Has ABC TV’s Media Watch finally taken the government funded broadcaster to a zenith in partisan and unrepresentative comment? Judged from the past fortnight’s programs, it certainly has.

In February this year, Monica Attard sent me a friendly email, in response to an invite to a fundraising lunch for refugees. Ms Attard couldn’t make the lunch but wondered how I found her (just begun) presentation of Media Watch.

In reply I offered a few lines of honest, but tactful, advice: I liked her new hairdo on screen, thought the first story from that week was trivial and that too often the ABC’s political correctness meant it saw nothing wrong in blasphemous reports on Christianity or Judaism while at the same time taking on inappropriate reportage of Islam.

Then I opined, seriously, that the format of one person on the screen was tired and too preachy, and often Media Watch’s judgements were simply opinions delivered as fact. Monica replied, “glad you’re still watching … I’ll call re coffee next week sometime.” I have not heard from her since.

Media Watch personnel don’t like criticism, while dishing out their own stinging attacks on others. But the MW response to the overturning on appeal of Jack Thomas’s conviction for his self-confessed links with al Qaeda has revealed an astonishing conceit in the MW team.

The baddies according to MW, in Attard’s school principal style, are The Australian’s Chris Merrit, lawyer and broadcaster Peter Faris QC, the Daily Telegraph’s Piers Akerman, 2GB’s Alan Jones and The Sydney Morning Herald’s Gerard Henderson. The goodies are those who support Thomas. As Attard later admitted to Henderson, MW was in fact “barracking for Thomas’s civil liberties”.

In a private exchange, Chris Mitchell offered MW executive producer Peter McEvoy a very credible defence of The Australian’s reporting of the Thomas saga. McEvoy stated that Mitchell was “simply wrong”. Such self-righteousness is to be found in fundamentalist texts but is certainly not what most taxpayers expect from a public broadcaster in a Western democracy.

The Mitchell-McEvoy emails, initiated by McEvoy, reveal an unashamedly partisan MW in the Jack Thomas case, happily convinced of who was “right” and who “wrong”. Yet educated individuals know that legal opinion is just that, opinion, even if decisions made are final. Many trials are disputed; there is only the court’s decision. The law can be an ass, as Charles Dickens once wrote – just his opinion of course.

Mitchell concludes, with justification, that MW lacked professionalism in the Jack Thomas affair: “The problem with Media Watch‘s approach on the Jihad Jack story is that the principles applied to its criticisms were political rather than journalistic.”

But in a pluralist society, it doesn’t pay to be so certain.

McEvoy’s emails to Mitchell attempt point scoring, accusing The Australian of selectivity in its reportage. Yet, even as he did this, McEvoy and Attard were themselves selective in reporting the Thomas story. MW failed to mention that the Court of Appeal had reserved its decision as to whether there should be a retrial, based on statements from Thomas, freely made to the ABC’s Sally Neighbour and aired (27/2) on Four Corners.

Gerard Henderson has his own record of email and phone exchanges with MW, following its criticism of his SMH columns on the Thomas case and its legal outcomes. In an email to McEvoy, Henderson accused MW of quoting him out of context. Like Mitchell, he argued his case. McEvoy has not replied but Attard, in a phone call to Henderson, opined that he was “wrong”. In other words, there is only one valid view of the matter – the MW view.

But Attard has also twisted and turned. Henderson pointed out that during her phone call Attard denied that MW had criticised his views. Yet, in her lead into the issue the following Monday evening (4/9), Attard said on air, referring to Henderson et al, “those we criticised were furious”.

Henderson points to this admission on air, noting he was right after all. He adds that he is still annoyed by the unprofessional usage of his views. Accused, by MW, of being part of a group of commentators who were involved in “incorrect reportage” of the Victorian Court of Appeal’s decision, Henderson has demanded the evidence, claiming he has not made any factual errors in his comments on the case. The “evidence” is yet to be provided.

Peter Faris QC likewise is incensed, remarking that the MW criticism of him was based on a selective quote from his 3AW program that left him looking at fault under fire from civil libertarian Robert Richter QC. This was never balanced by Faris’s position in response.

As I told Monica Attard last February, media watching on the ABC is well overdue for a new look.

Disclosure: The Gerard Henderson in these comments is both my partner at work and at home – which should be well known to the media.  

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW