EXCLUSIVE: “If you do the job at Media Watch you don’t make a lot of friends,” admits host Paul Barry.
As ABC’s resident media scrutineer, Barry knows all about making friends and influencing people…. or not, as he explains to TV Tonight.
“I have occasionally had to have a go a people I consider my friends and it’s not a pleasant business. Most people recognise, or should recognise, it’s a job I have to do and I try to do it fairly, without fear or favour.
“When I first started doing the job it used to give me sleepless nights, worrying about what people thought. But I worry very little about it nowadays. I’m much more thick-skinned and calm about the whole business.
“Monica Attard said it was one of the reasons she gave it up. She couldn’t hack criticising the people she knew.”
“Journalists as a bunch tend to be pretty thin-skinned.”
Criticising colleagues in the media, or indeed within the ABC, sometimes comes at a price which can be felt at ground zero.
“We’re in a different part of the building to News & Current Affairs so we don’t see a massive amount of them naturally. But I meet people in the lift or the make-up room that I have recently had a go at. It’s uncomfortable,” Barry concedes.
“Journalists as a bunch tend to be pretty thin-skinned. They dish it out to other people but they hate having anyone come after them. Rarely does anybody take it well or with good humour.”
Barry returned to Media Watch in 2013, following a 2010 stint filling in for Jonathan Holmes. But his first hosting in 2000 ended with his dismissal after criticism of Jonathan Shier.
“He was the managing director and he was wrecking the joint. There was a massive amount of very negative coverage about the ABC and a lot of changes that people didn’t like. At the end of the year we decided to interview him and ask him what he was doing but he wouldn’t come on,” Barry explains.
“So I interviewed the Chairman, Donald McDonald, and I put it to him that as Chairman of the Board he had chosen this guy and when were they going to admit it was the wrong choice? They did admit it about six months later and sacked him.
“But the Executives didn’t appreciate my giving the Chairman a hard time and didn’t renew my contract. The programme went off air for about a year, but there was a protest. I think ABC even went out on strike for a bit.
“I remember saying to Peter McEvoy, the producer at the time, ‘They can’t touch us. It’s our job to criticise the ABC. Surely we don’t have a problem doing this.’”
Media Watch runs on its own auspices, separate from News & Current Affairs and ABC Publicity under Executive Producer Tim Latham. Barry acknowledges the support of David Anderson, ABC Director Entertainment & Specialist, even if not everybody within the building is a fan. When it comes to scrutinising ABC’s own content, Media Watch seeks comment from producers, publicity or corporate, just as it would for any other show.
“We try extra-hard to be scrupulous inside the ABC,” he continues. “It doesn’t mean to say we moderate our criticism at all, but we make sure we go through the right processes and everybody has the opportunity to answer what we’ve said. We do that with everybody, but when it’s the ABC and your own employment is also at stake, or you are going to meet the people you’re meeting, or the managers who run them it’s probably wise to be slightly extra-careful.”
“We don’t just work 15 minutes a week”
But the show has its own critics, notably in print and radio circles who regularly place the show in its cross-hairs. In addition to ongoing potshots at the public broadcaster’s expense, there are questions about Media Watch‘s volume, at a modest 16 minutes on air per week. Barry is having none of it.
“You can apply that criticism to any show on television,” he argues. “60 Minutes is on for 43 minutes a week, probably with 5 times the staff we’ve got, and a budget that is probably 10 times ours. We have a pretty small budget and team of people who work hard to look at stories, some which we reject, and who work hard to make sure the stories we do are right.
“We don’t just work 15 minutes a week or come in on Monday morning to put the show together.”
Weekly online commentary Media Bites launched in 2017, to tap into social media and younger viewers. Barry’s presenting style takes a light-hearted turn, which he swears is his doing and not producer-coerced. Funny props, hats and “dad jokes” are authentic Barry. So there.
“I like it! I set the style. It’s really good to have a programme where you don’t have to be serious and you can take the piss out of stuff and show a different side.
“People like it too. If they were complaining I’d pull it back,” he insists.
“It does seem to be attracting a younger audience and washing over into the weekly show.
“It puts criticism of the media out to younger people, who wouldn’t otherwise look at it, which I think is worth doing. If the price is that you have to make a fool of yourself, then I’m very happy to do that.”
But Media Bites owes a debt of gratitude to one of Barry’s former TV forays, Seven’s 1994 news-with-attitude The Times. It only lasted a year, but many deem it ahead of its time for fast-paced storytelling and using cheeky subtitles over its subjects.
“It was always outside, on the run, having bottles thrown at you while you did the links. Media Bites is in some ways a descendant of that. There were subtitles on the pictures and sometimes over the interviews, contradicting or commenting on what the person was saying. But it was too long as an hour, it should have been half an hour.”
“I wanted to change the world”
If attitude and determination come from somewhere Barry looks to his university days in the UK, prior to moving to Australia at the age of 35 in 1987.
“I wanted to change the world so I worked in Politics for a year which I found very disillusioning. So I tried Journalism instead,” he recalls.
“Like every young person I felt there was a whole lot of things wrong with the world that needed to be fixed. So I thought I would go out and try to fix them. I guess I still have a little bit of that attitude now. Perhaps that’s why I am criticising bad behaviour in the Media ….trying to fix that up.”
When he isn’t consumed with effecting change or keeping the bastards honest, Barry enjoys watching Netflix and SBS on Demand dramas and political thrillers, citing such shows as Homeland, Babylon Berlin, The Wire and Collateral.
“Le Bureau des Légendes is about the French Secret Service and it’s absolutely fantastic,” he adds. “It was on SBS. It’s really good. It’s like Homeland but a whole heap more plausible.”
But no interview can conclude without a right of reply to those critics, many of whom inhabit more conservative corners of the media. Barry believes The Australian is not as prolific in its criticism as it was under former editor Chris Mitchell, whom he suggests “used to like making war.”
“I don’t think Paul Whittaker or John Lehmann run the paper in the same way. It doesn’t mean to say they don’t occasionally or frequently attack the ABC or Media Watch. But I don’t feel like it’s a constant, running way like it used to be,” he observes.
“It probably makes a difference to have Malcolm Turnbull, who is basically supportive of the ABC, as Prime Minister than Tony Abbott, who was basically not supportive. They have a different audience to play to.”
“I think it’s pretty good that we’re being criticised by both sides.”
ABC News was recently criticised for editorialising in its reportage on former PM Tony Abbott, by that other media watchdog, the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Does that mean the ABC is subject to bias after all?
“If you look at Twitter people are hacking into the ABC for being too far to the right and filling it with interviewees from the Institute of Public Affairs, compared to other think tanks and they say the ABC is just a tool of the Liberal government,” he says.
“Then on the other hand you have a whole bunch of people criticising the ABC for being friends of the Greens and far too Left, obsessed with climate change and refugees.
“I think it’s pretty good that we’re being criticised by both sides. Sure, occasionally we go off the straight and narrow and it tends to be more likely to the Left than to the Right.
“But typically, I think the ABC does a fantastic job. It’s full of very professional people who, whatever their views, don’t let them get in the way of the way they report. And that’s more than you can say for some of the commercial organisations around, which have a very clear agenda.”
While critics may have succeeded in an inquiry into anti-competitiveness, and a freeze on funding caps, it may take more to nudge the man who once wanted to change the world from his chair.
“I have no plans to give it up at the moment. Let’s put it that way. Maybe they will send me out in a box!” he laughs.
“It’s an important job and someone needs to do it. And I quite enjoy doing it.”
Media Watch airs 9:18 Mondays on ABC. Media Bites is available Thursdays on iview, Facebook and Twitter.