|Issue No 83||09 February 2001|
Inside the Journopolis
Extracted from Cash for Comment - The Seduction of Journo Culture
- (Pluto Press)
In his new book, Rob Johnson brings the infamous Cash for Comment Affair to life.
There are many good journalists in Australia, so why is there so much bad journalism." If you want an answer to that question, you have to come to Sydney. This is a journalist's town. One-third of Australia's journalists are here. It sucks them in because Sydney is the capital of quality journalism in Australia.
Other cities have their quality outlets - but Sydney has more. Move across the city from south to north. You'll start with the ABC headquarters in Ultimo (the home of Australia's quality public radio broadcaster) to the Nationwide News bunker in Surry Hills (the home of the quality national broadsheet, the Australian). Cut across town and you'll be at Fairfax, down beside Darling Harbour (the home of quality national business paper, the Australian Financial Review; and quality metropolitan daily, the Sydney Morning Herald) which is almost on an east-west line from Australian Consolidated Press (home of quality weekly news magazine, the Bulletin). Then we head over the Harbour Bridge towards St Leonards, on the city's north shore. The final stop on our journey across this journopolis is Gore Hill - home, at least for now, of ABC Television.
Certainly, this town has other examples of journalism's rich tapestry: the comparatively staid Daily Telegraph, a polite newspaper posing as a racy, crowd-pleasing tabloid; shock-jock talkback radio stations like 2GB and 2SM; the perennial ratings loser of commercial free-to-air television, Network Ten; and the populist current affairs of mass-market commercial stations, Nine and Seven. These papers and programs present themselves as populist, not as 'journals' of record.
There's also pay-TV stations, FM radio, the local papers, the majority of the nation's magazines, the alternative media and street press, and poor old SBS, which is somewhere between invisibility and despair. I'm not too concerned about them, because although many do a good job, no one expects them to be great.
Our story is concerned with the 'quality press'. It begins in a week which promises to be the most boring, news-free week of the year. Nothing is happening. The Prime Minister is out of town, cruising around the United States trying to impress important people. The debate leading up to November's referendum on the republic is so painstakingly dull and out of touch that it can barely raise sniggers amongst the populace.
The only promising part of the week for journalists is the Cointreau Ball, scheduled for the coming Friday. It will be full of partying celebrities and their hairdressers, goateed ad industry types - and, of course, journalists. The Ball is mostly for the benefit of journalists. It supplies several pages worth of gossip and photos of famous people looking silly. And more importantly, the drinks are free.
Luckily for the citizens of this journopolis, within a few hours this week would become far more interesting than they could possibly have hoped.
Monday afternoon - 12 July, 1999
The ABC's Gore Hill complex has the feel of a heavily fortified university campus. It's an ad-hoc collection of permanent structures and demountable buildings whose only unifying feature is their lack of architectural style.
Slip through the gates. You probably won't see any people - just a hedge, a neat lawn, and a driveway leading to the tallest building. Make your way left, past the hedges, and follow the concrete pathway. This one will lead you down to the ABC canteen. Outside, a cluster of grey-haired men in denim shirts are chatting to chirpy twenty-something women wearing tight T-shirts and expensive cardigans. All of them are drinking cappuccinos in their own mugs.
This is a bastion of quality journalism. As well as the various news bulletins, and Lateline and Stateline, there's an unusually high quota of quality here. This is where Four Corners, Australia's longest-running and most respected current affairs program, comes from. It's the main base for the 7.30 Report, the only nightly half-hour of TV current affairs that hasn't descended to placing hidden cameras in carwashes in order to catch some schmuck flogging ten bucks from under the seat. This is where Media Watch comes from - 15 minutes of issues-based journalism that consistently rates well simply by playing a self-appointed watchdog role to the rest of the industry.
Inside the canteen, a line of people snakes past the bistro to the coffee machine, everyone chatting and waving their mugs at each other. Amongst those in the queue is a tall woman with a shock of black hair. This is Deborah Richards, executive producer of Media Watch, who's obviously dashed in for a break between preparations for this evening's show. Standing nearby is David Hardaker, one of the reporters from the 7.30 Report.
On air, David Hardaker looks like a housebrick in a suit, but catch him in the canteen and you'll meet a genial, hail-fellow-well-met type of chap who's always up for a bit of in-house gossip (as journalists generally are). He and Richards get to chatting, and he drops that he's heard a rumour they've got a big story on Media Watch that evening.
