28 Apr 2024

Competitive current affairs across the Tasman

From Mediawatch, 9:11 am on 28 April 2024

While TV news and current affairs shows are becoming an endangered species here, they seem to be still going strong in Australia where broadcasters back the shows with big budgets. But intense competition also prompts dodgy decisions that can cost them dearly in the courts as well.

Australia's Channel 7 is in trouble for jumping to conclusions in a week of troubling violence in Sydney.

Australia's Channel 7 is in trouble for jumping to conclusions in a week of troubling violence in Sydney. Photo: screenshot / Seven News

When Australia's Channel 7 went live on Wednesday with news of police raids in Sydney, reporter Annie Pullar proudly told viewers 7's cameras were the only ones on the scene to capture one of the raids. 

Those raids were prompted by the shocking stabbing of a Sydney cleric last weekend during a service streamed live on YouTube, which subsequently sparked riots in the neighbourhood. 

Just how a national TV network's cameras were in the right place at the right time during a secret anti-terror operation was not explained, but that was a win for 7 News in Australia's highly competitive news media market. 

Moments later 7's news special carried a live police media conference. 

"The AFP police commissioner has today been very clear about disinformation and misinformation that has been circulating online about two distressing incidents in Sydney. I urge all Australians to seek their information from reputable news sources," said the New South Wales police deputy. 

But Australian news outlets most people would regard as credible - including 7 News - didn't always make that distinction themselves.   

Violent week in Sydney

Live TV coverage from the scene of the shocking Bondi mall killings in Sydney last week.

Live TV coverage from the scene of the shocking Bondi mall killings in Sydney last week. Photo: screenshot / Sky News Australia

The first  - and worst  - of those violent incidents was the lethal rampage in a Bondi shopping mall.

New South Wales Police told the media 40-year-old Joel Cauchi had "mental health issues" in part to calm suspicions it was an act of political or religious terrorism.  

As the TV networks switched to live coverage, Rupert Murdoch's news.com.au was asking was this a terrorist attack? 

As unverified mobile phone images circulated on social media, one high-profile X account with almost 1 million followers shared "the first picture of the terrorist." It also claimed people were stabbed in "in a Jewish area". 

Right wing provocateur Avi Yemini - OzraeliAvi on Twitter - pushed that message out to 560,000 followers on the platform.

Condemnation of the so-called 'terrorist' erupted online, along with some demands for the deportation of family members.  

But Joel Cauchi - clad in a Kangaroos league jersey - was Australian, and so was his family. 

A pro-Putin X-user calling himself 'Aussie Cossack' then falsely identified the Bondi attacker as a young university student in Sydney who happened to look a bit like Cauchi. 

False social media claims in a crisis is nothing new. 

But on Sunday, the host of TV channel 7's morning show Sunrise also named the Sydney student live on air. Ten minutes later, Sunrise reporter Lucy McLeod named "40-year-old Cohen" again. 

7 later claimed it had apologised for a "human error" but four more hours would pass before the record was corrected on the air. 

Meanwhile some media were publishing what they could find about the victims.

After young mother Ashlee Good died in hospital and her baby's life was still in the balance, the media aired photos of both and published personal details taken without consent from Good's Instagram account.

Some outlets blurred the baby's face, but Sydney's own top-selling paper The Daily Telegraph didn't bother. 

A lawyer friend of Ashlee Good called the editor and followed up with an angry letter claiming this was immoral and unethical - as well as a flagrant breach of copyright. 

A family statement went further. 

"This has caused extreme distress amongst Ashlee's loved ones and we request that the photos be taken down," it pleaded. 

The next day 7 News sent out a sunny PR release with viewership figures boasting Sunrise was Australia's number one TV breakfast show. 

7 News drawing attention to just how many people might have heard them identifying the wrong person in coverage of the Bondi mall tragedy.

7 News drawing attention to just how many people might have heard them identifying the wrong person in coverage of the Bondi mall tragedy. Photo: screenshot / 7 News

Good timing, according to the deputy editor of media news website Mumbrella. 

"It showed exactly how widely Benjamin Cohen had been defamed," noted Nathan Jolly.

The failure to verify online misinformation from dubious sources cost Seven West Media dearly. Cohen engaged two of Australia's foremost defamation lawyers - and settled for an undisclosed sum on Friday. 

Legal jeopardy

It's not the only big bill the company has copped because of editorial failures. 

