In this most esteemed forum of the Australian media, I would like to begin by acknowledging
the traditional owners – the Murdoch family.
I would also pay them my respects – but respect, like news, is something I’m just not willing
to pay the Murdochs for. To the Olle family, however, I pay my sincerest respects.
It’s a great honour to be asked to deliver the Andrew Olle Media Lecture. The previous
speakers are truly distinguished, and to be added to the list is, for me, a truly humbling
indication that I am now indisputably past my prime.
If you’re asking yourself why someone with my media rap sheet is giving this address, me too.
My best guess is that after suspending The Chaser’s War on Everything for 2 weeks this year,
Mark Scott reckons I owe him a bit of free content.
One thing I am certain of is that I’m the first person to give an Olle Lecture who’s also been
thrown out of this event. I once tried to gatecrash the Olle to do a Chaser stunt on Helen
Coonan, the Minister for Communications at the time. I was forced to leave the room before
the speech began – a fate that soon made me the envy of the entire audience.
To state the obvious, Andrew Olle was a respected journalist. I get none out of two on that
score. But weirdly enough – I am a media proprietor of sorts. A decade ago, together with
three friends, I ran a newspaper during a prolonged period of bad circulation and pitiful ad
revenue … that may not qualify me to give this lecture, but it does mean I’m suited for a
position in senior management at Fairfax.
At least I can say that we had a failed media business model before it was fashionable.
But I’m not going to talk about funding quality journalism tonight. Mouthing off on topics I
don’t know anything about is my day job, so I thought I’d try something different here, by
focussing on something I probably know too much about: offensiveness and outrage. And I
want to relate them to two fundamentally important media values, self-regulation and
And I’ll start by mentioning James Murdoch - Murdoch 2.0 - who in the recent McTaggert
Lecture argued that “the only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is
profit”. Actually he didn’t really argue it so much as assert it with all the confidence of a man
whose independent wealth is reliably, durably and perpetually guaranteed by inheritance.
My experience has been different. In fact, based on the early days of The Chaser, I’d assert
that the only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is the absence of
profit, coupled with obscurity. You can have a lot of fun under the radar.
In those early days under the radar, we operated more or less independently from the law. I
was an employment lawyer by day and a defamation practitioner by night, conscientiously
ignoring the often petty rules of libel. We always used to say you’d have to be crazy to bother
suing us. And sure enough, before long we got a legal letter from the Moran family. Not the
crime family, thank god, the heath care family. Rather than responding, we auctioned their
letter of demand off at a party to raise money for the newspaper so that we could defame
We were independent of patrons too. When John Singleton sent us a cheque for $10,000, we
immediately banked it, and sent him an abusive letter telling him to back off and stop
meddling with our paper.
These early days instilled a key aspect of independence: freedom from fear, or to put it
another way … a willingness to run the risk of offence, official displeasure, or worse. It’s easily
mistakable for stupidity. And it’s produced some memorable brushes with the law. The very
first was after we published Prime Minister John Howard’s home phone number on our front
page. The police raided the Chaser office to tell us that publishing the PM’s number wasn’t
illegal, it was just really annoying.
There was another thing we were independent of in those obscure early days - an audience.
More by necessity than choice. To be fair, this reflected very well on the discernment of the
market. But one consequence of the almost total absence of customers for our content was
that we developed a robustly independent editorial environment. Despite appearances to the
contrary, this didn’t mean a culture of ‘anything goes’ – in fact we had ridiculously long
arguments about what was funny and what wasn’t, and why.
A particularly memorable instance of this was when we found ourselves in the unique position
of having a publishing deadline for a comedy newspaper on September 11, 2001. We watched
the planes hitting the World Trade Centre just a few hours before the print deadline for the
next edition. It was a strange night, but one that typified the way we’ve taken the old adage
“tragedy plus time equals comedy” and turned it into a less universal dictum - “tragedy minus
time equals Chaser”. “Centrepoint jumps two in world’s tallest building” still stands out as an
all-time favourite headline of mine. But it, like many jokes I’ve been associated with, offended
and appalled many.
