Arse-grabbing. Messy workplace affairs with the executive assistant leading to quiet payoffs. Trips to foreign countries to snatch children off the street. And lots (we mean lots) of hand-wringing about the gays. In 2016, the stories about the media had a decidedly retro feel. The Mad Men days have been, it seems, alive and well this whole time. But enough people were outraged about it this year to suggest cultural change is happening. Slowly, in grubby headline after grubby headline.
Hardest Right-Wing Turn
Will small-L liberals ever forgive The Australian its year-long attack on an anti-bullying program aimed at making childhood less traumatic for gay and transgender kids? The Australian, under new editor Paul “Boris” Whittaker, spent much of the year attacking the Safe Schools program, and after that, any program aimed to overcome or diminish decades of prejudice and discrimination against LGBTI Australians. The paper has always had enemies and campaigns, but rarely have we seen an attack quite like this. Of course, no one would have expected The Australian to love Roz Ward, the program’s Marxist, academic co-founder. But in attacking so vehemently and extensively what she helped create, The Australian appeared to condone — or at least not care about — the bullying and ostracisation faced by many gay children. By the end of the year, the whole thing had gotten ridiculous, with the paper even reporting, as if it were a strange thing, that the Victorian public service was warning its employees against using derogatory terms such as “dyke” or “fag”, or of asking transgender people about the state of their anatomy.
This isn’t to say the paper hasn’t had a great deal of success with the campaign. It’s set the national agenda, as it’s rather good at doing these days. Everyone who reads the media has encountered the controversy, and we bet it will be the subject of many a Christmas gathering in the next day days. And for the paper itself, it has undeniably gained the loyalty and respect of a class of Australians uncomfortable with how society is changing, who now view the paper as theirs (just read the comments on any of its Safe Schools articles).
But through this campaign it has also broken once and for all with any pretence of being a high-brow, centre-right publication. This is the politics of fear and bigotry, writ large to sell papers. The Oz’s greatest victims now are not academics, or lawyers, or politicians it doesn’t like, but children, trying to navigate their difference in a society that the Oz has made less inclusive.
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The ‘Don’t Hold Your Breath’ Award for Most Over-Hyped Story of the Year
What follows is a collection of headlines about a media reform package, which we’ve been told was imminent for some time now:
- January 14, The Advertiser: Media reform as soon as possible
- February 8, The Sydney Morning Herald: Fifield builds support for media reform
- February 18, The Australian: Media reform package close — govt
- March 21, The Australian: Rush on for ‘crucial legislation’
- April 20, AFR: Media reform could be delayed until after budget, federal vote
- May 5, The Australian: Exclusive — Media reform to be key issue
- August 29, The Australian: Turnbull reopens media reform push
- September 21, AAP: Media reform talks progressing — Fifield
- October 25, The West Australian: TV chief says ‘entire industry is in peril’
- November 7, Mumbrella: Media reform in hands of crossbenchers after Labor opposes bill
- December 1, PANPA bulletin: One small step for media reform
Will we see media reform in 2017? Well, at least we’re sure to read about it …
Most Shocking Lack of Professionalism
Most large media companies are publicly listed these days, suggesting certain minimum standards around professionalism and corporate governance.
But the media in 2016 demonstrated once again that it’s an altogether different beast, too often ungoverned until the shit hits the fan. The newly appointed editor-in-chief of The Age hadn’t thought to curb his behaviour when appointed editor, grabbing the rear of a young female reporter at his own paper at a work function. Then it turned out a senior editor at the Herald Sun was propositioning people at work, while the CEO of Seven, it emerges, figured work events were a good place to conduct affairs on the company dime.
It’s not just executives failing to approach their work with the care it deserves. In February, senior Fairfax writer Paul Sheehan heard a sensational tale of rape, supposedly covered up and never investigated as a result of an unwillingness to call out Lebanese crime. Sheehan wrote the story with minimal checking of facts. His editors at The Sydney Morning Herald decided not to ask for verification of his story and splashed it on the front page. It was awful for the Herald, and worse for Sheehan, who quietly took redundancy later this year.
But biggest stuff-up goes to Channel Nine and its famed 60 Minutes team for hurting someone who was, more or less, an innocent. 60 Minutes thought it would be a good idea to try to film an abduction crew, paid by the network, snatching two children in a contested custody case off the streets in a heavily militarised part of Beirut, Lebanon. A commissioned review into the whole thing was scathing, stating:
“The high level of autonomy given to producers, and the reluctance of team members to voice concerns indicates a culture which supports risk taking, without appropriate checks and balances to identify excessive levels of risk.”
Recently, Australian Story aired a two-part special with Sally Faulkner, the mother who turned to Nine to help her get her children back. It made for heartbreaking viewing, showing a loving mother who through a series of admittedly ill-advised actions has now relinquished the right to be a part of her children’s lives. She, along with her family, are the ultimate victims of Nine’s misadventure.
Later this year 60 Minutes worked to rebuild its credibility by reportedly paying cancer fraudster Belle Gibson $75,000 for an interview.
The Unresolved Shit Fight of the Year
In 2016, much of the Australian media could only agree on one thing: how much they hate it when the Daily Mail rips off their stories.
Of course, the Daily Mail isn’t alone in its magpie journalism. It was similar practices, coupled with a bit of sub-judice reporting, that landed Yahoo7 in contempt of court. But the Daily Mail has, rightly or wrongly, come to be seen as the archetype of this kind of journalism, which relies on the work of others to provide solid journalism cheaply and robs other titles of the ability to make the profits necessary to justify the investment in reporting.
