ISSUE NO. 14 of Gerard Henderson’s Media Watch Dog

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NANCY’S* PICK OF THE WEEK: GEORGE NEGUS DOES THE FULL FAWN

It’s just so amazing how normally cynical, or at least sceptical, Australian journalists go into fawn mode whenever they get the honour to interview Lord Nicholas Stern, Baron Stern of Brentford. [Is that his real name? – Ed].  Kerry O’Brien threw the switch to fawn when he interviewed the Lord for the 7.30 Report on 27 May 2009.  It was one of those rare occasions where Mr O’Brien seemed more interested in an interviewee’s answers than in his very own questions.

However, when it comes to a wide-bodied fawn on a highly fashionable issue, few can match George Negus who presents Dateline each Sunday on SBS TV.  He interviewed Stern for the Dateline program which aired on 7 June 2009.  Negus’ lead-in to the interview ran his familiar: I-just-can’t-believe-how-stupid-our-political-leaders-are line when he told viewers:

Like Dateline, you have probably looked bemused in recent weeks as Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull have turned the huge global issues of climate change and carbon emission trading into a quite farcical political bunfight.

So Negus turned to the British Lord, who authorised the Stern Report on climate change (full title The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review) for advice.  He told Stern that “at the moment we’re bogged down here with an unedifying political squabble about the whole question of climate change and emissions trading” and asked: “Do you have any advice – gratuitous or otherwise – to give us?” The British Lord – who has just completed a book titled A Blueprint for a Safer Planet and can be booked on the Celebrity Speakers circuit in Britain – sure did.  He gave Australians a lecture about why we should act on climate change.

George Negus then asked a series of leading questions – sure in the knowledge that Lord Stern – who is an economist, not a scientist – would tell us how to live our lives in these climate changing times.  When the Dateline presenter was not asking leading questions he was making statements – certain in the knowledge that Stern would agree with him.  It was a bit like a believer seeking reassurance from a religious leader. Here’s a sample of George Negus’ questions/ statements. The answers are so obvious that they have been deleted for reasons of space.

▪  “Should we be getting on the front foot rather than waiting?”

▪ “…it would seem that since Bali Kevin Rudd and his Government have backtracked – they have been looking for compromises, they have been accused of handouts and concessions for some of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in this country. Playing wedge politics with the Opposition means they’re not leading at all.”

▪ “But can it wait until Copenhagen? Can we wait for the US and China, for instance?”

▪ “Of late it seems that the era of climate change action that followed your report has lost some of its urgency – that a little thing called “the Global Financial Crisis” has pushed it off its perch as global enemy number one. Does it bother you that people are using the Global Financial Crisis as a way of avoiding the issue of climate change?”

▪ “Lord Stern, how important is the upcoming Copenhagen summit? Is that a crunch point for the globe?”

▪  “The sceptics are still out there – the people who believe that science could be wrong about this. Are they still getting in your ear?”

At the end of the interview George Negus gave another lecture to viewers – just in case they had missed Lord Stern’s sermon-on-the-climate-change-mount. Spoke Negus:

Why do I get the idea that Lord Stern just might have been trying to tell us to grow up – politically that is?  And his latest epistle on climate change is entitled A Blueprint for a Safer Planet.

Shucks.  There’s nothing like a (British) Lord to tell us colonials to “grow up”. Well done Mr Negus.

LEIGH SALES ON MARTIN LUTHER’S “DOUBT” – FAIR DINKUM

Last Friday The Australian ran an extract from Leigh Sales’ new book titled On Doubt (MUP, 2009) which was published on May Day.  Well, it’s a sort of book.  It’s one of those shortish essays which appear under the MUP “Little Books On Big Issues” imprint.  Sure, it’s a little book. And, sure, doubt is a big issue.  So, how did the Lateline presenter go in her first effort in writing about a philosophical theme?

