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EXCLUSIVE: Late on Monday morning arguably the biggest news story in the media this year broke when Fairfax announced it was moving from broadsheet to tabloid, sacking 1900 staff and adding paywalls.

So after Media Watch failed to mention it at all that same night, Twitter went into meltdown. #mediawatch was trending at #1, even above Karise Eden, who had just won The Voice.

How could a show that is watching the media not pass comment on such cataclysmic news?

Online, host Jonathan Holmes defended the show, which was a special edition tackling product placement on television. Yesterday both The Australian and The Daily Telegraph went on the attack, suggesting the show had dropped the ball.

TV Tonight spoke with Holmes about the criticisms and whether the breaking news should have been acknowledged.

Media Watch is not a news programme about the media. It never has been a news programme about the media,” he said.

Media Watch is a programme that normally takes individually bits of journalism and it analyses them against the criteria that the news media claim to espouse. Are they accurate, are they fair, etc?

“That’s what we do fundamentally.

“We occasionally do media specials that look at media issues but that’s comparatively rare and when we do that it takes us quite a long time to do.

“But we are not set up in terms of the facilities that we have available to do instant reactions to news of any kind. We don’t have, for example, a camera crew to go out and do interviews. We don’t have anybody on our staff who does interviews, apart from me. We don’t have a studio that’s available to do satellite interviews. We don’t have any possibility of going live because the studio that we use is also used by 7:30 and Lateline and they use it from about 4:00 onwards.

“What we have is a studio from about 1:30 to 3:00 in the afternoon and me writing a script normally on a Friday or Saturday and a bunch of graphics done on a Sunday. That’s our normal format.”

Holmes acknowledges that at times the show has been able to react quickly, but on this occasion a special edition was already in place, and Fairfax was already being covered elsewhere.

“(Fairfax) was a huge story. It was on every news and television programme right across the country from about noon onwards. And we did not feel that by 1:30 that afternoon we could add anything significant,” he admitted.

“Our other problem, which was just coincidence unfortunately I suppose, was that we happened to have done a special on Monday on one topic. It was very difficult to have it cut into half or lop a third out and still have it make sense.

“If we’d had our normal format of 3 or 4 stories, we might well have cut one of them and done something, just to acknowledge that we were conscious that the story was there. But quite frankly even if we’d done that it would have been quite token. 7:30 did a very good piece, 8 or 9 minutes long. Ours would have had to have been done hours earlier and it’s most unlikely it could have done as much as they did.”

The Twitter response was ferocious:

Scott Keenan: @jonaholmesMW ACC News 24 is dedicated 2 going live 24/7. Another 15 mins on ABC1 must be possible. Ur biggest story of 2012. #mediawatch

Nick Bryant: @jonaholmesMW Did Media Watch consider a back announcement? “Big story breaking as we record the show, more next week….?’

Mia Freedman: I recall #mediawatch giving major curry to ABC radio for not breaking into planned programming when #spillard

Mark Doran: Will #MediaWatch (which I love) make an issue of it’s inability to cover the #fairfax story tonight #shouldbebetterthanthat

Says Holmes: “Most of the reaction, I suspect, came from journalists, maybe Fairfax journalists, who wanted to be noticed.

“That’s not our job. Media Watch is not for journalists. It’s about journalists for the public and if we haven’t got anything original or interesting to say or we haven’t had time to research things properly, I don’t believe we’re adding value by just spouting.”

He even objects to being viewed as a friend of the media, pointing out that more often he is a media critic.

“I don’t want to be cast as ‘Mr. Media Champion.’ But I appreciate it was an important story,” he admits.

“But sitting here I can’t think what we could have said that would have been at all original or added what had already been shared ad nauseum on every other story all day.”

In addition to his role as presenter and producer, Media Watch has an executive producer, story editor, 3 researchers and a supervising producer. But he also rejects views they should should have gone Live on Monday night.