And I won’t lie to you, delivering jokes that make some people laugh and get others really
angry can be a lot of fun. What matters is who’s in which group and why. And, occasionally,
whether they find out about it.
But getting back to the question of independence, I believe there is an English expression for
James Murdoch’s claim that it is reliably guaranteed by profit. It’s a technical publishing term:
“bollocks”. Profit, like ownership, is at best conducive to independence, but it does not
guarantee it. In Australia the words “cash for comment” are shorthand for the obvious point
that profitable media can surrender its independence, entirely, in the name of more profit.
Independence of ownership certainly helps, but independence is a state of mind, not a state
of balance sheet.
This brings me to one of my core arguments this evening, and it’s something I strongly
believe, independence of mind also by definition means independence from the audience. It
seems perverse– but it’s true. The way to create an original and interesting product is to not
worry about what the audience will think. You have to back your own judgement. In fact, I
found that’s what audiences respond to most: usually with praise, although occasionally with
But pissing people off is part of the job – and that’s something that applies to both comedy
and journalism. Therefore choosing who, when, how and why you anger or offend is
something you have to take responsibility for, and I gladly do. That’s very different, however,
from letting the possibility that some will take offence, or even feel hurt, be the determining
factor of what you do. It may seem callous, but you cannot let the targets of your comedy
be the judge of what’s acceptable.
All of this has been affirmed in moving from the creative nirvana of irrelevance to a much
larger audience at what is, without doubt, the most heavily regulated and scrutinised media
outlet in the country, the ABC.
As a public broadcaster, the ABC has certainty, for better or worse, when it comes to core
revenue. Its independence is also mandated by statute. The ABC’s non-commercial status
means that profit does not and cannot guarantee its independence. Broadly speaking, the ABC
maintains its independence admirably and it does this by creating, in a range of different
ways, an editorial environment which values independence of mind. It’s the ABC’s editorial
environment, and the independence that flows from it, which is why the ABC is an institution
that’s cherished, by its audience, by the broader community, by its staff, by me, by its
Managing Director and by most, if not all, of its board of directors.
The point is the ABC is much loved, and by a group of people which is impossibly diverse –
and I mean that literally.
In my experience, independence at the ABC is strangely two-faced: the institution maintains
overall independence partially because it allows content creators a measure of independence
from the institution.
In one sense The Chaser has never been part of the ABC. Everything we’ve done has been
through independent production companies, initially through our comedy fairy godfather,
Andrew Denton. My favourite clause from our contract with Andrew said he would use “best
endeavours to protect the group from all non-essential dickheads”. Both parties were also
contractually obliged to “have an enormous amount of fun at other people’s expense, unless
we can’t afford it, in which case it will be at our own”. They’re the sorts of legal promise I like
to make, and keep.
The “non-essential dickheads” clause showed Andrew’s commitment to creative independence.
Like many jokes, it hints at something true while also being an extravagant overstatement
that’s very unfair. That’s one of the things I like about comedy. What that joke’s getting at is
the relationship between independence on the one hand, and self-regulation via the 169
pages of the ABC Editorial Policies on the other. Because whereas self-regulation in the
commercial media is a farce, the seriousness with which the ABC regulates itself can be
farcical in a different way … sometimes it feels like the ABC self-regulates to within an inch of
At the same time, it’s self-evident by what the ABC broadcasts, from The Chaser but plenty of
others also – that you can push the boundaries there, and – unexpectedly for me at least -
that a big mainstream audience can like it if you do. They might even love it. Or love hating it.
But in my experience, aiming to create challenging content is something audiences respond to
I’m now a veteran of years of “full and frank discussions” behind-the-scenes about the ABC
Editorial Policies and what should and should not be broadcast. And it seems to me that,
though often infuriating the substance of the ABC Editorial Policies is pretty sensible. The
biggest danger for the ABC comes when those policies are applied narrowly, or fearfully,
something which brings with it the ever-present risk of a bland compliance culture. I don’t
know how the poor bastards on staff in News and Current Affairs go, but in entertainment,
avoiding this danger is the result of a fraught but functional relationship between the ABC and
independent producers. Indeed, for the purposes of provocative overstatement, I’d even say
that a lot of the ABC’s best and most loved content goes to air as much despite the ABC as
because of it.
