“It was easily my least favourite week of the two years I’ve been on the show,” concedes Jonathan Holmes.
It’s not hard to know why. As host of Media Watch Holmes had just finished a story that took ABC’s own Four Corners to task -a show on which he himself has been Executive Producer and reporter.
“That’s the worst thing about the show when, you have to do that. Unlike a judge or anyone else who can say ‘I’m too close to this, I’m standing aside, let somebody else do it.’ You just can’t do that as the host of Media Watch.”
It’s what the show has been doing for twenty years. Holmes joins an elite list of respected, even feared presenters, including Stuart Littlemore, Paul Barry, Richard Ackland, David Marr, Liz Jackson and Monica Attard.
In a retrospective special tonight on the ABC, Media Watch showcases a roll-call of its prized ‘scalps.’ There are exposes on stories filed by Today Tonight, A Current Affair, The Australian, the Illawarra Mercury and more. No doubt it’s biggest ‘get’ was Radio’s now-infamous ‘Cash for Comment.’
“That was a major story that fundamentally changed the culture of commercial radio. It exposed a secret trade that had been going on for goodness knows how long, undeclared to listeners, and indeed undeclared to radio stations themselves. People were literally selling their opinions for huge sums of money without declaring it to listeners.
“And the bizarre thing is that even now, as you’ll see in the programme, John Laws doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. He can’t see what the fuss is about.”
Holmes says it is rare to land a story that big.
“We wouldn’t pretend to have done anything nearly as far reaching as that. Mainly what the show does, week on week, is it helps to keep journos honest. It means that there’s a little voice, hopefully, in the ear of every journo in this country when they’re about to do something that’s borderline, or they’re about to do something that’s pretty ethically dodgy, they think to themselves ‘how would it look if it got on Media Watch?’ That’s a really healthy thing.”
He nominates the Sunday Telegraph’s so-called Hanson photos as the biggest story covered so far this year.
“What we were able to do, thanks to an unusual number of people that were involved in that who were actually spilling the beans to us, was give a full, inside picture of what went on during that week. Who was writing what to whom and in text messages and so on. It gave you a real flavour for what that kind of journalism is like and it’s not a particularly pretty picture.”
In the interests of balance, the retrospective special includes some of its own long-standing critics. Holmes acknowledges his programme doesn’t focus on journalism’s brighter achievements.
“That’s often a complaint of journalists, that we only pick on the bad. Our philosophy has always been, as David Salter one of the early Executive Producers put it, journalists spend a lot of time congratulating themselves. We don’t need to help them do that. They have the Walkley Awards, they have the front page headlines saying ‘our wonderful exclusive’, ‘look at our fantastic circulation.'”
Media Watch is purpose-driven for those who have been unfairly maligned by journalists.
“They invade people’s privacy, they misrepresent people, they get facts wrong about people, they exploit the powerless and hold them up to ridicule –the Paxtons were one example of that– and there’s no redress for those people,” says Holmes. “If they have lots of money they might be able to sue for defamation. But poor people can’t do that. They can complain to the Press Council and maybe a few months later they get a slap on the wrist with a feather duster. That’s our prime function. We see ourselves as a champion of the consumer.”
Holmes says Media Watch is necessarily separated from the ABC News and Current Affairs division, answerable only to Director of Television, Kim Dalton.
“That’s specifically to protect us from pressures that might come on us when we take on other bits of the ABC.”
In seeking to play a transparent industry watchdog, and particularly after the latest story on Four Corners, Holmes might well be grateful for small mercies.
“There are times when it can be very difficult and maybe last week’s show may turn out to be one of those.”
Media Watch: 20 Years: Stuff Ups, Beat Ups & Barneys airs 8:30pm Thursday on ABC.