Opinion

John Hewson
How the media failed this election

After such a decisive election outcome, soul-searching about what happened and why is only natural. One of the most conspicuous failures in the campaign was the role played by the media – they certainly tried to undermine our democracy.

Take the “gotcha” moment of Anthony Albanese not remembering the six dot points of his National Disability Insurance Scheme policy. It tempts me to ask if the journalists in the travelling media pack could recite any six of the 12 dot points in the MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics, or even half of the Australian Press Council’s eight general principles? Perhaps they would simply walk out on my question. Their behaviour throughout the campaign suggests they wouldn’t know – or worse, wouldn’t care – about these ethical standards.

I have been involved in election campaigns since the mid-1970s and can’t remember anything like the lack of professionalism and blatant bias that characterised the media’s role in this one.

So much for the code of ethics’ statement that “respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism ... they inform citizens and animate democracy”. The code goes on to recognise that journalists “scrutinise power, but also exercise it, and should be responsible and accountable”. I believe that the unethical performance of some journalists and media organisations and platforms needs to be called out and then subjected to a full independent review.

We may need an independent integrity commission for the media, over and above existing Press Council complaint processes.

The worst have been the “monsters after dark” on Sky News, especially the misrepresentation of Albanese as “each-way Albo” by the likes of Rowan Dean and Paul Murray, who sustained a blustery, ranting countdown to “save the country from the mad left/crazy takeover”. Dean has consistently distorted facts on issues such as climate, even reporting any unexpected drop in temperature around the world as evidence of a coming ice age. By any objective assessment of their performances, they should be shown the door, including with respect to their outrageous attitudes toward the female independent candidates. In any other job or workplace across the country, surely this would be the case – such behaviour simply wouldn’t wash.

It should also be a significant embarrassment to the Murdoch media that they got it so wrong, defending Morrison and his government. They were defending the indefensible while simply dismissing the independents as “fake”. The monsters became so obsessed with their mission that they completely misread the mood of the Australian people, and misjudged the likely election results.

These appalling manifestations of shock-jock journalists are poor losers – they have stumbled along as the election results have been finalised, attempting daily to rationalise their incompetence and their bias. Murray has moved on to trying to undermine Albanese by casting him in the mould of United States President Joe Biden, referring to him as “Sleepy Aussie Joe”, who won by “hiding in his basement”. Murray is still scarred by his sycophantic lust for Donald Trump, still believing the conspiracy theory that Trump was robbed of an election victory in 2020. Sadly, some of the Nine journalists weren’t much better than Sky News. And it was unfortunate the ABC didn’t get to host a debate.

I suspect Albanese will have the last word here and prove to be a better prime minister than he was an opposition leader – a builder not a destroyer.

Of course, it wasn’t just the “big name” journalists who let down the profession. The antics of the lesser-known junior reporters in the travelling press packs were another ugly feature of the campaign. They turned up for the kill, hoping to establish their careers with the big gotcha question. They demeaned their profession, shouting at Albanese’s retreating back to create the impression he was ducking their inquiries and scrutiny. This approach was presumably designed to not only build their reputations but to ingratiate themselves with their colleagues and bosses. This clamour, in which they identified neither themselves nor their organisations, gave the appearance of a braying mob.

This was a watershed election in many ways. A number of important factors coalesced to change the nature of our politics and hopefully our government well into the future. It’s worth noting that millions of people voted before the end of the campaign. Both major parties have been guilty of taking their assumed “safe seats” for granted.

Communities have clearly expressed a desire for better representation, not just by electing the independents but also in large swings against sitting members or candidates parachuted into other seats. The Nationals have boasted about not losing any seats, but those such as Nicholls in Victoria and others in Queensland have moved notably against them. Moreover, there was nothing “fake” about the independents, who were all genuinely community based. There but for the grace of god will go other seats in the future.

The Liberal Party was decimated.

Scott Morrison destroyed the notion of a “broad church”, working conspicuously against the moderates and progressives, with his captain’s picks overriding rank-and-file preselections. He ignored the significance of issues surrounding integrity, the climate and women, neglected a duty of care to our children, the aged and disabled, and failed to learn the lessons of the Wentworth byelection. I seriously doubt he was “chosen by God” to make such a mess.

The Coalition now has a unique opportunity for a reset, but certainly not by lurching further to the right, or by further enhancing the position of the Nationals.

To even contemplate Peter Dutton as the new leader is insane, and could well spell the end of the Liberal–National Coalition. He has neither the skills nor the empathy for the job. He is divisive, as we saw from the votes lost among the Chinese community over his irresponsible warmongering. As I have said consistently since he challenged Malcolm Turnbull – if the Liberal Party thinks he is the answer, what the hell is the question?

Morrison’s claim that negotiating with independents would be “chaos” was just another scare tactic – although he was probably influenced by his chaotic process with Barnaby Joyce in agreeing to a net-zero target by 2050. The Nationals are very close to falling off the edge of their flat earth. The claims by the likes of the Sky News monsters that constitutional recognition of First Australians and tackling climate change are left-wing themes completely ignores the election outcome. These are important Australian issues with great international significance.

It needs to be accepted that you win elections from the centre, that a further move to the right – by electing Dutton, keeping Joyce as leader of the Nationals, and further enhancing their positions in the Coalition – would be fatal. To contradict Rupert Murdoch and his peers, I don’t believe that a hardline right party would ever win government in our country.

The challenge now is for the Liberal Party to regain the centre of our politics. This will require the party to restore and respect a broad church of members and ideas, with the full spectrum willing to stand up and fight within party forums for what they believe. In a sense, the moderates who lost have only themselves to blame, for failing to take significant stands in the party room on issues such as climate, integrity and responsible budgets. Morrison was able to take them for granted.

The essence of the community-based independents was that they encouraged their constituents to believe their votes counted. Those votes did, and they have made a real difference. The primary vote of the Coalition fell to 36 per cent, losing some 17 seats.

To govern effectively, Albanese will need a significant degree of bipartisanship, given the issues he will face. It is imperative to our democracy that there is good, constructive opposition to any government holding power. Not by any measure could the current rabble calling itself the Coalition be considered as such.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as "Monsters and the rabble".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.

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