Chequebook journalism: is commercialism perverting current affairs reporting?
The buttons above: Internet links takes you to Web sources for this issue - Analysis help opens a guide to analysing the language of the news media, with sample analyses - Clippings package takes you to a list of all the items used to compile this outline
SCROLL DOWN to read ALL the sections, including arguments for and against
Echo Issue Outline 2001 / 01
On November 13, 2000, former 60 Minutes reporter, Jeff McMullen, directed a pointed attack at the current affairs program for which he had worked for 16 years.
Mr McMullen claimed the program had been perverted by its competitive ethos and that in a pursuit of ratings it had given way to sensationalism and the purchasing of interviews. Mr McMullen was particularly critical of this practice, claiming that chequebook journalism damaged the program's credibility.
Current and former producers of 60 Minutes quickly came to its defence. There followed a fairly wide-ranging discussion in the media about the quality of commercial current affairs and the effect of paying for interviews.
What they said ...
'They've decided that the only way to go is to hype things ... overblow them, sensationalise them ...'
ABC journalist and former 60 Minutes reporter, George Negus, commenting on the style adopted by some commercial current affairs programs
' ... you don't often see people tied down and forced to watch these popular current affairs shows, pining in their souls for something worthier or more demanding'
ABC journalist and former 60 Minutes reporter, Jennifer Byrne
Copyright © Echo Education Services
First published in The Echo news digest and newspaper sources index.
Issue outline by J M McInerney
60 Minutes is one of Australia's longest running current affairs programs. It is the longest running current affairs program on commercial television. Its first program was shown on February 11, 1979.
It was regularly Australia's highest rating program through most of the 1980s. Though still popular, it did not enjoy the same level of success through the 1990s.
The program is credited with being the first in Australia to regularly pay prime interview subjects for exclusive interviews.
The most famous early such interview was with Lindy Chamberlain. She is said to have been paid some $250,000 for the exclusive interview she gave 60 Minutes in 1986.
Many other interview subjects have since been claimed to have been paid to have appear. Among the most recent and the most controversial was disgraced cricketer, Hansie Cronje.
On November 14, 2000, the ABC's Lateline program conducted an interview with former 60 Minutes reporter, Jeff McMullen. The interview was titled 'Tabloid TV Exposed' and was conducted by Tony Jones. It can be found at http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/s212302.htm
The Australian Press Council is the self-regulatory body of the print media. It was established in 1976 with two main aims: to help preserve the traditional freedom of the press within Australia and ensure that the free press acts responsibly and ethically.
The Australian Press Council regularly published comments on media issues made by its former chairman, Professor David Flynt. One of these comments gives Professor Flynt's views on the practice of buying interviews. It was published in February, 1995.
The comment explains that that the Australian Press Council has no overall position on chequebook journalism, preferring to consider the matter on a case by case basis.
Professor Flynt's comments can be found at http://www.presscouncil.org.au/pcsite/public/feb95/stories.html
In May, 1995, the Australian Press Council published a reply to Professor Flynt's comments written by Duncan Graham of Wordstars Pty. Ltd., Western Australia. Mr Graham is quite critical of chequebook journalism and argues that stronger measures should be taken against the practice. He claims that it is in violation of two clauses of the Australian Journalists' Association's code of ethics.
Mr Graham's comments can be found at http://www.presscouncil.org.au/pcsite/public/may95/letter.html
The Australian Journalists' Association's code of ethics can be found at http://www.ijnet.org/Code_of_Ethics2/Australian_Journalists__Association_and_the_MEAA_AJA0.html A number of clauses in the code appear to have a bearing on chequebook journalism. The most directly revelant is clause eight which states 'Disclose any direct or indirect payment made for interviews, pictures or information.'
Public Debate is an Australian-based issues site giving a brief overview on each of a wide range of popular issues. In addition to the overview, the site also allows visitors to vote on each of the issues it treats. The results of visitor votes can be accessed on screen. Some of these issues are of consequence, others seem to be offered purely for their entertainment value.
On November 19, 1999, Public Debate published an overview of the issue 'Chequebook journalism: Has it gone too far?' This discussion can be found at http://www.publicdebate.com.au/is/236/index.html
On October 16, 2000, Public Debate considered the question 'Television: What is the best current affairs show?' This overview discussed all the presently screened current affairs programs, including 60 Minutes. It discusses briefly 60 Minutes use of chequebook journalism.
This overview can be found at http://www.publicdebate.com.au/is/660/index.html
On March 20, 2000, The Age published an analysis of potentially dubious practices employed by a number of commercial current affairs programs. The article is titled 'Making the evening news' and was written by Melissa Fyfe. It can be found at http://www.theage.com.au/news/20000320/A19317-2000Mar19.htmll
Arguments supporting the claim that commercialism is perverting current affairs reporting
1. Chequebook journalism and commercial current affairs emphasise entertainment over information.
ABC journalist and former 60 Minutes reporter, George Negus, has made this point. Mr Negus has stated (referring specifically to 60 Minutes), 'They've decided that the only way to go is to hype things ... overblow them, sensationalise them ...'
