The MSM is dangerously shortchanging us

In just twelve months time, voters will be asked to choose between a Gillard Labor Government and an Abbott-led Coalition Government. How will they choose? How will they know how to choose? What information, what analysis will they have to make their choice? How will they obtain it? Who will provide it? The answers are unknown. Yet they ought to be. The nation’s mainstream media ought to be at least one of the conduits, but it is not. And it shows no signs of becoming so. Folks, this is serious – this is tragic.

It would not be so tragic if the two main parties were much the same, but we know they are not. The differences are profound, radical and nation-breaking.

Why is it that we lack what we need to make an informed and rational decision about who should govern our nation for the following three years? The answer is obvious – we are afflicted with a largely incompetent and often malevolent mainstream media. It’s a sad and perilous state of affairs.

In case you think this is just the opinion of a blogger in the Fifth Estate disillusioned with the MSM, read what Mark Textor, pollster and past Liberal Party campaign adviser says in an article in the AFR Commentariat leaves voters short on facts. He begins: ”… these days we do not just live in a world dominated by perceptions, but of perceptions of perceptions. An entire class exists to tell us what voters and consumers are thinking. Or at least what they think voters are thinking. Worse, they add a level of political and consumer analysis to predict how decision makers will then react to imagined changes in that thinking and in turn how voters may react. Confused? Imagine being an ordinary voter.”

Later Textor says: ”Voters want the real experts talking to them. They don’t want yet more opinions of opinions. The traditional media’s downward spiral of playing their online opponents’ game of quick and dirty reporting has undervalued investment in investigation of issue content, such as tasking a staff reporter to a story about hospital health, seeking a diverse range of health experts with insights and potential solutions for voters to weigh up. These would be useful signposts to understanding in the slow lane. But the absence of this truly expert analysis means voters lack basic information they need to form considered opinions”, and later still he says: ”Voters do expect the media to tell them if they are being misled. They are now in desperate need of compelling primary information to show what the truth is.” Indeed!

Mr Denmore was on the same theme in his piece Contesting the News where he says: ”The 'institutionalised' press - as traditionally defined - is finding itself less at the middle of things and more at the margin. New social media allows people to tailor and define news according to their own cultural norms, not those of an exclusive cadre.” His piece is a good read.

Let’s analyse then what we’ve got and propose what we deserve.

The Fourth Estate is not homogeneous. Like in most institutions, occupants are distributed along a spectrum, the ubiquitous bell-shaped curve. The curve of which I speak might be termed ‘the balance curve’, where at the extreme left of the curve are the most unbalanced comments, whereas at the extreme right are the most balanced.

But this curve in not the normal distribution curve, with equal portions each side on the middle. It is a skewed curve, with much of the Fourth Estate clustered at the extremely unbalanced end, and relatively few at the other extremity, the well-balanced end. Let me elaborate.

On Friday last, Australia was voted a two-year non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council by a substantial majority. It was a major victory for our nation, and for those who had canvassed for it for many years. It opened opportunities for Australia to take its place as a middle-order nation within a group that deals with the world’s most difficult, dangerous and intractable problems. It gave Australia a chance to exercise its influence and enhance its geopolitical status and its economic situation. It showed in what high regard Australia is held by the 140 nations that voted for it. All in all it was a colourful feather in Australia’s hat, and those who brought it about. Consumers of our mainstream media might have expected it to give extensive coverage to such a momentous event, the gaining of a UN seat after 26 years, but no, it received scant attention.

Admittedly the announcement came too late for the print media on Friday, but the next day, the beginning of a weekend, would have been an ideal time to give readers an account of how it all came about and its implications for our country. So how did the MSM handle this important event?

A look at the Front Pages with which Lyn supplies us, reveals precious little on Saturday or Sunday that I could see.