“It’s nothing to do with bureaucracy. Go to any commercial show and ask them if a show that isn’t normally Live can suddenly just go Live… it’s nonsense,” Holmes insists.

“Our job is to wait until the dust settles and if we’ve got something to say, then say it. It’s not to do reactive journalism. And it’s not as though there aren’t heaps of shows on the ABC doing reactive journalism. PM covered it at length, 7:30 covered it at length, Alan Kohler had a great 2 minute piece on the News and so on.”

Such are the expectations of media analysis in 2012.

Since Media Watch began in 1989, the landscape has changed so dramatically. In addition to multichannels, we have more media outlets, a 24/7 news cycle plus online to cover. In any given week there are plenty of stories that could warrant closer scrutiny but fall outside the 13 minute limitations.

So should Media Watch offer a secondary programme on ABC News 24?

“I think the format packs a huge amount into that 13 minutes and that’s partly because it’s a very unusual format, basically one person talking to camera with a few graphics,” says Holmes.

“It would lose its personal flavor and I doubt you’d actually cover all that much more ground.

“I’m not saying that a bit longer wouldn’t be nice, but I think 20 minutes is about as far as you could go with that format. And obviously 20 minutes is not particularly useful time for the schedule. Even at 20 there would be weeks where you would be scratching the barrel.

“I don’t believe the appetite would be there for a half hour show on ABC1 every week in primetime.

“You could put it on ABC2 or News 24 for sure, but then you’re using a lot of resources with a lot less people to reach a lot fewer people.”

Holmes is satisfied with the level of staff the show enjoys and despite being unable to cover all the stories with immediacy, isn’t advocating for change.

“I’m pretty happy with the situation as it is despite that fact that yes, it can be frustrating,” he says.

“It’s well-resourced in terms of people. We don’t have any budget to do anything other than make phone calls, but in terms of the people it’s well resourced.”

But with a final nod to the criticism of this week, he concedes, “The degree of reaction I think took us by surprise, and clearly it would have been better to have at least acknowledged that the story was out there and we weren’t doing it, rather than to have ignored it. I think that was a mistake.

“It may not have made any difference but at least it would have not made it look as though we’d recorded the damn thing on a Saturday.

“Whether we’d done it at the front of the programme or the back of the programme, to at least say ‘It’s been a big day and maybe we’ll look at it next week.’”

27 Comments:

  1. Great article and great to get the perspective from Mr Holmes. Although I’m not sure I agree that there wouldn’t be demand for a longer length show. Perhaps purely multiplying the current format by 2 is not a fantastic idea but certainly being able to widen the scope to include maybe a feature interview, maybe a regular behind-the-scenes story or editorial/commentary each week would I think be appreciated and would give people a greater knowledge of what goes on around the media… and would probably reach more viewers than some of ABC’s other current prime time shows.

  2. Perhaps Media Watch should review the pious and condescending tone it adopts? The outpouring of schadenfreude no doubt stems from that.

  3. I’m not a fan of Media Watch. I find that it has its own editorial agendas. But surely there wasn’t enough time for them to produce the show to include the Fairfax story.

  4. I think the criticism is ridiculous. As people have mentioned Media Watch is not into reporting the news but is about finding errors, making criticisms or analysing it. Occasionally interviews. I love what they do. I wouldn’t mind a longer show if they could work out a way to do it as well as an appropriate budget. Although I don’t need them to change. I like the idea about twice a week. An advantage of that is they could combine them and repeat them maybe as a half hour show. But I think it’s fine as is.

    My one problem is it’d be nice if it was repeated more often including on ABC News 24. Lastly and more importantly thank you ABC, Jonathan Holmes and the rest of the team for bringing us such a great show.

  5. Given the News Corp announcement in the last couple of hours I think MW did the right thing, I’m sure they are hard at work on a segment for next weeks show.