A similar point has been made by Lee Burton, a media commentator and senior lecturer in media education at RMIT University.
Burton has claimed, 'The problem is that 60 Minutes, like many other commercial current affairs programs around the world, has translated the audience's desire for local and human issues into a focus on private lives and celebrities. The programs have become homogenised to the extent that intellectual content ... [is] almost non-existent.'
Burton has further claimed, 'The contract between program and audience has been broken. There is no longer analysis and enhancement of news, but a confused jumble of opinion, entertainment, fast issues and political information.'
2. Chequebook journalism alters the relationship between subject and interviewer.
Jennifer Byrne, a presenter with the ABC, who was formally a reporter with 60 Minutes, has made this point. Ms Byrne has claimed, 'Don't believe the denials, a chequebook changes ... the way a story is covered (is the interviewee providing his or her money's worth?)'
What is being suggested here is that a story is likely to be sensationalised when a program has paid a large amount of money for it and therefore is anxious to attract a large audience and so large advertising revenues.
Former 60 Minutes reporter, Jeff McMullen, has also suggested that chequebook journalism often saves an interviewee from 'rigorous interviewing' because of 'an agreement with the subject'.
3. Chequebook journalism can encourage the dishonest, self-serving and self-promoting.
This claim has been made by former 60 Minutes reporter, Jeff McMullen. Mr McMullen has described the paying of an appearance fee to disgraced cricketer, Hansie Cronje, as unethical. Mr McMullen has claimed, '... paying ... a fee to facilitate the securing of those kinds of stories, when you're essentially talking about a man who was an alleged massive cricket cheat ... To me it's just the height of hypocrisy.'
According to this line of argument, chequebook journalism can result in either the criminal or the dishonest person being rewarded for talking about their blameworthy activity.
It has also been suggested that the interviewee may distort or inflate what he or she has experienced in order to make it better value for the fee being paid.
4. Chequebook journalism is not disclosed to the audience.
Jennifer Byrne, a presenter with the ABC, who was formally a reporter with 60 Minutes, has made this point. Ms Byrne has claimed, 'The real offence is to deceive the audience, to pretend that a story has been honestly researched and impartially reported, when, in fact, it has been bought.'
Ms Byrne has argued that the nature of the interaction between subject and interviewer is fundamentally altered when the interviewee has been paid a large amount of money to appear on the program. Ms Byrne claims 'To deprive the audience of this crucial information is a cardinal sin.'
A similar point was made in The Age editorial of November 18, 2000. The editorial states, 'The news media - if they are to be about news and not entertainment - must be about disclosure, not private deals.'
5. Chequebook journalism damages the relationship between the audience and the media.
Those who make this claim argue that chequebook journalism undermines an audience's faith in the truth of what they are viewing. A former 60 Minutes reporter, Jeff McMullen, has made this point. Mr McMullen has argued, 'Chequebook journalism as a disease has all but destroyed the credibility of television journalism.
'The public have been watching as TV programs chasing ratings have simply paid for stories rather than doing the hard yards and doing the investigation and ensuring the credibility of the program.'
Arguments opposing the claim that commercialism is perverting current affairs reporting
1. Those who contribute to a program's success should be rewarded.
Gerald Stone, the original executive producer of 60 Minutes in Australia, who has been credited with having introduced the practice of chequebook journalism, has made this point. Mr Stone has stated, 'To me it's a rational part of a system where you ask people on your program because they will lift the ratings. And the idea of doing that without letting them share in any profits the TV station receives from that interview is being hypocritical.'
Mr Stone has also said, 'When you get to the big hit interviews, like Lindy Chamberlain, Stuart Diver or iceman James Scott, you know they're going to increase your ratings. I don't see any problem with taking someone who's going to give you a great story and paying them for it.'
Mr Stone has also argued that interviewees should be compensated for their travel expenses, lost work time and wages and the general inconvenience associated with giving the interview. 'I'm not sure why it taints journalism to say, "We will fly you and your wife from Melbourne to Sydney, put you up in a hotel and pay you for the lost hours at work.'
2. The media does not make payments to criminals.
There is said to be a general agreement among journalists and current affairs producers that money will not be paid to criminals to be interviewed about their crimes. This point was made by Peter Meakin, Channel Nine's director of news and current affairs. Mr Meakin has said, '... if we can't obtain ... [an interview] any other way we will pay for it, as long as the money isn't going to a criminal.'
60 Minutes present executive producer, John Westacott, has claimed that there is a 'strict code' in place at the network that criminals are not paid for their stories.
