Media Adviser is a new advice column from journalist and psychotherapist Rebekah Holt that offers insight on recurring media dramas and their related ethical dilemmas.

Q: I’m in charge of booking a TV panel tomorrow on a controversial topic, and haven’t quite locked everyone in. What’s the best way of going about that without having my show or the hosts at the centre of a national scandal?

Hi Channel 7, thanks for calling. Q&A just take a seat, I’ll be with you shortly.

I want to acknowledge up front that constructing a panel is difficult. In my experience you start with your dream team once you have an idea of the issues that will be discussed, and then you have a discussion/argument with your colleagues, and then you try to book the people you agreed on.

Often they are unavailable because you want them to do a lot of work for free at a vile hour or they have real jobs that don’t allow them time for recreational outrage manufacturing. So (sigh) sometimes you book who is left. Sometimes you know it’s not the best content, and that’s when it is acceptable to interview a journalist who has covered a story and can really pull it apart and add to the discourse instead of booking someone who YOU KNOW will throw petrol on the click fire while bleating “it’s just PC madness that we can’t insult/assault/adopt anyone we want”.

And we should be a little suspicious of the people who are constantly available to do the latter.

We all have different needs and expectations from our news and current affairs, but some journalistic baselines must be adhered to or we are just all idiots pissing about on screen.

When you choose to cover a topic that is about a certain sector of the community then you should have someone who is from that community — or at least in some tangible way an expert on that community — in the area you are discussing.

Yes Channel 7, I am looking at you. What were you thinking? Did you try and ask anyone from the Indigenous community to join the panel?

I really want to know because a lot of people watch your channel and many people would assume you go through some process of editorial consideration that is more in-depth than “Um, someone just called the news desk and said he is actually a Nazi.”

A valid option would have been to drop the Indigenous adoption topic from the show when you realised you did not have the panel to speak with authority and actual experience on the issue. Give a journalist the story assignment for the main bulletin, giving them time to assemble talking heads who knew what they were talking about.

Which brings me to you, Q&A. Make yourself comfortable.

The decision to invite Sydney barrister Charles Waterstreet to join a panel on #MeToo this February when he had just been accused of inappropriate behavior by one of his ex-employees smacked my gob so far out of kilter I am still drinking through a straw.

Waterstreet did not appear on your panel, but his invitation to was spectacularly wrong-headed. Even though no complaints had been made to police at the time of the panel (nor have they to date), it was clear that everyone involved was lawyering up. The outstanding issues to me here are that you invited people who are vulnerable to share their very personal and private stories to illustrate a significant global social movement. Tossing an alleged perpetrator into the same studio as those people does not automatically give you journalistic balance. It just makes you an untrustworthy arsehole.

If you desperately wanted to cover the story of someone who has been accused, then you could have done a pre-recorded segment with Waterstreet but this still would have been a strange decision. Some stories cannot be reported in full immediately because they are still evolving. It would have been far better to talk to someone who had been accused and either found innocent or guilty.

Now I invite you both to have a soothing and educational watch of Jenny Brockie on SBS’ Insight to see how sensitive material can be covered in a panel format without descending into racist bollocks or significant retraumatisation.

If you’d like to submit your own media-related questions for column consideration, email [email protected] with the subject line “Media Adviser”.

Peter Fray

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