Tim Blair


New Criterion



Tuesday, May 13, 2003
BEING MONDAY NIGHT it was Uncle's duty last night to don the saliva shield, swallow the barf-protector and wriggle into the asbestos-kevlar flak-projection-rejector jacket.

Yes, Media Watch was in town again, careering about on its slick of righteous hypocrisy and spitting every which way but towards Auntie. And, or course, itself.

You'll be pleased to hear I retained my composure and can report with objectivity and equanimity on the latest from the gruesome crew.

Topic: plagiarism and defamation. What is the former, and how much of the latter is a fair thing.

Obervers of Media Watch will know that it always strives for originality except in its slavish imitation of its own lack of objectivity.

There was its recent spat with Tim Blair over the origin of that US flag that found its way onto Saddam's bronze head shortly before it came crashing down. Did it, or did it not come from the Pentagon. It seems that it didn't, a factoid that Media Watch scored to its own credit.

The crew neglected to remind us that on their first coverage of the matter they were content to damn the soruce of the story, and Blair, on the basis of a single phone call to a bemused military spokesperson in the Gulf, who opined without the benefit of research, in order to dispose of a trivial issue. The people Media Watch criticised had more substantial sources; erroneous as it turned out.

When tackled on the matter by a viewer, Media Watch first confined its self-defense to the correspondence pages of its website, and relied on bluster.

Finally, when something like hard evidence seemed to appear, they trumpeted it on-air. As if they had known it all along.

All a lie.

Yesterday night's story also concerned their own credibility.

They had accused Richard Carleton of 60 Minutes of plagiarism. Carleton had done his own version of a story on the Srebrenice massacres, following closely the pattern established by an earlier program from the BBC. 60 Minutes re-shot some of the footage, re-interviewed some of the talent, and used some of the same bought-in footage. Without acknowledgment, but without denying it.

Is that plagiarism?

Well, it clearly isn't the same as cut and paste. It certainly is pinching an idea, but there's no copyright in ideas, and shouldn't be. Any public debate involves people pinching other people's ideas for their own purposes. To require acknowledgment in all cases would be absurd.

Meda Watch wasn't too sure itself, but it wasn't going to forgo the opportunity to accuse:

Paul Barry: Now I don't know quite what you call this - plagiarism perhaps. But whatever the name it fits a pattern. 60 minutes has been caught at this by Media Watch several times before. It's depressing to know we have so little effect.

No it's not, Paul. You enjoyed it.

The point of our report was that they failed to acknowledge their debt. As I said last week I'm not sure what you call it, perhaps it's plagiarism, certainly it's lazy journalism.

So, it's shifty practice, according to Media Watch, although they're not sure what to call it. But happy to leave us with "plagiarism" ringing in our ears.

And then to Court, before Chief Justice Higgins of the ACT Supreme Court, who had given a couple of earlier litigants a good run on a defamation matter, against that paragon of veracity, Bob Ellis.

Higgins J. decides that it's not plagiarism, but Media Watch's comments are not defamation either. Solomonaic wisdom. Carleton claims he's vindicated. Good move. Let's cop it sweet fellers, and have a beer. Or, in the case of Richard Carleton, a Chivas.

Not on your life. The gruesome crew have to try the matter again in the higher court of Auntie's television studio before David Marr, QC and bar.

That's right; he ruled that Higgins J. was only half right. Right to excuse Media Watch from the accusation of defamation, wrong in excusing 60 Minutes from the accusation of plagiarism.

Who appeared for the other side in this appeal to a higher court? You must be kidding.

This is Other-People's-Media Watch.