ABC Managing Director Mark Scott singled out Media Watch in his speech last night as a program that is likely to have to change its format to meet the new editorial guidelines. It should be noted that ABC board member Janet Albrechtsen was one of the main people to have suffered from Media Watch’s scrutiny in the past.

But Albrechtsen’s beef with Media Watch began earlier. In early 2002, she was interviewed — and rejected — for a presenter position on Media Watch. In a column in The Australian, closely following Media Watch targeting her, she wrote:

In January I was interviewed as a potential candidate for what was then the proposed two-person Media Watch panel. I was intrigued. Was the ABC casting its net to include those on the other side of the political divide? No. Simon West, the ABC television executive who interviewed me, was astounded to hear I was a self-proclaimed conservative. Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, West probed a little further. Surely I was just economically conservative. Surely I was not socially conservative. Across-the-board conservative, I said. The interview was not going well.

And it got worse. I suggested the new Media Watch should contribute to journalistic standards by uncovering how journalists present their opinions as news. I naively mentioned David Marr as a high-profile culprit. Interview over. Sure enough, Marr was appointed.

And Marr, of course, was the presenter who went on to preside over the attack on Albrechtsen.

Albrechtsen concluded: “The evidence is in. And the ABC board has failed in its duty under section 8(1)(c) of the ABC Act to ‘ensure that the gathering and presentation … of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism’. Is it time for an inquiry into that board failure? It’s certainly time to get serious about free speech. This public asset has been hijacked.”

Four years later, Albrechtsen is on the Board which is driving the process under which Media Watch is to be changed. It’s understood, reports The Oz, that Albrechtsen “initiated the change in policy” which led to the new guidelines.

Scott told the Sydney Institute last night “I have encouraged the Director of Television to work with the Media Watch team to review their format and content next year to ensure there is more opportunity for debate and discussion around contentious and important issues. It is a popular program, has a loyal following and I hope, a long future at the ABC.”

Impartiality implies respect for evidence, so what are we to make of the continued stoush between Albrechtsen and Media Watch? I think the evidence is clear despite all that Albrechtsen has had to say in her own defence, and the force of her return fire.

Media Watch caught Albrechtsen out in, at the very best, a series of errors of judgment. Worse conclusions could be drawn. Read the debate for yourself here.

Will the Media Watch of the future be able to look at the evidence in cases such as Albrechtsen’s, draw conclusions, state them and stand by them, while of course offering right of reply? Or will it just conduct a debate?

Media Watch already offers much more right of reply than it did in the days of Stuart Littlemore. Various formats have been considered since then, and of course there is always room for improvement. But when Media Watch has someone cold then it must be allowed to say so, and stand by its conclusions unless they are proven to be wrong.

I think Media Watch has been a bit off form this year, but that isn’t because it needs bias busting. It’s because it needs to do more original research, and tell us things we don’t already know. I hope “diversity” is not a code word for “bland”, and “debate and discussion” code for “nothing in particular to say, no threat to anyone”.

Peter Fray

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