The answer is – just terrific.  Some of the deepest parts of Ms Sales’ philosophical treatise are too important to be glanced at here and will be given due coverage in the next issue of The Sydney Institute Quarterly.  Such as the author’s relationship with her Mum and her Dad and her very own life as a pianist. [I can’t wait to hear the analysis of the deeper meaning of the author’s confession that Dad Sales “hasn’t read Malcolm Gladwell” – Ed].

Leigh Sales’ light-over ramble through contemporary history is predictable – in a fashionable leftish kind of way.  It reflects the conversation you would pick up if you happened to eavesdrop over latte at the in-house ABC cafeteria.  She starts off by bagging unsuccessful Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, whom she mocks for her self-assurance.  But no such criticism is directed at the unsuccessful Democrat vice-presidential candidate Al Gore – he of the end-of-the-world-is-nigh fame.  This suggests that Sales does not regard Gore as self-assured.  Fancy that.  And the author goes on to bag George W. Bush. And Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel. And so on.  You get the picture.

However, what interested MWD most turned on the fact that Leigh Sales does not like – or even trust – people who have opinions. Despite the fact that she is employed to interview them three nights a week on Lateline.  Ms Sales advocates doubt and wonders whether “in our society, to publicly admit doubt is becoming impossible”.  How about that? MUP commissioned an author, who believes it is becoming impossible to admit doubt, to write a book titled On Doubt in which she admits to her own doubt. [Some confusion, surely – Ed].

MWD was most impressed with the persons cited in On Doubt who (allegedly) exhibited doubt in their lives.  The list includes Martin Luther.  Martin who?  Yes, Martin Luther (1483-1546), the founder of the German Reformation and the religious polemicist who (allegedly) nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door in Wittenberg.  That Luther.  Could it be that, in philosophical mode, the reporter Sales has confused the concept of doubt with the reality of disagreement?  Certainly Luther disagreed with the teachings of the Catholic Church in Rome. But this did not mean that he was into self-doubt of the kind advocated by the author of On Doubt. In fact Luther – like John Calvin and like Catholic Ignatius of Loyola – was not into doubt. They were into conviction – believing others were wrong while they were right.

And is Sales really sure that doubt, including self-doubt is such a good thing?  Try these two examples.

▪ It’s 1861 and US president Abraham Lincoln is faced with the reality that the Southern States of the United States want to quit the Union – one consequence of which will be the long-term continuation of the slave trade in America. Should Lincoln have done-a-Sales and declared: “Gentlemen. The Union is under attack.  The problem is that I don’t really believe in anything since I am full of self-doubt.  So let the South have its way and its slaves.”

▪ It’s much the same with British prime minister Winston Churchill circa 1940. Should he have done-a-Sales and declared: “Chaps. That German cad Hitler wants to conquer all of Europe and establish his Nazi totalitarian regime over all of us. This is somewhat trying. Perhaps he should be stopped.  Perhaps not.  I just can’t come to an opinion on this tricky issue since I am replete with self-doubt.  And if I don’t make up my mind, I’m sure to get the approval of the Lateline presenter. Oh, it’s all too difficult. Let that bounder Mr Hitler have his way.”

In the final chapter of her On Doubt essay, Ms Sales acknowledges that there are two disadvantages to having a doubtful mind.  The first is anxiety and the second the lack of all consuming passion.  Conquest by Hitler’s Nazi thugs does not rate a mention.

COMMERCIAL TV – AN ACADEMIC INSIGHT

What would we all do without academics, with PhDs on how audiences relate to current affairs programs, who teach the subject known as “Media”?  Step forward Dr Jason Sternberg, a lecturer in media studies at the Queensland University of Technology.

