Crikey, we made the front page of the Drudgereport.com on Sunday after the world’s most famous online journalist linked to a feature by Pilita Clarke’s in the Spectrum section of the SMH on Saturday.

Hack watch in the hall of mirrors

It’s a brave or thick-skinned critic who takes on the fourth estate in Australia, writes Pilita Clark, but our media would be healthier for receiving some of the scrutiny they train on others

Not that long ago, a series of emails began to make their way through Australia’s larger newsrooms. They came from Stephen Mayne, the thirtysomething publisher of an online magazine called Crikey. Mayne, like his magazine, is eccentric and hard to label.

It is never quite clear whether he wants to be the new Matt Drudge, Ralph Nader or Donald Trump. And he was on a typically Maynic mission: prodding his many media acquaintances to help him compile what he called a register of journalist couples.

He already had more than 50 names, which he listed in the email, but he was hoping to double the number, all the better to “examine the romantic incestuousness of our media”.

“What do they talk about in bed each night?” he wrote. “When Kate Legge was a feature writer on The Australian, did she get the inside drum on what was happening at Fairfax’s Fin Review from [her husband] then editor-in-chief Greg Hywood?

“And how on earth did Peter Wilson and Pilita Clark work being the competing News Ltd and Fairfax Washington correspondents and a de facto couple at the same time?”

I read through his list, especially the entry about me and my partner (now a deputy editor on The Australian), with a peculiar sense of irritation and cheer. On the one hand, I was annoyed (OK: aghast) to be cast as a member of an incestuous cabal of media twosomes, all busily whispering trade secrets over the pillow each night. But it was also somehow pleasing to see such an unusual project.

After all, many journalists have written about competing couples working outside the media. And we rarely shy from pouncing on conflicts of interest, real or apparent, when they concern couples such as the former Liberal Opposition Leader John Hewson and his merchant banker wife, Carolyn Hewson.

Yet how rarely we shine that light upon ourselves.

We may not be elected politicians or company directors, but it seems only fair that journalists should live by the same standards of transparency and accountability we demand from such people. Especially at a time when, we are constantly being told, the mass media are more influential and ubiquitous than ever.

All of which is to say that the larger point about Stephen Mayne and his list of couples is that its very existence highlights the unsatisfactory way in which the mainstream news media cover themselves in this country.

It’s not that reporting on the media doesn’t exist at all. It does and some of it is very good. It is more that what does exist often seems awfully meagre and partial compared with the coverage of, say, technology, or education, the law or health, or any of the other areas journalists have traditionally deemed worthy of attention.

There is clearly no shortage of stories on the media’s corporate plays, entertainment products and celebrities, thanks to the bevy of business and entertainment reporters assigned to these areas. But the inner workings of news media organisations themselves receive much more ad hoc and erratic scrutiny.

On television, only one network, the ABC, has managed to produce a decent weekly media program for any length of time, the 11-year-old Media Watch. Yet last month, it was summarily axed with no prospect of it returning in anything like its original form. The ABC is also the only broadcaster to offer a regular radio program on the media: Radio National’s weekly Media Report.

Some newspapers and magazines now have media writers, but they are often encouraged to dwell too much on just one media organisation: the ABC.

Only one paper, Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian, publishes a regular section on the media its weekly Media liftout, now entering its third year. Media deserves the loyal following it has gathered in its short life. It has produced some memorable coverage of the issues, people and trends in the Australian media. And most of its staff work hard to be as balanced and objective as possible.

But it does suffer from the bipolar nature of our newspaper industry, dominated as it is by just two groups: Murdoch’s News Ltd and John Fairfax, whose papers include The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review. Media clearly finds it easier at times to scrutinise the foibles and flaws of Fairfax executives and their papers than those of their counterparts at News Ltd.

It is not hard to imagine the reverse occurring if a Fairfax newspaper published its own media liftout. All of which underlines the loss of a program such as the ABC’s Media Watch, produced by a public broadcaster free of the commercial pressures that are a fact of life in companies such as Fairfax and News Ltd.

For all that, at least Media exists. And it is probably no accident that the man who claims credit for its creation is an American, News Ltd’s chairman, Lachlan Murdoch. In the United States, where Murdoch spent his formative years, journalists are under constant scrutiny from their own, be it in broadsheets such as The Washington Post, with its prolific media writer, Howard Kurtz, or tabloids such as New York’s Daily News and New York Post.

Magazines ranging from the earnest Columbia Journalism Review to the glossy Brill’s Content regularly analyse the media, as do online publications such as the encyclopedic Inside.com, started by Spy magazine co-founder Kurt Andersen. Books abound on almost any news media topic one can think of, and several radio and television programs cover the industry, though none with quite the same spiky irreverence as Media Watch. And the relative breadth and depth of media outlets in the US tend to temper the problems caused by, say, the Fairfax-News Ltd newspaper duopoly.

