Cease! Desist! Enough! The continuing tit-for-tat between Media Watch and The Australian is demeaning to both. Journalists flailing each other with feathers is always poor entertainment. Readers and viewers — even those who can follow the thread of their latest trivial dispute — must already be bored to sobs.

The bad blood between The Oz and Media Watch goes back a very long way. In the program’s early years presenter Stuart Littlemore treated all outlets with equal disdain (although he reserved a special strain of mockery for the Illawarra Mercury as a running gag). The Australian copped its brickbats in roughly equal share with other newspapers and didn’t complain.

But when Richard Ackland took over the hosting role from Littlemore he began to lampoon Rupert Murdoch as “The Sun King”, and tended to place all News Limited papers on the dark side of the ethical spectrum. Next, David Marr slipped into the presenter’s chair and was even more caustic about News and its papers.

The reason why this rankled so much at Holt Street was that both Ackland and Marr were — and still are — long-standing Fairfax loyalists. The ABC has a persistent weakness for hiring Fairfax “names” for on-air roles, and failed to foresee the response.

As ever with the News Limited faithful, the world divides along us-and-them lines. Countless editorials and opinion pieces in The Australian had already lumped “Fairfax and the ABC” together as the ideological enemy. Now, this unholy partnership was presuming to pass judgment on their work as journalists — on national TV.

Another likely contributing factor to these tensions was the appointment of Chris Mitchell as editor-in-chief at The Australian. Years earlier, when Mitchell had been running The Courier-Mail, Littlemore pinged the paper for blatant plagiarism that Mitchell refused to acknowledge. Media Watch turned the thumb-screws on air, probably cementing another enemy.

Then there was a long and ugly dispute between Media Watch and The Oz involving Janet Albrechtsen — who happened to be an ABC board member at the time — and the show’s executive producer, Peter McEvoy. (McEvoy moved on to become EP of Q&A, which might help explain why the program got both barrels from The Oz yesterday).

Currently, the bone of contention between these two media mastodons is a hair-splitting argument over whether violent emailed threats against ANU climate scientists were actual death threats — as if that distinction really matters. The university took the threats seriously enough to move the scientists to a more secure location.

Media Watch criticised The Australian over its claims to have “debunked” the original story; The Oz reckons it can debunk the ABC’s debunking of its previous debunking report. The whole brouhaha now resembles two drunks in a bar taking furious air swings at each over an argument the subject of which neither can remember.

But there’s another, more interesting, theme behind this long history of animosity.

In 2006, when a Howard-stacked ABC board was well entrenched, Gerard Henderson of The Sydney Institute waged an email war against Media Watch and the ABC. This remarkable correspondence eventually ran to 44 pages.

In his opening salvo, Henderson wrote to the MW executive producer saying the program “should be the occasion of debate and discussion about journalism”. Later in that email (copied to the ABC’s director of TV) he returned to his theme, saying it “should desist from its one-sided advocacy and facilitate genuine debate and discussion about the media”.

Not long after, then-new ABC boss Mark Scott was invited to address the Institute. What did he tell his audience at the conservative think tank? “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.”

Long term, the result has been that MW now feels it must offer the objects of its criticisms an opportunity to respond before that segment is broadcast. Perhaps this was an attempt to spike the guns of those who wished to claim a right of reply or to deplore the program’s lack of balance, but it was a serious misjudgement.

The program isn’t news or current affairs — its role is that of critical commentary and review. There are no such rights of reply or obligations to balance in the criticism of music, art or theatre. Media Watch works most effectively as a vehicle for well-founded individual opinion, not as some “we said/they said” ping-pong match.

But once that journalistic process became standard to the program’s modus operandi, it allowed its enemies a ready-made platform for the kind of attacks on its credibility that The Australian continues to launch.

Meanwhile, it would be a relief for us all if the people in authority on both sides of this ridiculous spat remembered that it’s rarely wise in journalism to dignify your enemies with a response.

Peter Fray

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