Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Latham Off The Rails

There seems to be an almost universal reaction against the antics of former Labor Party Leader Mark Latham over the past few days, and it is easy to dismiss him as nothing more than a failed leader with an axe to grind, and absolutely no sense of propriety. He has been described as a great big boofhead, and other much less polite names, and his behaviour doesn’t do anything to dispel those opinions. His blunt observations might leave no doubt as to what he is thinking, but they are widely interpreted as thoughts which are distorted by an apparent contempt for his one time colleagues every bit as strong as his disdain for his erstwhile opponents. So why on earth did Channel Nine think it would be a good idea to hire him to prepare a report for Sixty Minutes?

Well, there are a number of reasons. Notwithstanding the lack of affection in which Mr. Latham is held by the community, it should not be forgotten that he has genuine political experience at a level that very few ever attain. He does possess a substantial intellectual capacity, despite what many might find to be loutish manners. His exceedingly blunt manner might be confronting, but it can also be incisive. But most importantly, the potential for conflict and confrontation is likely to make for captivating television, and both the Channel Nine executives and Mr. Latham himself know it. Conflict is drama, and drama is irresistible entertainment. There is no doubt that people will want to watch whatever report Mark Latham puts together, in much the same way that they can’t stop staring at a train wreck, and Mark Latham was a powerful political locomotive that went off the rails in a most spectacular fashion.

None of that, of course, makes it good journalism, nor is it necessarily in the public interest. The confrontation between Mark Latham and Julia Gillard in Brisbane at the weekend certainly registered highly as sensationalist tabloid television, and it can only be assumed that the product of Mr. Latham’s work, when it is finally broadcast next weekend, will be of a similar character. But most people found that confrontation to be quite unsettling, to the point that Channel Nine CEO David Gyngell felt it was necessary to issue an apology to the Prime Minister. Veteran Channel Nine political commentator Laurie Oakes felt moved to criticise his own network, on his own network, in no uncertain terms. It has been reported that his colleagues in the Nine newsroom were cheering him on, and it’s not hard to understand why.

Laurie Oakes is in a position of such respect that he is free to say what others have been thinking, and he didn’t hold back. Among other things he said, “He's not a journalist; he's still full of bile and settling old scores. I don't really think it does 60 Minutes or the network much of a favour really to have him posing as a journalist." The fact is that what Mark Latham is doing isn’t journalism or reporting. At best it will be commentary, but more likely it will be nothing more than hollow spectacle akin to the door busting beat-ups on Today Tonight. Real journalists who have devoted their lives to a career in the pursuit of excellence in objective reporting and analysis have every right to be affronted that this political reject has been paid the sort of money that they can only dream of, solely on the basis that he can be expected to draw a crowd.

Really, the best thing we can all do about Mark Latham is to ignore him, although I suspect that there will always be some who just can’t help themselves and just keep on staring at the train wreck.

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