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Media Watch – Series 9 Episode 1 (1997)

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In Barcelona tonight education content clip 1

Original classification rating: PG. This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

The Seven Network nightly current affairs program Today Tonight has broadcast a story from Spain about disgraced businessman Christopher Skase, who fled Australia to live in Majorca. Media Watch accuses reporter David Richardson and producer Chris Adams of flaunting the journalistic code of ethics by setting up sequences purporting to show that Skase has paid off the Majorca police to prevent journalists asking him difficult questions. In fact, the Channel 7 crew is nowhere near the island, but instead filming in Barcelona.

Curator’s notes

The Today Tonight team are neatly and effectively skewered for their pretence. Stuart Littlemore takes us through their filmed set-ups, explaining how reporter David Richardson and his producer Chris Adams deliberately set out to deceive the viewers with their story.

The key to this exposé is the neat construction of the story. For the Media Watch audience, who may not have seen the original item on Today Tonight, it is repeated. The viewer is utterly convinced by the story the journalist is telling. Then the Today Tonight story is taken apart by Stuart Littlemore. Using the words of the Channel 7 presenter, who describes Skase as ‘a liar, a cheat and a thug’, a bit of cheeky editing allows Littlemore to leave no doubt in our minds about who he thinks those words best describe.

The executive producer for this very fine program was the broadcaster and writer David Salter, who worked with Stuart Littlemore for most of his years at Media Watch.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows Media Watch presenter Stuart Littlemore describing how a story on Today Tonight about fugitive businessman Christopher Skase had been fabricated. Littlemore summarises the story in which journalist David Richardson claimed to be in Majorca (Mallorca) fleeing local police who wanted his tape of Skase. Littlemore then shows that the footage was filmed in Barcelona, not Majorca, and that Richardson was only pretending to be alarmed. Finally, Today Tonight's criticism of Skase is used to imply that such criticism applies to the story’s creators.

Educational value points

  • This clip exposes one of the best known examples of news fabrication shown on Australian television and details how it was done. Until they added the deceptive Barcelona footage and Richardson’s commentary that the Majorca police were after them, the Today Tonight team had not been able to obtain a newsworthy story. They had footage of Skase and of an interaction with his son but the footage was little different from what other networks had already broadcast.
  • Stuart Littlemore has contended that using overseas footage in a misleading way is not uncommon among sections of the Australian media. He has stated that some journalists believe the Australian public would never know the difference. That is what initially happened with the Today Tonight story, which was accepted as true by viewers. Littlemore himself believed it until a friend recognised the theatre district of Barcelona.
  • The clip captures the climax of the Media Watch episode and its impact is heightened by the use of a range of expository documentary techniques. These include Littlemore’s ironic questions and quietly spoken explanation delivered directly to the camera, the illustration of how far Barcelona is from Majorca and onscreen annotations of clips from the story. The story had earlier been shown in full and the repetition of various scenes emphasised its deceptiveness.
  • Littlemore’s style, in which he focuses carefully on detailed facts to build his case using theatrical pauses and irony, derives from his legal background. Littlemore, a barrister, was the program’s first presenter, from 1989 to 1998, and he and subsequent presenters have used its 15-minute format to scrutinise and comment on the news media. Richardson and Today Tonight were ongoing targets for Media Watch, which maintained a webpage on their worst stories.
  • The Today Tonight story analysed here was almost certainly the result of intense pressure for new stories about Skase, particularly after his business empire collapsed in 1989 and he fled to Majorca to escape possible prosecution. The media saga escalated as he then resisted efforts to extradite him to Australia by claiming ill health. Skase had earlier been a focus of media interest because of his rapid rise to wealth and extravagant lifestyle throughout the 1980s.
  • Although the revelations made by Media Watch showed that some of the Today Tonight team had acted unethically, limits on the jurisdiction of the major media authorities meant that they were unable to take action. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission did not have jurisdiction over content and the Australian Press Council could only deal with breaches of its code of ethics in the print media.

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