Blair Cottrell

Seven News Melbourne’s interview with a neo-Nazi amid the summer silliness of “African gang” reporting seemed like a new low for commercial TV news. Blair Cottrell gave the network an “exclusive” interview, which ran with more “exclusive” access to a “right-wing activist” meeting. News director Simon Pristel (formerly of the Herald Sun) defended the story as newsworthy, but it had all the hallmarks of a very cynical ratings-grab.

It might feel like a recent dive to the bottom of the barrel for content, but University of Queensland emeritus professor Graeme Turner said the slide into tabloid news has been years in the making.

“It takes a while for these things to become obvious, but the arrival of digital means there are more competitors now, and they’re not all journalists. Over the last ten years, commercial TV in particular really identify more as members of the entertainment industry than news,” Turner said.

It’s that crowded news landscape that has produced an environment where the TV (and other) news is trying harder and harder to get eyeballs at all costs. At the same time, newsrooms are being cut and journalists don’t have time to produce the in-depth reports they once could. That’s why, Turner says, we see a focus on crime and car crash stories with shaky mobile phone footage, and why political reporting is mostly focusing on opinion polls and he said/she said reports. And in an attempt to differentiate from the online competitors, nearly every story has a live cross to a reporter — on the scene and live.

[Channel Seven’s Summer of Nazis raises national security fears]

“It’s not a good scenario in terms of quality news,” Turner said. “It’s pretty clear that the networks want to reposition their news service by going to more attention-grabbing, more populist stuff. They would see it as lively and entertaining but that doesn’t mean strong news values,” he said.

Turner said that competition between the networks had been increasing anyway, and that was only compounded by the digital entrants.

“Competition does funny things. If you aim to go high rather than low, you need to be prepared to lose audience numbers. It’s that dynamic that makes it very hard for programs to do quality news,” he said.

And that’s where, Turner said, you end up with the very tabloid, fear-mongering content that Seven was peddling.

“One of the really negative things that’s come out of this battle for attention is the best way to get attention is to raise fear or anxiety. And in many cases that’s done very cynically without care for what’s in the public interest.”

Even the “serious” newspapers are tapping into the same battle, with The Australian and The Age buying into the African gang narrative.

[Seven’s neo-Nazi interview was ‘newsworthy’]

“Once upon a time The Australian would’ve been above that. There was an idea of newspapers having a public responsibility that’s a national one. That’s something the high end press did used to observe,” Turner said.

One veteran TV news producer of more than 30 years told Crikey there was plenty of room in the commercial news bulletins for more in-depth reporting, even just one longer background item each night.

“I don’t think it’s changed for the better. I think if it’s more tabloid now, it’s about ratings,” he said. “They’re blind because they’re chasing ratings. You could overhaul TV news by making it stronger and having more background stories. Nine did it for a number of years and that’s why they ruled the roost, but now they’re afraid to touch it.”

Turner doesn’t think there’s much chance, though, of the commercial TV networks (or even the ABC) going back to the days of hard-hitting serious journalism on their nightly bulletins.

“I suspect that kind of work will continue, but it’s much more likely online than on television,” he said.