Richards is aghast. "What have you heard?" she asks.
"That there is something big coming out tonight..." Hardaker continues. He wants to know what it is, though.
Richards refuses to tell him. She is worried that he's even heard of a 'big story', and certainly isn't going to let any details out.
Which pretty much confirms the rumour for Hardaker - as all journalists know, any idiot can slap an injunction on a show if they think it's going to damage them. If you've got a scoop about someone powerful you keep it close to your chest.
You'd expect a journalist to be hostile to a show like Media Watch whose bread and butter consists of exposing bad journalism. For more than a decade, this 15-minute review of journalism had been airing mistakes and misleading stories on television and radio and in newspapers. The show had always named journalists, and held them publicly accountable for their work. Like many other journos in Sydney, however, Hardaker would say that Media Watch is good because it helps keep the profession honest. At a time when both public and commercial newsrooms are under financial and political pressure, such a role is important if quality journalism is going to survive.
In any case, under Richards' command, since the beginning of the year, Media Watch had been less about skewering lazy journos, and more concerned with the 'big issues' facing journalists - with reporting on reporting.
As a semi-regular viewer of Media Watch, I found the program's new style both interesting and disappointing. Interesting because of the subject matter - I'd worked as a journo for a while and was familiar with some of the gossip about people and processes that fuelled their stories; I also had the luxury of distance - it had been a while since I had worked for any of the big newspapers, so I could laugh at the show's criticisms without feeling personally involved. Disappointing because they were producing journalism about journalism - with all the faults and prejudices of journalism. It seemed to take away the show's bite.
My feeling was that Media Watch, by concentrating on issues rather than journalists, had lost track of the fact that the culture of journalism, more than any other issue, affected the stuff I was reading and watching. In a journopolis like Sydney, with thousands of colleagues to gossip with, that's inevitable. If you accept that the culture of journalism determines the news you buy, it becomes clear that we shouldn't be asking whether quality journalism is going to survive. We should be asking whether it deserves to.
Monday night 9.15pm - 12 July 1999
"Now", said Richard Ackland, "An update on a story we brought you some weeks ago. It concerns that lion of integrity on commercial radio - John Laws."
Across Australia, hundreds of people got up to go to the toilet. I was among those left, watching the screen but thinking, Isn't this old news? Haven't Media Watch been having a go at Laws for years? Sure, he was a powerful figure: for Laws' listeners, he was an authority answerable only to himself and them, independent from any influence (either commercial or proprietary), the last bastion of truth in a world going mad. For the Media Watch audience, he was a red-neck talkback host who got big ratings. Big deal.
Even if it wasn't news, it looked like a good yarn. You can identify a good yarn by the structure of the story, even before you know the details:
1. A powerful figure or powerful group tells you something is the truth
The first part of Media Watch that night recapped a story they had run with a month previously: they played two excerpts from the John Laws show on Sydney radio station 2UE (which is syndicated to a further two million listeners around the country). The excerpts had aired on 24 November and 30 November 1997, nearly two years earlier, and were of Laws being scathing about banks.
"So here's how it works", said the reassuring baritone voice of the radio star on the show that evening. "The bank makes two-point-two billion dollars profit, the bank closes branches, the bank loses two-and-a-half thousand staff - and then, they do it all again."
"When they go down to the bank, Uncle Scrooge down there behind the counter hits them with a fee. How can you do that, you people? I mean, how can you really do it?
Media Watch had noticed a different attitude to banks of late on the Laws program. Their earlier program had identified Laws' switch to being, in Ackland's words, "the bank's most prominent apologist". Once again they played an excerpt from the Laws program, this time from March 1999: "Banks make very big profits, but are they unreasonable about it? Maybe not, when you know... the whole story." 'The Whole Story' was the name of a segment on the Laws show, dealing with Australian history sponsored by the Australian Bankers' Association (ABA). More regular viewers of Media Watch got up to go to the bathroom.
Ackland was suggesting this sponsorship had helped Laws change his opinion of the banks. He'd done exactly the same thing on Media Watch back in May. No one really cared then. Laws had answered the allegation on his own show and on ABC Radio National's Media Report: he had been approached with a commercial deal and taken it. He hadn't changed his opinion on the banks, but merely gained a greater understanding of their role in society.
