Monday, April 27, 2009

Paul Sheehan, Four Corners, Debbie Whitmont, the ABC, Media Watch and special pleading

It seems that lathering up in a fit of righteous indignation is good form for this week, though strangely none of the right wing commentariat seem to be upset by the Ten network's decision to cancel The Simpsons, on the basis they can no longer afford $25k an ep.

So it goes in telly land, but it's now safe to say there's plenty of us who'll have absolutely no reason to watch Ten, especially if they think the piece of fluffery they jokingly call a news service is going to be able to be pumped full of sea food extender, and so fill in the gap.

Now that's what I call a serious media issue, and it might even be the final sign, the ultimate harbinger of the decline and fall of western civilization as we know it.

Not that it's a worry for the ever so reliable Paul Sheehan, who has much bigger fish to fry and is determined to get his knickers in knot about the ABC and Four Corners - in his column Four Corners but one-sided. Oh yes, and while he's at it, to give reporter Debbie Whitmont an especially hard time, with lashings of tabisco sauce.

The cause of all the fuss in this particular corner of the pond was Whitmont's report for Four Corners on Vietnamese community leader Phuong Ngo's conviction for commissioning the killing of NSW Labor MP John Newman, which could well be classed as our very first political assassination (though the miners who died at the Eureka Stockade might wonder if you have to be an MP before qualifying for that category. Perhaps they were just idle revolutionaries. South Australians always go on about Russian immigrant Koorman Tomayeff  killing left wing MP Percy Brookfield in 1921 but that was at Riverton and Tomayeff never stood trial, being certified insane, so why should anyone care about that byway of history).

Now the Four Corners' report was a chance to air some allegations by supporters of Ngo, and the campaign eventually resulted in a further enquiry into the matter, conducted by retired judge David Patten. He wasn't backward in coming forward to dismiss these supporters as making unsupported allegations, dismissing complaints about one of the chief investigators Mr. Nick Kaldas as lacking a scintilla of evidence, and damning Ngo out of his own mouth for the flaws in his evidence, which were "very destructive of his claim of innocence". As Sheehan puts it, quoting Patten:

Unusually, the accusations made on Four Corners were subjected to forensic scrutiny and the report by Patten found the inquiry had "increased rather than diminished" the strength of the Crown's case. He criticised Ngo's supporters for their "lack of objectivity", "intemperate language" and "making allegations of fraud, perversion of justice, and improper conduct … without a shred of evidence".

Well yes, and all this is well and good, and the program seemed at the time to be something of a long shot, full of pious bleating and re-visiting facts to present the best gloss on Ngo's claims, and in due course the cops have been able to walk away vindicated while Four Corners has egg on its face. 

But it also made for entertaining television, if you happen to like shows like Crime Investigation Australia and funnily enough journalist Debbie Whitmont actually won a Walkley Award for her egg-beating. One thing's certain - if she hadn't taken a 'special pleading' approach, the whole thing would have fallen apart as an overnight sensation. There's not much of a story in 'guilty man sent to prison'. Talk about legless when you need legs.

But damn it, to win a Walkley on the back of a bit of dodgy reporting! Those pesky judges, what the hell would they know. 

Sheehan is rampant with indignation:

Last week, Four Corners issued a statement standing by its report. No acknowledgement of error. No acknowledgement of distress caused. No hint of admission that the program contained innuendo, omission, supposition, false accusation and a preconceived outcome.

Clearly Sheehan doesn't watch commercial television, with its foot in the door approach to investigative journalism, and its willingness to act as judge, jury and executioner, with public shaming and ritual humiliation half the fun needed to drive early prime time ratings, before stepping into the endless crime dramas which still make up much of FTA television's repertoire. 

But in any case he has another axe to grind, and it's a more interesting one.

This is exactly the sort of case another ABC program, Media Watch, should examine, but it is the last thing it would touch, because the opinionated Media Watch actually operates as Ideology Watch. Such is the ethical rigour at our ABC.

Well yes, but you also have to think that in this case David Patten did a much better job than Media Watch, not just about the show but about Ngo's supporters, at much better length, and widely reported as a major story by the media. There's not much more to be said about the result, unless you happen to be of a vindictive, grumpy frame of mind, or you view the $770k spent as a waste of money, even if it firmly shoves this genie into the bottle for a very long time (and was in fact a canny move by Jim Spigelman). Ngo's supporters would have carried on for a long time like pork chops with or without Four Corners bringing the bubble to the point where it could be burst.

Thank the lord Sheehan's outburst about Media Watch has hopefully nothing to do with it giving  him a fine old caning for his bizarre article on magic water way back in 2002 (you can still cop a summary of their story here). As you might expect, Media Watch so loved the original story, they gave it another burst in 2005, when they discovered another Sydney Morning Herald reporter's story on the fuss had been canned (and you can cop that story here, and even watch if you have real player on your machine, such is the miracle of the intertubes).

Now I don't mind if Sheehan was a little amiss in his original story about the virtues of Unique Water, nor that the best he could manage by way of a backdown was a half-assed column in which he retreated from his original euphoria about the magic water at a fast rate of knots by pretending he'd been a sceptic all along (Magic of water is overshadowed by mystery). 

You might head off to Nick Possum's page and read his Too good to be true perspective to see if Sheehan's claims of healthy scepticism stack up. (Or you can read Sheehan's original story here, and make up your own mind).

Oh it was a fine old fuss, a jim dandy set to, and you have to think that Sheehan is still nursing a bit of a bruised ego when it comes to the ABC in general, and Media Watch in particular. 

Maybe he's flinching at the prospect of his recent euphoric conversion to climate change scepticism might also be given a going over by Media Watch, in the guise of a sinister ideology watch designed to look over the shoulder of stout hearted columnists as they attempt to bring assorted prejudices and bits of disinformation to their readers.

But it's hard to cast the relatively benign Jonathan Holmes in the role of ogre. From where I sit, he's a journalist who knows the game - it's always best to get a poacher to trap the poachers - and it's actually a shame that the show only gets fifteen minutes in the sun, when a decent review of all the charlatans, poseurs and scoundrels in the media could easily fill up a television half hour each week, and still be more entertaining that what turns up regularly as entertainment on the ABC (and yes that includes the tragic offerings of the ABC drama department, which term could be said to be a tautology or at least a redundant expansion).

Whatever, Sheehan sounds a little precious when really anyone in the game shouldn't get too worried about throwing stones when everybody lives in glass houses. All Sheehan's original magic water story said to me was caveat emptor, and beware this man when he writes any story requiring a scientific approach and rational argument.

Still ironies do abound whenever Sheehan gets stuck into the ABC and Media Watch. I guess it must really stick in his craw that these days Debbie Whitmont can decorate her glass house with a Walkley, while he's left with memories of  l'afffaire du magic water. 

Ah well, so it goes. Never mind, there's always another witch hunt ripe and ready for our entertainment, so roll on Media Watch. 

Come to think, it's on tonight, and some media larrikin or three will get a right royal whalloping, and never no mind about the distress caused and the preconceived outcomes involved. That's the great thing about loon pond, the ceaseless indignation and frothing and foaming, and somewhere just up ahead, always elusive and mysterious, self-reflection and the truth somehow avoiding our grasp ...

(Below: Nick Possum's evocative illustration of an empty bottle of Unique Water which turned out to be totally and uniquely unique).

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