Quite understandably, the Sydney-based News Limited newspapers were delighted to report on Friday that the Australian Communications and Media Authority had made an adverse finding against Media Watch after a complaint from Daily Telegraph reporter Andrew Clennell.

The finding in itself seems reasonable enough, but the arguments that led ACMA to its conclusion turn on intricate interpretations of complex — and sometimes apparently conflicting — principles of journalistic practice. There’s a rather bizarre Alice in Wonderland flavour to this whole episode.

For starters, ACMA didn’t find that Media Watch had made a factual error. Rather, Jonathan Holmes and his team were ruled to have not met the standards required of them by one section of the editorial policies in the ABC’s own code of practice. (ACMA only gets to consider such disputes when the aggrieved party isn’t satisfied by the outcome of the ABC’s in-house complaints procedures.)

The next layer of irony is that the original Media Watch item that prompted Clennell’s complaint asserted that the reporter had failed to meet News Limited’s own professional conduct policy. In a way, this became a duel between two self-regulation models — with the authority sitting on the ethical fence as referee.

And the final twist is that ACMA’s finding against Media Watch rests on the conclusion that the program had not offered Clennell a fair opportunity to respond to its allegation against him — precisely the same lack-of-balance charge Holmes had made on air against Clennell’s story. Pots and kettles were clanging all over the shop.

Somehow, ACMA found a plausible path through this thicket of arguments and it’s no surprise that its 40-page investigation report reads like a long-winded judgment from the Equity Court. Last night — after months of resistance — Media Watch did the decent thing, accepted the ACMA decision and apologised.

“In this case, we and the ABC accept the umpire’s ruling,” Holmes told his viewers. “So Andrew: I’m sorry.” (Note: the apology was to Clennell, and not The Daily Telegraph, more of which later.)

In its original form, Media Watch stuck doggedly to three simple principles:

  • Its standpoint should always be that of an informed media consumer, not an insider;
  • The content of the program should always be text-based, i.e. confine itself to what has been published or broadcast in the media;
  • The presenter’s analysis, commentary and criticisms must be clearly recognisable as opinion, and no public correspondence should be entered into.

The guiding overall principle was that it must be apparent to the audience that Media Watch was not part of the ABC’s news or current affairs output, and that the program’s content therefore did not fall within whatever guidelines or codes of practice might apply to the corporation’s factual programs.

This was not, of course, a licence to defame or broadcast unsubstantiated allegations. The program’s research needed to be as rigorous as anything on Four Corners, but it remained the submerged part of the editorial iceberg. By aggressively defending its patch as an outlet for personal opinion, Media Watch was able to fend off critics in the mainstream media who complained that it didn’t play by the normal rules of journalism, including the so-called “right of reply”.

That was the defence Media Watch attempted to run in its dispute with Clennell, but ACMA found the program can no longer walk away from the “fair opportunity to respond” obligations placed on it by the ABC’s own editorial policies. Why? Because, over the past five years or so, the program has moved itself too far into the jurisdictional ambit of the news and current affairs genre.

Since Mark Scott became Aunty’s MD and editor-in-chief, Media Watch has tried to have a foot in both camps. It now ostentatiously parades its journalistic research on air, telling us who they rang or emailed and what the reporters, editors, and producers said in response to their questions. In other words, they’re seeking to assure the audience that the program adheres to the conventional methods and principles of fact-based journalism.

And that’s the crux of the whole issue here. Media Watch has now positioned itself on disturbingly shifting sands when it comes to understanding its precise nature as an ABC program. Is it straight journalism? Is it opinion? Is it criticism and review? To his credit, Holmes last night acknowledged this movement away from the show’s original standpoint under the Littlemore stewardship:

“Over the years since then, Media Watch has accepted that sometimes what it does is simple criticism, sometimes it’s closer to investigative journalism. These days, we do, more often than not, send out our dreaded emails to editors, and post the responses we receive on our website. But we don’t think we should have to do it every time.”

The ACMA report agreed that Media Watch need not offer a right of reply in every case, but this leaves interpretation of that principle as a judgment call for the program itself. So when things unravel — as they did in the Clennell matter — Media Watch can still claim it is not really a news or current affairs show, and therefore hides behind the protection of the “critical commentary and review” cloak, conveniently absolving itself of the standard journalistic obligations it expects of others.

Surely it can’t have it both ways. The more you flaunt your tradecraft — the nuts and bolts of the editorial process — the more you invite your critics to demand accountability as a factual program. To my mind it was this self-manufactured confusion of roles more than any specific lapse that brought Media Watch undone in the Tele/ACMA finding.

The thrust of the original allegation against Clennell was that he’d failed to present both sides of the issue he was reporting. Clennell asserts that if the program had asked him why not, he would have told it that he had, indeed, sought a balancing viewpoint but that it had been cut from his story during the editing process.

That may or may not be true. It’s certainly been the most common excuse proffered to Media Watch by wounded reporters over the past 20 years, but it’s rarely convincing. If the subs mangled their copy so badly, why didn’t they complain? Why didn’t the newspaper publish an immediate correction, addition or balancing story? The original story is all the media’s consumers have to go on; it’s of no concern to them how or why such a flawed report appeared.

In the end, the ACMA finding turned on the fine point of whether the ABC’s criticism had unfairly blamed Clennell for lack of balance in his report rather than the newspaper. As Holmes put it:

“It will still be a matter of judgment as to whether or not Media Watch offers a right of reply. In this case, we and the ABC accept the umpire’s ruling that we should have done — and that had we done so, the Telegraph’s response would have lessened, in our viewers’ eyes, Andrew Clennell’s personal responsibility for a one-sided story.”

Indeed, had the item that forced the program into last night’s apology been framed as criticism of The Daily Telegraph rather than Clennell as the bylined reporter, ACMA may well have come to a different conclusion.

Meanwhile, after being awarded this little victory by a federal statutory authority, maybe News Limited will rethink its unrelenting opposition to any form of government-backed media regulation. Unlikely.