This old-fashioned idiom, one my parents used, seems apt to describe the contemporary spirited rail against the MSM. For what seems like an eternity the media has been biting, biting all sorts of people from the highest in the land, our PM, to the lowliest, all in the pursuit of a good story that would sell its print or electronic offerings, attract its advertisers or perhaps subserve a more sinister purpose.
From the outset, this blogsite has tackled media distortion, whether it be in the form of outright lies, omission of some of the facts, use of irrelevant information, substitution of opinion for facts and reason, pursuing a hidden agenda, or overly exhibiting imbalance and bias. There seemed to be no journalistic device that the media has not and will not use to achieve its ends. And now it is at it again in the wake of the News of The World
From the moment Lindsay Tanner released his book Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy
, most of the media has been on the defensive against Tanner’s claim that the media is significantly to blame for the deplorable state of political reporting in this country. Journalists cried: ‘He’s shooting the messenger’. Peter van Onselen was off the mark early, not only claiming this was so, but arguing that Tanner had written the wrong book – that he should have written one exposing the inner machinations of the Labor Party that ended with the replacement of Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard. I’m sure many journalists would have savoured that, but sorry Peter, Lindsay decided to write about something else. That PvO felt he could castigate Tanner for this ‘misdemeanour’ illustrates the level of arrogance that pervades the Canberra Press gallery. Some fellow journalists took a similar line, but almost all took umbrage at Tanner’s assertion that they were contributing to the dumbing down of democracy. How dare he! After all they are the ones that ‘hold governments to account’, and thereby render a laudable service to the public. They turned on him, and politicians generally, insisting it was they who were at fault, at fault because of their own failings and because of their evasive and defensive behaviour towards the media and their never ending spin.
The biter did not relish being bit.
An article by political editor Laura Tingle in The Australian Financial Review: Shot down in sideshow alley
on 26 July begins: “
The media reacted badly when Lindsay Tanner blamed them for dumbing down political debate. But Laura Tingle thinks he might have a point.”
Tingle goes onto say, inter alia; “
Tanner documents, from a politician’s perspective, what it is like to deal with the modern media. He argues that the media itself has a lot to answer for in its complaints about the shallowness of what politicians are prepared to say these days. “
Plenty has been written about political spin, but not so much about the media end of the transaction. Tanner documents not just his experiences of this, but international trends in the way the media works. “The reaction to Tanner’s book from the Australian media – and particularly the Canberra gallery – has been strikingly defensive and sour. Tanner has been accused of all sorts of crimes, including that he is shifting the blame for politicians not having much to say on to the media. That he is shooting the messenger. And that he shouldn’t be complaining because he always got a good run. “I don’t think Tanner is particularly guilty of any of these crimes (even if many of us seriously doubt whether a lot of politicians have anything significant to say).
If anything, the reaction to his book has been much more a case of shooting the messenger by the media, in a rather spectacular example of thin skin and glass jaw. It does not reflect well on journalists that they seem unable to consider that such a critique of the way they operate might have a point.”
Later, talking of “…the sort of complex issues that the political process is set up to solve”
Tingle says: “Yet so often these days, we don’t cover them, because there aren’t pictures, because we think they are too complicated for our consumers, or because they don’t fit with the simple narrative of Julia versus Tony.
This is why Sideshow is an important contribution to the political debate.”
How many other journalists have made this balanced appraisal of Sideshow?
Generally, whether in print or on political TV programs such as Insiders, defensiveness and indignation about Tanner’s book has been the order of the day for political journalists, the very ones who accuse politicians of having a ‘glass jaw’ should they react to media criticism. It seems as if there are enough glass jaws around for political journalists too. On an episode of Insiders
last year, I can vividly remember Fran Kelly, in archetypically matriarchal tones, insisting that politicians ought to ‘sit there and take their medicine’, just like we took our nauseating dose of caster oil on Saturday nights. But of course they bitterly resent having to take their own medicine, no matter how therapeutic it might be for them.
The biter resents being bit.
More recently we saw more of this phenomenon. The News of the World
phone hacking scandal and the complicity of press, police and politicians in this matter and its cover up, has led to understandable rage among the British public and among those who see the Murdoch empire as corrupt and corrupting in other countries, notably the US and here. And when Julia Gillard said that people here would have some ‘hard questions’ to ask of News Limited, CEO John Hartigan was soon expressing outrage, insisting that she detail the ‘hard questions’. Of course he had already asked himself some hard questions about whether inappropriate payments were happening here, although he said he was certain that hadn’t happened, and had set in train an audit of all payments by News Limited to third parties for stories. But of course it’s OK for him to ask the hard questions, certainly not the PM.
Bob Brown had even harder questions to ask about media ownership and its concentration whereby seventy percent of all print media was in Murdoch hands in this country. Brown also raised issues of ethics and privacy. News Limited is hardly blameless in this regard – one only has to remember the fake nude photos of Pauline Hanson splashed across the front page of The Sunday Telegraph
in March 2009 leading to a sort of apology by editor Neil Breen “…that there was ‘no doubt’ the newspaper moved too quickly on the story”
. While the media never forgets the misdemeanors of those it opposes or despises, it is quick to forget its own, and dislikes being reminded of them.
The biter dislikes being bit.
It was bit again when News Limited was accused by Stephen Conroy and other Government ministers of conspiring to bring about regime change. This brought forth denials accompanied by outrage that anyone could suggest such a thing. The fact that politician after Labor politician, and politician after Greens politician believes this to be so, as do many other political commentators who are not aligned to News Limited, is peremptorily dismissed by News Limited executives and journalists as conspiracy theory or paranoia. So much so that Dennis Shanahan was taken to write a piece in The Weekend Australian
of July 23-24 with the rather quaint title: Truth the casualty in media wars – The Gillard government conspiracy theories are without foundation
. A journalist from that paragon of truthful reporting, The Australian
, sounding off about ‘truth’, is a laughable sight.
Dennis takes a whole page to elaborate on his theme, denying any sniff of a ‘Carmel conspiracy’ arising from a meeting of Murdoch executives at his property in California earlier this year at which it has been suggested that ‘regime change’ was discussed. And of course John Hartigan rejects the notion outright; he told The Weekend Australian: "To try to suggest there is a conspiracy is just ridiculous."
What else would he be expected to say?
Shanahan and his editor Chris Mitchell insist that Rupert Murdoch does not give directives to his editors, so the idea of a conspiracy directed to regime change in Australia must be fantasy. John Hartigan flatly rejected the idea of a directive on 7.30
last week: “Like most whispering campaigns it has no element of truth”
. That there was no directive might be true, but does Murdoch have to issue a directive to get his own way? All editors know what Uncle Rupert thinks and what he wants, just as kids know what their parents think and want. Otherwise how do you explain that of his 160 + newspapers, only one editorialized against the Iraq war?
You may care to read Shanahan’s rather paltry attempt
to dismiss the conspiracy theory, the anti-Gillard Government bias, and any contagion of News Limited here from overseas events. He goes on to makes the case that The Australian
is not the only one targeting the Gillard Government, and in the printed story selected front pages from The Australian
and The Sydney Morning Herald
are displayed side by side under the heading Who’s running a campaign for regime change?
to demonstrate that the SMH
had more strident anti-Government headlines and stories than The Australian
, an attempt to use the pathetic ‘they were worse than us’ defence. Of course the pages were selected just to make that point.
More recently another prominent figure, former Police Commissioner in Victoria, Christine Nixon, has taken a swipe at News Limited, stating in her book that it waged a vendetta against her from early in her appointment right through the 2009 Royal Commission into the 2008 Victorian bushfires. As she pulls no punches, she expected that when she bit the media the bullyboys would be out in force to bite back, and she has not been let down. Herald Sun
editor Simon Pristel was soon on the airwaves insisting: “…that by trying to blame the media, Nixon is trying to evade personal responsibility.”
Police Association CEO Greg Davies was not far behind expressing his malice towards her with almost identical words. Already talkback callers to the Nixon debate on 774 ABC Melbourne radio are out criticizing Julia Gillard for being prepared to launch Nixon’s book this coming Wednesday. We can expect News Limited to make hay out of that.
In a story in The Australian
on 29 July: Copping it sweet not Nixon's style
, associate editor Cameron Stewart says: “In an interview with The Age this week, Nixon expanded her attack on News Limited newspapers, claiming they had been instrumental in bringing down her successor Simon Overland, who resigned in June after only two years in the job. It is a curious claim given that in her book Nixon links Overland's downfall to the election of the Baillieu government. In the book she says Overland was on a "slippery slope" after Ted Baillieu's victory because he was seen to be connected to the previous Brumby government. This week, Nixon claimed News turned against Overland after he criticised The Australian in August 2009 for publishing details of a Melbourne terrorism raid on the morning of the raid, despite the newspaper having received approval to publish the story from the Australian Federal Police. “The Australian's editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell says: "Christine Nixon misses the point about The Australian and commissioner Overland.”
You may remember that episode where The Australian
spilled the beans on the raid in its early edition before the raid was actually carried out, and Simon Overland’s angry rebuke to the editor of The Australian
. Overland bit, so Mitchell and News Limited bit back.
Bob Brown’s and Christine Milne’s call for an inquiry into media ownership, ethics and privacy, and Julia Gillard’s willingness to consider it, has brought forth protests, anger and rejection of the need for it. We can expect savage resistance against any attempt to look at these issues, let alone regulate the media as a result. The media believes it must have free rein to bite whomever it pleases, but reacts angrily when those bitten bite back. It is just like the bullying we saw in the schoolyard. But some of us discovered that standing up to bullies resulted in them going to water. We wait to see who will win this do or die battle.
Time and again when anyone of significance has had the courage to bite the MSM, especially News Limited – Tanner, Gillard, Conroy, Brown, Milne, Nixon, the media has savagely bitten back.
So who has the glass jaw, who has the thin skin, who refuses to take his medicine, who screams blue murder when someone bites back? It is the News Limited media who set a shameful example of the biter bitterly resenting being bitten back. Sadly, there is no sign of this changing.
What to you think?