And it’s in this context that I’d like to talk about outrage. Because it’s been an interesting year to say the least. In 2009 with the world reeling from the GFC, this country, while doing relatively well economically, has been going through what I call the AFC, the Australian Funny Crisis. In fact according to Wikipedia, in 2009 ‘Australia set a new world record for “sick new lows”’. That’s a direct quote. I know, cos I posted it onWikipedia myself.
And The Chaser was, I guess, the Lehmann Brothers of the AFC … we tipped off what’s been
a year of outrage.
To recap, it all started as I said, with outrage at a comedy program for a badly misjudged
sketch. Then there was outrage at a celebrity chef for abusing a tabloid TV host. The next
outrage come after a breakfast radio lie detector stunt that backfired. Shortly afterwards, the
same shock jock scored an outrage quinella when he managed to make a Holocaust fat joke.
Then the “victim” of that outrage outraged cyclists with a joke on a panel show, shortly before
some variety show talent contestants tried to make a joke about a dead pop singer only to
outrage a living pop singer. Although it did seem that the pop singer’s outrage itself caused
outrage, both from those who agreed with him and those who didn’t.
The tendency towards the absurd in all this was finally achieved with the next outrage about
the hitherto undiscovered genre of satirical panty sniffing – that outrage actually hit the media
before the comedy program itself did.
Now I don’t want to dwell too much on the rights and wrongs of each event in this outrageathon.
Not least because the one I was personally involved in was, I think quite clearly, the
worst by far. Instead, I want to note some common factors and themes for the media which
seem to apply no matter what the particular subject of the outrage is.
Outrages over taste and decency are nothing new of course. I’d say that a significant theme
of the movement towards liberal democratic society has been the increasing priority given to
freedom of expression over taste and decency concerns. But most sensible people agree that
there have to be some limits. I certainly do ... which is why, by the way, the declaration of
War on Everything was never meant to be taken literally. Titles, like jokes, work better without
But while they’re nothing new, debates about taste and decency seem different now. And
that’s because they are both amplified and distorted with startling efficiency thanks to the
interaction of new and old media. Culturally, it’s a nuclear reaction.
Taste and decency debates in the broader community were easier to dismiss when technology
was less advanced. Controversial content was hard to access, or re-access, so it was easy to
argue that public debate was grounded in ignorance.
It’s useful here, indeed I think it’s important, to distinguish between what I call the primary
audience and the secondary audience.
The primary audience is mainly people who want to watch a show or at least chose to for
some reason or other. They come to content through the platforms of the original
broadcaster, whether it’s TV or radio, or the various catch-up technologies. The primary
audience at least approximates in some way the target audience for content.
By contrast, the secondary audience come to access controversial content because it’s
controversial. The secondary audience is often tends to be the very opposite of the target
Today, thanks to widespread broadband access and social media applications, in particular
YouTube and Twitter, the secondary audience is now much bigger and much closer than it has
ever been before … it’s now easy for them to access controversial content online. And one of
the problems with giving people the ability to make up their own minds is that they do.
Thanks to high speed interent, content which is noteworthy in any way– whether its cute,
inspirations, original, or involves cats - spreads like wildfire, sometimes around the world. The
effect of anything can be instantly magnified by an avalanche - of YouTube postings, streams
from media websites, forwarded emails, reTweets – all of which pile almost instantaneously
on top of good old-fashioned cultural ripple effects like the watercooler, the schoolyard, or the
B.O. infested taxi.
It means we’ve built the fastest most complex, high-tech cross-platform global echo chamber
in history. And the impact on “debates”, for want of a more accurate expression, about taste
and decency is profound.
