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Deja Vu
9 June, 2009  

We’ve just had the 20th anniversary celebrations of the ABC’s Media Watch. What a rollicking program it was with Littlemore and Salter in the saddle, as this piece from Justinian’s hard copy days shows … The Bar Rat blunder … That Qantas flight

Is Littlemore an oxymoron?

From Justinian, August 1994

It’s difficult to understand why a person of the sunny disposition of Sydney barrister and Media Watch master of ceremonies, S.M. Littlemore, would get himself upset over matters that should be taken in his attractive stride.

The Media Watch team becomes quite feral when enquiries are made of the program, when apologies for its mistakes are requested, and when complaints are registered.

There are frequent tiresome threats of defamation actions from the great QC himself and his ABC executive producer, David Salter.

Now there is evidence to hand that ABC TV management has given Media Watch a severe bollocking over the handling of a complaint and undertaken to rein-in the program’s arrogance.

The editor of the Australian Nursing Journal, Amanda Tattam, complained to the program about one of Littlemore’s throw away lines, which she believed was a cheap or sexist jibe at the expense of nurses.

Salter replied to the complainant in an aggressive manner, upbraiding Tattam for four small and basically unimportant mistakes in her letter.

There was further correspondence backwards and forwards with Salter becoming increasingly unhinged and telling the complainant that she was being sexist and that she must admit her mistakes.

The director of television, Paddy Conroy, has now written to Ms Tattam apologising on behalf of the ABC, “for the manner in which you complaint was handled by Media Watch”. He went on:

“It is not ABC policy to write in intemperate terms to people making complaints about our programs… A number of senior ABC executives have seen your correspondence with Media Watch and all have expressed concerns about the tone of reply in the letters you received. Steps are being taken by ABC television management to ensure that complaints to Media Watch are taken more seriously in the future.”

Then there was the instance of unpleasantness that emerged from a Media Watch item two years ago.

The Littlemore program showed footage of the then Channel 9 police reporter, beefy Steve Barratt (affectionately known as Bar Rat), entering the lounge room of Mr and Mrs Milenkovska.

Mr Boris Milenkovska had just become a fatality of a police shooting, and the videotape showed Bar Rat insensitively plucking a photo of the dead man from a family album while the grieving widow looked on.

On the tape Barrett is seen saying to Mrs Milenkovska that, “we need a photograph for general police release”.

The footage was filmed by rival news reporter Terry Galloway from Prime TV, and a copy was made available to Media Watch, through Prime’s news director.

Well you can imagine that Littlemore QC was beside himself with indignation at this one. He suggested that Barrett had not identified himself as a TV reporter, but had impersonated a police officer in order to obtain photos of the dead man.

Normally in the world of journalism a modest amount of checking is required before the slipper is sunk.

But here neither Littlemore nor his team checked out the story. Nor did they go to Barrett for his version of events.

Consequently, Media Watch made one of those blunders that Caesar’s wife is obliged to avoid. [Sad to say this item was trotted out in the 20th anniversary MW celebration in Mat 2009.]

This was only discovered after the Media Alliance’s Judiciary Committee examined what, on the surface, appeared to be a dreadful prima facie breach of journalistic ethics by the Bar Rat.

It emerged that the Prime camera had only buttoned on when Barrett was in the Milenkovskas’ lounge-room and had not recorded the fact that he had earlier introduced himself as a journalist, that the Channel 9 crew were all identified, that Mrs Milenkovska had said that she would help Barrett find a photo, and indeed had done an interview on air.

The Judiciary Committee rejected the imputation that Barrett had impersonated a police officer and went on to say:

“Having considered the exhaustive evidence, the committee was satisfied that Mr Barratt did identify himself and his employer before seeing to obtain an interview and photographs for broadcast.

The conclusion is supported by the competing network, Prime Television, in a letter of apology dated August 20, 1992 and in an affidavit signed by the interviewee Mrs Milenkovska dated September 11, 1992.”

However, Barratt was reprimanded for saying he needed the photos for “general police release”. He admitted that it was the wrong choice of words, made under pressure. He had meant to say he wanted family photos for media release instead of using a police mugshot.

The committee found that “this breach was mitigated by the fact that Mr Barrett had already clarified that he was indeed a journalist”.

The Judiciary Committee did say some spicy things, namely that it was “gravely concerned” that the videotape and sound recording were made “dishonestly and unfairly without Mr Barrett’s knowledge or permission”.

