Pollies, the press pack, and poison politics

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Tuesday, 6 March 2012 16:47 by Ad astra
How many of you have been dismayed at the increasingly unhealthy relationship that has developed between some politicians and some journalists that has led to leaks, false reports, internal party tension, party upheaval, and a level of disruption that can only be harmful to any political party, and, in turn the nation?

Before we begin gnashing our teeth, we ought to remember that politicians have had relationships with reporters for eons. Some are fruitful; some are subversive. Everyone is aware of the overt relationships. Reporters bail up politicians at so-called doorstops trying to extract a quotable quote. They are present at press conferences initiated by politicians. They are an eager audience at such events as National Press Club addresses, and at formal addresses to the party faithful, to institutions, to business, industry and community groups, and on those ad hoc occasions that call for a political statement and a response. They are rightly there to report what is being said and how questions are being answered. That is the reporter’s job. How well they are doing their job is another matter, one that has been the subject of intense and heated debate in recent times.

This piece is not about this legitimate media activity, overt as it is; it is about the covert relationships that have been in stark evidence in recent weeks.

Again we need to concede that these covert relationships between politicians and reporters are nothing new – they have probably gone on ever since politics became an entity. Lately though, they seem to have had a very damaging effect on political parties and on government.

The unholy alliance of leaking pollies and the press pack has given us poison politics.

Why does this subversive phenomenon exist?

It seems to be in the nature of politicians to seek power, some more than others. They enter politics, often with the altruistic aim of making a difference, but soon find that to do so requires the exercise of power. So they seek power to achieve their aim. Not every politician has the same aims; often those in the same party have different aims. So the struggle for power is not confined to a struggle between parties, but is manifest within parties. In Labor, those in the left factions have different views on some issues from those in the right factions. In the Coalition, the ‘liberals’ have different views from the ‘conservatives’ on some issues, and the Nationals different views again. Because ideas and actions arising from them are often strongly contested within parties, a fight for supremacy is inevitable. In the Labor party we see some who support selling uranium to India, while some vigorously oppose it; some support gay marriage, while others are trenchantly against it.

This struggle for supremacy is healthy while it is overt, but lately we have seen it become covert, and unhealthy. The struggle of one idea over another sometimes morphs into a struggle between people for supremacy, presumably in the belief that being in power enables the ideas espoused to be implemented. Sometimes this becomes as basic as who is to lead and control the party. We saw this played out when Nick Minchin initiated a push against Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull because of his support for an ETS. It resulted in his being replaced, by one vote, by Tony Abbott. An ideological and policy battle was waged and Abbott won. And of course we saw the battle for leadership of the parliamentary Labor party in full public glare last week.

Before probing deeper, let’s acknowledge that there have been mutually beneficial relationships between politicians and journalists for ages, even when they have been covert. Politicians have fed journalists with information they want promulgated, and in turn journalists have used that association to extract inside information from politicians. Being on the so-called ‘drip feed’ is a privilege for favoured journalists, who in turn aid the politician in achieving his or her aims. It is not always a fair exchange and journalists have been known to double cross their sources, a recipe for the drying up of the information flow. But the prospect of getting a scoop, an ‘exclusive’, a jump on other journalists, is always tempting in the competitive game of journalism.

In Labor we have seen something more deep-seated and sinister though than this mutually beneficial exchange. Ever since Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd it seems that Rudd has been working out how to regain the leadership, with the help of his supporters. Some who supported him at the recent ballot did so because they felt the 2010 coup was fundamentally the wrong way of going about managing a leader who was becoming increasingly difficult and dysfunctional. Anthony Albanese was one. Other supporters though, for whatever reasons, wanted him returned and were prepared to go to any ends to achieve this. Some believed he was the only leader that could lead Labor to victory at the next election. Sabotage was the weapon of some of them. It seems evident now that white-anting the PM was a conscious strategy. The white-anting was not confined though to party circles, the saboteurs went outside the party; they went to the media. And they found plenty in the media who were prepared to collude with them, opposed as they also were to PM Gillard and her Government, which their news outlets were actively undermining. It was grist to their mill.

So there were damaging leaks, the first of which was the leak to Laurie Oakes that derailed the 2010 election campaign. Julia Gillard has never fully recovered from that piece of sabotage. Now we know that there had been a series of leaks about policy, plans and people that have interrupted the PM’s attempts to initiate reforms, and just as importantly inform the public about them. Some journalists were complicit in spreading inside information, rumours, and malevolent talk about the PM and her ministers. Even although the veracity of the stories might have been questionable, that was not sufficient to dissuade them from circulating them.

It is not hard to imagine how those who support Labor felt about the subversive behaviour of some Labor parliamentarians and the apparatchiks that backed them. Talkback callers gave us a glimpse of the anger they felt at these saboteurs who were endangering the party to which they belonged. Some felt the term ‘treason’ was applicable. Whatever role journalists played in this sorry saga, we cannot escape the sad fact that it was people within the core of the party that fed them. Condemnation by their peers and supporters is their punishment.

But this behaviour does raise the question of the ethics of the journalistic profession, and of those who knowingly colluded with the saboteurs.

Journalists insist that they cannot and will not reveal the identity of their sources, and there is tacit acceptance of this position by much of the community. But does that privilege entitle them to receive and promulgate through their outlets scuttlebutt, rumour, unverified assertions, and at times outright lies? Sound and ethical journalism demands revelation of the facts, all of them, unembellished by the personal views of the journalist or his editor or proprietor, and a well-reasoned analysis of them. An opinion may be added, but it should clearly be just that – an opinion, separate from the facts, and it should be reasoned from the facts.

