Media lacks self-criticism

Veteran political commentator Michelle Grattan gave a speech recently at the Deakin lectures in Melbourne. She argued that the relationship between media and politicians was at an all-time low:

When I arrived in Canberra in the 1970s, if you were armed with a Commonwealth Directory it wasn’t hard to get to know a lot of bureaucrats and obtain basic background. Now, although some bureaucrats, especially senior ones, will talk to some journalists whom they trust, the majority will run a mile from the most innocuous media call. Most departments have strict rules that officers should report media contacts to the minister’s office. Even the bureaucrats who will take the calls feel more constrained.

Her suggestions to improve transparency, accountability and honesty included making the media “simultaneously more constructive and more critical”. Furthermore, Grattan talked of a need for “less trashing of politicians. On the other side of the coin, eyes should be sharper and should be more rigorous.”

Grattan made some valuable comments and was at least capable, unlike many senior journalists housed in the Canberra Press Gallery, of criticising her colleagues’ frequent lack of determination in pursuing stories and contacts. “Political investigative journalism is not strong”, she said. “Where, for example, is the exposé of the culture of the Immigration Department?”

She did, however, miss some fundamentals. The failure of the mainstream media – certainly those not wedded to the establishment orthodoxy of market capitalism and gung-ho militarism (such as the Murdoch press and Fairfax management) – is the ongoing acceptance of government stalling on major issues as little more than unfortunate. Not detrimental to open democracy, they argue, or at least not serious enough to warrant major pressure to be placed on them. These same news organisations, including Fairfax, still support the re-election of John Howard, or say, Bob Carr in NSW, two masters of spin and duplicity. Advertisement Take this example of Grattan’s hypocrisy. When Australian citizen Mamdoub Habib was released from Guantanamo Bay earlier this year and returned to Australia, Grattan wrote, he “cannot reasonably complain about [remaining under watch] by Australian authorities”. Despite a lack of evidence produced by the Australian or American authorities against Habib, Grattan still accepted the spin put forward by Attorney General Phillip Ruddock that continued surveillance of Habib was necessary. Perhaps she’d forgotten that Habib was an innocent man, held illegally and not charged with any offence.

But Grattan also forgot something else. If she was so concerned about the lack of transparency in contemporary Australian life, she should take a closer look at the Canberra Press Gallery. The ever-increasing intimacy between journalists and politicians is one of the great shams of the system. Have you ever noticed that politicians call reporters by their first name? Ever wondered why journalists faithfully visit the Lodge every Christmas for the annual end-of-year drinks? It is this collusion, and the lack of distance between what should be competing players, that make for truly diminished media coverage.

Journalists should not be mates with politicians or their press agents. A healthy working relationship is clearly essential but socialising together is inappropriate. During a recent conversation with Robert Fisk in Beirut, he reminded me of the situation in Washington during press conferences with Bush, Rumsfeld and a handful of other American leaders. “The journalists rarely ask tough questions”, Fisk told me. “They’re called by their first names by the politicians and prefer basking in the glow of thinking some hot-shot politician is taking their question.” The situation in Australia is often little better.

Grattan ignored the corporate pressures on mainstream media organisations. Journalists wanting the truth will often not be a strong enough imperative to upset advertisers. UK-based Medialens has long campaigned about the inherent inability of the mainstream media to actively engage in issues that require in-depth critiques of big business and its connection to government. Its report of February 16, 2005 discussed the ways in which Tony Blair is praised for his commitment to the environment:

This is the standard media view: on climate change, Blair is “determined”, “committed” and “listening” to the major NGOs. Thus: “The Prime Minister is hosting a ‘power breakfast’ of business leaders, politicians and environmentalists at Downing Street on Wednesday, where he will unveil a new five-year strategy to combat global warming.” Mr Blair is calling for Britain to “pull together as a country”.

