Press Conference or Center Ring?

Australian journalists take pride in confronting politicians and others with blunt questions

WHEN-Prime Minister Bob Hawke was facing his first television interview after unseating a fellow politician to become the head of the Australian Labor Party."Do you feel a little bit embarrassed tonight with blood on your hands?" asked the interviewer, Richard Carlton of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Mr. Hawke immediately lost his composure, replying, "You are not improving, are you? I thought you'd make a better start than that." Welcome to the hard-edged world of Australian journalism. Next week, President Bush will arrive Down Under and face a press accustomed to playing hardball with its politicians. "It's aggressive and abrasive," says Mike Minehan, a former television anchor, now a lecturer at the University of Technology, Kuring-gai. The best (or worst) examples of the Australian press on a rampage take place in the evening during prime time on the current-affairs shows. Guests appear live and match wits with interviewers. The ABC hosts "The 7:30 Report," and Channel Nine has an Australian version of "A Current Affair." Australians also tune in to their own version of "60 Minutes," for a weekly dose of ambush interviews. "In Australia, the viewers score it - who won and who lost - and you are put in a position of having to walk a tight rope of being rude and arrogant against being a wimp and not challenging the politician," says Quentin Dempster, the anchor for Sydney's "7:30 Report." Mr. Dempster has had more than his share of run-ins with politicians. He recently interviewed the premier of New South Wales, Nick Greiner, who answered Dempster's first question with the reply, "That's a lie." Another time Dempster asked the Queensland premier (equal to a state governor) about the doctrine of the separation of powers. In an embarrassing moment for the politician, it was clear the premier didn't know what Dempster was talking about. The press attacks are not limited to local politicians. Entertainer Frank Sinatra refused to visit Australia for 15 years in large part because of his treatment by the country's journalists. He actually got into a fistfight with journalists who had penetrated his security arrangements. The Australian press interviews have actually become something of a hit at American journalism schools. Mr. Minehan has compiled some of the more egregious examples in a bestselling video. "There are journalists making idiots of politicians and politicians making idiots of journalists," says Minehan. And it's true that journalists don't always win. When George Negus interviewed then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the "Iron Lady" devoured Mr. Negus who was with "60 Minutes." Minehan uses the interview as an example of how not to ask questions. He says the aggressiveness of the press comes from a strong antiauthority streak in the Australian character that dates back to the rebellions of the Irish. Many of the convicts who were sent to Australia 200 years ago were Irish. The convict heritage, in fact, also acts to restrict the press. Once a convict was given a "ticket of leave," allowing a new life, the press could no longer refer to the individual as a former convict. Any reference to the convict heritage could result in a defamation lawsuit. "The laws are very strict. You can't just print something because it is true, you must show that it is in the public interest - that there is a reason," says Carol Dance, executive director of the Australian Commercial Disputes Cen ter. DEFAMATION lawyers estimate about 400 defamation lawsuits are brought against the press each year. There are 140 lawsuits pending in New South Wales against the Fairfax Group, publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald, Financial Review, and Sun-Herald newspapers. "Defamation is definitely a boom industry in New South Wales," says Richard Coleman, a solicitor with Mallesons Stephen Jaques, a Sydney law firm. Even public figures sue. Hawke has sued a country newspaper and won. A restaurant critic for the Herald lost a case after he implied a lobster was overcooked. It turned out he had the facts wrong, stating the lobster was boiled instead of broiled. The lobster suit cost $100,000 in damages. Dempster complains that the libel laws limit freedom of expression. "We're accountable to the point of atrophy," he says. Next year the press is likely to face even more controls. The government has tabled legislation, expected to pass in the spring of 1992, which will establish an Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA). The ABA will investigate complaints that a commercial station has violated its own charter of accountability. If the ABA rules against a station, there are penalties and the stigma of public humiliation. Both of the government-owned stations will have their own complaints process. Last year, unhappy newspaper readers sent 270 complaints to the Australian Press Council, a self-regulatory group. Most were about inaccuracies or misrepresentations. If the Press Council can't mediate the issue, the case can go to an independent committee for adjudication. The results, released to the media, can be embarrassing. About half of the complaints that go to adjudication are resolved against the press. Newspapers generally do not have ombudsmen to check up on their own reporters. But recently the media has started to look more closely at itself. The ABC has a 15-minute program called "Media Watch" that looks critically at press coverage. "It's become a small growth industry," says Gerald Henderson, who writes a newsletter called the Media Watch Journal and is executive director of the Sydney Institute, an independent think tank. However, he concedes the press is usually better at dishing out criticism than receiving it. Mr. Henderson thinks Australian journalism standards are quite high. "We're not inferior to the Brits or Americans," he says. That may be true, but as Mr. Bush will find out, the Australians excel in asking tough questions.

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