Our mainstream media failed this country during the Voice referendum

Oct 18, 2023
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As the former managing director and editor in chief of The Age newspaper (and founder of the Australian Press Council), this is a hard piece to write. In my view the mainstream media – journalists and commentators – have failed this country during the debate on the Voice.

I have needed time to consider this question after what was, to me, a tragic result Australia-wide to Saturday’s voting on The Voice.

Reading the all-knowing Monday morning ‘obituaries’ for the PM, the ‘what went wrong’ for the ‘foolish’ Yes campaigners and the sanctimonious comments from everyone from Peter Dutton to the Murdoch Mafia – this is a hard piece to write.

Because I so strongly believe in public interest journalism, in the right to freedom of expression that it hurts me to say that in my view the mainstream media – journalists and commentators – have failed this country.

Journalism has been found wanting with few exceptions.

The reason I am writing this as the former managing director and editor in chief of The Age newspaper (and founder of the Australian Press Council) is that I believe lessons need to be learnt.

Those who can hold their heads up over the way The Voice was reported and discussed are a few, a very few journalists and some online outlets (The Guardian, Pearls & Irritations, Crikey and the New Daily) plus Schwartz publishing – where its Monthly magazine and Saturday Paper had some outstanding pieces.

One posting on social media put into stark relief the problem.

The PM: “Today we can say Yes to a gracious request from Indigenous Australians. To simply recognise them in the Constitution and listen to them with a Voice.”

Murdoch journalist: “A gracious request? It’s a militant document penned by far Left, inner city activists. It would enshrine racial division & privilege into the Constitution. NO.”

Well Murdoch’s Rita Panahi calls herself a journalist being a columnist for the Herald-Sun and a presenter on Sky News.

For someone who did a lot of reading and viewing and listening during the “election” campaign (as it was described by Peter Dutton) the Murdoch Empire as a whole was little more than a mouthpiece for the worst of the misrepresentations and deliberate lies told by those promoting the No campaign.

But sadly for Australian journalism and for rational debate it did not end there.

The ABC found itself unable to guide its listeners and viewers as to what was fact and what was fiction.

Further, despite the number of outlets owned by or taking the Murdoch divisive and skewed output, the ABC (seemingly cowed by the News Limited’s bullying) continued to give credibility to its journalists and commentators by giving them airtime.

Seemingly the Coalition’s PR machine was being backed to the hilt.

Yet ABC’s News Director, Justin Stevens blithely has congratulated his staff, opining that “The ABC’s referendum coverage has been outstanding”.

I like listener Simon Rosenberg’s response: “Impartiality does not oblige a publisher to ventilate lies, fantasies or misrepresentations as if they were true.”

And, sadly, in this writer’s view that comment is true for much of the mainstream journalism – the Murdoch papers Australia-wide of course, but also The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian Financial Review and the West Australian which, while owned by Kerry Stokes, carries News Ltd. material.

As an academic, committed to the importance in a democracy of public interest and informed journalism, I would mark the vast majority of Australian journalists, columnists and particularly those who promulgated their skewed views as failing the test of accurately and fairly covering a crucial issue for this country.

Some were simply provocateurs who should not have been given exposure on television, radio or in print – but sadly few of the ‘good guys’ made any attempt to call out their blatant lies for what they were.

The New York Times carried an article some time ago saying this was Australia’s Brexit moment.

I believe it has been just that and we will be seen in the eyes of the world as having failed the test.

Peter Hartcher in the Sunday Age says, “Some will tell Australia to feel ashamed for rejecting the idea of an Indigenous Voice. But it needn’t. After all, a majority of respondents supported it in opinion polls consistently for five years. Australians instinctively welcomed the idea. But we probably should feel a little embarrassed. Because we allowed politics to erode Australia’s inherent goodwill.”

Later in the article he says, “Many Indigenous Australians will take it personally. They shouldn’t. IT IS JUST POLITICS (my caps)”.

Deep breath.

Surely Hartcher cannot be saying, don’t worry First Nations people all round Australia. It is not personal your rejection in the Referendum.

True, you are still not constitutionally recognised and Closing the Gap may seem less attainable now that you don’t have a guaranteed voice. But don’t worry – it was “just politics”.

For me personally, I am ashamed and embarrassed about the way the so-called debate went, Perhaps on reflection, just like with Brexit in the UK, many will wish for the chance to have the vote all over again.

Informed discussion, we did not have – and the media, urged on by politicians and paid consultants, needs to shoulder much of the blame.

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