It’s all a long way removed from the Australian situation, and perhaps one reason why expectations are high when an entire book on the workings of the news media is published in Australia.

A number of authors have tackled the inner workings of the Australian media over the past couple of decades. The historian and lapsed journalist Clem Lloyd wrote an important history of the Canberra press gallery in Parliament and the Press (Melbourne University Press). The academic Rod Tiffen examined the little-understood institutional pressures that shape reporters’ work in News & Power (Allen & Unwin); Phillip Adams and Lee Burton analysed talkback radio presenters in Emperors of the Air (Allen & Unwin). The author Margaret Simons revisited the Canberra press gallery in Fit to Print (UNSW Press). [And since we are on the topic of disclosure and transparency, Simons, like Stephen Mayne, was a colleague of mine at The Eye magazine.]

As some of these authors have found, books that attempt to criticise the media can come with their own particular challenges. The Allen & Unwin publisher John Iremonger, whose firm has published several books on the media, says journalists commonly have one of two responses to such works: silence or hostility. The most frequent and powerful reaction, he says, is to ignore any critical analysis completely: “They know full well that publicity is the oxygen for divergent views and they’re in a privileged position with their hands on the gas bottle’s valve.”

The other reaction is harsh criticism. “It’s almost as if the author and publisher have broken a code of silence,” Iremonger says. “While they [journalists] are brash in dealing with other issues, they are rather defensive when it comes to writing about themselves in anything other than a celebratory or mechanical way.”

And authors who critique the media, he says, often find themselves “dismissed as academics who wouldn’t know what they’re talking about or, if it’s a minor journalist, are said to be motivated by being on the outside when they would rather be on the inside”.

Simons, a former investigative reporter on The Age, is neither an academic nor a minor journalist. But reaction to her book on the press gallery backs up Iremonger’s point. The book was based on an essay published in Eureka Street in 1998. In the book, she details the hostility she encountered from press gallery journalists she had mentioned in the original essay, some of whom claimed she had committed ethical breaches by reporting eavesdropped remarks of their conversations.

Simons thought she had done no more than what journalists do as a matter of course in profiles and feature articles on people of interest: follow around their subject and record various remarks, off-the-cuff and otherwise, to add colour and life to their articles. Her critics disagreed.

And now comes another book on the media that is also raising tempers in the newsroom. In Cash for Comment: The Seduction of Journo Culture, the Sydney author and journalist Rob Johnson has chosen to look at one of the most important media stories in recent times, the controversy sparked by Media Watch’s 1999 expose{AAC} of the hidden sponsorship deals of 2UE’s John Laws.

The cash-for-comment scandal expanded to embroil 2UE’s Alan Jones and other prominent radio presenters in other States. It also raised significant questions about the broader media industry and those who regulate it.

For example, how could media personalities as dominant as Laws and Jones get so much money for so many years from so many big companies without ever disclosing the payments? How could the industry regulator, the Australian Broadcasting Authority, and the rest of the news media take so long to investigate the payments, even though their existence was widely suspected? What was going on in other parts of the media?

More profoundly, why didn’t the public seem to care, not even after the ABA investigation into the scandal found 2UE guilty of 90 breaches of codes requiring advertising to be distinguishable from news and for news coverage itself to be fair?

Indeed, a year after the ABC’s report on its investigation was released, Jones and Laws remain enormously popular, and 2UE is still very successful. Predictions that Laws’s sponsors would dump him proved wrong: barely five months after the ABA handed down its report, Toyota extended its deal with Laws for another five years.

There have been some changes: if you go to 2UE’s Web site at www.2UE.com.au, you can click on the presenters’ interests section to see which companies are paying which presenters for what. Jones lists seven sponsors, including a deal worth up to $500,000 with Qantas, one of the sponsors investigated by the ABA. Qantas is also one of the eight sponsors John Laws lists on the Web site.

And when a presenter mentions a sponsor on air, listeners have been alerted to the fact that the sponsorship exists, as required by the ABA, though Laws has chosen to do this by ringing cowbells and poking fun at the requirement.

Of all these issues, Rob Johnson has chosen the one most likely to annoy media workers: the idea that the so-called quality journalists who crusaded against Laws and Jones overlooked the extent of their own ethical problems and lapses. To do this, he traces the story of the ABA inquiry through a series of interviews with the reporters who covered it.

This makes for some unusually revealing accounts of how journalists go about their work. We read about how Amanda Meade, The Australian’s media writer, worried about whether she was being lured into “some kind of News Ltd plot” when she was suddenly summoned to do an interview with John Laws in his office at Foxtel, where Laws had an interview program. [Foxtel is part-owned by Meade’s News Ltd employers.] We see The Sydney Morning Herald’s Bernard Lagan reveal that some Herald staffers were “miffed” that the Media Watch host, Richard Ackland, had not tipped off the paper about the program’s Laws story, given that Ackland was a Herald columnist.

