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Checking Out Consumer Rights With The Checkout – Interview With Julian Morrow

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

April 29, 2014

The Checkout is a satirical consumer affairs series on Australia’s ABC TV, presented by Julian Morrow and Craig Reucassel from the satirical comedy group, The Chaser, Kirsten Drysdale, Kate Browne, Scott Abbot, Zoe Norton Lodge and Ben Jenkins.

From cradles to graves, everyone’s a customer – and we have the right not to remain silent. Each week, The Checkout takes a no-holds-barred, irreverent and entertaining approach to explaining and exposing the ways that all of us are being ripped off.

For this interview, I spoke to Julian Morrow – who first became interested in consumer issues in 1974 when he was born due to contraceptives that failed to work as described. He spent the 1980s and 90s on hold waiting to speak to customer service representatives.

He has been tagged as a problem customer on the internal records of several Australian companies. The Department of Fair Trade has recognised him as an official exception to the maxim “the customer is always right”.


Kylie Sturgess: What got you and the rest of the contributors of The Checkout interested in starting a consumer rights show in the first place?

Julian Morrow: Speaking personally, it was hours of frustrating and occasionally shouty, poor behavior by me at home and in the office.

I've always found that infuriating when you hit that brick wall of business, lack of transparency where the call center can only make outward going calls. You cannot speak to a manager. The person you're speaking with has had their job description designed to make it impossible for them to solve your problem. You feel the rage of powerlessness when you're getting dicked around.

There was that and my background. I used to be a lawyer. I worked in employment law but in particular I worked working for employees and unions so I was used to... I've worked on both sides. I knew the territory of how it can be difficult sometimes to assert your rights. Often the people who are most poorly treated are least aware of what rights they might have.

I suppose I got a lapsed-lawyer's predisposition to looking at what the rules are and trying to work out how you can use them to your benefit.

I think beyond that, though, when we were shopping around for something new to do after “The Chaser’s War on Everything,” it struck me that it was a hole in the ABC's programming. I've grown up watching “The Investigators” and remembered Helen Wellings as an icon of consumer journalism. “Why isn't the ABC doing this now?”

It seemed like a real core business for public broadcast and the fact that it wasn't being done seemed like an opportunity. I suppose we've always had a bit of a disposition at “The Chase” to deal with issues that are not unserious but trying to deal with them in a lighthearted way. That means that you can't deal with all the major consumer affairs issues because some of it's really serious, life threatening stuff.

It felt like there was a potential niche there for an evolution of what we've been doing in politics and media analysis, as it turns out, with “The Hamster Wheel.” So far it seems to be right. A key difference, the secret weapon of “The Checkout” is Chas because he's an amazingly productive, hard‑working, powerful brain, unlike his public image. We were supposed to do the first show in 2012. Chas wasn't specifically attached to the show then. We didn't have the resources to do it.

When Chas came on board, between me, Craig, and Chas - we had enough of the core brunt to drive the bus and we brought together a bunch of excellent people to do the actual hard yards. We can claim credit for it. That's the strategy.

Kylie: It seems to have worked well.

Julian: So far, so good, yeah?

Kylie: The show is one of the biggest hits in 2013 for ABC television. Is there a significant need for the public to be better educated on consumer issues these days, do you think?

Julian: I think not just these days – but at any time. One of the things that struck me reading the Australian consumer law, which is a rebranding of the old Trade Practices Act and state legislation along the same lines, is that most of the rules are pretty damn good.

The reality is that most people don't know what they are and don't know how to enforce them. If you aren't aware of what your rights are you probably won't even ask the question at the right time.

Yes, there is a need for people to be aware of consumer issues. In a way, it's not as pressing a need as in previous years because a lot of the basics of regulation around safety and those sorts of things, those are battles that have been won. When Ralph Nader started the consumer affairs movement he was trying to stop children being decapitated in cars that were unsafe.

Many of those battles have been won. There are still products that are taken off the shelves but the regimes in place are pretty robust on that sort of stuff.

Even in things like complimentary medicines - which are, at the risk of a sweeping generalization - more or less bullshit. As a regulatory issue it's very different from medical stuff. What you're looking at is a highly commercialized placebo effect or zero effect. It's not like they're doing active harm other than to people's wallets in most cases.

Yes, there's a need for people to be more aware of it. I suppose our intuition, a very self‑serving intuition was to try and present what is useful but fairly bland and boring information in a lighthearted way might be better than doing worthy explainers.

Kylie: Take us into a typical episode. What's it like?

Whenever I see the show, I sometimes swing between laughing out loud to being absolutely disgusted or horrified. What do you do? Do you throw everything onto the table and say, “Right, what's worthy to go for?”

Julian: One of the good things about consumer affairs is there's a vast variety of issues. The structure of the show is essentially two or three major stories and then a bunch of little segments or interstitial things.

We're always trying to work ahead in terms of servicing things like “Product Versus Packshot,” “Adventures in Fine Print,” “As a Guilty Mum,” those sorts of things.

