Archive for October, 2009

There is hope, oh lovers of accountability, democracy, and whopping big come-uppances.

Just received word from a colleague that investigative journalists are actually being hired in London.

Iain Overton, a former executive producer of mine at More4 News (ITN), was recently appointed Managing Editor of the newly-founded Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It’s the first project of its kind in the UK, and has support from hugely-respected Seymour Hersh, and author of the worrying but timely Flat Earth News (currently doing my young journalistic brain in), Nick Davies.

“People from print, online and broadcast backgrounds are encouraged to apply, provided they understand how to conduct long term investigations, have a grasp of media law and are able to work both alone and heading up a small team.  Skills such as being able to understand financial data, how to carry out Fois and languages are all assets.”

So there you have it. Life in the old format yet. Hoorah!  Get in touch with ’em at jobs@tbij.com if you fit the bill.

Just thought I’d post quickly in relation to last night’s Media Watch on the ABC. If you live outside of Australia, or indeed live in Australia but missed it, it’s well worth watching. Not only is it on the seemingly never-ending debate about paying for content, it’s got what every college-journalist shamefully strives for – conflict!

A great analysis of the war of words between the ABC’s chief Mark Scott and the Murdochs. Well, I’m not sure if Rupert and James are that bothered about the ABC when, in an  age where newspapers and broadcasters increasingly occupy the same space,  it’s clearly the BBC that poses the bigger commercial problem – but the arguments are the same wherever a strong public broadcaster offers online content.

It’s especially interesting comparing the ABC vs News Ltd and the rest spat against the BBC vs News Lts and the rest spat. Although clearly the smaller player, the ABC seems to operate with a lot more confidence than the Beeb. The obvious answer to this is the less visible model of charging the consumer – most punters would probably prefer to have funding quietly taken from their taxes than loudly receive threatening letters to cough up a licence-fee in the mail.

Something the show didn’t go into quite enough detail over, I’d argue, is the role of public broadcasting. Maybe the BBC and ABC should be forced to dump the content that doesn’t play a vital role in democracy? Strictly Come Dancing might be a good laugh (not for me, of course), but is it a good use of tax and licence-fee money? It would rob Murdoch of one part of his argument- for about 30 seconds – if the essential forms of journalism that don’t sell The Sun or Sydney’s Daily Telegraph – in terminal decline on TV as they are – were protected from the storm while entertainment was left to HBO. After all, they do it best.

It would be hard for anyone to argue that a crucial role in uncovering injustice, lies, deception and corruption of power is not currently played by publicly-funded broadcasters – which, of course, includes their online offerings. If the state-funded model (such as the ABC) is to survive another few decades, surely it will have to be stripped down and refined to provide what it does best – an essential source of quality investigative journalism, news and current affairs. And you know what? Far more of it.

I haven’t blogged for over a month, and the reason for that is that we’ve been on the road. Or in the air, or on a train. Lots of trains.

We’ve returned to Sydney after London and Berlin, and I’ve been out of Australia for 3 years. A lot can change in 1 year, let alone 3. As it happens, not much has happened in the Australian media landscape. Of course, a couple of things have come and gone.  Digital TV has expanded, slowly, leaving us with a few more offerings. The Sydney Morning Herald, the only intelligent paper not owned by Rupert Murdoch here in Australia’s biggest city, has lost a little quality. Online offerings of broadcasters have improved a little, of course.

But the overwhelming feature of Australian free to air TV remains – the enormous gulf in quality between the commercial TV networks, and the public service offerings of the ABC and SBS.

Last week, Channel Nine’s Hey Hey It’s Saturday made headlines in the rest of the English-speaking world for a piss-poor black and white minstrels routine. Never mind the shocking cultural insensitivity – the fact that Hey Hey’s comeback won the ratings battle on the night beggars belief. Marina Hyde in the Guardian used it as a stick to beat Australia with, a land which she suggested brings very little to the world of intelligent popular culture. (note; can’t for the life of me find a link for this. Have they taken it down?) Watching Channel Nine, or for that matter Channel Ten, and certainly Channel Seven, it would be entirely fair to come to this conclusion.

What has not changed in the last 3 years is the programming divide. In the UK, the debate around dumbing down has been going on for years. The once proud BBC current affairs strand Panorama is a shell of its former self. But quality factual TV – in the form of documentary and investigative journalism – is alive and well in Australia, on the ABC and SBS.  The current affairs shows screened on Channels 7 and 9 each weeknight, Today Tonight and A Current Affair, are some of the most vile programming I’ve come across. Dishonest, lazy and frequently bigoted attempts at ‘journalism’ might rate well – but any country’s media professionals would be proud of the work going on at the ABC and SBS.

This evening on ABC 1, the flagship news bulletin was followed by the solid current affairs 7.30 Report, which was followed by a typically thorough Four Corners film on businessman James Packer, which was followed by the ever-reliable spotlight of Media Watch. A break for the ever-present BBC drama (no changes there), and it’s back to serious business with Lateline, then Lateline Business. SBS went in with Indigenous current affairs show Living Black at 6pm, followed by an hour of the editorially-sound World News Australia, before Top Gear and Bear Grylls relapses, then the 9.30 World News. Tomorrow night they’ll be showing the outstanding Dateline international affairs show – which the ABC will match with Foreign Correspondent later in the week.

It’s often said that the US’s ‘culture wars’ might have come to an end with the presidency of Barack Obama. With Fox News around, that’s unlikely. What is interesting, though, is that this can be seen in Australia too; for the unibigotted, curious and intelligent television viewer, there’s plenty going on. There’s also plenty of crap on TV here, worse than Britain can serve up. And it’s mostly confined to the commercial networks, unlike Britain where commercial Channel 4, despite a lot of its own tosh, leads the way in news and current affairs (although receiving public money), while BBC One hardly deals with anything intelligent.

Yet the difference between the types of network in Australia is profound. There is barely a reason to grab the remote and leave ABC or SBS. It can’t be a good thing – but it’s the same as 3 years ago.

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