It as also concerned that Media Watch “did not fully investigate whether Mr Barrett did identify himself, as the original Prime footage does not provide a complete recording of events”.

The Judiciary Committee report also said the Littlemore’s program showed “edited” highlights of Barrett allegedly impersonating a police officer.

Finally, the committee was also distressed by the fact that the ABC did not give Barrett the right of reply.

Following the release of the findings by the Judiciary Committee the eminent silk gave it a big serve on Media Watch:

“The committee was, en passant, critical of this program’s role in the matter, but we are unconcerned about that, being more interested, for present purposes, in the tribunal itself.”

He then gave a spray to Chris Smith, also from Channel 9, who sat on the Judiciary Committee in Barrett’s case.

“We are, and this is just our opinion of course, a little uneasy about an intrusionist tabloider such as Chris Smith presiding over the ethical standards of his peers … but perhaps that’s an unfounded fear …

But on the other hand, it may be a very well-founded fear.”

He described as “natural justice” the fact that Smith and Barrett work together on A Current Affair a team of judge and accused.

He wrapped it up by saying that Smith’s journalistic tactics are currently the subject of an ethics complaint.

The fact of life is, however, that Smith and Barrett have been fierce competitors and there was no love lost between them.

The ethics review procedures of the Media Alliance also have been toughened up in recent times, partly as a result of the impact that Media Watch has had.

But Littlemore would understand the essence of peer ethical review, which has been practised by the Bar Association for many moons.

Anyway, he was so “unconcerned” about the committee’s findings that he handed in his Media Alliance badge after a draft version was leaked to The Tele Mirror.

In his time-honoured fashion, executive producer Salter threatened to sue The Terror for “extensive and punitive damages” for publication of the draft report in the Bar Rat case.

Blustering fusillades from Salter have become amusing legends in media-law circles, as we saw in the case of the Nursing Journal.

For instance, he gave Channel 7 some disingenuous denials about Littlemore’s work for the Papua New Guinea government on media regulation and split hairs about a grudging apology given by Media Watch in relation to another of its blunders – this time affecting Alan Carpenter, a journalist from the 7.30 Report in Western Australia.

For a program that dishes it out it shows extraordinary touchiness when under examination itself.

This is the sort of spray that inquiring reptiles are likely to get from Salter the hack:

“You are put on notice that you are not at liberty to publish any of these answers. They have been provided to you solely in order that you should understand the assertions contained in your questions 1 and 3 are not true. It is suggested you obtain legal advice in the light of these answers before you publish any matter defamatory of Mr Littlemore.”

Channel 7’s The Times program nonetheless went ahead with a story on Media Watch’s shortcomings and Littlemore’s evolution form intrusive tabloider with the ABC’s TDT to present day holier than thouer.

It also broadcast extracts of a letter written by Captain Hemsworth to the then general manager of the ABC on February 22, 1972. The letter is a sobering reminder of the evolutionary process that Littlemore has experienced.

Captain Hemsworth was piloting a Qantas flight from London, via Athens and Bahrain. Traveling first class were three employees of the ABC, Mr Wasley, Mr Finley and Mr Littlemore. There had been complaints about their behaviour from passengers and crew. The captain went to inspect what was going on. The seat of Wasley’s trousers “had been badly torn and there was quite a large abrasion on his leg and a cut on his mouth. Mr Wasley complained that he had been assaulted by Mr Littlemore and Mr Finley”.

Finley and Littlemore in turn complained that they had been assaulted by Wasley.

“All three appeared to be under the influence of alcohol…

I again approached Mr Littlemore and Mr Finley and said that I would have to close the bar to them, and their attitude was one of abusive aggression. After further discussions with threats of reporting me to my company, I informed Mr Littlemore and Mr Finley that if their behaviour did not improve, I would offload them in Bahrain, to which Mr Littlemore replied, ‘I would be more careful. I am Stuart Littlemore and this would be bad for you and your company’ ...

Mr Finley and Mr Littlemore remained relatively quiet for the remainder of the sector, although Mr Finley did snap his fingers at me and told me to get him a blanket, which I ignored.”

How fabulous.

Salter warned Channel 7 that “this is a matter of no legitimate public interest, least of all after more than 22 years”.

Where would Salter get such strange ideas? I would have thought that anything that pricks the balloon of a “pompous git” would be of abiding public interest!

Anyway, The Terror, Channel 7 and others are still waiting for Salter and Littlemore QC to get various threatened defamation proceedings underway.