2. A journalist reveals evidence which suggests the powerful figure's story may not be accurate
Halfway through, Ackland said: "A confidential document has come our way and it conflicts markedly with Laws' version of events.
"[Tony] Aveling [chief executive with the Australian Bankers' Association] told the Bankers' Association council..."A voice-over read out the confidential document: "[Bob] Miller approached the Australian Bankers' Association at the request of John Laws, to see if any banks were interested in using the [advertising] agency and, in particular, Laws."
"This rather flies in the face of what Lawsie's been telling everyone for weeks," Ackland said. "That the banks came to him, to get him to tell the whole story. Laws has also maintained publicly that, while it's a commercial deal, his opinion hasn't been bought."
Within a minute, however, the voice-over continued reading from the bankers' document: "The objective is to reduce the negative comments about banks by John Laws from the present average of four a week to nil, concurrently to receive positive comments from Mr Laws, over and above the paid advertisements and by doing so, to shift Australians' perceptions of, and attitudes towards, banks."
3. A conclusion is reached, linking the evidence with some other interest of the powerful figure
After running through some of the other details of the document, including a list of some of John Laws' other sponsors, Ackland summed up its contents: "In the middle of a concerted campaign against the banks by the most widely listened-to broadcaster in the country, his agents approached the ABA for a deal and the drubbing stops. Such is the commercial power of the golden microphone. And just now much money did it take?... One proposal added up to one-point-two million and the other to one-and-a-half million dollars."
A strong finish to the program, but Ackland couldn't resist a final kick. "Now we know more of the whole story," he said, closing the show. "While Lawsie sleeps snugly tonight, we wonder whether his audience will rest so happily?"
A that time the program went to air, Chris Stewart, Director of Public Affairs with the Australian Bankers' Association, was being interviewed on Perth radio station 6PR. It was at the end of a reasonably busy day for Stewart - earlier he had been interviewed on the same station by Howard Sattler, in the afternoon he'd fielded criticism on ABC radio, and now he was talking to Graham Maybury. Stewart's talkback schedule was part of the Bankers' Association's communications strategy - the idea was to make himself available as a bank spokesperson for any talkback programs which covered banking issues. As a way of addressing the poor image banks had in society, Stewart's proactive strategy was thought to be working very well.
A call came in to the program from a listener who had just seen Media Watch, wanting to know some details of the deal between Laws and the bankers, and if the Bankers' Association had paid him to change his opinion about the banks.
"Media Watch has just revealed that Mr Laws was being paid," the listener said.
"This should come as no surprise", Stewart replied. "This is commercial radio."
He told the caller there was no secret surrounding the arrangement with John Laws, that Laws was actually being paid by a company called Australia Street Consulting, and it was with this company that the Association had a contract; that the whole idea was to promote issues to do with banking, and to ensure that facts and figures were being published where they weren't before.
"Media watch says you paid Mr Laws one-and-a-half million dollars, the caller continued.
"That's ludicrous", Stewart said. "It was a lot less than that."
And it's reasonable to assume that all the while, in the back of Chris Stewart's mind, a little voice was saying, Not this again.
Interview: Dispatch from Davos
ACTU President Shahran Burrow reports back on the trade union movement’s presence at last week’s meeting of the heavyweights of global capital.
Unions: After the Gold Rush
Recent mass sackings at high-profile e-businesses are beginning to expose the flimsiness of the ‘jobs for all’ predictions made on behalf of the sector.
Economics: The Other Davos
While the world’s business leaders met in Davos, a very different gathering was taking place in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Pat Ranald was there.
Politics: While We Were Snoozing
As we lay in our banana chair through summer the political world kept turning with a new man in the White House. Here’s what we missed while we were off the air.
History: Federation Day, 1901
One hundred years after Australia became a nation, Ralph Sawyer relives the original Federation Day through the eyes of Billy Hughes.
International: Burma: The Struggle Continues
As the internatinal community moves to bring Burma to account, APHEDA - Union Aid Abroad is working on the ground.
Review: Inside the Journopolis
In his new book, Rob Johnson brings the infamous Cash for Comment Affair to life.
Satire: Families Demand Longer Work Hours
A new report confirms the long held suspicion that employees who reduce their workload to spend more time with their spouse and children just end up annoying their families even more.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005