And then there is the account of how “Pete Wilson, The Australian’s bullet-shaped news editor”, ricocheted around the “anonymous brown cubicles” of the newsroom, demanding to know why the paper had underplayed a story on the Laws controversy which the Herald had splashed on its front page. [More disclosure: yes, that’s the same Peter Wilson mentioned above].

Wilson, says Johnson, was one of the office “white shirts” a newspaper manager following an ancient order rumoured to have been issued by Rupert Murdoch that senior staff should wear white shirts. The Australian’s “adminisphere”, says Johnson, is now full of them, “preferably with singlets showing through”.

The larger issue of the compromised nature of the quality press is a worthy area to examine and, with some more work, Johnson probably could have unearthed many fine examples to bolster his case. Unfortunately, the evidence he does cite is heavily reliant on articles in the very quality press he seeks to expose, such as the report by Lagan about the gifts and free travel enjoyed by Herald journalists during the Laws controversy.

And then there is the problem with accuracy. At one point in his book, Johnson discusses the Walkley award won by the Media Watch team for their expose of the scandal. A Walkley award, he says, “comes with a couple of thousand dollars cash” and the particular award won by Media Watch was sponsored by RAMS Home Loans, a rival of the banks in the home mortgage market.

As the ABA investigation revealed, RAMS had also sponsored John Laws, who had been a fervent critic of the banks. But Laws later softened his criticism after entering a sponsorship deal with the Australian Bankers’ Association for which he was paid $500,000.

Johnson says there is no suggestion that RAMS’s sponsorship of the Walkley award influenced either the judges’ decision or the journalists who entered the competition. But he does say it raises questions of perceptions, suggesting that it could be perceived that RAMS had sponsored Laws to get him to attack the banks and then, when Laws softened his criticism of the banks, RAMS had sponsored the Walkleys to encourage a program like Media Watch to expose the Laws deal with the banks.

This is not a persuasive argument. Few journalists have the faintest clue about which companies sponsor which Walkley award category. But Johnson’s case is further undermined by the fact that the Walkley award won by the Media Watch team came with no money at all. A Walkley used to come with a cash prize, but it has not for some years and did not in the year in which Media Watch won.

Amanda Meade quickly lit into Johnson for this error earlier this month in a column that began with the memorable words: “Who the hell is Rob Johnson?”

The Media Watch team, she reported, had “fired off a letter expressing their outrage at the mistakes” to Johnson’s publishers at Pluto Press, who could find themselves facing “a legal wrangle or two”.

But as Meade also noted, this was not the book’s only error. The anonymous brown cubicles in her newsroom, for example, were actually blue. Johnson describes Catherine McWilliam, a fictional character devised to make The Australian’s staff focus on their ideal reader, as a mother of one living in Sydney’s high-mortgage belt. In fact, she was a mother of three from Melbourne.

And thanks to that romantic incestuousness in the media which Stephen Mayne is about to expose, I can reveal here that “Pete” Wilson is always Peter; he doesn’t own a singlet and he never wears white shirts to the office.

These errors are only minor, hardly worse than the sorts of mistakes that creep into inadequately edited books, not to mention journalists’ stories, all the time. But they do not inspire confidence in the overall level of accuracy in the rest of the book, just as errors in this paper or any other add to the view that the media are deeply biased and inaccurate.

Johnson’s book does have some pacey writing and, overall, it is a genuine attempt to grapple with some important issues. But it has been poorly proof-read; it has too many irritating generalisations; some of its opinions border on the undergraduate and should have disappeared in the editing process; its jacket could be better designed and its cover blurb is overly dramatic.

That makes it no worse than countless other books published every month. But it does underline one final, critical point about media criticism: like a meal of Japanese fugu fish, it has to be approached with extreme caution. Mistakes can be deadly, or at least painfully damaging. And when they do occur, as they inevitably do, they need to be swiftly corrected. Those rules apply to any form of journalism, but unlike people in most other fields, the subjects of media criticism can retaliate with disproportionate force.

Is that fair? Not really.

Should journalists be so precious about offences they themselves commit? Probably not.

But much in life is unfair and hypocrisy abounds. If media criticism is to be effective, it must strive to meet those standards because in the end, we need more people willing to tackle the burgeoning media industry, especially at a time when such criticism remains all too slight and tenuous.

Cash for Comment: The Seduction of Journo Culture, by Rob Johnson (Pluto Press) $32.95. Pilita Clark is a Herald journalist and former managing editor of The Eye magazine.

Peter Fray

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