The dividing line between the primary audience and the secondary audience, where outrage
blossoms, can often be observed via the timing of complaints. I first noticed it after The
Chaser’s Eulogy Song aired on ABC TV. The song was a deliberately provocative, but in my
view satirically accurate song about the affection we tend to grant to even unsavoury
celebrities posthumously (a human trait, I might say, that I hope to be the beneficiary of,
though I’m in no rush). When I came in to work the morning after the Eulogy Song, the
production office voicemail had 9 complaints on it. But when the song was picked up by
talkback radio mid-morning, the phone went beserk, and by lunch there were hundreds of
abusive complaints, many of which proudly declared that they hadn’t actually heard the song.
My all time favourite voicemail complaint by the way was from an old woman who said in her
message that our show was, and I quote, “filth – fucking filth”.
The most dramatic example of outrage in the secondary audience is Jonathan Ross and
Russell Brand in the UK. On 18 October 2008 they aired a tasteless but forgettable prerecorded
phone prank on BBC Radio 2. There were 2 complaints about it the next day. But
when, 8 days later, the incident was reported in The Mail on Sunday, there were 1585
complaints the next day, sparking a media frenzy. Within 2 days there were 27,000
I’ve got no doubt the sheer scale and intensity of these controversies now derives from how
easy it is for controversial material to be accessed by the secondary audience. Email and the
web also make it much easier to formalise a complaint as well.
By the way, the Make a Realistic Wish sketch tops the ABC complaints charts for 2009, with
4300 complaints. But to put this in perspective, while it’s in the ABC’s Hottest 100 of all time,
it garnered roughly the same number of complaints as the decision in 2005 to cease
production of George Negus Tonight. And both of them are more than a thousand behind the
the most complained about thing the ABC’s ever done, the axing of the Glass House, which led
to 5606 complaints.
I also note that in 2008, there were 2645 complaints about the introduction of ABC1 and 2
watermarks on ABCTV shows. So if there’s one bit of advice I’d give the ABC from all this, it’s
that the ABC should never introduce new watermarks that offend community standards – that
who really would melt the switchboards.
But is all this just a question of niche content versus “community standards”? I’m not
convinced it’s a simple as that, which is something I’ll come back to.
For the moment though, it’s worth observing that while media technology is fanning the
flames of taste and decency outrage, it also renders it impossible for censorship – which used
to the goal of outrage - to be meaningfully carried out.
For example, the movie Ken Park, which was refused classification in Australia, can be
downloaded from the internet at the address on your screen now.
The ABC famously decided a long time back not to broadcast John Safran’s pilot called “Media
Tycoon” in which he rummaged through the rubbish of last year’s Olle lecturer. For many
years that excellent piece of TV was practically impossible to see. Now it’s had thousands of
views on YouTube.
By contrast, even though the ABC immediately withdrew the Make a Realistic Wish Foundation
sketch from all its platforms, including the web, that sketch was practically impossible not to
see. Much to our regret. Within minutes of its broadcast, it – like almost all TV content not -
was digitally captured and posted on YouTube, in multitudinous acts of flagrant illegality that,
as a copyright owner, I wholeheartedly endorse. Consumer-based video piracy has its upside.
Banning content just ain’t what it used to be. Although in that particular case, I wish our geek
fans had done us a favour and not helped that sketch find a larger audience.
But it was curious to hear some in the media, especially the likes of Steve Price and Ray
Hadlee simultaneously shrieking about how harmful the content was and urging more and
more people to watch it and be appalled. The argument that it “should never have been
broadcast” takes on a certain irony in this context.
I think different considerations should apply when considering the views of the secondary
audience to those of the primary audience. In this context, I was interested to discover that
none of the ABC’s complaint systems track in any systematic way whether a complaint comes
from a person who’s viewed the content on an ABC platform or not. I think over time they’ll
The techno-fuelled taste and decency outrages in the secondary audience have a negative
impact on two things: firstly, the quality of public debate; and secondly the prospects of a
robust, diverse and daring broadcast culture.
n terms of public debate, the media outrage echo-chamber can mean it’s simply
counterproductive to engage in any public discussion. When not long ago the fine art
photographer Bill Henson was in the firing line, PR doyenne, Sue Cato apparently advised him
to withdraw from public altogether. I can see why. Sometimes the most you can do, is batten
down the hatches, wait, and hope that some distraction comes along soon. Which is why I
was truly saddened by Michael Jackson’s untimely death on 25 June this year – if he’d only
died 3 weeks sooner the spotlight might have moved off us earlier.
