Denis Muller. The stitch-up by The Australian.

Feb 26, 2015

It is an ugly spectacle when a newspaper aligns itself with the executive government in an attempt to hound from office someone who can otherwise be removed only by the Governor-General. This is what The Australian is doing, in concert with Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Attorney-General George Brandis, to Australian Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs.

It is the latest in a series of campaigns the newspaper has waged against those in public life with whom it disagrees or against whom it has a grievance.

However, these campaigns have usually had the advancement of The Australian’s own self-interest or the settling of personal scores as their originating motivation.

For example, it was aggrieved by its treatment at the hands of former Victoria Police chief commissioner Simon Overland. To settle the score, The Australian waged a sustained campaign for his removal. In the end, Overland resigned in messy political circumstances to which The Australian made a contribution by giving the then-Victorian Coalition government the strength of the newspaper’s convictions.

More recently, The Australian waged a similar campaign against the then-chair of the Australian Press Council, Julian Disney, whose reforms to stiffen the effectiveness of the council the newspaper opposed. Disney served out his full term, which came to an end this month, but the campaign diverted energy and resources from the reform effort.

However, in Triggs’ case, the originating motivation looks different. This time the motive appears to be purely ideological. The campaign is clearly designed to play into the political process in a way that is closely aligned with the political interests and strategy of the executive government.

The contours of this strategy can be discerned from a statement by Brandis, reported in The Australian on Wednesday. Brandis is reported as saying that:

… anger within the government intensified amid “very savage attacks” on Professor Triggs from MPs including the Prime Minister and “strongly expressed” criticism in the media, including in The Australian.

It might well have read “principally The Australian”.

Neat, isn’t it? Your media allies lend their platforms to help you advance your political objectives, and their coverage is then cited as a ground for legitimising those objectives.

In our democracy, the media are meant to act as the “fourth estate” – the institution that holds to account the other three. It is a betrayal of this function to become enmeshed with the executive’s political strategy, as The Australian has done in the Triggs case.

It is, of course, a matter of degrees. Clearly, the Coalition government and The Australian have a shared conservative ideology. It is well within their rights to share it. They are both affronted by what they say is anti-government partisanship on Triggs’ part, as they are obviously entitled to be.

However, the point where shared ideology, shared political interests and shared opinions shade into betrayal of fourth-estate independence is difficult to define with precision. Some markers might be these:

  • To what extent and with what prominence does the newspaper publish material that is contrary to the shared political interest? For instance, what attention was paid, and with what prominence, to the offer of an alternative job said by Triggs to have been made to her in circumstances that suggested to her that it was an attempt to procure her resignation? This is a serious matter and it has been referred by shadow attorney-general Mark Drefyus to the Australian Federal Police for investigation.
  • What spectrum of opinion has been represented in the newspaper’s opinion pages on this matter?
  • What has been the tone of the news reportage?
  • To what extent is there evidence of interplay between government MPs and the newspaper in the way the story has developed? For instance, how much of the coverage is based on government backgrounding of the newspaper?

So far, there is scant evidence of this last factor. But on the remaining three we can make some observations. The issue of a possible inducement received a very low level of attention; the spectrum of opinion has been all against Triggs; and the tone of reporting has been unmistakably hostile to her, as have the headlines.

If it was just a one-off case, The Australian’s conduct would perhaps not merit such attention, but it is part of a pattern that ill-serves the public interest. There is a due process for removing statutory office-holders. The grounds for removing a member of the Human Rights Commission are confined to misbehaviour or physical or mental incapacity. Nothing Triggs has done has triggered that process.

Triggs may have lost the confidence of Abbott and Brandis, but that is not a ground for removing her. As The Australian itself has said, she is on political trial and Abbott has delivered his verdict. In doing so, he spoke of a “stitch-up”.

But if there is a stitch-up going on here, it is what the government and The Australian are joined in doing to Triggs.

Denis Muller is Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism at University of Melbourne. This article first appeared in The Conversation on 25 February 2015.

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