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.’”