What about that iconic opinion-leader The Australian – Heart of the Nation? On the front page of The Weekend Australian there was a 200 word piece that echoed Bob Carr’s words about Syria: Wasting no time, Carr raises Syria with UN that was elaborated on page 6. There, Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan began his erudite opinion with: “There is one overwhelming benefit to having won a temporary seat on the UN Security Council: we won’t have to go through this tawdry, ridiculous business again for at least another 10 or 15 years”. Great endorsement! Later he says: ”If Labor stays in office, it will probably feel the need to honour all the pledges it made to win this tawdry bauble”. He then critiques PM Gillard’s travel in Southeast Asia as ‘very weak’, queries the cost of the seat, and at the end finally hands out a sliver of credit: ”Nonetheless, Carr deserves congratulations for the professionalism and effectiveness of his lobbying in recent months”. But choking on this concession, he ends with sarcasm: “We now take our place among global giants: Luxemberg and Rwanda”. So this is The Australian newspaper’s prime acknowledgement from its expert in foreign affairs – nasty and pathetic.

One can sense Dennis Shanahan almost gagging as he writes: ”After a hectic series of trips overseas and basking in the glow of victory for gaining a seat on the UN Security Council, Julia Gillard has moved to repair some self-inflicted damage to her image as an international diplomat”. To what could he be referring? To her ‘fall’ in India? No, he was harking back to her statement when she became PM two years ago that ‘foreign policy was not one of her passions’. He could have commented how well she had done in the face of that initial concession, but Dennis could never bring himself to do that, could he?

There were also a couple of short pieces in The Weekend Australian about the cost of the seat and the expectations that would be placed on Gary Quinlan, our UN Ambassador.

The editorial was more generous, calling Abbott ‘churlish’ for quibbling about the cost, but still managing to draw Rwanda’s election into the commentary ‘to put our win in perspective’. Unadulterated commendation was too much for our editor. He made up for any praise with two further editorials, one criticizing Labor for berating Tony Abbott for not raising his ‘tow back the boats’ policy with the Indonesian President, and another on The perils of stiletto politics, another tilt at that ever-so-misused word: ‘misogyny’.

What about The Australian’s Inquirer where learned opinion is offered by ‘gurus’? First, there was nothing at all from guru-in-chief Paul Kelly. In fact there was nothing else on the subject.

Peter van Onselen had a nasty article Rudd was the victim of an unimpressive triumvirate – Julia Gillard’s biggest supporters are also Labor’s worst performers, referring to Wayne Swan, Stephen Conroy and Nicola Roxon, who also cops plenty of stick from Dennis Shanahan in Roxon crosses the line – The Attorney General is under fire for her handling of the Ashby-Slipper case, where he really lets fly after his concession in his other piece that Julia Gillard had had a success. Ross Fitzgerald predictably writes a critical article about the Government, Christian Kerr rehashes the misogyny debate in his usual ugly style, and Chris (not Mark) Kenny turns his nasty pen against John McTernan, Julia Gillard’s new Scottish media adviser, who is also featured in the lead piece by Tom Dusevic.

I include this tedious detail to demonstrate what we are getting from one of Australia’s most influential broadsheets. All in all it’s a lamentable attempt at coverage of Australia’s laudable success at the UN. Negative articles, caustic comment, and nasty rhetoric heavily counterbalance what few complimentary words are offered for this success.

Perhaps this News Limited response is more understandable when one reads Rupert Murdoch’s tweet: ”Big deal! Australia gets temporary non-veto seat on Security Council. Cost big fortune in foreign aid all over the place. No Aussies care”. Uncle Rupert hath spoken – all journalists fall into line. Not just pathetic – dangerous.

The contrast with Fairfax print media is stark. The Age/SMH had a short piece on the front page, a supportive editorial, a long and generally supportive piece by Paul McGeogh and Daniel Flitton in the Insight section, and a positive article by Phil Coorey in the SMH, who took a crack at Abbott’s churlishness. There was a positive opinion piece by Jeni Whalan in The Canberra Times, and Tony Walker wrote a balanced piece in the Australian Financial Review.

