Truth, Trust and the Media. John Menadue

Our mainstream media is in a downward spiral. Its decline is driven by new technology and a growing sense by readers that we can no longer trust the media.  We have a lot of spin, but very little well-informed debate. Ken Henry has commented that he can’t recall a time when public debate was so bad.

 An Australian election study 1997/2010 rated trust in the following institutions as follows:

  • Armed forces – 91%
  • Universities – 80%
  • Police – 79%
  • Banks and financial institutions – 56%
  • Major Australian companies – 54%
  • Political system – 53%
  • Public service – 41%
  • Trade unions – 29%
  • Television and newspapers – 17%.

The survey found that the least trusted in the media was talk-back radio.

In June last year, Essential Research reported as follows.

“The ABC retains its undisputed title as Australia’s most trusted media. Trust in ABC television news and current affairs grew two points to 74%, its fourth straight rise, and ABC radio lifted two points to 69%. … The Age (76%) and the SMH (69%) are the most trusted of the major newspapers. … The Australian suffered a 9% fall in trust, down to 60%. The Herald Sun in Melbourne fell to 51% as did the Courier Mail in Brisbane which fell 14 points to 51%. The Daily Telegraph is the least trusted at 59%.”

Nothing surprising there.

In March this year, Essential Research found that only 30% of Australians trust TV news and newspapers. The High Court, Reserve Bank and the ABC were trusted by over 60% of respondents.

Reading our media this week about the budget, one could not possibly avoid the conclusion that we are on the verge of economic and financial collapse. Yet we have one of the best performing economies in the world – solid growth, low inflation, low unemployment, low debt and a AAA credit rating by the three world rating agencies. John Howard commented only a few days later that “our resilient economy is in better shape than most… We are still fortunate with our unemployment rate…and that the Australian economy was better than Japan, US and Europe”.

The Australian Financial Review has become a barracker for business rather than a reporter about business.  The headlines on two successive days this week were ‘End Budget chaos – business’ and then ‘Labor, business at war’.

Supported by business commentators, the BCA has been conducting an incoherent and partisan campaign against the government. If it tried it could not do more to damage business and consumer confidence. But perhaps as a proxy for Tony Abbott, damaged confidence is just inevitable collateral damage.

Crikey reported Paddy Manning a business reporter on the AFR as saying that there was a “contract” between the AFR and business for “high level access in return for soft coverage” He was sacked for saying what many people  would regard as  obvious.

The Minerals Council with the aid of business journalists helped corrupt the debate about a profit tax on large mining companies. How ironic it is that the Minerals Council with its obsession with the Labor Government didn’t keep its eye on the inefficient state mining royalties that have increased five-fold since the early 2000s. A real own-goal kicked by the Mining Council.

The media and particularly News Corporation which lost its moral bearings long ago have been campaigning to get rid of the ‘hung parliament’. But the parliament will see out its three years and with a considerable legislative program to its credit.

The media and again, particularly News Corporation, has been part of a misinformation campaign about asylum seekers. Obsessed with boats and pictures of boats, the media has continually misinformed us about the small number of asylum seekers coming to Australia compared with other countries and that more asylum seekers come to Australia by air than by boat. The Australian Press Council drew attention to the misinformation by News Corporation publications, over use of the term ‘illegals’ and its inflammatory language.

The media, including notably the ABC facilitated the dog whistling over the miniscule problem of boat arrivals. The dog whistling in the run up to the next election will be about deficits and debt despite Australia having one of the lowest net debt ratios in the world. Where will the media be in ensuring an informed debate? I will not be holding my breath.

With its whimpish attempts to curtail abuse of power by the media, the government was subject to an extraordinary tirade of abuse dressed up by the media as the public interest. Minister Conroy was depicted in News publications as a new Stalin or Pol Pot.

Filled with revenge that he was not made Prime Minister after the 2010 election, Tony Abbott decided that if he couldn’t get his own way he would do his best to wreck everything. The media let him do it and in the case of News Corporation, encouraged him to do so.

There is public concern about truth in public life as surveys show. The delicate fabric of our society depends on trust and telling the truth. Our society will break down without a general acceptance of what is honest, fair and reasonable.

Truth is a bedrock issue and the media is not helping us to know the truth or is particularly trustworthy itself. No-one should be surprised that so many readers, viewers and listeners are losing trust in the “old media’ and going online.

Truth is being eclipsed in public life. The media is a major contributor to that eclipse. It is getting quite dark.

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