Telstra spindoctor Andrew Maiden delivered this extraordinary speech at the MEAA’s public affairs convention in Sydney on Friday. Read it for yourself, but you’ll discover big attacks on Today Tonight, A Current Affair, weak media regulators and the conflicted commercial agendas of News Ltd and Fairfax. The spray was meant to be delivered by Telstra’s lead attack dog Rod Bruem and Maiden seems to have delivered on Rod’s thoughts. Try these lines for size:
Today’s Australian television news is, mostly, married to what the networks still insist is “current affairs”. These are programs that have all the credibility of freak shows, and none of the fun. They serve a diet that’s low in news protein and high in voyeuristic calories. The relationship between prime-time news and current affairs is a sham marriage between the anodyne and the incredible.
The problem might not be so bad but for the lack of remedies available. I have found the Australian Communications & Media Authority to be notoriously slow, unwieldy and ineffective. And the Press Council sometimes seems so weak that it makes ACMA seem like the star chambers of Tudor England.
Telstra recently complained to ACMA about a segment on Today Tonight which made numerous errors of fact. I say we complained “recently” because it was only a year ago. Since then we’ve received a very courteous acknowledgement, and upon subsequent prodding they assured us it was receiving “active” consideration. (Makes you wonder what “inactive” consideration might look like.)
In other words, what I’m saying is that the greater threat to the evening news is not the advent of new media; it is credibility. I believe any slump in audience will have much more to do with credibility than with the challenge of new media.
But it was Maiden’s comments in the subsequent Q&A session that were most revealing. I challenged the notion that Fairfax’s negative Telstra coverage was driven by its commercial agenda and cited The AFR Magazine’s Pam Williams cover story on Sol Trujillo in February as an example of Telstra simply copping it in the neck because they refused to co-operate with one of Australia’s finest investigative reporters.
Remarkably, Maiden agreed that Telstra “made a strategic error by not engaging with Pam” and consequently “suffered a lot of damage” . While admitting the telco “handled it badly” he still took a shot by claiming Pam’s piece contained 20-30 errors and later laughed at the notion that The AFR is like The Wall Street Journal.
Maiden was even prepared to criticise the company’s own nowwearetalking.com.au website which he said was “too complex, had too much information and moves too fast”. However, he strongly defended the more combative strategy saying the website allowed Telstra to “correct the record and discipline critics”.
Maiden is a former Howard Government spinner who has little respect for hacks, claiming that “journalists have a very inflated opinion of their influence”. All up it was a refreshingly honest spray, and there should be more freestyle debate like the one we saw on Friday.