Former soldier Ben Roberts-Smith  - who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his deeds in the Afghanistan war -  was recruited by Seven West Media even as the rival Nine network was reporting his involvement in war crimes in Afghanistan.

Seven's billionaire owner Kerry Stokes backed a defamation lawsuit against Nine - and lost. 

"This is a media proprietor who should believe in journalism, yet he was waging a huge war against investigative journalism," said Nine journalist Nick McKenzie. 

Ben Roberts-Smith received the Victoria Cross for gallantry in Afghanistan from the late Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace in 2011.


In that end the judge in that case ruled that on the balance of probabilities Nine was correct in reporting Roberts-Smith "broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement… and is therefore a criminal." 

Last year Seven also got in behind Bruce Lehrmann, a political staffer accused of rape by another - Brittany Higgins - after her claims had been aired on rival TV Channel Ten. 

After Lehrmann's trial for the rape of Brittany Higgins was abandoned because of misconduct by a juror, Lehrmann appeared on Seven's current affairs show Spotlight to deny it. 

"Let's light some fires," he declared at the start of 7's scoop.  

But Lehrman and 7 only torched their own reputation and finances when Lehrmann sued Channel Ten and its presenter Lisa Wilkinson for defamation. 

A Federal Court last week ruled  Lehrman did rape Brittany Higgins on the balance of probabilities.

Other damaging facts about 7 News emerged during the case. 

It paid Lehrmann $2000-a-week rent for an entire year in exchange for two exclusive interviews. Spotlight's nomination for the coveted Walkley Journalism Award for Scoop of the Year was withdrawn as a result of that. 

Image of Bruce Lehrmann emerging from court on April 15, 2024 in Sydney, Australia.

Bruce Lehrmann emerges from court on April 15, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. Photo: Getty Images / Don Arnold

A producer on Spotlight claimed they also spent money on drugs and at a brothel to secure Lehrmann's cooperation. Spotlight's executive producer resigned shortly after.  

In his extensive ruling knocking back Lehrman's defamation claims, Justice Lee also said Ten didn't do enough to evaluate Higgin's evidence, or to seek responses from Lehrmann or other people involved in the events. 

He found that Ten's defence of qualified privilege - which requires journalists to do everything they reasonably can to test a story - would have failed, had it been needed. 

Justice Lee cited as a precedent the case of former PM David Lange against the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Back in 1990, the ABC ran the TVNZ Frontline programme 'For the Public Good' which alleged that the Labour Party was under the influence of big businesses bankrolling the party's 1987 election campaign. 

The BSA ruled it breached standards of accuracy and fairness. It also sparked lawsuits here, as well as changes in TVNZ management and the programme moved from Wellington to Auckland. 

"Things were never the same again. "I believe that episode forever changed news and current affairs in New Zealand," former Frontline producer Phil Wallington recalled in 2015.  

Dying here, but vigorous over there?

Current affairs shows as we know them today will all but vanish soon because of the cuts at TVNZ and the closure of Newshub.

But in Australia they seem to be still going strong, in spite of  some dodgy decisions and copping hefty legal bills.

Recently Mumbrella's Jolly reported - with tongue in cheek - Seven News was preparing to move to Sydney's Law Courts building to cut down on travel costs for its own executives.

What do Australian viewers make of it all? 

"The general public either don't know or just find it sleazy. Because it is sleazy. Sunrise will continue to be number one - and 7 News will continue to be number one. But there is still a lot of reputational damage done," Jolly commented on the Benjamin Cohen incident. 

"It's the race to get the news up first. If you get it right, and you get it first, you're the heroes. And if you get it wrong, then  there's horrible fallout. That guy couldn't leave his house because he was falsely named based on internet conjecture that was then reported as fact, then repeated," Jolly told Mediawatch. 

But while TV news current affairs shows are closing down here, there's clearly an appetite in Australia for the likes of Spotlight, 60 Minutes and Nine's weekly show A Current Affair.  And bosses are prepared to spend money getting scoops - even if they're bad ones. 

"They still rate really well in Australia. They do hard reporting (but) they have a kind of tabloid magazine format. Morally, they go beyond the pale a lot of times. There's trickery involved in getting stories. They'll pay money, you know, as we've seen with Bruce Lehrmann. But ethically, they fall short at times and the networks get sued," Jolly told Mediawatch.