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Old tricks back at Media Watch

August 23, 2007

THROUGH bias, Media Watch has surrendered the right to pass judgment on other people's work

WHY bother with a media television program that lacks journalistic integrity and conducts its affairs along the lines of an insiders' club that pushes its ideological prejudice at taxpayers' expense?

This is the question ABC management should be asking itself today in recognition of the fact that Media Watch has slipped back to its familiar style of not letting the facts spoil a good rant about the commercial rivals of its fellow travellers at Fairfax.

Does anyone seriously think if this newspaper devoted the front page of a Saturday paper to a false report of the discovery of the HMAS Sydney that Media Watch would have ignored it. Or if Fairfax journalist and former Media Watch presenter David Marr had broken all the significant stories on the Australian Federal Police treatment of Gold Coast doctor Mohamed Haneef that Media Watch would have devoted half a program criticising him for one obscure point of his coverage, as it did with The Australian's Hedley Thomas?

Or, if three News Limited journalists had conspired to breach the confidence of federal Treasurer Peter Costello by publishing the contents of an off-the- record conversation that took place two years ago that Media Watch would have failed to explore the ethical issues involved?

Clearly, The Australian is again in dispute with Media Watch, as demonstrated by reports in today's Media section. We are questioning why the program ignores legitimate issues to lambast this newspaper over a story in which the facts are not in dispute.

The program would rather dissect the diplomatic discomfort of Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, than explore some of the biggest media stories that have erupted in years. Media Watch accused The Australian and our environmental writer, Matthew Warren, of ambushing Dr Pachauri when we published his comments supportive of the federal Government's decision to get an economic evaluation of responding to climate change before setting a firm target for cutting carbon emissions. Dr Pachauri was in Canberra when he made the comments to Warren and should have been well aware of the impact they should have.

What Media Watch failed to disclose was the full transcript of Warren's question and Dr Pachauri's answer, which clearly shows Dr Pachauri should have known exactly what he was doing. For the record, Warren asked: "As you would be aware, the Australian Government is proposing to set its emission target after it has conducted rigorous economic analysis. Do you support that?"

Dr Pachauri replied: "I think so, otherwise one might come up with an emotional and political response which might not be the best, and I think in a democracy it's important to see there is an informed debate in officialdom as well as within the public if one adopts a particular ..."

When Media Watch demanded we jump to an apology and correction, The Australian was still in communication with Dr Pachauri telling him in writing there had been no misrepresentation. Media Watch had our letter to Dr Pachauri but did not broadcast its contents and has yet to make it available to viewers on the ABC website.

Dr Pachauri may well have stumbled into a diplomatic minefield with his comments, but he still made them. Despite the Australian Government's unpopularity in some circles because of its stand on the Kyoto Protocol, Dr Pachauri offered a commonsense answer.

His comments should not be sanitised after they were volunteered in an on-the-record interview. There is now little real difference between the positions taken by the Government and Opposition on climate change.

Labor is setting an aspirational target for cutting carbon emissions which will be reviewed following receipt of an economic analysis by Ross Garnaut, which is due next year. The Government is instead waiting until the economic analysis is in before deciding what target to set. It will be several years before either party introduces a carbon scheme to meet the final target. This detail is clearly too difficult for Media Watch and is at odds with the black and white view of the world the program continues to reinforce.

The Pachauri matter is merely symptomatic of a bigger Media Watch malaise where there appears to be an entrenched institutional bias of which the perpetrators may well not be aware. It is a bias that is quick to believe and reinforce a view that this newspaper is hostile to Labor and gives the Government favourable treatment. But this view is contrary to the fact that there are few complaints from senior Labor Party officials and politicians about the treatment they receive in our news pages.

It is instructive to consider whether Media Watch would have taken such an indignant line against The Australian and Warren had the dispute over emphasis been with Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull rather than Dr Pachauri. We think not.

The program only seized the issue because the facts could be twisted to fit the Media Watch agenda. It is not an isolated incident. The choice of items clearly demonstrates a political nexus exists between the ABC and Fairfax that in turn fosters a culture of lazy investigations based on taking pot shots at commercial television and News Limited papers.

This week it was criticising The Australian over climate change and commercial television for lowbrow cross promotions. Last week it was distressed at the use of toy submarines to illustrate a television news story about Russia's ambitions to explore below the sea for resources and criticism of the Seven Network for using the word "eclipsed" in a report about Asian migration overtaking numbers from Europe and for a segment that trapped two Asian students with questions about Don Bradman and Australia.

Media Watch is clearly not interested in exploring the biggest media stories of the day. It is only interested in perpetuating its own commercial and cultural bias. If News Limited papers had got the HMAS Sydney story so wrong, Media Watch would no doubt have been all over it.

Likewise with the Costello leadership story in which two journalists from The Bulletin magazine and Michael Brissenden of the ABC's 7.30 Report colluded to suppress a story that Mr Costello had boasted of his leadership strategy at a dinner two years ago. There are serious ethical concerns around colluding to expose an off-the-record discussion some time after the event.

A claim by Media Watch staff that the Costello story had been exhausted as an issue by the time the program went to air only serves to amplify their incompetence. Columnist Gerard Henderson was able to make a substantial contribution to the story after Media Watch was broadcast, disclosing the fact that only one set of notes existed for the three reporters, lifting the term media-pack to new heights.

As a newspaper, we welcome critical evaluation of our work, but tire of having to continually engage with the malicious and increasingly irrational questioning of Media Watch producers and editors.

It is even more galling when Media Watch is itself reluctant to properly account for its own errors, such as the case of false accusations that we had prejudiced the trial of a man charged over the death of cricket legend David Hookes when the story had not been published in Victoria, where the trial took place. The best Media Watch could do to set the record straight was a note on the bottom of the program transcript posted on the ABC website.

When it comes to reporting on The Australian, it is overwhelmingly Media Watch that is guilty of indulging in dodgy journalism. To be blunt, they are unable to do the job properly and certainly not good enough to judge us.

A more charitable view may be that the program lacks resources or its producers and editors lack the necessary experience in the real world of journalism. This may explain the reluctance of editors to take the hard decisions to spike stories in progress that don't stand up or are overtaken by better issues.

Either way, the ABC's offering is a poor excuse for a program that is supposed to keep Australian media outlets on their toes. Even though presenter Monica Attard has tried hard to lift standards, she has been let down badly by her colleagues. If standards do not improve, the program should be scrapped.

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