We've got two or three main stories, which are driven primarily by presenter and the writing team's interest. What we're looking for is a consumer point that we think's worth making that we've come up with something that creatively we think is going to make an interesting bit of television.

I suppose the four corners criterion for a story would be; is it important enough? We're far too shallow to operate by that criterion? We ask the question; “Is there a consumer issue here that we can work with, that we can make into what we hope is less boring than average television?”

That's driven partially by the writing team and also by the presenters. There's overlap between those two categories.

Kylie: Is there a particular favorite that you've had during the last season that you've done, back in 2013?

Julian: Craig prancing around Terrara House Estate pretending to be Nicole Kidman. It felt like a bit of a gift when we we'd already been there with Swisse in episode one. I'm quite proud of the fact that the very first story in the very first episode of “The Checkout” has got us straight into the Supreme Court. That's always a good sign!

That piece came together at the very last minute but worked well. I also enjoyed mucking around with Alan Jarman, the lovely guy from the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, who sent us this note about the credit card charges on his $17 Sydney to Melbourne Jetstar fees.

Craig did a story on milk and the way the milk industry works, which I thought explained the backgrounds to issues that are a bit misunderstood in a valuable way. That was great, but then Alan's gripe? On the one hand you think, “Oh, geez. Whoever thought you could fly to Sydney and Melbourne for $17 bucks. Of course it's going to cost more than that.”

Some people would say that's the consumer's fault. I'd say, “No. Jetstar advertises $17 fares. If that's what they're going to advertise... They've chosen not to advertise the $65 fare, which is what it's going to cost. It's on them.”

Alan had exactly the right spirit about it. He tried to do it right and had got nothing - and to be able to take on this little complaint and try and get a bit of an outcome for him with Jetstar was good fun, even though it was sweating the very small stuff.

That's one of the things about consumer affairs. It is infuriating when you know you've been taken advantage of. Sometimes it's the little things that sting the most, like a paper cut.

There have been quite a few. Every time I look at the first “Product Versus Packshot,” with those sad pictures of Cole's Strawberries and Bubble O Bill, I felt really bad having to take Bubble O Bill down because I love that man.

He provided so much fun in early years and it's really the fault of whichever bloody convenience store that we got that particular ice cream from. He didn't look healthy when we took him out of the packet!

Kylie: You mentioned people writing in and interacting. The Scam Boy is a particular favorite of mine. Everyone keeps on quoting it all the time. It's hilarious.

Julian: He's going to be back soon, as well!

Kylie: Yes! Awesome! What's a typical submission to the show like? Are there lots of examples and material that you can use that are coming in from the public?

Julian: We were overwhelmed with the amount of responses. I think in the ten weeks we were on the air we got 5,000 emails.

Somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000. It was far too much to be able to reply to and it contained the standard mix of people who were enjoying the show.

People who had seen funny things, people who were giving tip‑offs, some of which seemed like big, significant stories and others which seemed to assist with the diagnosis of one form of mental illness or another.

You take your complainants as they come. Because somebody's a bit unique doesn't mean that they haven't been treated badly. We were overwhelmed by that response. We kind of felt bad that we couldn't take every single one up because of the...We're not complaining about the resources we've got for this show. You can't do as many issues as you'd like to.

I particularly enjoyed FU Tube and that kind of process of trying to get consumers themselves to participate in the process because I do think that's something that's genuinely easier these days and where dying old media like us can help. If the self‑starting social media citizen journalist uses our viewers along the way then I think that's good. That's something that we're trying to do more of this year, as well.

Kylie: I have to ask the question because you did mention it; the Swisse defamation case. In the end, what happened?

Julian: It's still going. I think the next step is mediation. It's not Swisse that's suing. It's the father of the CEO of Swisse. That's because corporations with more than fifteen employees can't sue for defamation.

I would like to think that if Swisse, as a corporation, is sensible then it wouldn't have tried to dispute the claims that were in that piece because we stand by them 100 percent. Their Dad's having a crack at us, and we'll see how that goes. It hasn't had the slightest effect in terms of making us worry about what we say about Swisse. In one of our promos for episode one, it’s a parody of all the Swisse ads.

It seems to me that this defamation case is significant because it would limit what you could say if it wasn't resolved in the way I think it should be. That will all go on.

In the meantime, we'll keep on making television. We're going to keep on focusing on products that are dodgy and almost, by definition, that means that we'll be mentioning Swisse on a fairly regular basis.

Kylie: You've got even more episodes coming up this year, I've noticed…

Julian: That's right. We've got twenty episodes which is not enough to be able to cover all the dodgy Swisse things but, at the same time, it's enough to keep us very busy and it means that you'll keep seeing us working at the ABC on a Sunday.

Kylie: Excellent. Thank you so much for talking to me, Julian.

Julian: It is always a pleasure, Kylie. I'm more than happy to do it any time. We're promising that the second series is going to be bigger and better. But, as with all marketing, we don't mean that or believe it. We'll see what happens.

Segments from The Checkout can be found on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/user/checkoutabctv and viewed on Australia’s ABC1 every Thursday at 8.00pm.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.