The media still has questions to answer

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Friday, 30 November 2012 16:16 by Ad astra
“Self congratulatory lemmings” was the phrase used by Jon Faine on ABC Radio 774 Melbourne this week to describe the media, and in particular the Canberra Press Gallery. The context was the so-called ‘AWU slush fund scandal’. He was referring to the incessant, yet fruitless assault on the Prime Minister over her time as a lawyer at Slater & Gordon twenty years ago.

Faine repeated what he has been saying for ages: that despite this matter having been trawled over time and again over several years, despite two hour-long press conferences where the Press Gallery was invited to ask any and every question about this matter, despite repeated questioning all this week by Julie Bishop in the House, nothing, repeat nothing, has ever been unearthed to implicate Julia Gillard in any wrong-doing.  Even a fifteen minute opportunity yesterday in the House for Tony Abbott to put his case of criminal behaviour by the PM yielded nothing, nothing at all. Yet the cry: ‘She still has questions to answer’ has echoed around the Gallery and appeared in print and on air, and it still does. No matter how many answers she gives to no matter how many questions, there are always more. No allegations have ever been made, but there are still ‘questions to answer’. 

In my view it is the mainstream media and especially the Canberra Press Gallery that has questions to answer, not Julia Gillard.

As Faine used the word ‘groupthink’ to describe journalists’ behaviour, I was reminded of the first blog piece I wrote four years ago, in June 2008, on Possum Comitatus’ Possum Box: Is the media in Australia suffering from groupthink?

In that piece, having defined groupthink, and having given a number of examples, I concluded: ”The result is media of indifferent quality, which generally follows the leader in promulgating facts that are often inaccurate or distorted, embraces fashionable concepts and buzz words, and indulges in ‘copy-cat’ commentary that does little to inform or enlighten. Perhaps the only reassuring aspect of this lamentable state of affairs is that so many of the voting public let most media offerings pass harmlessly over their heads.

“Many in the media abuse the power inherent in the journalistic pen. Where has objective, informed, balanced reporting and commenting gone? Often the two are confused as journalists seek to promulgate their views rather than the facts. It’s a pity that the small coterie of good quality journalists is diluted by such a motley collection of writers of indifferent, and in many instances, low standard. Groupthink seems to be the genesis of much of the pathology they exhibit.”

Has anything changed over these last four years? In my view the answer is ‘Yes’. The mainstream media has deteriorated, and continues to decline. Faine says the MSM has reached its lowest point.

What is the evidence for this assertion? Think back. Can you recall a time when the media has made such a meal out of any story, as it has of the S&G ‘scandal’? Can you remember any catchphrase being repeated so often by so many on such a plethora of platforms: newsprint, radio, TV, blogs? ‘PM Gillard still has questions to answer’ has been everywhere.

So here’s the first question the media has to answer:

What is the genesis of this obsessive pursuit of a matter twenty years old, which has been mulled over hundreds of times, over many years, without uncovering a ‘smoking gun’ to condemn Julia Gillard?

Let me hazard an opinion.

We all know that the business model of many of the traditional outlets is now obsolete. The rivers of gold from advertising have slowed to a trickle, and circulation revenue is down. Digital media are replacing print, but making it profitable has been difficult. Media houses have sacked journalists, others have left, and those remaining feel apprehensive, insecure, and overworked as they now have to prepare material for several platforms, and in less time.

As the thrust of journalism has progressively morphed from reporting into entertainment and titillation, as the attention span of consumers has shrunk to tiny sound bites or strident headlines, the quality of their work has deteriorated, has become more reliant on press releases, has become degraded into ‘he said, she said’ accounts of events, and more and more susceptible to groupthink as journalists talk with colleagues in the next office, chatter to each other and their ‘sources’ in the corridors of power and at their favourite watering holes. This week on the Jon Faine radio show, News Limited CEO Kim Williams denied that there was any groupthink in his organization!

I am not alone in my views. Mike Seccombe, in a comprehensive appraisal of the media in The Global Mail: Truth Tally – What’s Wrong With Australian Political Debate quotes Malcolm Turnbull. ”He [Turnbull] made particular reference to the media, saying that as news organizations came under greater cost pressures, good reporting which held governments and oppositions to account "was diminishing".
 "Instead, he said, newspapers and other media were resorting more to commentary and opinion and more to analysis of the effectiveness of political spin than to analysis of the substantive issues.”

