Books

Andrew Fowler
The War on Journalism

That journalism is embattled there is no doubt. Dwindling advertising profits have seen those who remain employed multitasking to cover for laidoff colleagues. It’s an undeniable industrial climate change.

Andrew Fowler thinks there’s a war going on, with enemies of free journalism actively seeking to destroy it. “Revelatory and investigative journalism in the West is in a state of crisis,” he says. “Attacked from without, it is also attacked from within by journalists who long ago abandoned the core journalistic principle to question those in power.”

He presents an array of examples in this breezy account of media battles over recent decades, prime among them the struggles of the newspapers chosen by Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks and US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to filter and interpret their mass drops of digital documents. Snowden revealed that the NSA and its “Five Eyes” cohorts were collecting and storing data on the communications of vast numbers of people, blurring the distinction between their legally authorised snooping on foreigners with domestic surveillance. Journalism is collateral damage when the agencies set their computers to trace the source of leaks from reporters’ phones and emails.

Two years ago The Guardian’s then editor Alan Rusbridger contended, “We are not there yet, but it may not be long before it will be impossible for journalists to have confidential sources. Most reporting – indeed, most human life in 2013 – leaves too much of a digital footprint.”

It’s just got worse as the Daesh scare has revived the “war on terrorism”. Now intelligence agencies are trying to locate “lone-wolf” individual terrorists and “de-radicalise” them before they can carry out attacks. It recalls Japan’s creation of the Tokkō in the 1920s, the special “thought police” who set out to “hear what has no sound and see what has no shape”, then convert communists back to imperial loyalty through psychological techniques aided by pressure from family and community.

In Australia, new laws punish the unauthorised reporting of “special intelligence operations” with jail. Metadata may be held by phone and internet companies, but the green light for government agencies to trawl through it is given by judges and official watchdogs typically chosen for their “understanding” of national security risks.

If there’s a focus to Fowler’s book, this is it. But it pops up between long digressions into episodes of scant relevance. Most of one chapter, for example, is taken up with the then London Daily Mirror owner Cecil King’s bizarre attempt to instigate a coup against Labour prime minister Harold Wilson in 1968. Rupert Murdoch’s recent embarrassment over his British newspapers’ phone hacking is also related at length.

This gets us into another of Fowler’s themes: sections of the media have abandoned the quest for truth, and gleefully join in government attacks on those who question the status quo, from both ideological and commercial motives. News Corp newspapers duly stand indicted for putting the boot into the ABC whenever possible.

But wait, there’s yet another front in Fowler’s war. Even the media groups that have worked with the WikiLeaks and Snowden caches are “cosy” with governments. The Guardian was frustratingly slow to publish Snowden’s intermediary, Glenn Greenwald. It alarmingly sought prior comment from government and intelligence agencies, and didn’t bother much with email and phone encryption. The Snowden documents, Greenwald is approvingly quoted as saying, shine a light not just on the NSA “but on the corrupting dynamics of establishment journalism”.

Fowler, who wrote an earlier book on Assange, portrays him as a noble pioneer of a “new journalism” that allows readers to check “whether they are being lied to by the journalists”. He backs Assange when The New York Times reports dissent within WikiLeaks at Assange’s “erratic and imperious behaviour and a nearly delusional grandeur”: this had “the look and feel of a tabloid-style hit”. As for then NYT executive editor Bill Keller saying he would “hesitate to describe what WikiLeaks does as journalism”, this was just a protective measure to leave Assange out in the cold as a spy rather than a publisher. “As an act of self-serving bastardry it took some beating,” Fowler observes.

What to expect though? Media companies distrust whistleblowers because they are conformist themselves, Fowler insists. Consequently, investigative reporting is the first to be jettisoned in lean times.

That would be news to readers of the Fairfax group, for example, where in-house investigators are retained as a unique selling proposition, or to the newspapers and broadcasters that have eagerly helped Washington’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists go through whistleblower caches of secret bank accounts in Switzerland and corporate profit shifting via Luxembourg.

In some respects, investigative journalism has never been stronger. It didn’t flourish when proprietors such as Sir Warwick Fairfax wallowed in rivers of gold from classified ads. Cosiness with power (and intelligence agencies) certainly did. In key instances, philanthropy, a lot of it from IT millionaires, has come to the rescue.

But Fowler is never deterred from sweeping generalisations about the misdeeds of some players, and has little historical perspective beyond his own working life, spent with mainstream media outlets from The Australian to the ABC that he berates.

That leads him to statements such as that the 2003 Iraq invasion was “the first ever war built entirely on disinformation planted in the media” when his own narrative shows it was doctored intelligence presented by leaders to legislators that overcame doubts. History pedants might also recall Hearst and the Spanish-American War. This is a book that tells its story badly, and contains little new.  JF

William Heinemann, 368pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 22, 2015 as "Andrew Fowler, The War on Journalism". Subscribe here.