  6. steveany 2.0

    I normally don’t comment when so many posters have already said what I want to say, but in this case I have to lend my support to JH & the MW team. They did not ‘drop the ball’. This alleged Tweet “meltdown” is, as usual, the mindless squawking of the ignorant trying to appear insightful.
    MW in it’s current format is of sufficient length to achieve it’s primary goal, which is the exposure of shoddy journalism. It is not a news program. If people want more detail they can hop on to the MW website.
    Well done JH & team, you produce the only TV show I watch religiously – the show could only be improved by the addition of some actual powers of punative address! Wouldn’t that be good!

  7. Jonathan Holmes justifications are mostly valid, given the existing format of Media Watch. But the issues around Fairfax (and, say, phone hacking in the UK) only go to show how utterly inadequate is little old Media Watch. We deserve better than 15 to 20 scant minutes of media analysis per week, given the proliferation of the media and the increasing complexity of associated issues. As somebody else pointed out, NZ has a longer media watch show. And in the UK there is the excellent 30-minute Media Show on the BBC. Australia deserves something similar. Holmes is right in saying that the personal viewpoint format wouldn’t work over a longer format. But in my view that’s the weakest aspect of the show anyway. The very notion of a self-appointed arbiter of what’s right and fair is suspect, and we’d be better off with a more impartial host and more in-depth interviews and analysis. I can’t quite fathom why the ABC hasn’t arrived at this conclusion after all these years – other than they just don’t want to spend any more money, of course.

  8. Secret Squirrel

    Excellent article, thanks to both of you for taking the time to address this.

    Jonathan may be right that the current format wouldn’t work if it was stretched to 27 or 28 min (altho’ I would still happily watch) but a 13 min program twice a week neatly sidesteps that issue, whilst providing the benefit of more content in a slightly more timely manner. Obviously resources would need to be increased but you could slip in the odd interview when warranted to change it up a little.

    @NK17 – I don’t think you understand what’s actually involved in producing a program such as MW. If they were to create a half hour program with the same resources as they now have, you could expect the journalism to drop to TT/ACA levels. That’s certainly not what I want.

  9. Thanks for the story David but you didn’t make clear that I’m not saying there isn’t enough content for a longer program – of course there is. I’m saying that the format of Media Watch – one person to camera plus graphics – wouldn’t work at a length much over 20 minutes. Too concentrated. You’d need to include interviews, panels etc – a different, less personal kind of format covering less ground per minute.

  10. It just shows that Media Watch should be on for at least 30 minutes a week but could easily do 2×30 minute shows in one week with the amount of stuff this show could cover. ABC need to realise this and give us more Media Watch.

  11. Russell, what part of Media Watch not being a news program do you not understand? Ditto all those Twitter heads who clearly don’t understand what MW is about. It’s got nothing to do with any “ABC attitude”, it’s the very nature of the program that works like this.

    Media Watch’s role would be to observe the coverage by the rest of the media about the changes at Fairfax over the next week or two and then comment on any of the coverage they find flawed or inadequate. They can’t do that when the news has only just happened and the stories they will comment on are still being written and aired.

  12. Seven people to produce 12.5 minutes of show each week. I know its stories do take some research, but, as I’m sure Fairfax executives will be able to tell you, that many staff should be enough to pump out at least a half-hour show on a weekly basis.

  13. Very well explained JH. I am not for Gina buying fairfax but i think she is buying a dead horse. If she intends turning it into a right wing tabloid, you might as well stop the printing presses. This blog is a prime example why old world media is dying. I use to buy a newspaper to get my entertainment news, now i just go to TV Tonight. Its the same if you want to buy a car, house or anything, you just go online. Newspapers use to change opinion, but now bloggers rule. The internet is giving the ordinary person the power to have their say, it is a good thing. If Gina tries to turn fairfax into a right wing tabloid, the bloggers will slam her just like they do with Bolt and Jones. Just like the right wing bloggers do with The Geens. It is all good for democracy. A lot of people are scared of change but i feel the internet will keep everyone in check.

