Australian News of the Day Media-Watch
26th November 1996

With Jean-Georges Estiot

JG Estiot is the President of TELNEM, a media-watch group based in Melbourne, Australia. His weekly column below is posted every Monday by 9pm and reflects on news coverage from the preceding week. Unless otherwise specified, his comments are based on the daily monitoring of ABC, Nine and Seven TV news in Victoria. JG is not a member of a political party, special interest group, sporting or professional association other than TELNEM.

Many thanks for the good feedback I received last week about this column. If you have any comments or questions, contact me by email.

In this edition:

More to Clinton's visit than patting kangaroos

Timor conference: aborted coverage

The Bryant trial: beating up an anti-climax

Farewell Malcolm

In brief

Media Watch Main Menu

Return to Australian News of the Day

More to Clinton's visit than patting kangaroos

The visit of Bill and Hilary Clinton to Australia started the news week off on a high note. The media contingent following the Clintons was in a relaxed mood. All was set for the round of golf, the kangaroo patting and the koala cuddling. Australia, the cultural satellite of the US, had laid the red carpet for His Excellency the King of democracy.

The Seven network was not about to spoil the "meet and greet" party by broadcasting the news the champions of democracy had vetoed a 14 to 1 vote to re-appoint the UN Secretary General, and were threatening to strangle the UN financially. This week was to be a US positive week and no negatives would sneak in.

The hacks were following the Clintons just about everywhere. The reporting matched the occasion and throughout the week, descriptive narration prevailed. In one report, Michael Asher (Nine) gave the following facts in succession:

No doubt about it. It is factual. His report continued in this fashion until most of his audience collapsed, the victims of a subliminally transmitted lobotomy.

Bill Clinton was using his Australian trip as a breather after an exhausting election campaign, and the media appeared to be doing the same. A few got caught napping when President Clinton sneaked some real juice into a seemingly innocuous postcard from Australia kind of speech.

Whilst in Port Douglas, President Clinton said: "I call upon the community of nations to agree to legally binding commitments to fight climate change." This was more than a general purpose statement on global warming. It related to Australia's stance during a UN climate conference in Geneva last July. At the time, Australia found itself compromising its high-profile on the environment for the sake of protecting the coal industry. So soon after a long campaign against French nuclear testing, Australia and New-Zealand stood alone and were widely criticised by a united world. The two countries were the only OECD nations to vote against legally binding targets on greenhouse emissions. In other words, Australia is not the environment champion it claims to be but actively seeks to obstruct world-wide measures to fight pollution.

Reporting the Bill Clinton's speech, Nine News rightly established the connection between Clinton's statement and the events which unfolded during the Geneva conference. This is amusing because at the time, only the ABC and SBS gave any coverage to the conference. I assumed back then that the commercial stations were muzzled by interests related to the mining industry.

Seven completely missed the boat and passed Clinton's sting off as a call for a join Australian-American strategy to combat global warming. This deceitful angle to the speech portrayed Australia and America as working hand in hand towards the same goal, when in reality, there are on a collision course. Seven avoided the above quote and chose instead a less pointed part of Clinton's speech: "A greenhouse may be a good place to raise plants but it is no place to nurture our children" Clearly, Seven removed all context potentially pitting Australia and America against each other. The mentors had written the script and no fact was to get in the way.

Fact: Nine spent 30 seconds on the reporting and analysis of Bill Clinton's speech on global warming, the ABC used 2 minutes and 10 seconds and Seven a total of 20 seconds.

Return to Media Watch Menu

Timor conference: aborted coverage

On the 10th of November, activists holding a Timor conference in Kuala Lumpur were arrested, detained and deported by the Malaysian authorities. The conference had been declared illegal by the authorities and a swift rounding-up operation followed. An ABC journalist was caught in the middle and was arrested with the others. This made the news on all stations. The next day, the return to Australia of some of the activists also made the news. By then the media had involved Prime Minister John Howard who, invoking the illegality of the gathering, did not offer much sympathy to the deportees.

A few days later (16th of November) the Malaysian High Court declared that the Timor meeting was legal. This announcement was important and, if reported, would have significantly changed public perception. The organisers of the conference would no longer be the single-minded people who went ahead despite the risks. The boot would have been on the other foot and the Malaysian authorities would have had a little explaining to do.

The Seven news covered everything up to that point, but somehow did not find the High Court decision newsworthy. Such disturbing and repeated failures are common on Seven. TV news viewers expect continuity in coverage. If something is considered newsworthy in the first place, reports should continue for as long as important related events occur.

Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahatir is not exactly impressed with the Australian media. On Sunday, he called them "congenital liars" and "incapable of telling the truth." The "State-briefed" media in his country did not have to tell lies. They did not report the incident at all. Will the Australian media take up the challenge and get stuck into Mahatir? After all, suggesting the Australian media have an hereditary or genetically inherited tendency to lie could be interpreted as a racist statement.

Since the build-up to the start of the APEC summit, we have had a daily serving of racial controversy in the news. This, it seems, is a neurotic ping-pong game between the Australian and Asian media. In official diplomatic or business circles, the "racial thing" does not even rate a mention.

Return to Media Watch Menu

The Bryant trial: beating up an anti-climax

Once Martin Bryant pleaded guilty to all charges, the trial became a formality. All media hype should have vanished. It didn't. Stopping the steam-rolling action of a well-oiled freak show seems to be as hard as bringing a tanker to a halt. The course was set and the coverage had been orchestrated weeks in advance.

I am not suggesting the verdict and post-trial reactions from victims and families should have been bypassed. It is all newsworthy. But was there a need for page upon page in the press, and hours of air-time on radio and television? For some, it seems the main game was to justify the expense of sending crews to Tasmania (or to use a word Ray Martin has worn out this week, Tassie)

The Seven Network sent high-profile newsreader David Johnston to Tasmania. What for? He appeared live on-camera for a grand total of 2 minutes and four seconds. He stood in front of some dull building reading from the autocue. He could have been in Rio or Paris, it would have made no difference at all. This farcical live act reached its low point when sports presenter Tim Watson read the lotto results in Melbourne, handed over to David Johnston in Tasmania who threw back to Melbourne for a commercial break. This live thing is a gimmick. It is about splashing promos and building people's expectations. It is a make-believe game. The gullible would think that because the news bulletin is coming live from a location, something extra will come of it. Nothing happened, they did not even bother to have a guest or co-host live on the set. The Tasmanian junket must have cost thousands of dollars. In the end, one way or another, the consumer has to pay for it.

Fact: Channel Seven has covered almost twice as much of the Bryant trial in its nightly news as any other station.

Return to Media Watch Menu

Farewell Malcolm

Malcolm Long, the SBS managing director who last week categorically denied the allegations made by the Nine Network program Sunday, has made a huge back-flip this week. After claiming none of the facts presented by Nine were true, he spent much of the week wiping the eggs off his face.

Nine produced footage of Long contradicting himself. His videotaped statement to the Senate Estimate Committee confirmed that SBS funding had gone up in real terms. The audience decline in most of SBS top programs was also demonstrated by Nine, even with the dubious audience reach method used by SBS to inflate its ratings. The list of allegations substantially proven by Nine is quite long. To prove some of them was as easy as using figures published in the SBS annual report.

If a politician had mislead the public half as much Malcolm Long did, he would have resigned a week ago. This is still be the best way out for Mr. Long.

Return to Media Watch Menu

In Brief

Return to Media Watch Menu