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TV & Radio

Nov 16, 2011

The quality journalism project: behind the mike, with Mike Carlton

Mike Carlton might be considered an ideological warrior by some, but he's had an illustrious career as a broadcaster on both radio and television, a foreign correspondent and a newspaper columnist. He's the latest respondent in Crikey's quality journalism project.

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Mike Carlton might be considered an ideological warrior by some, but he’s had an illustrious career as a broadcaster on both radio and television, a foreign correspondent and a newspaper columnist.

Carlton served as an ABC war correspondent during the Vietnam War. He’s also had his own personal wars of words over the years with conservative politicians, shock jocks and even his own employer (The Sydney Morning Herald gave him the sack when he refused to write a column during a journalist strike). In 2009 he retired from 2UE, where he’d been in control of the breakfast slot for seven years. Earlier this year Carlton’s first book Cruiser — examining the HMAS Perth during World War II, was published. He continues to pen a weekly column for The SMH.

Carlton is the latest luminary in Crikey‘s quality journalism project, where we quiz Australia’s top journalists on how they define good journalism and where they find it. Past respondents include Laura Tingle, Leigh Sales, Chris Mitchell, Alan Kohler, Wendy Bacon, Mark Colvin, George Negus, George Megalogenis, Marni Cordell, Tom Switzer, Ashleigh Gillon, Ita Buttrose, Michael Gawenda, Fran Kelly, Tim Burrowes and Bill Birnbauer.

But now it’s over to Mike Carlton …

What is your definition of quality journalism?

After nearly 50 years in the trade, I’ve yet to find a wholly satisfactory definition of news. The best I can come up with is that it’s interesting facts that officialdom wants to conceal for no good reason. The best journalism discovers those facts and reports them accurately, in an attractive way, so that the reader/viewer/listener is better informed.

But that’s only half the story. It’s wrong to think that political journalism must always be the best of the best; a lot of it is actually tendentious rubbish. Good journalism can also be an elegant magazine feature, a ripping piece of sports coverage, a biting opinion column, a probing television investigation, a stunning photograph, an Alan Moir cartoon or even a witty restaurant review.

I’m a member of the Walkley Advisory Board, which means I get to see the best journalism turned up each year. There is a lot of high-quality stuff, some of it genuinely inspiring, that stands head and shoulders above the daily dross. What does concern me is that the amount of dross is increasing as some news outlets race to the bottom in furious competition with so-called social media. Why on earth is Kim Kardashian news? Beats me.

No one medium has a stranglehold on good journalism. Newspapers, television and radio all play a part.

Mike Carlton’s personal top 10 quality journalism sources in Australia.

  1. The Sydney Morning Herald: Yes, I’m on the payroll, but I do genuinely believe it’s the best newspaper in the country. David Marr, Kate McClymont and Lenore Taylor are peerless reporters. Phil Coorey’s Canberra coverage is a must read. And the economics/finance/business quartet of Ross Gittins, Ian Verrender, Stuart Washington and Jessica Irvine is unbeatable. Crucially, the Herald still maintains a rigid distinction between news and opinion, a practice largely abandoned elsewhere. But if all else failed, I would still buy the paper for Moir’s cartoons.
  2. ABC News Online: It does a very good job on the smell of an oil rag. Far better, say, than the equivalent BBC effort. I wish I could say the same about ABC News 24, but it’s abysmal, painful to watch. The sooner somebody tows it out to sea and sinks it by gunfire the better, so the money can be spent elsewhere.
  3. Four Corners: After 50 years, it’s still the benchmark for quality television journalism (disclosure: my wife is a Four Corners‘ producer.) Sarah Ferguson has yet to turn in a dud story. If there’s one criticism, it’s that the show has fallen down on economic and finance coverage in recent years.
  4. Crikey: Yes, I know, flattery, etc. But I read it every day The extraordinarily prolific Bernard Keane writes some of the best stuff out of Canberra. And Margaret Simons is also a good read on the media. If Crikey has one fault it’s the slight Melbourne bias in its coverage — I don’t care if I never see another story about fear and loathing in the Victoria Police. You do need to gee-up your NSW reporting.
  5. Media Watch: Must watch.
  6. Laura Tingle: Her reporting and opinion pieces for The Australian Financial Review are courageous. She nails it every time.
  7. Ben Knight: The recently-departed ABC Middle East correspondent is an absolute class act, with a superb on-camera style. Sally Sara ain’t bad, either. And a special mention for young Hamish Macdonald at Network Ten, a name to watch.
  8. The Hamster Wheel: The latest outing from those fab funsters, da Chaser boys, struggled to find its feet in the first couple of eps. But it’s now hit its stride as a hilarious commentary on the lunacy around us.  An essential antidote.
  9. Q&A: Has its critics, but I think it’s terrific television.  As long as that boring old fart Gerard Henderson’s not on the panel.
  10. George Megalogenis and Peter van Onselen: Two of the few sane voices left at The Australian. This might ruin their careers …

