Chris Anderson’s Olle Media Lecture

At a blacktie event in the Sydney Convention Centre Ballroom on Friday evening, journalist, editor and former Optus Chief Executive Chris Anderson spoke about his views on the media at the annual Andrew Olle Media Lecture.

Also speaking at the event, which was hosted by Sally Loane, Alice Brennan received her Olle Scholarship prize, which will allow her to experience a range of ABC positions over the next 12 months.

In his speech Anderson said proprietors and editors exert less influence now than they ever did, and suggested pooling of resources for tv news crews and compared footage of various events which showed that most news bulletins used the same footage and grabs of standard stories.

Anderson’s speech is below:

We are here tonight to remember Andrew Olle.

The idea of this evening is a serious one – to make a point about
journalism in the public interest and to recall the achievements, the
ambitions and the warmth of Andrew Olle.

During my brief time at the ABC I worked with Andrew – he was
serious about his journalism; displaying the curiosity and commitment
of the true professional with a dedication that set standards for us all.
It is a tribute to Andrew – and his colleagues at the ABC – that this
annual lecture is not only dedicated to his memory, but to reflecting
on the status of his craft – and the practice of journalism.

I think it is also appropriate to recall Paul Lyneham, Andrew’s old
sparring partner whose career was also tragically concluded so

It’s also worth noting at this point that 44 journalists and media
assistants have been killed since the start of fighting in Iraq in March
2003. Two others are still missing.

I dwell on these consequences because journalism is most
dangerous when the issues are most important.

And to make a point: journalists like Andrew and Paul, and those who
have risked or lost their lives, committed themselves to the public

And it is the public interest I intend to talk about tonight.
And the role of the individual journalist, the organization – and the

And later in this address show some especially commissioned
research from RMIT and film clips – and make some personal
observations about changes to general network news gathering.
Changes that I submit will help maximize the use of resources and
develop the power and reach of television news.

But first to standards, relevance and public perceptions.

I started my 25 year career at Fairfax (after starting out as a copy-boy
for Sir Frank Packer) as a tabloid reporter.
And then a tabloid editor

In the late 70’s, I came to join VJ Carroll on The Sydney Morning
Herald as his deputy and then successor – and learned those tabloid
skills were useful to a broadsheet paper.

Brevity, relevance and the impact on everyday lives are as essential
to the broadsheet (the “unpopular” – as Kelvin Mackenzie calls them)
as to the popular.

But Vic was passionate about the truth – still is; and about the need to
question the certainties and to puncture the pomposity of both the
right and the left.

What my recent years at Optus and TVNZ have given me, is an
outsider’s knowledge of how the reader, listener and viewer reacts to
the news.
And those who deliver it.

Clearly it is to the editors, producers and senior journalists that we
must look for change and reform.
No longer can the journalist and editor or producer use the easy cop
out of blaming the Proprietor.

I’d argue, proprietors by choice, or otherwise, wield far less influence
now than they ever did…

In the 1980s when John Alexander and I were Editor and Editor-in-Chief at
Fairfax, all stories about the Fairfax’s and their company’s operations
were approved or vetted by faceless editorial bureaucrats and often,
miraculously, when “sent upstairs” for a tick, often
came back hours later – after the paper had gone to bed.

I still have a Tandberg cartoon on my wall, from the day the Herald
under my editorship was scooped by The Australian when Fairfax
sold Channel Seven.

In the cartoon, Ron has a paper seller calling out, “Read all about it –
Fairfax sells Seven. Yesterday.”

We were scooped then because a PR man working for Sir Warwick
and Lady Fairfax (Martin Dougherty)… leaked it to Bryan
Frith at the Australian – while the Fairfax management refused to let
us run the same story.

We did a “day two” – as Tandberg witheringly pointed out – 24 hours
And as John recalled, persuasion and a little cunning was necessary
to get the Fairfax Board and the Herald in those days to endorse
anyone but the Coalition.

We would lunch with the Board in the 14th floor boardroom (careful
as two working class kids moving up that ladder of opportunity to use
the right fork) seeking to persuade these mostly elderly Knights of
Realm into believing that backing Labor (and Hawke/Keating) was
their idea.

