Have We Lost Our Innocence?


Like many Australians of a certain age who had no remote control in the family home, I grew up with Hey Dad! In many ways, I came to view lovable, long-suffering architect Martin Kelly as my dad, only less funny and with a more inexplicable haircut.

And so, naturally, the recent allegations have come as quite a shock to me. I had always assumed that the only thing that would taint my memories of the show would be its content.

I had thought that the horrifically bad acting, the sub Cro-Magnon plotting and the jokes whose punchlines were first seen approaching by 18th-century lighthouse-keepers would be a cherished and horrible part of my emotional make-up for the rest of my life. I had thought I would pass them on to my children when they were ready to be severely punished for something.

This is, obviously, no longer the case.

Now Hey Dad! seems sordid and distasteful and no longer the stuff of sweet scented summer evenings in 1988, when laughter rang loud throughout the house as we lay excitedly on the carpet in front of the TV, colouring in our Bicentennial activity books in the ad breaks. No, Hey Dad! has lost its innocence. It’s no longer Hey Dad! It’s, like, Newlyweds or something. Sad.

It’s a terrible, traumatic time for our community, but at least we can take solace in one thing: Justice has been done. And I don’t mean that namby-pamby, bleeding-heart, "don’t blame me for my multiple sex murders my mum drove me to it when she made me eat asparagus" type of justice doled out these days by our hopelessly out of touch courts. I mean real justice.

So thank you! Thank you, Australian media.

There are, as the history of the Australian Democrats teaches us, many kinds of heroes.

But few are as heroic as the magazine editor who is willing to stump up cold hard cash for the opportunity to expose monstrous allegations of abuse. Woman’s Day has really stepped up to the plate here, and smacked one out of the park; given that in this case the "plate" is modern taboos surrounding sexual abuse, the ball is the culture of silence around the behaviour of powerful celebrities, and the park is, I don’t know, Betty’s desk?

It’s not like this is the first time Woman’s Day has come sweeping in to serve the Australian public, like a knight swinging on a chandelier. The latest exposé comes hot on the heels of the Lara Bingle affair, when the public-minded magazine stood alone in having the courage and integrity to uphold the public’s right to know just which mid-level domestic celebrities had been photographed in the shower against their will.

I want you to remember this, when the critics come a-nitpicking and a-complaining: remember that if it wasn’t for Woman’s Day, we might not even know what Lara Bingle looks like with pixellated breasts. Think about that. Ruminate.

And now consider this: without Woman’s Day, we also would not know how Lara Bingle feels about every footballer in Australia having a giggle over her ablutions. Now you have an idea of just what a world without Woman’s Day would look like: bleak, and corrupt. A little like communist Cuba, with normal citizens cut off from important information.

Now, of course, it is not only Woman’s Day which merits our gratitude in the Hey Dad! imbroglio.

In a way, the part played by A Current Affair deserves even greater acclamation.

The magazine brought the claims into the open; the hard-hitting investigative television program gave them a good airing, shook them about, slapped them against a fence, and wrapped them around its head like a sort of makeshift bonnet. And wearing this claim-bonnet for all to see was Tracy Grimshaw, investigative journalist par excellence, a woman of rare versatility who is equally at home grilling a footballer, whining about a chef, telling you your bra doesn’t fit, exposing shonky builders, flirting with a chef, or decrying the habit of modern suburbanites of burying their homes under eight tonnes of garbage. She does it all, and with an easy grace and winning smile that on less adept presenters might seem insufferably insincere, but on Grimshaw is barely noticeable.

It was Tracy who put a stop to the pussyfooting around. It was Tracy who said we need frank and wide-ranging interviews; we need direct, probing questions; we need understanding nods and ominous music. Most of all, we need to name names. Because only by naming the subject of serious allegations of abhorrent criminality prior to any charges being laid or official complaints being made can we truly achieve justice.

And this, of course, is because of that phenomenon which is probably the greatest achievement of western civilisation: the Trial By Media.

Let me tell you what we had before Trials By Media: we had Trials By Courts, and it was a shambles. Criminals used to laugh in our faces. Paedophiles openly hurled fruit at magistrates — who were powerless to stop them. Murder was barely even illegal. Courts, essentially were — and, let’s face it, still are — about as threatening to the average felon as a trip to the museum.

So thank God for the media, which has filled the justice-shaped hole in our society.

Now, some people, such as Greg "Tunza Fun" Barns have a problem with Trials By Media. They claim the judicial process is corrupted. They say the presumption of innocence is denied. They claim some other boring whingey stuff that I can’t be bothered repeating. But you would be ill-advised to listen to Greg Barns; in fact, you’d be a right moron.

Because Trial By Media works. Let me explain how.

Now, in conventional trials, or as I like to call them, "lawyer-jerks", we have winners, and we have losers. And too often the losers outweigh the winners. Defendants lose because they’re convicted. Complainants lose because defendants get suspended sentences. Defence lawyers lose because they look incompetent. Crown prosecutors lose because they look badly-dressed. The clerk of the court loses because his girlfriend leaves him for a man with a better job. And so forth. Unhappiness all around.

But in Trial By Media, everybody wins.

The complainant wins because they get to air their grievance and see the defendant’s life and career ruined in return for a large cheque. The defendant wins because they can’t be convicted of anything due to the impossibility of a fair trial. The media wins because of the advertising revenue. The viewers and readers win because they are entertained and blot out their own worthless lives for a half hour or so. And the civil libertarians win because they get to satisfy their urge to complain by bitching about due process for days on end, which is all they really need to be happy.

It’s not that I deny there are two sides to every story: I’m just saying that the forum of public opinion and miracle diets is the right and proper place to decide which side of any story is the interesting one, and which is the one to ignore.

And given that our world is, in essence, divided into two kinds of people: those who like feeling disgusted at the depravity of those who always seemed so nice; and those who enjoy feeling morally superior to those who dare to have opinions on things they saw on TV; the Trial By Media really is the most complete and elegant solution to all our judicial and emotional needs.

The Media: allowing you to make up your mind about issues without having to follow complicated legal procedures for over a century, and still going strong.

Without it, the news about Hey Dad! would seem almost a shame.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.