Our media is failing usNov 18, 2022
At a moment, when one side of politics has abandoned the bases of democracy as an impediment to their grasp on power, we need journalists holding them to account rather than gaslighting the public, normalising the rot.
In the lead-up to the US midterms, national security expert Juliet Kayyem tweeted about the dangers of bad reporting, concluding, “It is 2022. Get it right. Or a new job.”
Kayyem contrasted evasive reporting about “voter fraud” claims with the kind that justly illustrates that such accusations are bogus while reporting that the claim has been made.
We face different political problems in Australia, although the media crises overlap. We too have “savvy style” reporters in the press gallery who share politicians’ cynicism. We too have access journalism (or friendship) that causes a journalist to hesitate to “burn” a source or pal. We have horserace coverage that doesn’t focus on the overview, at a moment when that couldn’t be more important. We have refuge-seeking journalism, particularly at the ABC, that cringes from examining the sordid quality of some political behaviour over the last decade. We have normalcy bias journalism that can’t step back far enough to see how radicalised one side of politics is becoming, still covering “both sides” as though both sides had equal merit. There are many reasons for this crisis, but they remain a cause for self-evaluation by self-respecting journalists.
The particular crisis for Australia lies in the fact that our two primary print media organisations – affiliated with television or radio platforms – are owned by corporate interests headed by figures who clearly see their corporations as political tools. Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch’s News Corp barely needs detailing on this front. Peter Costello’s NineFax is more discreet in its political deployment, and it retains some journalists who continue to practise their craft with integrity.
Print media, while an embattled format, is crucial. It is where most of the investigations and in-depth reporting continue to be carried out, providing the meat for the electronic media to feed on.
The cooperation of the Rupert Murdoch’s Herald Sun and Peter Costello’s The Age with a floundering Victoria Liberal Party in the final weeks before the state election has been a truly shocking display of the state of Australian “conservative” politics and its allied media.
The Age has deployed the leak of IBAC documents to hint at wrongdoings by the government. It is the Australian right in Victoria and federally that has fought so hard to protect the reputation of politicians, but when a strong enemy can be inconvenienced, reputational harm is suddenly desirable? IBAC reports at this stage are still being finalised: those individuals facing adverse findings are being given the chance to challenge aspects, and the findings can still be altered as a result. The purpose of this secrecy is to ensure that reputational harm does not take place until the fairest outcome is achieved. The way to achieve greater transparency is to remove the crippling limitation on public hearings only taking place in “exceptional circumstances.” You can be sure that Liberal Victoria would be crying foul if the positions were reversed.
In the Herald Sun, two appalling gambits have been played. Front page “scandals” have been mocked up about the car accident that was settled over a decade ago involving the Andrews family, and about Premier Dan Andrews’s fall in 2021. The latter is particularly loathsome: making hay out of the Premier’s injuries is not newsworthy. This story functions only to allude to the conspiracies that abounded at the time. The constant emphasis on the small size of the steps is intended to provoke a renewed flurry of gossip around the conspiracy that stated the injury was not a fall but the result of sensational fantasies of lurid violence.
The fact that, as Media Watch recounted, the broader media opted to chase these Murdoch non-stories relentlessly is an appalling breach of integrity and professional standards. All 17 questions at the press conference that followed were about the resolved bike event, and the evening news framed the coverage as the Premier’s refusal to answer questions, despite the fact he had given endless dutiful answers about the story at the time.
The Murdoch propaganda battalion has clearly decided that selling Matthew Guy’s opposition is beyond them; the only way to gain traction for a messy Liberal Party is to aim to destroy Dan Andrew’s continuing popularity in the state. Peta Credlin’s tawdry “documentary” about Dan Andrews will have compounded the demonising for the few who watch Sky.
At the same time as the Murdoch media chose those gambits, the Victorian Liberal Party released an advertisement directed to those conspiracy spheres that had spilled violence onto Melbourne’s streets, amongst whom the lubricious gossip had flourished. The party here allied itself overtly with that violence and suspicion of vaccines.
Throughout the worst of the pre-vaccine pandemic, the Murdoch media aimed to make our Victorian lives hellish by compounding the misery. Victoria was constantly under attack, while similar experiences in NSW garnered praise. The difference? The colour of the government. They followed this by insulting Victorians for our continued majority satisfaction with Dan Andrews and what he had worked to achieve with our cooperation.
The same voter-smacking agenda is underway in the American right-wing media in the wake of the midterms where the women who poured out to vote against the stripping of their reproductive autonomy are chastised for being too stupid to vote for the right in their own alleged interests. (This reflects the US’s dominant media consensus that reproductive justice would not be a midterm issue; apparently women don’t set the news agenda.) This talking point was echoed in a pathetically trollish column for The Australian by the Menzies Research Centre’s Nick Cater. His tantrum might help drive more centre right voters to Teal candidates.
At a moment when the east coast of Australia is once again covered in water, our neighbour Fiji is asking for the money to move dozens of its villages to safety and COP27 is taking place in Egypt, our media fails us with context-free reporting. Corporate media is barely covering the appalling revelations of the Robodebt Royal Commission. And that corporate media is working hard to grant a shambolic Liberal opposition government in Victoria, no doubt intending to capitalise on their baron’s goals in the aftermath.
We desperately need the Murdoch Royal Commission. We desperately need news media laws that balance the range of news available to Australians. Above all, we desperately need the journalists who work in these organisations to look to themselves, as Juliet Kayyem demanded. If they’ve lost the will to remain public watchdogs, they need to find themselves a new job.