70s. Then he left to become a barrister. He had the techniques. He understood television techniques. The vast majority of barristers you could think of that you try to put into that job just would fall flat on their faces. I guarantee it because it’s a very technical show. Just writing the scripts, if you haven’t spent a lot of time in television, would be very challenging, which is why just whacking a print journo in there would put a lot of stress on the rest of the system. It is not something that you just can pick up in a week or two.

But I think there is a positive advantage in having a journalist on the job who understands the ethos that ought to prevail, and who is respected by the people that you’re criticising, ideally. Lawyers have a completely different view of a whole bunch of things to journalists. And Stuart very much had a lawyer’s view. He actually despised journalists. I don’t think that’s a healthy state of mind to come from. I think it’s much better to have someone who says, “I understand your problems. I understand what you think, but this is how you ought to have behaved.”

 

What are your plans, going forward?

I don’t have any terribly concrete plans going forward. I’m going to be writing a column for one of the major outlets, like a once-a-fortnight column. But other than that, I’m going to be taking a bit of a break, and then see what turns up.

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Matt Shea (@mrmatches)

(Top image by NS Newsflash)

Read our Q&A with ‘tip jar’ investigate journalist Keith Ng here.