  14. I thought the Twitter reaction to Media Watch was ludicrous. Media Watch has never been a “news” show – it’s function is to provide in-depth analysis of media issues and errors. This takes time.

    Expecting Media Watch to respond to an event within hours, given it’s format, staffing and budgeting issues is unreasonable to say the least.

    Keep up the good work Jonathan + the Media Watch team!

  15. Murdoch rags criticising the ABC? Quelle surprise!

    MW isn’t a straight news and current affairs program. Regular viewers *know* this. Regular viewers also know that the most important issue from an MW pov with regards to Fairfax is Rinehart’s potential editorial influence. They actually did a story about this not long ago. I guess the critics weren’t watching? Their conclusion was that she doesn’t have any … yet. As long as they keep following the issue, then they will be doing their job just fine.

  16. daveinprogress

    It shows a certain amount of humility and approachability that JH commented so extensively on this with David. MW never does anything with superficiality or as a throwaway. Every second of its duration is considered. Try questioning Tracy or Matt or Kerry or anybody else on their content choices and you can expect very little. But this is a story, and as it develops, I expect that MW will attend to it. Properly.

  17. News limited bagging the abc. Nothing new in that, Sky news political shows do not rate and the abc does. Just jealous abc has an audience and they do not.

  18. jezza the first original one

    I agree with Jonny on this one. MW is about highlighting crappy and inconsistent standards. A load of leftie luddite journos getting the push cos their readership is in rapid decline in a certain sector of the old media is not part of MWs remit. Another couple of years and the fta networks will get slammed. Adapt quickly or die is the name of the game at the moment.

    Of greater concern is Gina’s intentions with the leftie media. A range of opinions is needed, regardless of whether you agree or not. Now that is a job for MW.

  19. Jonathan Holmes and his team do a fantastic job. He’s points are all made.
    Basically, the critics either don’t understand or choose to not understand what media watch is about… it’s not a ‘fill in X minute’s with stuff news show’.

    Imagine if they did it the commerial TV way:
    “Now crossing Live and Exclusive to a street outside of the building where some annoucement was made 10 hours ago… Jonathan are you there?”
    “Yes Jonathan. As you can see it’s dark now and nothing is happening. Although I understand the state-of-origin is on soon. Back to you.”
    “Thanks Jonathan. Jonathan Holmes there. Now we cross Ken Suitcliff who’ll summerise what he’s going to talk about in about 4 minutes. Ken, I understand state-of-origin is on soon.”

  20. “How could a show that is watching the media not pass comment on such cataclysmic news?”

    With the utmost respect, shouldn’t you include a disclaimer acknowledging you are a journo/contributor for Fairfax – unless the David Knox that has a page in the Sydney Sun Herald TV Guide is a different David Knox?

    Regardless, love this site.

    • [email protected]: I am a freelance media commentator, and as my About page indicates, my work has appeared in a number of platforms. This week yes there were reviews in Fairfax, which I should have footnoted here. I am usually very mindful of this but admit it would have been proper to include here. Apologies.

  21. This is crap, Media Watch will cover it in the coming weeks. As for extending the program or having a 2nd one on ABC24, given their current staff and budget I doubt they could do it without a loss of quality.

    Keep up the good work Jonathan Holmes!

  22. MediaWatch in New Zealand is a 35 minutes radio show on Radio New Zealand, with a monthly pod cast only episode. It is absolute rubbish they can’t have a 30-45 minute show.

    I have no problems with Media Watch on ABC not covering the Fairfax story on Monday. Johnathan often tweets over the weekend when he has finished his script.

  23. Would seem to me that this show is out of touch with what viewers want / expect from it. Which is a bit of a typical ABC attitude. They are after all public servants.

    But c’mon – not enough content for another 15 minutes? In the world of 24 hour cable news (Sky &News 24) hundreds of newspapers, radio stations and dozens of news bulletins every day – they can’t fill another 15 minutes?

    A very ABC attitude!

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