But based on the teachings of Cato the Australian, all I’d say is that it’s not good for the
country when the tone of public debate is such that having little or no relations with the public
is the best public relations strategy.
At this point I want to take a gratuitous swipe at the Prime Minister. And I want to make very
clear, I’m going out of my way to do this as an act of petty personal revenge because he went
out of his way to criticise us, especially as he hadn’t seen it. To me Kevin Rudd’s enthusiasm
for buying in on any cultural controversy – from Bill Henson to The Chaser to Gordon Ramsay
- is a bit unseemly, and at risk of sounding old-fashioned, not very Prime Ministerial. Frankly, I
was stunned a few weeks ago that Mr Rudd wasn’t tweeting alternative names for Vegemite’s
iSnack2.0, or phoning Indonesia to see if as well as those poor Sri Lankans, they’ll also give
asylum to the poor bastard who came up with the one name in Australia less popular than
Kevin Rudd clearly fancies himself as an intellectual leader of this country. But being a true
intellectual leader means more than tossing off the odd economics essay for The Monthly
between nanosleeps on your weekend off. It means setting the tone for the national discourse
and resisting, rather than inciting, hysteria.
As well as reducing the tone of public debate, the second negative impact of taste outrages is,
as I said, on the possibility of a robust, diverse and daring broadcasting culture. And this is
where I’d like to say a few things about the latest vogue in media self-regulation: the cultural
No-one’s got a red card yet, not even Kyle Sandilands. But he’s had a couple of yellow cards.
The rule book for the cultural sin bin isn’t really clear, but I don’t think you can get a third
Of course the ABC gave The Chaser’s War on Everything a yellow card with a 2 week
suspension. I don’t think that was an outrageous decision, or an indefensible one. To be
honest, personally, it was a bit of a relief. But I do think it’s a dangerous precedent for the
ABC to decide what it broadcasts from week to week because of outrage over taste and
decency, especially when the Prime Minister has a nasty habit of weighing in with a jerk of his
knee. Getting caught up in the short term hysteria of media outrage has the potential to
damage the independence and integrity of the ABC.
Sin bin decisions are, by definition, made in the eye of the media storm. And in the eye of the
storm, the views of the secondary audience – that is, people who only know about the content
because it’s controversial - loom way, way too large. Both its size and its import will, almost
inevitably, be overestimated.
And I don’t believe there’s any convincing evidence, or even a theory, that taking steps to try
and placate the secondary audience is prudent, or can be effective. I tend to think it only fuels
the fire. But I recognise that’s just as hard, probably impossible, to prove too.
What I do know for certain is the effect that outrages and the way they’re handled have on
something I think most Australians value, and which matters even if they don’t, the ABC
editorial environment. And for a while this year, there was a festival of editorial freaking out
and an orgy of upward referral. The most illustrative event for me was a debate over a sketch
called “Baby Day Spa” which featured a 100% faked, safely and responsibly filmed satirical
image of a baby getting a botox injection to look younger. There was concern, emanating
from all sorts of unusual places in the ABC, that this sketch too might breach community
standards. Another example is when filming of a different sketch was halted to prevent a
volunteering mother from breastfeeding her own child on camera until DOCS the Department
of Community Services gave the all clear. In both those instances, sanity prevailed …
eventually, which I guess is a cause for moderated pessimism. In my experience, the
temporary insanity of editorial crises does slowly abate and fearless good judgement can reemerge with time. I just hope the headcount of people at the ABC who are committed fearless
good judgement doesn’t shrink.