Copyright law in Australia (and elsewhere) protects expression, not facts or even quotes given to one outlet. As long as the stories are re-worded, it’s very difficult to deal with this legally. Which leaves journalists with little to do but bitch about the Daily Mail on Twitter.
The Monopoly Award for shrinking media diversity
News Corp should win this every year, but we really should take a moment to congratulate News Corp on strengthening its monopolies in several key areas. It’s Murdoch or the ABC up in Queensland now, after the ACCC approved News’ purchase of APN. Meanwhile Western Australia also got a monopoly, but of a different type, after News Corp sold its Sunday tabloid, the only major source of print competition to the West Australian, to Kerry Stokes’ Seven West Media.
The Snatching-Defeat-From-the-Jaws-of-Victory Trophy
There’s a lot to like about new ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie. She’s a woman and of Asian heritage — both qualities sorely underrepresented in the top ranks of the Australian media. Guthrie is globally minded, well-spoken and seems to have a sense of humour. She’s no bureaucrat, having worked and risen through the ranks at some of the world’s most competitive media companies. Additionally, your correspondent wants her wardrobe. But somehow, by year’s end, Guthrie has won Andrew Bolt over as a defender, and lost much of the ABC.
It is hard being the ABC’s managing director. Your staff don’t so much answer to you as to their sense of democratic and societal purpose. If they’re unhappy with the direction set by management, ABC staff will say so — to your face and probably to reporters as well. Meanwhile, everyone pays for the ABC through their taxes, so everyone else has an opinion on it.
But Guthrie’s early months — and she’s only been in the role since May — have been marked by strange, seemingly unforced errors. At her very first interview, which was a friendly chat on ABC News 24, she didn’t grasp the significance of advertising on the ABC, giving a vague answer to a direct question on whether it could be considered. A few months later, she again seemed unaware of the expectations around her role at Senate estimates. Some senators wait all year for a chance to grill the ABC managing director at estimates, but Guthrie told the room at her first appearance that she had a flight to catch. Needless to say, the senators made sure she missed it. Later in the year, asked on stage by Margaret Simons about rumours Lateline was being axed, Guthrie dithered, talking instead of not being able to guarantee any program would return. She gave the example of Foreign Correspondent as a program that could achieve its aims without a regular weekly slot. Everyone within the ABC assumed that meant Lateline or Foreign Correspondent could be axed, but Guthrie, the ABC said later that weekend, was talking hypothetically.
Later in the year Guthrie had few strong supporters as leak after leak damaged her. Things reached fever pitch in early December after many of Catalyst’s experienced reporting staff were let go and Radio National underwent a major revamp. When Guthrie started, almost no one (apart from us really) had much negative to say about her. Just over half a year later, her reign is being compared to the tumultuous one of Jonathan Shier. By her own staff. On the record.
Least Transparent Media Organisation
This one is jointly held by all the outlets that pulled some or all of their titles out of the Audit Bureau of Circulation figures this year, putting a stop to all those pesky headlines about how many fewer people are paying for their content compared to a year ago. The publishers say readership is the more important metric for advertisers, but luckily for them, it’s also the less robust one — prone to imprecision, unclear methodology and counter-intuitive results. But hey, at least the figures keep going up. And that’s always a good thing right? Good work Bauer Media and News Corp, which both recently pulled their magazines out of the figures. You’re joint winners in our book. And we’re not too happy with Fairfax either, which pulled its digital subscription numbers out earlier this year.
Media Rehabilitation of the Year
Who says tweeting vile abuse using an anonymous Twitter account spells the end of one’s media career? Mere months after Mark Latham was roundly criticised both for his “egg” account and the things more obviously under his own byline (abuse of then-Australian of the Year Rosie Batty and fellow commentator Lisa Pryor, one of whose crimes was to talk of domestic violence while the other sinned by admitting to her mental health struggles), Latham found a new home. Not at Fairfax, after local staff revolted against plans to hire him as a columnist, but at Sky News. Paired often with fellow anti-PC-wackos like Ross Cameron and Rowan Dean, Latham has managed to be lively and entertaining, which is all Sky News could hope for. Luckily for Sky News, Latham appears to have been triggered by fewer things this year — he hasn’t caused an outrage in months. Though maybe that’s because not enough of the Twitterati watch Sky News late at night …
And finally, the Year’s Best Vindication
As Eddie Obeid spent his first night in jail, there was one woman everyone wanted to hear from, and that was Kate McClymont.
She’s been the most dogged journalist in a multi-year crusade to bring down the corrupt former NSW minister. In June, he was found guilty of misconduct in public office over a series of secret dealings at Circular Quay. By December he had been jailed for a minimum of three years.
It took guts, hard work and legal fees to go after Obeid. He famously sued The Sydney Morning Herald, McClymont and fellow investigative journalist Anne Davies over a 2002 article that claimed he’d sought bribes on behalf of the Labor Party. That meant that for every subsequent legal threat, he could argue malice — that Fairfax was out to get him after losing once. Despite this, the company’s journalists persisted. In 2012, another article by McClymont and Linton Besser queried his lobbying over cafe leases in Circular Quay — cafes owned, in part, by his family. That kicked off an ICAC investigation, and December’s verdict.
In June, Crikey spoke to McClymont, who admitted her “quiet moment of joy” at the verdict. She paid tribute to ICAC, without which she said the full story would never have come out. And she expressed her concern at how a shrinking media had left fewer and fewer small newspapers able to do this type of investigation.
“I know a lot of the smaller suburban papers — where there is abundant corruption amongst councillors — don’t feel like they have the financial resources to take people on if they are sued,” she said. “So it’s falling more and more on the major news organisations to pick up the slack in covering a whole range of corruption.”
But by year’s end, it was all smiles, as Obeid finally got his comeuppance.