Sadly, the facts simply don’t support the mainstream’s embrace of Blair. Greenpeace last November withdrew support from the Labour government saying Blair couldn’t be trusted to reduce global warming. Stephen Tindale, a former government special adviser on the environment who played a central role in Labour’s policy on climate change, said Mr Blair “cannot be trusted to resist industry lobbying” from car manufacturers and airlines. “On the climate change issues we have been very supportive of the Government. We have been essentially trying to work with them to promote renewable energy. But we have basically taken a conscious decision that he [Tony Blair] can no longer be given the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “So far Blair’s record on climate change is almost entirely a record of fine words and no action. His repeated failures on this issue is undermining his diplomatic efforts.” Yet we still read of Blair’s “commitment” to the environment.

Michelle Grattan may want tougher journalists and more pro-active editors but this wish will not be enough. How much longer will we rely on the mainstream media to deliver results when they are structurally incapable of delivering? Let us not forget the performance during last year’s Federal Election. The ALP was seen as bad for business while the Liberals were seen to guarantee more of the same business-friendly, union-bashing policies.

Former media guru Max Suich may think that media owners have little influence anymore – “Australia’s media outlets are less politically predictable these days. Why? Because of the freedom from board, management and proprietor interference that editors and reporters now enjoy. This journalistic freedom, an event of the past 15 years or so, is greater than at any time since World War II” – but he clearly has no understanding of media management in 2005.

The Fairfax board, as one example, is made up of executives with no media experience keen to be bought by a financed media mogul after the cross-media laws inevitably change soon after July 1. This may be strenuously denied by all, but to suggest that Fairfax will be a major player when the well-financed leaders get into the ring is hollow. To seriously compete with a Packer, Murdoch or overseas investor is well beyond the reach of Fairfax. Editorial quality will be the least of their concerns. A high share price will be the priority.

Those questioning the true intentions of Howard’s proposed changes to cross media laws, the role of the moguls and their relationship to the Liberal Government, should take note of recent comments by advertising guru John Singleton in late April on ABC’s Inside Business:

ALAN KOHLER: Do you think the cross-media rules and the foreign ownership rules will change so therefore there will be a shake up in the media that you can participate in? JOHN SINGLETON: … I don’t know. I can tell you only this – there’s sure to be no decisions made that are going to in any way affect the chances of John Howard being re-elected as Prime Minister in the next term, so … ALAN KOHLER: What does that mean? JOHN SINGLETON: Well, it means the terms are going to be, the changes to the media cross-ownership laws will be only those that don’t make any existing media owners, doesn’t disadvantage them. ALAN KOHLER: And what do you think that turns into? JOHN SINGLETON: It means life’s a rort and it’s only a rort if you’re not in it, that’s what it means. And John Howard likes being Prime Minister so he’s not going to set out to upset the existing media owners by saying, “Oh, laissez-faire, let’s have every available – let’s have 50, 100 radio stations, 20 TV stations …”… And the natural barriers to entry in other things like magazines and newspapers preclude it in any event, so …

Grattan may have the best of intentions, but her naivety is stunning. To completely ignore the commercial interests of a media company, including her employer, proves that working within the constraints of mainstream media is a constant compromise. Did Grattan feel incapable of taking on Fairfax? Or perhaps she didn’t think the corporate ambitions of current Fairfax management were relevant to outstanding journalism? She isn’t alone in these misconceptions, however.

The current media frenzy around John Howard and his (im)patient deputy Peter Costello is tiring. Throughout this saga, political journalists have been content playing the insider’s game, gaining interviews with the key players and parading their “insights”. Take a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald by Peter Hartcher. A full page in the paper and yet virtually not a word about the values, ideas or policies Costello as Prime Minister may express.

Would the voting public not be interested in what Costello actually stands for? He has remained virtually silent (and thereby, complicit) on numerous government decisions since 1996, including asylum seekers, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, to name just a few. The timing of a potential leadership tussle is interesting, to a point, but simply becoming the conduit through which this drab political game is played suggests that these types of journalists are simply content to be involved, get a quote and feel close to the action.

