Interview with Monica Attard
She has earned 5 Walkley Awards with journalistic integrity and gravitas, and has now replaced Liz Jackson as host of Media Watch. Laura Grace cornered Monica Attard on a busy schedule at the ABC’s media watchdog.
The Sun Herald said she was “Cool, calm, competent”. Alan Jones once described her as “massively influential and powerfully articulate”. “When did he say that?” exclaims Monica Attard, the 2006 host of Media Watch. Attard’s well known voice brought us Russia in the early 1990s and the confessions of former federal Labor frontbencher Cheryl Kernot and business man Rodney Adler more recently.
As the host of Media Watch, a program which highlights media misbehaviour, complementary comments from a radio talk back presenter might seem unusual. Jones described Attard during an interview in 2002. “He was just being nice to me because I was interviewing him,” she said.
Being “the judge of one’s colleagues,” as former host Liz Jackson described the position, is a difficult one to be in. But any pressure that Attard might have felt has been outweighed by her conviction about the show’s purpose.
“I am generally satisfied that they are valid stories, that the people who we are pointing a finger at actually are guilty of some journalistic misbehaviour which is in the public interest worthy of pointing out,” she said.
Attard’s belief in the value of free and open media strengthened when she witnessed stringent government regulation of communications during her work in Russia. However she points out that her belief in good journalism and a responsible media industry was established before her 5 Walkley Awards, before her first trip to Russia in 1983 and before her university job as a casual journalist in the ABC Radio Newsroom.
“I’ve always had an appreciation for open media but when you witness what happens in a place where the media is virtually controlled by the government either directly or indirectly as is the case in Russia 2006, you have an appreciation for a media which is able to have opinions and express them as long as they are grounded in fact,” said Attard.
Maintaining basic good journalistic practice and a media which allows robust debate is one of Attard’s concerns for journalism in Australia. “The interesting issues are going to come about if and when the government gets through with its cross-media reforms, that will cause some very interesting issues for journalists to confront because we’ll face the prospect of greater syndication of news and other information,” said Attard.
“I think that generally speaking the age of the internet and new technology is throwing up all sorts of challenges, as wonderful as it is,” she said, “the old skills of journalism such as checking ones facts beyond a Google search and thereby protecting the subjects about whom we write, is a really critical issue for us to face”.
Her most recent Walkley Awards have been for broadcast interviewing on ABC radio’s Sunday Profile in 2002 and 2003. “I love biography, it’s my favourite genre of writing so for me it was the ability to do a little bit of biography every week and I certainly miss doing that.”
It is this capacity to engage with her subjects that has earned Attard respect from many people, including politicians and her peers. As Cheryl Kernot has said, Attard has “a real note of authority in her voice”.
This question of authority is one which arises in discussion around women in the media and one which Attard addressed in a paper at the Anne Conlon Memorial Lecture in 1995. She believes the situation for women journalists has improved significantly for women since then. “I think there’s an acknowledgment that women can bring as much gravitas to a program as a man can. So I think things are improving slightly there, we’re a long way off 50/50 but maybe one day,” she said.
Attard says that people are both critical and supportive of her role at Media Watch. Mostly people have accepted that “I’m here and I’m me and I do what I do and I do it with as much honesty and integrity as I can bring to bear,” she said.
“I think it’s a very difficult thing to quantify what gravitas is, what authority is, and if people say that I have it, well that’s great I’m willing to accept it and take it at face value”.