What media do you consume on a daily basis?

Now that I am semi-retired, ahem, I find I am consuming a hell of a lot less media than I used to. There is life after breakfast radio. In fact, I can hardly bear to listen to radio at all these days. But I do catch slabs of Fran Kelly’s Radio National Breakfast, the 7.45am news and AM. Plus Richard Glover on ABC 702 Sydney if I’m in the car at drive-time.I’ll skim The SMH and The Age online before thoroughly reading the newsprint Herald chucked onto my driveway. I used to cruise The Australian online, but have given up since it went behind a paywall. Not that I have anything against paywalls per se, far from it. They gotta happen. But I have a visceral objection to paying for the privilege of sorting out what’s news at The Oz and what’s merely Chris Mitchell’s latest mad obsession.

Through the day, I regularly clock in to the ABC News website. And, as I said above, Crikey is a must. I’ll also check The New York Times, The Washington Post, the BBC and The Guardian online. Paul Krugman is essential reading in the NYT. And sometimes the Israeli daily, Haaretz.

Come the evening, I’m profoundly grateful for Foxtel IQ, which allows me to record a cross-section of TV news and current affairs. I’ll fast forward through the commercial TV bulletins to see what they are up to (pausing to watch Laurie Oakes) and sometimes SBS. I’ll generally see all the ABC 7pm TV bulletin, gnashing my teeth as the standard of writing slips ever lower. And I’ll have a go at 7.30, although I generally only make it through to about 7.45. The format is looking very tired.

Other than that, not much, although I look forward to The Monthly and Quarterly Essay. And I’m especially fond of Vanity Fair, which has some of America’s best writing. I also enjoy the bogan idiocy of The Sunday Telegraph’s “social” pages.

What particular stories — either Australian or international — do you think are classic examples of quality journalism?

  • Gerard Ryle’s SMH and Age stories on the great Firepower fraud. A masterpiece of journalistic digging and persistence.
  • Lenore Taylor’s 2010 SMH scoop on the Rudd government’s decision to sink its emissions trading scheme. It was pivotal.
  • The Deal” — Four Corners’ May 2010 fly-on-the-wall report on the independents Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor and Bob Katter as they agonised over where to go in the hung parliament. Sarah Ferguson’s story had unprecedented access to the making of political history. It showed up much of the daily reporting for the garbage it was. (Declaration: my wife, Morag Ramsay, produced it.)
  • Bondy’s Bounty” — Paul Barry’s 1989 Four Corners report which ripped Alan Bond to shreds. The sequence of Bond recovering his memory enough to stamp on Barry’s business card was and remains a classic.
  • Hedley Thomas in The Australian on the Mohammed Haneef affair was campaigning journalism of the very best sort. The now-retired Tony Koch was always first class on indigenous affairs, too.
  • Nick Davies in The Guardian on the News International phone-hacking scandal. Derided, ignored, doubted even by his own editors, he never gave up. He rocked an empire.

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