3. Commercial investment has benefited journalism and current affairs.
This point has been made by Gerald Stone, the original executive producer of 60 Minutes. Mr Stone has claimed that commercialism has not damaged current affairs. Mr Stone has stated, 'My experience is the opposite. Kerry Packer took the risk, and was prepared to put money into 60 Minutes.'
According to this line of argument, the large-scale financial investment that has become a feature of commercial current affairs has allowed for the development of quality programs that would not have been produced otherwise. Even defenders of the ABC, such as ABC journalist, Maxine McKew, have acknowledged the connection funding and the ability to make quality programs.
4. Chequebook journalism is necessary.
Gerald Stone, the original executive producer of 60 Minutes has stated, 'In the old days you would spend two or three days drinking with your source and winning their confidence. With the cost of TV now, with the crew sitting around, it is untenable to do that.'
According to this line of argument, the demands of television current affairs make chequebook journalism a necessity.
Peter Wilmoth, The Age's Media reporter, has explained the necessity for chequebook journalism differently. Mr Wilmoth has stated, 'As audiences for current affairs continue to shrink, the competition for viewers intensifies. This can only mean one thing - if there's a hit story that both networks want, the chequebook comes out.'
5. The current quality of commercial current affairs reflects what viewers want.
Peter Wilmoth, The Age's Media reporter, has indicated that the chequebook journalism issue 'will flare and die down largely because the public doesn't care.'
A similar point has been made by Jennifer Byrne, a presenter with the ABC, who was formally a reporter with 60 Minutes. Ms Byrne has stated, 'I don't know what happens in your house, but you don't often see people tied down and forced to watch these popular current affairs shows, pining in their souls for something worthier or more demanding.'
What Ms Byrne is suggesting is that people view commercial current affairs programs because they enjoy them.
Gerald Stone has also suggested that the audience prefers the current style of consumer affairs because it has a shorter attention span.
Social researcher, Hugh Mackay, has also that there has been 'a sort of inward focus developing where people are much more concerned about local, personal, immediate issues.'
It has been claimed that chequebook journalism is in violation of the Australian Journalists Association's code of ethics. There would also appear to be significant dissatisfaction with the practice among some journalists. However, these developments, of themselves, are unlikely to see the practice discontinued. The immediate driving force behind chequebook journalism does not appear to be individual journalists, but the executive producers of the programs they work for. Even then the final responsibility appears to rest with a particular competition-driven corporate ethos that makes the quest for ratings an absolute priority.
The power to determine whether chequebook journalism will continue ultimately resides with the viewing audience. If the present style of commercial current affairs results in programs that viewers do not wish to see then it will change. While the decision may be an ethical decision on the part of viewers; it will be essentially a commercial decision on the part of the networks. Commercial current affairs are likely to continue in their present form while it makes commercial sense for them to do so.
From this point of view, the continued viability of current affairs services provided by the ABC is particularly important. It is extremely difficult for audiences to make informed judgements about the quality of commercial current affairs programs if they have nothing with which to compare them.
A similar function is performed by programs such as Frontline and Media Watch that make audiences more informed about and critical of the news gathering practices of commercial current affairs programs.
It also needs to be remembered that the development of on-line news serviced and current affairs is likely to affect this debate in ways it is currently not possible to imagine.
Newspaper items used in the preparation of this outline
Available as a press cuttings package (with an issue outline reprint): price: $27.50 (NO LONGER AVAILABLE)
15/11/00 page 9 news item by Peter Wilmoth, 'McMullen's parting shots fail to hit their mark'
15/11/00 page 9 news item by Seamus Bradley, 'Flagships slow slide into the stagnant'
16/11/00 page 1 news item by Peter Wilmoth, 'How McMullen checked out'
17/11/00 page 17 comment by Jeff McMullen, 'How the chequebook corrupted 60 Minutes'
18/11/00 page 2 (News Extra) comment by Cynthia Banham, 'We needed Hunter, but we got Jeff'
18/11/00 page 6 (News Extra) editorial, 'Chequebook ethics are open and shut'
20/11/00 page 15 comment by Lee Burton, 'It's too late, Jeff, for you and journalism'
1/12/00 page 19 comment by Maxine McKew, 'A plea for journalism'
2/12/00 page 7 (News Extra) comment by Jennifer Byrne, 'Television may be revolting, but that doesn't mean the audience is'
14/11/00 page 1 news item by Eric Simper, 'Axed star says 60 Minutes doesn't rate'
The Herald Sun
14/11/00 page 2 news item by Robert Fidgeon and Jo Casamento, 'Axed McMullen hits 60 Minutes'
15/11/00 page 11 news item by Robert Fidgeon, 'Be grateful for your 60 Minutes of fame'