Now its Editors and Editors-in-Chief who generally call the shots,
without having to indulge in that sort of guerrilla journalism.
Unless that is you wanted The Australian to endorse John Kerry.

On the big issues, journalists and editors today have more freedom to
decide the content of their papers and programs than at any time in
the post war history of the media.

Despite the conspiracy theorists, I didn’t see the sinister hand of
Rupert or Lachlan in the coverage by the News Ltd papers of the
recent Election campaign.

In key stories, the News Ltd papers gave the Government at least as
much stick as the ABC or Fairfax …
Yet I think the media broadly failed in the campaign.

I read on “Crikey” that Paddy McGuiness wrote recently that the
election campaign was a case of “more and more” journalists chasing
“less and less” news.
More trees were felled than by the Gunns to feed the newsprint of the
newspaper election coverage.

Radio and television covered a lot of ground, but apart from Laurie in
TV and people like Alan Jones, Laws, Carlton and Mitchell in radio,
little new was offered.

The thriving industry of pollsters and campaign strategists were taken
seriously and daily and weekly tactical wins reported as if they really
And as if the public really cared.

The press generally, as Max Suich noted in his column in The Age,
chose to cover the campaign as an interminable Howard v. Latham
tennis match, a single long rally on the base line for six weeks.
Polls were generally reported in breathless fashion as if a movement
of one or two percent meant something.

In saying this I am not taking a glib line of blaming the Parliamentary
press gallery.
After all if their editors didn’t want it that way they wouldn’t get it.

Dennis Shanahan, the tireless bureau chief of The Australian
confirmed this in the media section of his own paper yesterday.
If political coverage seems like a prize fight then that’s because it’s
the way media head offices want It, Shanahan said.
Really …..

But what do the customers want?

Maybe that’s why readers are switching off… head office is out of

And unless the press changes, the only thing that will be unchanged
in the next two campaigns in 2007 and 2010, will be the Prime

And of course the criticism of the gallery usually misses the point.
The Canberra reporters got it in the neck for calling the election as
close. Such criticism is absurd.
No one in the government felt noticeably confident until the final
The failure in the gallery was the reporting off the campaign trail, not
on it.

But, of course, many in the gallery clearly had fallen in love with Mark
Latham. Not I think out of political bias, but for novelty, change, and
his youth.

And the possible train wreck he might produce in government.
Just because of the sheer volume of their coverage, the media can
tell itself still that it did the job.

But in perhaps the most telling statistic I read during the campaign,
Lee Cox a young PhD student from Griffith University pointed to his
research from exit polling in 3 marginal seats in the previous
campaign – that 41% of the sample said they got their primary
information on policy from letter box drops and direct mail.

The curious fact is that while the press at least enjoys abundant
resources, the actual amount of original reporting is declining.
And the influence and self confidence of the senior journalists has
rarely been lower…

The best reporters, Paul Kelly, Michael Gordon, Shaun Carney,
Malcolm Farr, Mark Day, Matt Price, Peter Hartcher, Michael
Brissenden, Laura Tingle, Allan Wood are in the opinion business,
not news.

The very people who could do the best original reporting are often not
doing it – except in their columns…

The wider public that mistrusts journalism and journalists.
Which brings me to public perceptions.

Eric Beecher in his feisty publication “The Reader” has published
some quite revealing stats in a survey commissioned for his

For example, now less than one in 12 Australians take a newspaper;
70% say they get their information from non-media sources – often

And, according to Beecher’s Reader, not only do the public feel bad
about journalists, journalists themselves agree that they are not to be

Eric says if there were another industry with such poor quality control
(and they say telephone companies overcharge) there would be
wholesale sackings.
And wholesale changes.

That’s unlikely to happen – yet.
But change will come.
Though I suspect it will be economic crisis and consequent
management intervention that will bring change.

The current advertising boom cannot last forever and there may be
major changes in the outdated cross-media laws.
If the Senate does pass the reforms to media legislation that the
Government has proposed, then there will be significant change,
development – and I would argue – the opportunity for improvement.
I don’t believe that editorial freedom and the prerogative to call the
shots will go.