When Hartcher says John Howard is “looking every bit a statesman” after his recent foreign policy adventures, would he like to convince readers that issues such as Guantanamo Bay have simply disappeared? Channeling government propaganda has never looked so tawdry. And this is from one of the supposed leading commentators in the country.

It’s time to seriously examine the achievements, or lack thereof, of our establishment journalists. What exactly have The Australian’s Paul Kelly or Channel 9’s Laurie Oakes really done during their careers? Oakes is famous for a federal budget leak in 1980. Hardly Watergate. Kelly may have written a handful of books, but his current status-quo thinking is perhaps best explained in a recent Quarterly Essay. Responding to Raimond Gaita, and his allegation that Howard was a serial liar, Kelly said he opposed the Iraq war “on strategic grounds” but remained “unconvinced by many of the moral arguments”. He felt comfortable with Howard’s “fudging” on the real reason behind the invasion: the US alliance. Kelly accepted the so-called job of politics, “to construct policies, to sell them and to persuade. Leaders select the advice they want; they operate as advocates; they are agent of partisanship.” All true, but isn’t the job of a journalist to scrutinise political spin, rather than meekly shrug one’s shoulders and accept it? Kelly’s stripes are clearly displayed. Being on the Murdoch payroll also ensures compliance.

Take the example of Paul Bongiorno, Channel 10’s bureau chief in Canberra. In the same Quarterly Essay, he offers an even less convincing explanation of the importance of truth in government, and the role of media in questioning it. “If we accept that the security of the nation demands that prime ministers can’t tell all of the people all of the truth all of the time, maybe we can excuse Howard’s dissembling over the pre-positioning of our troops in the Middle East.”

This is a remarkable statement. Is Bongiorno suggesting that the voting public should be left in the dark in matters of war? Surely the role of a real journalist is to keep government ministers accountable, not least when they may be lying as to the exact status of Australia’s troops in a war with dubious legality? National security is a legitimate concern but in the case of Iraq, when the exact nature of Australia’s commitment, verbal and literal, remains unclear to this day, people like Bongiorno shouldn’t be comfortable with the government’s weasel words. But then that would require taking professional risks, speaking out of line with other Press Gallery figures, and who wants to take risks when earning such handsome financial rewards?

It’s time to challenge the authority of Australia’s so-called journalist heavyweights. Watch ABC Insiders on a Sunday morning and you’d be forgiven for thinking that politeness was a pre-requisite for hosting and commenting. Host Barrie Cassidy provides few reasons to wake up before midday. Yawn. Innocuous chatter, insider’s jokes and banality. Moreover, right-wing figures such as Piers Ackerman and Andrew Bolt regularly feature, but where are the left-wingers, the more progressive voices?

The Australian’s Matt Price, a relatively young up and comer in the Press Gallery, now delivers risk-free commentary on a regular basis, rarely stepping out of line of “acceptable” thinking and the occasional joke about something, anything related to life in Canberra. His columns of May 2, 3, 6 and 7, for example, all focused on the leadership tussle between Costello and Howard. Nothing else important happening in the world, Matt?

Once again, independent media will continue to play an essential role in keeping the bastards honest. Relying on the established media figures is based on the presumption that these individuals are able to step outside their comfort zones. It happens so rarely that a new generation of journalists may be more inspired by a reporter such as Dahr Jamail – a US freelancer who worked independently in Iraq -than a figure like Paul Kelly. The establishment will only have itself to blame.

Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist, author and blogger. He writes for the Sydney Morning Herald online, Sydney’s Sun Herald, Znet, Counterpunch and many other publications. He contributed a major chapter in the 2004 best seller, Not Happy, John! He is currently writing a book on the Israel/Palestine conflict for Melbourne University Publishing. He blogs at

He can be contacted at [email protected]

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