This is important because it is part of the ABC’s purpose to broadcast for the entire Australian
community. That does not mean limiting itself only to content which is acceptable to everyone
in the country. In fact it should mean the opposite. Everyone should have something to love
on the ABC, and that probably means they’ll have something to be indifferent to, maybe even
hate. But the ABC should provide a diverse range of content that meets the diverse tastes of
the Australian community. Personally I find the ABC’s commitment to British cop drama very
dull – but in order to service the large ABC audience which likes that crap, the ABC needs to
disregard my pigheaded views. And it should disregard the views of people who only like staid
British dramas, or To the Manor Born, or who don’t like comedy at all, in making its decisions
about what edgy comedy to present.
Now I want to be very clear here. I’m not defending the Make a Realistic Wish sketch – I
agree with the ABC’s conclusion that it shouldn’t have gone to air. I wish I’d intervened to
stop it myself – and I remember vividly the moment when the right call was on the tip of my
I’m also not suggesting that that it was only the secondary audience who didn’t like that
sketch. It’s beyond any doubt that the massive majority of the audience, including the target
audience, really didn’t like those 58 seconds of The Chaser’s War on One Too Many Things.
But I believe we should try to analyse the types of reaction that arise in moments of outrage,
especially since there’s no telling if the AFC is over. I think it’s fair to divide the majority of
people with a negative view of controversial content into three categories, and it’s important
to distinguish between them. The first is people who are hurt by it; the second is people who
are offended or outraged by it; and then the last category is those who don’t like it.
So I’d like to make a realistic assessment of the Realistic Wish audience, because I believe
what’s true of them is true of the Australian mainstream.
The first category – those who were hurt – is by and large are people who’ve been touched in
a personal way by childhood cancer. They are the people that I’m sorry about. I know that
they have, arbitrarily, been afflicted with grief caused by one of life’s cruellest realities. You’ve
got tears enough in your life if that happens. A comedy show shouldn’t add to those pools of
grief. Lest there is any misunderstanding, if you are one of those people, I want to reiterate
my sincerest apology to you for the unwarranted pain that sketch caused when you have
already have too much suffering in your life.
But the next category - people who were offended by the sketch - is in my view different. We
live, thankfully, with genuinely free speech, which is a hallmark of a tolerant society. And it’s
not good speech, or nice speech, that needs to be tolerated. It’s bad speech. Mediocre
speech. Tasteless speech. Sometimes, hurtful speech. That is to say, most of what passes the
lips of Kyle Sandilands . Even more chillingly, the entirety of Hey Hey It’s Saturday. And a
pretty fair chunk of The Chaser’s work.
But the inevitable corollary to freedom of speech is that there is no such thing as a general
right to not be offended. So to be honest, perhaps too honest, if you were just offended by
that sketch I’m not really sorry. Of course, you have every right to be outraged and to express
your offence to whoever you like. In many, but certainly not all, cases, I recognise that your
outrage springs from a good place, from compassion for the suffering of others. But if you
were just offended, unlike those who’ve been hurt, I don’t believe you’re owed an apology.
You can demand one. And it’s possible that some people will say sorry to you – some for
noble reasons, some for cowardly ones, some just to get you to shut up. But offence is a
much lesser category of wrong, and I believe it should be responded to most cautiously in
dealing with questions or taste and decency.
And that’s because of the third category – those who didn’t find the sketch funny, who
thought it was insensitive, ill-advised, or that it reflected poorly on its creators, but who
weren’t hurt by it or outraged by it. My sense is that there were more people in this latter
category than media coverage of outrages acknowledges.
It’s hard to know how big this group is compared to the offended. Because if there’s one thing
we know for certain, it’s that the outraged are always the loudest. There is, quite simply, no
objective data to measure these things.
But I want to argue tonight that the “mainstream” audience is more diverse than we tend to
think, and that it deserves more credit than it’s often given. In particular, a significant part of
the mainstream audience is actually quite open-minded. Or to put it another way, it is not the
Australian community’s real standard that only content which the majority of people agree
with or like, is acceptable content.
