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Dumbing down the news

  • 25 April 2006

Consider this from Today Tonight: Do you know of a scam that needs investigating? We want to know …Would you like to appear on Today Tonight? Tell us about yourself and when we need participants for a story, we’ll give you a call.  —Today Tonight website Or this from the competition up the dial: Got a story idea? Click here …Would you like to appear on ACA? Simply tell us a little bit about yourself and we’ll let you know when we’re looking for extras or people to road test products!  —A Current Affair website Somebody sack the newshound! The viewers are on the scent! Perhaps my memory is clouded, but I seem to remember a time when the 6–7pm slot on commercial television was a genuine news and current affairs hour. Hardly the stuff of McNeil/Lehrer, but at least an attempt to marry news and current affairs, to grapple with the issues of the day, to steer the flagship of the network. No more. It appears that quality has long since conceded the fight to ratings in the battle for the coveted 6.30pm current affairs audience. The familiar diet of miracle cures, consumer rip-offs and celebrity puff pieces continues to be refried and repackaged, despite an upsetting groan of familiarity. What the viewer is dished up fails to stretch beyond the trite, the speculative and small, self-satisfying victories over local councils and shady entrepreneurs. Instead of robust live interviews, and the pursuit of important and influential talent from here and abroad, A Current Affair and Today Tonight love nothing more than doorstop stoushes backed up by lashings of outrage and condescension.  Memo to the producers: the use of current affairs teams as pseudo crime units is not only dramatically absurd, but also inflammatory and irresponsible journalism. Station bosses remain unperturbed, however, reminding affronted critics that they are only dishing out what the public wants. But how true is that? Is the public’s appetite so unquenchable? And is journalistic integrity so shallow?

Predictably, the story content of both ACA and TT is virtually indistinguishable. Despite ACA’s former executive producer John Westacott’s assertion in The Australian in March that ‘Today Tonight has always modelled itself as a more downmarket version of A Current Affair’, both stations seem to trawl the same depths and emerge with what looks like an identical catch. This game of unprincipled one-upmanship, largely in response to the spectre of ratings, has remodelled the nature of