I’ll be interested to see what fallout there is from last night’s Media Watch story on Alan Kohler. The topic for the week was the outsourcing of expert financial news and commentary on TV. In the case of commercial networks, it seems they have actually been
paying getting paid by organisations like CommSec for their trading floor segments. Obviously the ABC isn’t being sponsored by any private company directly, but Media Watch argued that Kohler has a conflict of interest because his on-line ‘investment newsletter’ the Eureka Report has clients whom he may find himself reporting on in his ABC stories. The Eureka connection is not even disclosed on the news bulletin, an omission that Alan Sunderland, the Head of National Programs for ABC News, justifies thus:
The ABC has a specific arrangement in place NOT to verbally or visually promote or endorse the Eureka Report on its programs or websites.
But a disclosure is called for because
Carnegie, Wylie and Company – which partly bankrolls his Eureka Report is a player in some major deals, involving the likes of BHP, Coles and Patrick.
The company was also closely involved in the recent private equity takeover attempt of QANTAS.
Now during that period, Alan Kohler commented that the QANTAS share price might dive if the private equity takeover failed.
Media Watch is not perfect. I agree with Robert Merkel that Monica Attard has been a bit naive regarding the internet, especially in expecting the Australian Communication and Media Authority to police it.
But I think the program has been unfairly criticised as trivial, for example in this recent swipe from Mark Bahnisch:
Id have thought this was core business for Media Watch, instead of spelling mistakes or doctored photos from the Wangaratta Times.
The role Media Watch performs is to keep us awake to the pervasive biases and misrepresentations in the mass media. And the program goes further than that, by uncovering the systematic causes of these problems, and helping us media consumers better understand the processes by which media organisations mediate the world for our benefit. They do this by pursuing a number of ongoing themes, all of which it’s easy to find recent examples of.
First there is the blurring of information and promotion, with advertisement posing as news, and reporters and commentators failing to disclose conflicts of interest. This includes presenters compromised by deals with commercial sponsors (not just Jones and Laws), and lobbyists masquerading as commentators.
Of course there’s all manner of misdemeanours by journalists themselves, no doubt due in part to the pressure they are under to churn out ever more abundant and sensational stuff. The most spectacular is deliberate deceit, including plagiarism, false claims to exclusivity, faking camera footage, and so on. The same motive presumably prompts managers to hire ratbag opinion columnists with axes to grind in place of specialist knowledge.
But a more mundane manifestation is plain low standards, for example not checking stories, even self-evidently dubious ones. Whether it’s the pressure to produce or just plain laziness, this attitude is exploited by the PR outfits and lobbies, causing an erosion of independence even where there is no conscious dishonesty. Journalists take statements in press releases at face value, and when they cover wars we find them embedded and well out of objectivity’s reach.
Finally, there is socially irresponsible broadcasting, which comes in many forms: racism, demonising of vulnerable groups, trial by media, and possibly illegal breaches of privacy, exposure of children, and incitement of harrassment.
In the face of all these disappointments, the wretched ineffectuality of the regulating body is another regular theme.
It’s critical to Media Watch’s credibility that it goes after ABC programs as well, including sacred cows like Australian Story, and brings to light instances of conflict of interest, political interference, blurring of the lines between news and promotion, and general sloppiness .
Alan Kohler is a pretty good financial journalist as far as I can tell (although his forays into pseudo economic theorising sometimes make me cringe). His cheerful and enthusiastic demeanour brightens up a potentially dull interlude between world politics and sport, so I wouldn’t want him to disappear. But Monica Attard’s demand that he disclose his affiliations is more than reasonable.