A few months ago I came across a 2009 interview between the Chaser’s Julian Morrow and Peter Meakin. I wonder how many people outside of the media know who he is. Meakin is currently Executive Director of News and Current Affairs at Network Ten after filling similar roles at the Seven and Nine networks. To use a Chris Uhlmann term, Meakin has been a “player” in our politics for 45 years. He became the producer of “A Current Affair” in 1973 when Mike Willesee employed him directly to produce the show.
This was an interesting time. Business wanted action to ensure it received the respect it deserved. We needed a business led revolution and our corporate leaders were going to give us one. It was, in short, the start of neoliberalism in Australia.
The Paxton’s Current Affair
One of business’s first actions was to attack the concept of full employment. This was a very popular policy with the Australian public so help was needed to erase it from public memory. This is where Meakin and A Current Affair came in.
I remember the program’s fierce depiction of the unemployed as a blight on our national character. I had just left school and was unemployed at the time so he was speaking to me. These attacks on the unemployed began with the consent if not encouragement of the Whitlam Government. The Minister for Labor and Immigration, Clyde Cameron, assisted the campaign with regular use of the term “dole bludger”.
From business’s perspective, ending full employment was vital. When you could walk into a fulltime public sector job with decent base pay and all the benefits that go with it, why would you take a job on low pay, casual hours with no benefits. Our Full Employment policy had to go despite its vital role in underpinning Australian post-war prosperity.
One of the most notorious examples of reporting under Meakin’s management was the Paxton series. Here Stuart Littlemore shares the work of reporter Mike Munro and presenter Ray Martin. Martin is one of TV’s darlings these days but this clip shows our Logie award winner from a different angle. This program ran two weeks before the 1996 election that brought in John Howard and continued until the week after his ascension. Our media has form in shaping elections. It is unlikely to have done Keating’s prospects much good.
Strangely, Ray didn’t enjoy the experience anywhere near as much when the Paxton’s joined John Saffron to repay the favour. Today, Tracy Grimshaw carries out the same principled practices on the same seamy program. When Tracy has a break, the boss of Channel 9’s wife takes over and does the job equally well. Business has continued to remind us that there is nothing wrong with the system. Unemployment is a personal problem. The system is working beautifully despite the fact nearly 14% of the population are unemployed or under-employed.
Our Move Right
As for Stuart Littlemore, it is unlikely you would find anyone as forthright presenting a flagship ABC program today. We, as a people, still had some distance to move to the right after 1996. John Howard had just arrived.
Meakin stayed at Channel 9 for the next 30 years during which time he was credited with the high ratings of programs like Sunday and 60 minutes. Here he reflects on the quality of Australian reporting on the Vietnam War and the lack of cooperation of our military. The pattern looks familiar.
The philosophy of the network changed little over this time. In 2003, due to a perceived undermining of his role, he took his circus to Channel 7 which is where the Julian Morrow interview picks up.
During this period Meakin is given credit for lifting the 7 Network and programs Sunrise, Seven News and Today Tonight to the top of the ratings. On Sunrise, he found willing critics of the unemployed in the programs presenters Mel and good old Kochie. For all the cute cows and guffawing that goes on in that program, it has always found time for a good unemployed and union kicking. The network’s owner, Kerry Stokes, is no socialist.
The clip below is from the year Meakin joined Channel 7. This is one of the Sunrise team’s gentler performances. There is much worse. Here, a helpful representative from the secretive Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) points to a report it had produced promoting Work for the Dole.
The real trick our media has learned is that by simply raising the problem, it keeps the question top of consciousness. There is always the doubt raised: Are they lazy or unfortunate? Pick one. There is NO recognition of a shortage of jobs. A friend to this is to pretend the problem is a “supply-side” one. If you just give the unemployed person the right course on combing their hair or how to complete a CV then all will be right. Once again this reinforces the notion that the system is perfect. It is the individual that is flawed.
Though he left the station in 2014 to join Channel 10, anyone aware of commercial media in Australia will have noted a constant anti-union, anti-worker and fanatical demonising of the unemployed that is central to the philosophy of the Seven Network through much of the Meakin period.
Near the end of the interview, Morrow opens up Meakin’s conviction for drink driving and he tells us how desperately close he came to gaol. We hear of Meakin’s self-doubt, vulnerability and battle with alcohol. He comes across as quite a damaged person. Morrow asks him whether he has been responsible for a decline in the quality journalism.
Thank goodness, I feared that this gentle interview was going to miss Meakin’s central contribution to public life. He goes on to defend his promotion of popular journalism and justifies it by saying that it is about creating something that people want to watch.
This reminded me of an interview with Noam Chomsky with some twenty years ago. It took place during a show that featured some of the USA’s most notorious talk show hosts; people like Geraldo Rivera and Phil Donoghue. The program asked does the media give people what they want or does it shape public opinion? The participants argued strongly that the public was getting what it wanted and deserved.
On the same program, they sought the opinion of someone outside the propaganda machine. Chomsky explained that the public might be getting the shows that they want but they didn’t start out that way. In other words, to accept the dross we get on commercial TV demands a considerable amount of conditioning.
I am reminded how we forgot about the true role of full employment. Peter Meakin is obviously a person of considerable ability. I am sure Walkley awards are not easily won. Many will remember what he did to achieve these honours; honours won while shaming a large section of the population. This is his legacy that I will remember.
This article can read in conjunction with the related story :
Why Do We Hate the Unemployed?