There was another contrast, and it was in The Australian. There, George Megalogenis had two articles, one where he lauded Julia Gillard’s ‘sexism and misogyny’ address in parliament, and another titled: Let the debate on our nation’s future begin, a fine exposition, where he mentioned an initiative by The Australian: its regular economic and social outlook conference with the Melbourne Institute that will be held on November 1 and 2 with the theme: Securing the Future: How Australia Can Thrive in a Volatile World. He referred to an accompanying article by John Mullen, chief executive of Asciano and a director of Telstra, titled: Embrace change or we risk being left behind, that addressed the need to accept the reality of social media in the workplace, which is the opening article for this initiative. Both articles were great reading – informative and well written – just what we need to understand some of the complexities of contemporary commerce and industry, as well as the associated economics and politics.

If The Australian can provide quality like this, why do they dish up the nasty, adversarial and malevolent material we read day after day? Ask Rupert Murdoch.

Let’s for a moment look at the purveyors of this malignant rhetoric. Again, they are distributed on a bell-shaped curve.

At one end there is a large group of journalists that are unashamed Coalition sycophants. There is no intent among any of them to present the facts in a balanced way. Their intent is to present facts, and the opinions based on them, in a selective way, incomplete, distorted, and sometimes downright dishonestly. Disingenuousness is their stock in trade. They know it and they don’t care. The journalists who live in this extreme space are not worth reading at all, except of course if your biases and prejudices coincide with theirs, and you want them reinforced or confirmed. Writers like Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman, Christopher Pearson, Chris Kenny, Michael Stutchbury, Christian Kerr, Peter van Onselen, and shock jocks like Alan Jones and Ray Hadley attract those who already share their views. For anyone wanting balanced, fact driven, logically argued analyses, reading what they write or listening to what they say, is not just worthless, it is dangerously misleading. It is no different from that dispensed by authoritarian regimes that exercise thought-control, George Orwell style. What’s more they will never change.

It is fruitless debating whether they really believe what they write or say, or whether they are consciously manipulating public opinion for ideological or commercial purposes. It makes no difference – they are perverting the truth, the very truth that voters need to rationally select the next government. They are set on this path and will not deviate. Nothing anyone can say or do will change them. They want PM Gillard and her Government gone, and instead, an Abbott Government. They must be ignored. There is no other way.

Moving a little closer to the middle of the curve is a more sinister group, sinister because they emit a superficial plausibility, plausibility not matched by their actual performance. I’m referring to the so-called gurus, such as Paul Kelly and Michelle Grattan and Peter Hartcher, journalists who have an established reputation upon which they rely to have their writings read.

Kelly in particular has a highbrow turn of phrase that impresses. He is fond of making predictions, writes with pseudo-wisdom, and coins his own peculiar phrases. Readers could be excused for taking his bait hook, line and sinker. It is only when one asks what he means by his favourite clichés: ‘narrative’, ‘vision’, what someone ‘stands for’, and ‘lack of judgement’, that the superficiality of his writing becomes apparent. I have never read his definition of these words, or seen his examples of them. They are just high sounding Kelly phrases that impress, but fail to inform. Moreover, Kelly is clearly an advocate for the Coalition and its current leader. Read any recent piece and argue that it is balanced, factually accurate and well reasoned. You can’t.

Grattan is the doyen of Fairfax, yet her recent ramblings leave readers mystified about her meaning. She seems to have resorted to cub reporter style ‘he says, she says’ reporting. Once capable of balance, her palpable dislike of Julia Gillard now pushes her into opposition to the PM, and, albeit sometimes reluctantly, into support of the alternative. She can be ever so acerbic towards the PM, but ever so mild when writing about Tony Abbott, so understanding of his foibles, so accommodating of his mistakes, his gaffes and his errors of judgement. She would fume at the suggestion that she was an Abbott acolyte, but if she writes like an acolyte, talks like an acolyte…

Hartcher is an enigma. He writes well. I was impressed by the quality of his information-packed book: The Sweet Spot, a veritable goldmine of useful facts and figures and well-reasoned argument. But it is his visceral dislike of Julia Gillard and his contemporary preference for Kevin Rudd, which distorts his columns. This was apparent in his book. Any opportunity that presents to him to take a dig at the PM is never rejected. Like Paul Kelly, he has an authoritative air about him; he clearly seeks guru status, and like Kelly seems to believe this is obtainable by pontification.

