Media Watch Dog bites

Gerard Henderson, executive director of the Sydney Institute, has launched Media Watch Dog a blog that is sure to do much more than simply bark and snap at the heels of wayward journalists. 

For the past 22 years, Henderson has been sinking his fangs deep into the body of flawed journalism that pervades Australia’s media scene.

If the title of “doyen of Australian conservative media watchers” were to be awarded, Gerard Henderson and 1980s Quadrant columnist Anthony McAdam, in my opinion, would vie, even tie, for the title. 

Through the early to mid-1980s, Anthony McAdam tracked and reported left-leaning journalism. 

In March 1982, Quadrant introduced McAdam’s "The Watchman" column with this blurb: 

Australia entirely lacks any serious monitor of its media. To fill this gap, Quadrant now begins a monthly column – The Watchman, by Anthony McAdam – which will observe how the media report the central political and cultural questions of the day. 

The conventional wisdom is that the media are biased in favour of the interests of their owners. This has long ceased to be true and the bias today that most obviously moulds the way news and information are reported arises far more from the world view and unquestioned assumptions of journalists. 

The Watchman will question these assumptions. 

The Watcher column made McAdam the pioneer of conservative media analysis and criticism in Australia. 

That is not to take away from others who penned critiques of left-leaning media activity around the same time. For example Paddy McGuinness, Sam Lipski, Frank Devine and others periodically exposed media bias over a range of issues. Even former prime minister John Howard wrote a piece on the Canberra press gallery in 1989 for the Independent Monthly under the headline, “The press gallery’s part in our downfall”. 

But before that, in April 1988, Gerard Henderson took media criticism to a new level in this country with the publication of his bi-monthly journal Media Watch. The editorial in the first issue outlined the magazine’s mission: “that the media should be subject to the same severity of scrutiny as that to which it subjects others.” 

As Henderson enjoys pointing out, he started Media Watch the magazine more than a year before the ABC cottoned on to the idea and blithely launched a television show presented by Stuart Littlemore under the same name. 

If the ABC was as balanced as many of its defenders claim it is, and unafraid of criticism, Henderson would have had behind him by now a decent stint as the network’s Media Watch presenter.  

Instead, along with a few others on the right of politics, Henderson has been relegated to the position of token conservative on various ABC shows down the years. 

In the wake of the 2007 Rudd Labor victory, Radio National, presumably emboldened by Labor’s success and no longer needing to display even a pretence of balance, omitted Henderson’s regular and long-running weekly commentary spot from its 2008 Breakfast line-up. 

His incisive opinions and observations are still available on ABC1’s Sunday morning Insiders program, where he remains on the roster. And, of course, his weekly column provides a good reason to take a look at the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesdays. 

It has always been my opinion that, in its quest to modify the behaviour of the ABC, Gerard Henderson’s talents seemed to be ignored by the Howard Government. For example, instead of Jonathan Shier, Gerard Henderson was the logical and stand-out choice for ABC managing director. Henderson was the man who, I am sure, would have made a difference. So would David Flint. 

The ABC troops would have been upset. Solution: the ABC’s cultural and ideological foot-soldiers would have had to get over it, change their ways … or get out. 

Of course, Henderson may have been approached and preferred not to apply. His continued commitment to the Sydney Institute may have been more to his liking, any way. But, it is interesting to consider, what if? 

The appointment of conservative writers to the ABC Board was an exercise in kicking own goals. It may have stirred the pot, but it also removed articulate critics from the debate about the ABC. However, the installation as managing director of someone who understands the culture and modus operandi of ABC news and current affairs, its tastes in historical, social and cultural documentaries and other program making – that could have achieved positive results. 

For example, consider how a conservative managing director might have reacted to the ABC agenda for the Australian Bicentenary. Henderson referred to it in that very first April 1988 Media Watch editorial: 

ABC management showed three documentaries – two by expatriate Australians (Russell Braddon and John Pilger) and one by a Brit. currently residing Down Under (Jack Pizzey). It was as if contemporary Australian residents have nothing useful to say about their own country – which, of course, is manifestly false. 

Gerard Henderson’s Media Watch Dog is a welcome addition to the conservative blogroll. I look forward to his Media Watch Dog unleashed and sooled onto errant journalism. Go, Gerard.

John Styles is the editor of Australian Conservative. He wrote a media column for News Weekly from 2000 to 2003.

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