Careful handling of the truth

Chas Licciardello (centre) and his fellow Chasers are discomforted by the direction in which the media is heading.
Chas Licciardello (centre) and his fellow Chasers are discomforted by the direction in which the media is heading.

NO MORE cat videos purloined from YouTube. More analysis of the media and politics. Have the Chaser boys been drinking too much Kool-Aid, fallen asleep at the (hamster) wheel and woken up thinking they're Media Watch?

Not exactly, though one thing to be gleaned from The Hamster Wheel last year is that they're savvy connoisseurs of the media, even if they like portraying themselves as lowbrow, undergraduate muck-rakers.

The Hamster Wheel, which returns for another eight-episode run next week, is very much the baby of Chas Licciardello, its roots going all the way back to the ''What Have We Learnt from Current Affairs This Week?'' segments he and Andrew Hansen presented in The Chaser's War on Everything.

''All of us consume endless amounts of the media,'' Licciardello says. ''We have this love-hate relationship with it. We're both the media's greatest fans and its enemies and we're neck deep in it, so there's a certain amount of self-loathing going on in The Hamster Wheel.''

The Chaser's return last year with a show that pulled back from the pranks and stunts that had kept high-profile Australians looking over their shoulders for the best part of a decade was successful enough for the ABC to recommission it this year.

The timing of last year's episodes turned out to be a gift, coinciding with another chapter in the long-running Julia Gillard-Kevin Rudd leadership saga, the circus of an anti-carbon-tax rally in Canberra led by Sydney radio shock-jock Alan Jones, and the appointment of blowhard conservative Paul Henry to lead Channel Ten's (failed) assault on the breakfast-TV market.

A year on, ''the political scene is still fascinating and the media hasn't got less silly, so I think we're on pretty solid ground,'' executive producer Julian Morrow says, also noting the ascension of mining-turned-media magnate Gina Rinehart, who in the past year has added Fairfax Media, owner of this paper, to her significant shareholding in Ten.

Needless to say, the struggling Ten Network looms large on the Chaser's radar. ''If A Current Affair was the gift to us in 2006, Paul Henry is the gift to us in 2012,'' Licciardello says. ''He's an interesting media performer because he's both intentionally and unintentionally funny.''

Since June, the team has been diligently logging every Australian news and current affairs show, compiling databases of topics that have a chance of being covered in the show as well as ''funny stuff'' that might score a joke, be it ''a pompous git to some technical f--- up''.

Sometimes Media Watch beats The Hamster Wheel to the punch, but Licciardello and Morrow deny there is any friction between the two shows.

''Our role is to take the piss and their role is to do something serious,'' Licciardello says. ''If there was a conflict between us and them, we would defer to them.''

While Morrow concedes that a feature of the Chaser's work has always been its ''hit or miss'' nature, he believes that ''Inside the Wheel'', a research-intensive segment running as long as eight minutes presented by Licciardello and Hansen, was a strength of the original The Hamster Wheel.

Despite its popularity among viewers, ''Politics with Cats'' is unlikely to return, having reached its shelf-life, and the takedowns of online news, which included a tongue-in-cheek homage to former Fairfax writer Jim Schembri, will also play a lesser part in the returning series.

''There's a reputation out there that online news is a bit crap,'' Licciardello says.

''Everyone knows that, and so if you're going to sit there and make jokes you need to bring out something that's more extreme than people's expectations. But when their expectations aren't very high, it's impossible to exceed that expectation.''

But while politicians and sections of the Fourth Estate solemnly contemplate the decline of newspapers and traditional media, eulogies won't be part of The Hamster Wheel.

''If you're suggesting that there's a gravity where humour is not appropriate, the Chaser has a very poor track record on that,'' Morrow says. ''If we see fish in a barrel, we're going to have a shot at them.''

For his part, Licciardello isn't pessimistic about the shake-ups that have enveloped at least two of the country's largest media companies.

''People are having more choice and choosing what they want and I personally do think there is enough of a market for quality journalism if people want to pay for it, which eventually they're going to have to do,'' he says.

''I think there's enough market out there for crap journalism like the tabloids. I don't have a problem with that, with people reading newspapers and gossip for a laugh. I think there's room for all kinds. I'm not pessimistic at all. But it doesn't stop me being a hypocrite and making fun of people [with whom] I don't have any problem at all.''

Unlike the Brits, with their seemingly insatiable appetite for ''Nude Harry'' tabloid scoops, Australians take their media very seriously, Licciardello contends.

In TV terms, it's the difference between reality TV shows such as Made in Chelsea and the local version of the formula, The Shire. ''When the Daily Mail generates all this shit copy, no one is meant to read that and think 'This is news'. They're supposed to have a laugh. They have this entire culture of not taking them seriously and Made in Chelsea is very much in that culture.

''Whereas in Australia, people are meant to take The Daily Telegraph, The Herald-Sun and The Sydney Morning Herald online seriously. Obviously there are comedy articles, but the news, the front page, is serious.

''That's what makes it a bit discomforting from my point of view as I watch the direction the media moves in as it comes closer and closer to the tabloid style in England.

''We're copying their journalistic techniques, when it's not meant to be journalism, it's meant to be entertainment.''

Bizarrely, while The Hamster Wheel airs on ABC1, The Unbelievable Truth, a TV version of a BBC radio show developed by and featuring Chaser members Morrow, Hansen and Craig Reucassel, will air on Channel Seven.

''It means we can spend our time doing gratuitous cross promotions for Channel Seven, watch it and then take the piss out of it on The Hamster Wheel,'' Morrow says. ''We can find ourselves appalling and bring ourselves down.''

Asked if The Unbelievable Truth will be subject to the skewering other shows receive on The Hamster Wheel, Licciardello prevaricates. ''On the one hand, we think to ourselves, we'd love to go there because there's nothing safer than burying the hatchet into each other. But on the other hand, is it going to look like advertising [for Seven]?

''If it dies in the arse in a massive way like pretty much every other new TV show has this year then we'll be all over it, but if it's successful … I think we might be a bit embarrassed to get too deep into it.''

The Hamster Wheel premieres on Wednesday at 9pm on ABC1.

This story Careful handling of the truth first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.