Another group, such as Greg Sheridan, Tom Dusevic, Ross Fitzgerald are perhaps marginally less acerbic, but adversarial nevertheless.

Still closer to the middle of the curve are journalists such as Phil Coorey and Laurie Oakes, but both are unpredictable, seemingly more interested in stirring the pot than transmitting useful information and offering analysis. Coorey seems to have a ‘Ruddstoration’ obsession, and Oakes a penchant for ‘leaks’ that have earned him infamy among some, and admiration among his colleagues. Lenore Taylor, of recent 'context' fame, and 'sketch' writer Annabel Crabb, belong within this cluster.

Over the other side of the curve we have a small cluster of the more balanced writers. George Megalogenis immediately comes to mind, and further still into the balanced end we have Laura Tingle, Tim Dunlop, Peter Martin and the fearless Ross Gittins.

But we soon run out of these admirable people – the MSM is dominated by those who are tarred with the Murdoch brush: to replace the Gillard Government by an Abbott government, and to ‘destroy the Greens at the ballot box’. No matter what their views are personally, they consistently come up with articles adverse to PM Gillard and her Government and supportive of, or defensive of, or at least not too critical of the Opposition Leader, no matter how gross his behaviour, no matter how inane or dishonest his utterances, no matter how badly he stumbles.

As I was finishing this piece, NormanK drew my attention to what must be one of the most appalling pieces of journalism I have ever read. Titled: Labor shuffling numbers for political survival and written my an anonymous ‘Staff Writer’ for the Sunday Herald Sun, it alludes to only one piece of factual information – that the Government was to present its Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, which is sarcastically described as a "mini-horror mini-budget". The rest is simply opinion; nasty, vitriolic, adverse opinion of a biased writer who clearly loathes the Labor Government. If you have the stomach, read it to see how grotesquely incompetent and malevolent journalism has become.

This state of affairs in our mainstream media is dangerous. We are being seriously shortchanged at a time when we need all the help we can get to select our next government.

We need factual information about Government and Coalition and Greens’ policies and their costings. We need a thorough and unbiased analysis of all of them. We need comparisons to be made between them, carefully analysed and summarized so that we can comprehend their intent, the pros and the cons, the cost benefits, and the likelihood of their succeeding. We cannot take for granted what our politicians feed us, redolent as it so often is with exaggeration, distortion of the truth, hidden implications, and dishonest projections. We need an honest, competent, unbiased, balanced mainstream media to assist us. But we don’t have it. Most of it is the antithesis of these desirable attributes.

It’s not right. It’s dangerously wrong. Is there any hope that our mainstream media will ever meet the needs of intelligent voters seeking to cast an informed vote in selecting who will govern us for the next term?

Thomas Sowell, an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, columnist and author expresses his doubts: “If people in the media cannot decide whether they are in the business of reporting news or manufacturing propaganda, it is all the more important that the public understand that difference, and choose their news sources accordingly.”

We find ourselves having to rely more and more on the Fifth Estate and social media for what we need, for the balance we crave.

Is balance an unreachable dream? Is it a fantasy like fairies at the end of the garden? Can the Murdoch domination of media thought be overcome?

Does our salvation reside in mustering our own resources in the Fifth Estate? We have access to a plethora of factual news outlets, all over the world, and we are as capable of analyzing the facts, and expressing an opinion about them, as mainstream journalists.

In fact as Mr Denmore says: ”…'the news' isn't what it was. It isn't owned by anyone. It is increasingly contested. And as bloggers scale up and embrace some of the craft qualities of journalism, the mainstream media increasingly ‘moulds’ news to satisfy the world views of its target markets…In fact, as blogs more and more resemble professionally written traditional media, the old media looks more and more like blogs.”

So it’s over to us!

What do you think?