But what did we get during the protracted period of leaks? Unsubstantiated assertions, comments that eroded the leader's authority, those that contradicted Government intentions, those that cast doubt on the direction the Government was taking, and those that questioned PM Gillard’s integrity and whether she could win the next election. The journalists concerned knew full well what they were becoming entangled in – a concerted attempt to bring down a sitting PM, by a displaced one.

Did they question the veracity of the scuttlebutt and rumour? Did they do any checking of the ‘facts’ that were passed onto them? Did they query what the perpetrators were trying to do – unseat the nation’s PM? Did they question the ethics of the perpetrators in embarking on this reprehensible action? Did they in fact do any due diligence about the stories they were circulating? The answers seem to be no, no, no, no and no. They simply grabbed what they saw as an array of stories of intrigue and disloyalty – all great yarns – and published them, over and again. And they did it without qualms because in many instances the purpose of the sabotage was consistent with their outlets’ own agenda – the removal of PM Gillard, and of course the Labor Government. It matched their mantra about Julia Gillard being a back-stabber and untrustworthy, reinforced their ‘Ju-liar’ slogan, and coincided with their oft-promoted view that she is incompetent, unloved by the electorate, error-prone, lacking judgement, and incapable of winning the next election. It was a convenient merging of agendas, the politicians’ wish to replace PM Gillard with previous PM Rudd, and the journalists’ agenda of upending our PM.

This behaviour wasn’t some strange aberration. Just a few days later journalists were at it again over the ‘Carr affair’, peddling scuttlebutt, rumour, conjecture, speculation and false predictions, coupled with inaccurate, and in some instances wholly incorrect reporting, ending with the media embarrassment we saw at the PM’s announcement of Carr’s appointment, one that that left the press pack gobsmacked.

Just in case readers think this piece is only about the role of the media in Labor ructions, let me remind you that leaks to the media afflict the Coalition as well. Last week it was leaked to the media from someone who attended its caucus meeting that Tony Abbott had been challenged by Russell Broadbent about the funding for Abbott’s expensive PPL which he felt might be better applied to a disability scheme, to which Abbott was lukewarm. Broadbent is a highly principled person, who has taken a contrary stand from his party on other issues. He is not one who would leak to the media. Someone else must have done this to create mischief in Coalition ranks, and someone in the media was prepared to collaborate in this malfeasance. I question the ethics of this collusion between leakers and recipients, designed as it is to gain a personal advantage, or to disadvantage others.

In the Report of the Independent Media Inquiry released last week, the chair, Ray Finkelstein QC, said:
There is common ground among all those who think seriously about the role of the news media and about journalistic ethics that:
- a free press plays an essential role in a democratic society, and no regulation should endanger that role
- a free press has a responsibility to be fair and accurate in its reporting of the news
- a free press is a powerful institution which can, and does, affect the political process, sometimes in quite dramatic ways
- a free press can cause harm – sometimes unwarranted – to individuals and organisations
- a free press should be publicly accountable for its performance
- codes of ethics regarding accuracy, fairness, impartiality, integrity and independence should guide journalists and news organisations.

The bolding is mine.

How can anyone disagree with …a free press is a powerful institution which can, and does, affect the political process, sometimes in quite dramatic ways, and a free press can cause harm – sometimes unwarranted – to individuals and organisations? Or with a free press has a responsibility to be fair and accurate in its reporting of the news and a free press should be publicly accountable for its performance.

That is what this piece is about – specifically, the irresponsible way in which the media and individual journalists actively colluded with the Labor saboteurs seemingly without consideration of the ethics of what they were doing, let alone the accuracy of what they were being fed, to bring down the nation’s PM. They hid behind the oft-quoted mantra that they must protect the identity of their sources, hid their collusion with the subversive behaviour of the conspirators and their malevolent agenda. Is that consistent with ‘a code of ethics regarding accuracy, fairness, impartiality, integrity and independence’ that the Media Inquiry advocates so insistently? You know the answer.

More generally this piece is about the propriety and ethics of leaking to the media by politicians, political parties, government bodies, inquiries, and indeed any source of inside information with the purpose of gaining an unfair advantage or deliberately disadvantaging others, and the ethics of journalists and the media in receiving these leaks and making hay out of them. You might think that is a naïve view of how the political world ought to behave, but to me it seems that the use of malicious leaks by the leakers, and the publicizing of them by a complicit media, is wrong. Over and again, we have seen what awful and quite unfair damage this behaviour has done to individuals and groups.

Let’s not have in response to this piece a clamour for ‘freedom of the press’ or ‘freedom of speech’, or ‘journalists must protect their sources’. We all agree with those principles. What this piece is about specifically is the subterranean collusion of some journalists in a subversive attack on our PM and our Government, seemingly without concern about the ethics of collaborating in this way, unworried about the veracity of what they were being fed, and unconcerned about the consequences of being party to a plot to bring down a sitting PM. Their hunger for a dazzling story, and in some instances their desire to see the saboteurs succeed, overrode their ethics, overwhelmed everything they learned about quality journalism. They got down in the gutter with their ‘sources’, and seemingly revelled in it.

More generally, it is about the wider problem of malicious leaking, and the media’s ready connivance with that malfeasance.

The unholy alliance of leaking pollies and the press pack has given us poison politics.

What do you think?