You might have thought it understandable why A Current Affair presenter Tracy Grimshaw got somewhat miffed when the visiting British chef-clown Gordon Ramsay called her a fat lesbian pig or some such. But, according to Dr. Dr. Sternberg, it seems the whole verbal punch-up was a publicity stunt from the beginning to the end.  The media lecturer told the media:

A cynic would suggest it was contrived, that there are some clever PR people out there. And you’re dealing with A Current Affair, so it’s safe to be cynical.  They are masters of the underhanded and dirty tactics.  I would not be surprised.  But there’s no evidence to suggest that.

In other words, academic Sternberg admits that he does not know what he is talking about because he has no evidence to support his theory.  But he is going to say it anyway.  However, in the process, the learned lecturer provided some real insights into the media.  For example Dr. Dr. Sternberg told The Age: “Commercial TV is commercial TV”.  Wow. Make this lecturer a professor. Now.

MR LATHAM AND THE MEATHEAD PHENOMENON

What a double.  Australia’s two greatest political failures in recent memory – John Hewson and Mark Latham – have ended up as Australian Financial Review columnists where they dispense advice at will, particularly to the parties which they once led.  Hewson should have led the Liberal Party to a victory at the 1993 election but he failed.  Mark Latham should have been able to do well for Labor in the 2004 election but the ALP went backwards.  Both were forced out from leadership positions and both became bitter towards their former colleagues.

John Hewson’s post-politics failures in business  have been documented in MWD.  Mark Latham has not had any post-politics failures because he has chosen to live in semi-retirement on the most generous taxpayer subsidised parliamentary superannuation scheme which he opposed when he was Labor leader.

Yesterday Mr Latham was at it again in the AFR banging on about his former Labor employer Gough Whitlam and former Labor mate Joel Fitzgibbon.  However, what was of particular interest in Latham’s most recent AFR rant turned on his intellectual snobbery towards those who, unlike him, did not benefit from a taxpayer-funded tertiary education.  Latham described members of the Australian Defence Force as being of “limited intelligence” and “meatheads”.

The problem with Latham turns on a lack of self-awareness.  This was evident in The Latham Diaries (MUP, 2005) where he wrote on 24 November 2004: “Why is it that every time I come to Adelaide there is a problem?”.  How long has Mr Latham got?

IN DEFENCE OF AMANDA DUTHIE

Talk about a patsy.  Last Wednesday evening ABC managing director Mark Scott announced that Amanda Duthie had been removed as Head of ABC TV Comedy.  However, she remains as Head of ABC TV Arts and Entertainment.  So this is a demotion; not a dismissal.  It seems that Ms Duthie is destined to be the only ABC manager or employee or contractor to be disciplined for The Chaser’s War on Everything‘s “Make A Realistic Wish Foundation” stunt which aired on Wednesday 3 June.  ABC managing director Mark Scott, ABC Director of Television Kim Dalton and ABC TV Executive Head of Content Creation Courtney Gibson have been untouched by the decision of “The Boys” – as they are commonly referred to within the ABC – to attempt to make fun of terminally ill children. Likewise the 35-or-so year old “Boys” who are in the process of making a small fortune out of the public broadcaster by virtue of The Chaser’s co-production deal with the ABC.

Over the past couple of weeks the ABC has issued a number of media releases which have escalated in the intensity with which they criticised one of the ABC’S top-rating programs.

▪ On 4 June Kim Dalton released a joint statement with Julian Morrow (executive director of The Chaser) in which they described the “Make A Realistic Wish Foundation” stunt as “a satirical sketch and black comedy”. Dalton and Morrow merely acknowledged “the distress this segment has caused” and apologised “to anyone we have upset”. That was all.

▪  On 5 June, however, Messrs Scott and Dalton announced that the ABC had withdrawn The Chaser’s War on Everything from its television schedule for two weeks. This time there was no reference to the “Make A Realistic Wish Foundation” segment as a “satirical sketch” or even “black comedy”. Instead Mr Scott unreservedly apologised for the distress caused, admitted that “the sketch had gone too far” and acknowledged that it should never have gone to air.