We ought not be surprised then that the same boring, unoriginal phrases creep into their writings, the same people are interviewed by journalists and the same ‘insiders’ talk to each other on radio and TV shows. Boot leather remains pristine as investigative journalism morphs into superficial, insubstantial accounts of events, light on facts but heavy on opinion. Following Rupert Murdoch’s dictum that ‘opinion is news’, journalists now believe they can avoid the arduous task of fact gathering and fact checking, and substitute for them their own opinion. But on what is their opinion based?

We have seen the result of this approach. The Canberra Press Gallery has expressed its learned opinion only to be found to be wrong again and again.

We have had countless predictions of the fall of Julia Gillard as leader, if not by Easter, by mid-year, by year-end, and although we are in her third year, she is still leader and going from strength to strength. They have told us this ‘hung’ minority parliament cannot possibly work, that it is unmanageable; indeed it is ‘toxic’. Yet 449 pieces of legislation have already been passed in this term, some of them historic reforms such as the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, plans for more major reforms are in train this very week such as the NDIS and the Gonski education reform, and the economy is in great shape. How often can journalists be wrong before the electorate ignores them?

They were left standing mouths open wide when Kevin Rudd was replaced, and caught again when PM Gillard appeared with Bob Carr as Foreign Minister. And they got it completely wrong when they dismissed the PM’s ‘misogyny’ speech as inconsequential.

Indeed, I believe it is this stark exposure of their incompetence that has alienated many of them. They have resented looking stupid, they have been angered by PM Gillard’s unwillingness to kowtow to them and her readiness to pull them into line. ‘Don’t write crap’ upset them. Still seething, they are rude in press conferences, as was Sid Maher this week. Pulled into line, his antagonism will rise. The ‘experts’, the ‘insiders’, the ‘pontiffs’ have been exposed as pseudo emperors with no clothes. And they are angry, and express that anger in their vitriolic columns.

Add institutional antagonism to this personal resentment, and you have a formula for vituperative writing that seeks to demean the PM no matter what she does, that seeks to diminish whatever the Government achieves. We all know, and hear it from honest journalists, that News Limited has the institutional objective of bringing the Labor Government down, destroying the Greens at the ballot box, and installing an Abbott Government. Little attempt is made to disguise this. We know that Rupert Murdoch has this intent, as do the editors of his tabloids and broadsheets.

Recently, Fairfax has joined in the ‘let’s get Gillard’ campaign, and with some gusto by Peter Hartcher and Michelle Grattan, whose dislike of PM Gillard is palpable. Even the previously balanced AFR, now with ex-News Limited man Michael Stutchbury as its editor, has swung anti-Government, and some of its more balanced authors with it.

Returning to Seccombe’s article, he further quotes Turnbull: “…there is more media "narrowcasting" – strident partisanship aimed at like-minded consumers.
 "Fox News in the United States is an example of how commercially successful that strategy can be as are some of the shock jocks in Australia," he said. Dumbing down complex issues into sound bites, misrepresenting your or your opponent's policy does not respect 'Struggle Street'; it treats its residents with contempt. It is the opposite of the Jeffersonian ideal," said Turnbull.
 "This was extraordinary stuff, coming from a Liberal MP. He [Turnbull] was bagging the Murdoch media model – only Fox by name, but its Australian operation by implication – when he talked about that the "hopeless, confused, hyper-partisan" coverage of climate change. The News Ltd papers, and particularly The Australian, have led the climate-change deniers.”

There can be no doubt News Limited is partisan; it misrepresents facts that do not fit its case, lies when it suits it, and acts as a collaborative mouthpiece for the Coalition. Whilst it can do as it pleases, what it does do does not make a quality bipartisan balanced news outlet.

We know too that online media, the Internet, the Fifth Estate, and social media have made Old Media less relevant. News is available online before it can reach the newsstands. No longer is the Fourth Estate a repository of facts, figures, reasoned analysis and balanced opinion, as it once was. Opinion is available from a host of well-informed and articulate commentators in the Fifth Estate, who have access to as much information as journalists do, and who analyse it in a better-balanced way than most Fourth Estate journalists. We read their opinions every day, while eschewing the Fourth Estate, much of it locked behind pay walls, and not worth paying for.

Because Old Media cannot compete with the immediacy of online news, it seems to have taken on another role – advocacy. Look for example at The Australian. The front pages are now full of the S&G matter, every day, still. The paper is advocating the pursuit of our PM. There was nothing on its front page about the recent alarming reports on global warming which threatens our planet, just hundreds of column inches on S&G. Indeed the only major paper that reported on its front page the alarming global warming story out of the Doha talks was The Age. What has become of a media that gives precedence to a long-running non-story that it deems a ‘scandal’, but scarcely bothers to highlight a story about dangerous threats to our planet and everything on it?