The Australian community understands that tastes vary. It accepts that, in matters of taste or
opinion, reasonable minds can differ, and that unreasonable minds can call Alan Jones. It
won’t go quoting Voltaire at you. The Australian community’s not that up itself. And no doubt,
one of its standards is that if you stuff up, you should cop a heavy ear bashing. It expects that
if you dish it out you’ve gotta be able to take it. But I don’t believe that the Australian
community actually wants narrower, more regulated, or even less offensive content.
The standards of the mainstream Australian community are, I believe, robust but fair-minded.
They’re better than our own kneejerk reactions, our harshest words, and the moments when
we fail each other or ourselves.
They’re better than the worst of the media.
To me, this is both a statement of fact and an article of faith, an aspiration. Because it’s only if
you believe in the fair-minded mainstream that you can create content for it. And even if you
sometimes doubt this is what “most people” think, then, in fact especially then, it’s still
important to maintain belief in the better natures of our fellow citizens.
The evidence for the robust, fair-minded mainstream is everywhere. The most impressive
recent example of this in Australian comedy is the massive success of Chris Lilley’s accessible
but subversive work at the ABC. The most enduring is Barry Humphreys. Gary McDonald was
a pioneer. Australians have a taste for unusual content, indeed a hunger for it. It abounds,
and not just on the public broadcaster. Think of the deeply unusual Roy and HG, not just on
radio but at the Closing Ceremony of the Olympic Games for God’s sake.
In drama there’s things like The Secret Life of Us on Channel 10 and Love My Way on Foxtel,
two recent examples I’ve chosen only partially due to a crush on Claudia Karvan. There’s a big
audience for quality international content also: things like The Sopranos, or even Rupert
Murdoch’s massive hit The Simpsons.
To return to an earlier point, the way to service the fair-minded mainstream of the Australian
community, or any community, is not to pander to their presumed tastes, because if you do
that you’re bound to err on the narrow side, to the detriment of everyone. Guessing
community standards is a difficult game, but its played most enthusiastically by those with the
narrowest views. And they shouldn’t be the judges. I’ve just mentioned a few hits, but in the
creative sphere there will be misses too – and The Chaser one epic miss this year. But I also
believe that being willing to take risks with content involves more respect for the fair-minded
mainstream audience than erring on the side of the caution or striving to avoid offence.
In his time, Andrew Olle defined the discerning mainstream of Australian journalism. I didn’t
know the man, but I’ve done some research to find out about him. As far as I can tell, he had
literally zero friends – that’s verified by Facebook. In his entire journalistic career he did not
write a single tweet. He seemed in a way to be the journalistic equivalent of a one man band:
the popular drum of 702 breakfast strapped to his front, while simultaneously carrying the
cymbals of quality, the 7:30 Report and Four Corners, on his back. And a comedy horn for his
morning radio chats with Paul Lyneham, which I fondly remember listening to on the way to
For some reason, what stands out in my memory of Andrew Olle is that voice, especially on
the radio. Drifting into your consciousness with the clock radio alarm, intelligent but not
superior, serious but warm, firm but gentle. There was something in his voice that said, “You
can trust me.” And he never betrayed that trust.
He had that independence of mind I referred to earlier, which is the essence of good
judgement and media leadership. He served his audience by maintaining a professional
detachment from it.
I’m glad that I never had to face his questions. I can just imagine him, in the face of
something like the Make a Realistic Wish controversy, asking us, “Why didn’t we know that
this was going to happen?”
It’s not an easy question to answer. All I could say is that we should have, and I wish we’d
made a better call. But it was a serious lapse in a good process, not the inevitable outcome of
a rotten one … and it’s one which I believe has, overall, served the audience well. One which
is important in the interests of creating original content for the fair-minded mainstream of the
Australian community. And one which I hope will continue.
When there’s an error of judgement, the thing to do is renew your commitment to good
judgment, not to compound the error with more.
A key part of good judgement is recognising that you’re fallible, and when you’ve done wrong,
taking responsibility for it and respecting the dignity of those you have hurt.
But an equally important part of good judgement is resisting the furious cries of the outraged
mob or letting only the narrowest of tastes prevail.
Because the essence of good judgement is maintaining your independence.