Bigger media which is coming will mean the media owners will be
more scrutinized and more regulated.
The bigger media gets, the more bureaucratised it gets. So the
power they enjoy today will remain with the editors, producers and

Will they use their authority well?

Of course some trends are irreversible. Colour TV killed the
afternoon paper. A similar trend is emerging for the classifieds in papers.
Classifieds are leaving the newspapers for the web and that trend is

Does anyone really believe that important programs such as Sunday
or Business Sunday or the power of Network Nine News would be
maintained if it weren’t for people like Kerry and James Packer and
the organizational support – and editorial muscle – from John
Alexander and David Gyngell?

Similarly do many think that The Australian – arguably now
Australia’s best newspaper – would be maintained without the support
of the Murdoch family?

I suspect the daily Australian is now a marginal financial proposition
(after ‘SEEK’ has stripped away most of its IT/employment
classifieds) – but there’s no suggestion that John Hartigan – supported
by Lachlan and the Murdoch family – would abandon it.
Strong proprietors will always want to protect their products…

Here at the ABC, the hopes of an ALP victory and an increased pay
day have been dashed. It’s unlikely the ABC will get significantly
more funding.
So it’s not easy now. And it is going to get harder.

And the demands of the public grow.
They are telling us, as the Reader survey showed, that we are often
not telling people what is going on. Or what they want to know.

But are we changing promptly enough to meet these new demands?
My friends at Nine, I know, are responding to that challenge and
spending significant extra resources to meet viewer’s needs…

But reporting is labour intensive.
And, if, as I contend, we are in a time when resources will not
markedly grow, we will have to use them far more efficiently.

In the press, I believe it is time to redress the tilt to lifestyle
journalism. The newsprint and staff needs should be reviewed.
The offer of a free page of advertorialish journalism to get a wine ad
needs a rethink.

So my final point is to offer a modest proposal about how resources
might be better used and reporting improved in television network
This is not a shot at network news. And it is very much a personal
view …

I don’t think there is a TV news staffer here tonight who does not
know how limited resources are in network news.

One could make the same points about radio –and the press.
The network editors want to air stories that might appeal to the
younger demographics, to show the analysis and the exclusives that
extends the range.
It’s not due a lack of imagination, but because resources are scarce…

To make some practical suggestions for this address, we
commissioned a study from the journalism school at RMIT on a
typical week of TV news in Sydney and Melbourne.

We commissioned the media and communications company, Media
Monitors, to locate typical weeks, provide story runs down and the
video feeds as the basis for the RMIT study.

Kevin McQuillan, lecturer in broadcast journalism and a veteran of the
ABC and SBS, wrote the report.
The full report will be on the ABC web site.

After reviewing the content of the news programmers, (we excluded
SBS – as that is often not a typical domestic rundown), the report

1. That competition, fierce as it is, is often failing to produce
significantly different news programs;

2. ‘exclusives’ rarely lead the network bulletins, or were good
enough to be placed in the top four stories.

3. There is questionable value in the current system of each
network sending a reporter and crew to the same event for what
will inevitably be the same story

To illustrate McQuillan’s point, we have put together some clips from
the way the four major channels shot four typical stories in Melbourne
and Sydney in the second week of July.
The pictures tell the story….

The McQuillan report suggests that the four channels could share the
coverage of courts and probably the bread and butter sport story.
This, I contend, is a conservative and sensible proposal. It is a
rational development of the current informal structure of pooling.

But these modest proposals do not go far enough.
I’d suggest an arrangement that eliminates the over resourcing of
bread and butter press conferences or the set speech by a politician.
Accidents and murders on the police round.

It might need to start slowly to allow the industry to build confidence.
The advantage of this is obvious: we make common use of the video
and audio of the photo op or the routine story.

And we use the resources freed up to provide different and varying
accounts of the facts behind the photo op, the political speech and
the press release.

We use these freed resources to preserve the brand of the individual
channels to meet the challenge of servicing and enlarging our

This is not about cost cutting or offering the same news on each
It is about freeing resources to better make the point of difference…

The alternative is wasted resources and limited product.
And limits on individuality – and diversity.
I thank you for your time and attention.