Mark Latham’s latest stint on Sky News was always likely to end in tears but he had to do a lot of bad stuff before he was sacked on Wednesday.
He had insulted two fellow Sky presenters, and the wife of one of them, as well as an ABC host. He’d suggested a Sydney Boys High School student was gay when the boy participated in a video for International Women’s Day. He’d got stuck into the teenage daughter of the Reserve Bank Governor. And he had accused the head of the Prime Minister’s department of hiring people based on “the shape of their genitalia”.
Latham’s business model in his media work is based on delivering insult and outrage. It has blown up in grief before, including in an earlier stint on Sky, and as a columnist with the Australian Financial Review.
Sky News boss Angelos Frangopoulos, announcing the termination of Latham’s contract, tweeted on Wednesday:
Latham appeared across programs but when Sky gave him “Outsiders”, with ex-Liberal MP Ross Cameron and Rowan Dean, editor of The Spectator Australia, it’s hard to believe it would have expected the tone would be “respectful”. Respectful is not the Latham way.
A tweet from a suddenly-revived account, previously linked to Latham, said yesterday:
Frangopoulos knew the risks. He said in 2015: “Mark could have forged a great career providing his strong and incisive commentary on the political landscape, but as we found out at Sky, too, things just go off the rails.”
“Outsiders” has been at the extreme end of the increasing trend on Sky – now wholly owned by News Corp - towards highly opinionated, poke-them-in-the-eye Fox News style programs, mainly shown at night (although Outsiders is Sunday morning). The overall lean is clearly to the right, despite the political mixture of participants.
Latham has been forced out because his position was unsustainable, given the blowback from colleagues at Sky and leading politicians such as Education Minister Simon Birmingham and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.
But some others on Sky’s “shouty” programs, including presenters and guests, display only minimal restraint in what they say and the language in which they say it. If they’re against someone or something, almost anything goes. Sledging is a tool of their trade.
This can be defended in the name of free speech and no one would want to censor what sometimes descends into appalling nastiness. But it can and should be called out for demeaning the political debate and debasing the media. Those who find comfort in the fact that few are watching pay TV at night miss the point. Enough of those involved in politics get a cue from it.
Earlier this week Mark Day, who has more than half a century of journalistic experience including as an editor and now writes for The Australian’s media section, had a column headed “Fox model prompts debate over future format of Sky News”.
Day wrote: “Sky’s shift to full prime-time opinion programming – or ‘engaging conversation’ as insiders characterise it - broadly follows the highly successful Fox News format in the US, frequently criticised for its strong conservative leanings.”
“Our Sky presenters generally lean towards conservative – sometimes disconcertingly so. Paul Murray, for instance, presents as far right by wearing his admiration for Pauline Hanson on his sleeve, yet he regularly tops the viewing numbers for all Foxtel channels at 9pm, proving that viewers will tune in to disagree as much as agree with a presenter.”
Day noted that “the high value of opinion” was reflected in Outsiders “which regularly wins its Sunday morning slot”.
He went on to question the trend. “Increasingly I have felt that opinion programming may have gone a step too far. Would it not be better to pull back to the core function of providing more news, at least part of the time?”
Pointing out the amount of international material available to Sky, Day wrote that “We don’t see this material now because the numbers show audiences prefer opinion and debate programming. That is, more people want debates and controversial points of view than straight news reports of muggings in Melbourne or car crashes in Katoomba.
"But that doesn’t mean there is zero demand for news. Why not both, then?”
Contemporary politics and media are both heavily driven by what the research indicates the audiences - voters and viewers – are perceived to want. Up to a point, that’s okay – you don’t win votes or eyeballs by dishing up an unpalatable fare. But when taken too far this results in bad policy from the politicians and media that delivers endless, fractious argument. Neither serves the public well.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra