Three weeks ago you, the media, took a satirical swipe at me on The Political Sword in The media to the PM – we have a problem. Let me now return the compliment.
You began: “Prime Minister. Listen carefully. The media is powerful, very powerful. Our journalists write newspaper columns that lots of people read; they create news bulletins and current affairs programmes that many people hear and see; they conduct talkback to which countless people listen. We have enormous influence. We can make and break governments and bring down prime ministers. You should not get us offside. We call the shots, not you. You’re beginning to make us annoyed. Watch it, we can get you, and probably will.”
Everyone knows about media power and influence, but you ought not to believe it is absolute. You ought not to believe it is beyond challenge. You should not think politicians are too timid to confront the media with its shortcomings for fear of retribution. [more]
There is a limit beyond which disingenuousness cannot be tolerated. A case in point has been the reporting of the so-called OzCar affair. Despite the public denial of the existence of any record of an email having been sent by economics adviser Andrew Charlton to Godwin Grech in Treasury asking for support for John Grant, a Brisbane car dealer, The Courier Mail and The Daily Telegraph went ahead and published the text of the purported email without the editors having seen a copy of it. I said: "I would have thought a few people would want to know how all of that happened -- what sort of journalistic checks were put in place?"
In an interview with Madonna King on ABC Brisbane radio, where she asked why I accepted the loan of a ute and would I give it back, I said: “...I think what the Australian people would like Madonna is for us all to get on with the job of dealing with how we handle the recession, how we handle the problem of jobs, how we handle the small business challenges today...people... scratch their heads and ask, `how can newspapers today, for example, run stories based on forged emails and assume that they are simply accurate as The Courier-Mail has done in Brisbane?’’ That interview caused quite a furore. Christian Kerr labelled my reply a ‘rant’, which in my dictionary means: to ‘speak or shout at length in a wild impassioned way’. His use of the word points to the sting he felt in my remarks, questioning as I did the professionalism of the papers concerned. Julia Gillard’s repeat of my criticism further fanned the flames.
In response, The Daily Telegraph has seen fit to editorialize in Utegate saga lesson for all: “Following is the full and unexpurgated extent of The Daily Telegraph's involvement in Utegate, from which all of our coverage was derived: We chased a story. There is really no other way to describe it. We, in competition with other media, pursued the Utegate saga with interest and vigour. As facts became known to us, they were reported to our readers. As facts shifted and the story took on a different shape, this too was reported. The Prime Minister is now calling for a public debate on journalistic ethics. We at The Daily Telegraph would happily submit our Utegate coverage as a fine example of ethics to be followed by all media. No other newspaper did a better job of recording the remarkable twists of that week in Parliament, from Grech's initial testimony to the email fallout still threatening Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull.” That sounds defensive, not at all plausible and short of relevant facts.
The media seems astonished that a PM should dare to criticize it, and has debated such temerity ever since. How dare a political leader question it?
The editor of Crikey said: “As practising political pragmatists, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister both did something counter-intuitive this week. They openly and deliberately criticised News Limited. To outsiders watching the daily cut and thrust of politics, these may seem innocuous acts. But inside the political tent there has been an unstated but closely observed rule for decades that publicly poking a stick inside the cage of the country's biggest media gorilla is not a career-enhancing move, given News Limited's long-standing predilection to deploy its newspapers to campaign personally and vindictively against anyone on its enemies list. Yesterday, the PM twice attacked The Courier-Mail in an ABC Brisbane radio interview (with the wife of the editor of that newspaper, as it happens), and this morning on ABC Radio National the Deputy PM explicitly criticised News Limited for its journalism in covering the Utegate matter. These are not un-calculating politicians. By poking a stick inside this particular cage they are making a meaningful statement about media power: how it is evolving and diffusing; how the spectre of Murdoch no longer acts as a curb on politicians doing the right thing; how new media is recalibrating the unhealthy influence of the old media establishment; and how political leaders now feel confident enough to believe that the machinations of one newspaper empire can no longer unseat governments, destroy careers or turn political tides. Kevin 1, Rupert 0.”
In recent times The Australian has seen fit to run ‘Stimulus Watch’ in which it tries to identify waste and inefficiency in the Australia-wide school building programme. It quotes examples of what it says are examples of schools being forced to accept amenities they did not want, examples of overpriced quotes being accepted, double-ups and wrong priorities. Out of the 34 articles listed in Stimulus Watch there are but a tiny handful that relate to such matters; most are political comments. By mid June there were 24 complaints from 22 out of 9,450 schools and 26,000 projects, a 0.1% complaint rate, meaning that 99.9% of projects have been favourably received. And there is an inbuilt mechanism for resolving any problem with the programme. In Question Time, Julia Gillard took The Australian to task in response to a question from Christpoher Pyne, pointing out several mistakes in reporting, which The Australian clearly did not like. Journalistic retaliation was expected and came in the form of unfavourable critiques of Government actions. The editor of The Australian felt moved to write an editorial A rational critique, not retaliation that concluded: “Mr Rudd's claim that critiques of his government are ‘journalistic retaliation’ for criticisms levelled by members of the government is misplaced. Our analyses of this or any government or opposition are grounded in sound principles that are as relevant now as they were in 1964.”
We expect disingenuous behaviour from the Opposition, but object to the same behaviour from what are supposed to be objective journalists. The Opposition likes to talk of debt and deficit as if the GFC had not occurred and as if the Government had not lost over $200 billion in revenue, but why do so-called economics editors do the same? In his piece in The Weekend Australian, A splurge too many where MIchael Stutchbury attempts to dissect out the factors governing Australia's economic situation, you know as soon as you look at the title what the theme is to be, and when in the first paragraph you read ‘indiscriminate spending on school buildings’, your suspicions are confirmed. The words ‘global crisis’ are mentioned just twice in passing, and ‘revenue shortfall’ not at all, as if it did not exist and contribute massively to the inevitable debt and deficit. Yet Stutchbury, after a detailed analysis, was able to conclude: “The question is: in a world drowning in public debt, would you lend the government more of your money to build more unneeded primary school halls and the like?” So this is another hit by The Australian on the schools programme, despite all the facts and figures Stutchbury quotes. How can economics editors write such material, if not to support the paper’s anti-schools stimulus programme?
Even the ABC can’t get its stories right. After an interview of Immigration Minister Chris Evans by Leigh Sales on Lateline last Friday, ABC News on Saturday morning reported that the casino on Christmas Island was being considered for housing an overflow of immigrants from the island’s facility. That was wrong. The next bulletin even featured a clip of what Evans said, but cut short so that it still sounded as if the casino was to be used for immigrants. Again, wrong. What Evans actually said in answer to a question from Sales “Is it accurate that the Department of Immigration could take over the now closed Christmas Island casino to create more accommodation? was: “...we were looking at the possibility of using their staff quarters, their old staff quarters for immigration and other staff. ... there was no suggestion of us putting detainees into the casino.” So the ABC not only got it completely wrong, but when it tried to cover its error by the use of an Evans clip, it compounded it. This shoddy journalism has not yet been corrected.
Another thing – the media has been critical about what it likes to call the Government’s obsession with the media cycle. It says the Government is in continual election mode. What an awakening! Did the media notice that John Howard progressively used talkback radio more and more as his term progressed; has it not noticed changes to governments' approach to the media in other countries, particularly in the US? Times are different – continuous communication with the electorate is now part and parcel of politics. Get used to it and regard it as normal. And please shelve the term ‘media tart’ – that’s childish.
In your message to me three weeks ago you concluded: “Anyway, you’ve been warned. Lift your game and be more like what we became used to when Johnny was around. After all we’re human too, and it's all a bit too much for us the way it is. Remember, as we said at the beginning, we can get you. Don’t tempt us.”
My message to the media is “Understand that the media is no longer entitled to believe it should remain unchallenged when its standards slip, when it reports inaccurately, when it fuels a spurious campaign to damage Government initiatives with trivial accusations, and when it fails to keep up with trends in political use of the media. Consider the prospect that you may no longer be able to call all the shots”