So here is the next question the media has to answer.

What is the purpose of bringing down our PM and our elected Government?

Here again I offer an opinion. For News Limited there seems to be a commercial reason. We know Murdoch prefers conservative governments, as he believes they provide a more congenial environment for his empire and its expansion. That has come out starkly in the Leveson Inquiry. Ideologically too, Murdoch prefers conservative governments. He was a great supporter of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan, and although he supported Tony Blair, we now know that came at a price to Blair and his Labor Government. Here, Tony Abbott is his man. ‘I hope he liked me’ said Abbott after his only meeting with Murdoch.

There is another reason Murdoch wants Labor gone – the threat of a body being established to regulate the media, a move vehemently opposed by Murdoch’s man here, Kim Williams.

Ben Eltham has views on the media’s role in the S&G saga. He wrote a comprehensive piece this week on the facts of the matter: The AWU Scandal Unpacked. If you wish to read a summary, you won’t find one better than his.

But this piece is not about this matter; instead it is used as background to illustrate the current state of the media and the questions it still has to answer.

Eltham wrote another piece on the same day: Gillard Puts The Press To Shame. After giving a thorough analysis that will repay your attention, he concludes: “Throughout the coverage of this affair, the onus of proof has consistently been placed on the Prime Minister by the media. The common line has been that she has "questions to answer". That argument is dead in the water, given that the Prime Minister has twice answered all the questions the media has put, at considerable length.

“In fact, the onus of proof in investigative reporting should run the other way. The role of journalists is not simply to ask questions. It is to uncover evidence and to substantiate and corroborate serious allegations. The argument that the Prime Minister owes the public an explanation of her actions 17 years ago is valid. But she has provided an explanation, many times.

“Perhaps its time we asked some questions of journalists like Hedley Thomas and Mark Baker.”

“Some questions that come to my mind are:

When does an investigation become a giant fishing expedition?

What responsibilities do journalists have to back up their claims? 

And if you have evidence to support your leading questions, why won’t you release it?

Most importantly, in a week in which legislation for the National Disability Insurance Scheme was introduced to Parliament, we need to ask:

Why is this even news?

While these questions arise out of the S&G matter, they are generic. They could, and should be asked of journalists no matter what they are reporting.

Yes, journalists are the ones who have questions to answer. I have suggested some specific ones about the S&G matter, and some generic ones arising out of it.

Writing in The Conservation in AWU ‘scandal’ says more about the media’s ethics than the PM’s, Janine Little says: ”Mainstream campaign journalism being what it is, competing for its shrinking share of a public attention span focused largely on social media, journalists haven’t let a lack of evidence stop their pursuit of the prime minister. If mainstream media organizations are attempting to compete with the reach and timbre of social media at the expense of a sustained respect for evidence and fact-based reporting, then it’s journalists who practice such things who stand to lose most.

“Journalism based on solid research and verified source material has uncovered serious wrongdoing not so long ago in Australia’s past, and for the benefit of a public’s right to know what matters. When there’s hardly anyone willing to question why an array of facts pointing away from the prime minister somehow keeps media organisations hot on her trail, it becomes solely a question of ethics answerable by journalists rather than Julia Gillard.”

For the reasons suggested in this piece, the standard of journalism in the Fourth Estate has deteriorated since I first wrote about it over four years ago, and it continues to slide. The perversion of journalism brought about by the pursuit of partisan ideological objectives, aggravated by commercial and professional stresses within the Fourth Estate, accentuated by the loss of its status, prestige, and previously unchallenged authority, continues relentlessly.

It is depressing to see what was once a lofty and respected professional contribution to our society now so degenerate, ineffectual and disrespected.

This piece asserts that it is journalists and indeed the entire Fourth Estate that has questions to answer, questions about its intent, its behaviour, its ethics, its performance, and the quality of its offerings. Unless the Fourth Estate has the courage to answer these questions, unless it is willing to address its problems, it will sink into obscurity, replaced by a plethora of other providers of news, analysis and opinion, many in the Fifth Estate.

After seeing the media reaction to how Julia Gillard’s outmanoeuvered and humiliated Tony Abbott in the last QT for the year, I have little hope the Fourth Estate has learned anything at all. The commentators continue to insist that ‘She still has questions to answer’.

They remain self congratulatory lemmings.

What do you think?

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