▪  Then, on 10 June, Scott announced that he and Dalton had removed Duthie as Head of Comedy for what was described as an “error of judgement”. The error was that Duthie should have referred this “satirical material” which had the potential to “cause harm” to the next level of management – namely, to Courtney Gibson.  Once again, Mark Scott apologised and declared that the ABC recognised that the segment “caused unnecessary and unreasonable hurt and offence”. There was no reference to satire or black comedy.

But hurt and offence is what The Chaser does – with, until now, the full support of ABC management including Mark Scott, Kim Dalton, Courtney Gibson and Rob Simpson (the ABC’s Director of Legal). In 2007 both Scott and Dalton were warned personally that The Chaser was effectively out of control and should be reined in.  However, Scott and Dalton and others continued to tolerate The Chaser’s wilful trespass on private property and deliberate stalking in public places, along with the bullying tactics of “The Boys” aimed at mockery and humiliating the less educated and the afflicted and so making money out of other people’s misery.

Mark Scott and Kim Dalton have apologised for The Boys’ sketch on dying children which aired on 3 June. But they have not condemned the “joke” which aired on the same program which depicted a homosexual Jewish muscular dystrophy sufferer in a wheelchair caught up in the Warsaw Ghetto.  Fine satire, eh?  And Messers Scott and Dalton appear to have found acceptable the segment aired on 27 May which attempted to make fun of breast cancer sufferers including a black woman breast cancer victim who is about to be lynched by the Ku Klux Klan. How much blacker can black comedy get? Moreover, in 2007 ABC management said nothing when one of “The Boys” attempted to make a disabled man in a wheelchair the butt of The Chaser’s humour.

In the current issue of the ABC’s Annual Report Rod Simpson boasts that, during 2007-2008, one of ABC Legal Services’ real achievements involved “the defence of The Chaser Team arising out of the APEC motorcade incident”.  This stunt, which was approved in advance by ABC Legal Services, could have led to a disaster if the US security detachment protecting the US president had opened fire on “The Boys” who deliberately breached security during the November 2007 APEC meeting in Sydney.  Recently ABC Legal Services approved The Chaser’s stunt to fly a blimp in Vatican City’s restricted air space.  It also approved John Safran’s stunt to be a crucifixion victim in the Philippines.

Indeed ABC Legal Services approves all of The Chaser’s stunts in advance.  Mr Simpson and his team approved the decision of The Chaser’s War on Everything to film the “Make A Realistic Wish Foundation” segment at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney. Mr Simpson and the ABC have refused to respond to a written question as to whether ABC Legal Services has approved the tactic whereby The Chaser misrepresents themselves merely as coming from “ABC TV” as a means of obtaining access to private functions.  This in spite of the fact that the ABC has signed on to the Right-to-Know Coalition.

It’s pretty obvious why Amanda Duthie did not bother to refer the “Make A Realistic Wish Foundation” segment to Courtney Gibson and Kim Dalton and Mark Scott.  She was entitled to expect that the skit would be approved by them – since skits by The Boys mocking the uneducated and the afflicted, whether or not they involved trespass, are continually approved by ABC management at the highest levels.

All that happened this time is that this was a skit too far.  And all the ABC managers who had defended or rationalised all The Chaser’s past indiscretions decided to blame – and punish – Amanda Duthie. Talk about a patsy.

NANCY‘S “SEND THE BOYS TO MECCA” APPEAL

Meanwhile Nancy’s appeal for finance to send The Chaser “Boys” to Mecca so that they can try to fly a blimp in restricted Saudi Arabian airspace near the Masjid al-Haram is proceeding apace.  Nancy reckons that the cost of airfares can be reached since only one-way tickets will be needed.  Nancy hopes that this particular Chaser stunt will get the nod from Mr Simpson and the team at ABC Legal Services.

Until next time.

*Nancy is Gerard Henderson’s media savvy dog

Peter Fray

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