Comment

John Hewson
Buzzwords, bullshit and mockery

In the spirit of correcting the failures of our democracy in recent times, especially in the context of the May election, the Albanese government has launched a number of inquiries into particular failures of its predecessor. So far this includes scrutinising Morrison’s “meshuffling” of government ministries to move even more power to himself for no obvious national benefit, his handling of the pandemic and the disgrace of robo-debt. The destructive role of the media should be added to the list. The violations of the Press Council’s charter were most conspicuous as major media outlets and journalists openly aligned behind their favourite teams, lost sight of their responsibilities to investigate, to provide the facts and balance, and to ensure accountability.

The biases were staggering, with some going so far as to cast themselves as players in the contest, as kingmakers, attempting to reinforce their contrived messages with dubious scare campaigns to achieve their objectives.

The case for an independent media inquiry is now overwhelming. Such an inquiry should have powers to collect all relevant information and to cross-examine journalists, as well as media owners and managers. Ironically, a degree of accountability might be achieved in the sideshow where Lachlan Murdoch is suing Crikey, but this is confined to just one outlet, which is itself not averse to running agendas and bias in its coverage of key issues.

Clearly any inquiry needs to start with the Murdoch media, given its multi-outlet ownership and influence beyond that, including the capacity to rerun on free-to-air broadcasts. Its conspicuous pursuit of agendas and biases against particular politicians and on specific issues, and its desire to be a powerbroker in elections, has been fundamentally disruptive to our democracy. Moreover, its form – as evidenced by its behaviour and abuses internationally – can’t be ignored. The examples of the phone-hacking scandal in Britain, and Fox News’s support for the Trump era in the United States, are evidence of just how far it will go to prosecute its views.

The US broadcaster faces at least some consequences for suggesting that the 2020 vote was rigged, as Dominion Voting Systems has launched defamation suits against some of Fox News’s biggest-name hosts, including Maria Bartiromo and Tucker Carlson. But the latter is still busily downplaying the former president’s role in the January 6 Capitol riot and excusing Trump’s removal of highly classified documents to Mar-a-Lago, his Florida residence. These presenters are uninterested in proof, simply providing buzzwords, bullshit and mockery. Their commentary seems to be laying the groundwork for their champion to run again in 2024. It’s hard for me to accept that the American people could flirt again with the possibility of such an incompetent, divisive and dangerous government.

The worst of what we’ve observed of the Murdoch media globally has made its way back to Australia. This is its tested “success” formula. We should expect better from our media. We should be able to demand fair play, transparency and accountability.

 

My own experience with the Murdoch media was most instructive. When I became leader of the Liberal Party and the federal opposition, I approached all the major editors at the time for a discussion. It was simply to introduce myself and my agenda after what had been a difficult time for the Coalition through the 1980s, with the disunity of the John Howard versus Andrew Peacock years and after three election losses. The editor at The Australian told me, in no uncertain terms, that I needed to understand they had their agendas, so if I advanced ideas consistent with those agendas, I may – it was emphasised, just may – expect positive coverage. But if I advocated against those agendas then I could be guaranteed that I would be attacked accordingly. I was encouraged to accept that this was just the way it was.

It is not just extensive ownership of the major print outlets across all capitals and regions, together with control of the major cable television network, that determines the extent of the Murdoch influence. It’s the echo chamber, as columns by its leading print journalists are reprinted in peer publications, say The West Australian, and then picked up by other television and radio networks. Beyond this, there is also the insidious effect of its influence on current and aspiring journalists concerned about their career development, who know that if they put a foot wrong by criticising the Murdoch media or its positions on issues or political parties, their prospects for moving their career forward within the Murdoch empire may be severely constrained. No journalist should fear that their job is on the line for reporting the truth, or both sides of an issue. Certainly also the old lines of church and state have become very blurred: the imperative that advertising and editorial remain independent from one another has been challenged. An independent inquiry should also get to the murky bottom of this.

 

In recent years the Murdoch media has thrived on encouraging climate change deniers, both in print and through Sky News. During the election campaign it openly defended the Morrison government and questioned Anthony Albanese’s fitness to be prime minister. It attacked his major policy positions with the saturation use of expressions such as “each-way Albo”, and warned of a “crazy left-wing takeover” and a “Greens–ALP alliance”.

It was unfortunate too that the Australian public had to wait until the post-election publication of a book by two high-profile political journalists to find out about the former prime minister’s self-appointment to multiple portfolios.

It’s notable that calls for deeper scrutiny into media ownership concentration and diversification are now gathering force. Zoe Daniel, the former journalist and current independent representative for the federal seat of Goldstein in Melbourne, has said she is bringing a motion to the lower house for a judicial inquiry, citing disinformation and lack of trust as “the key challenges of our time”. And her statement has drawn support from some of her teal colleagues.

Since the election the Murdoch media has sustained climate denialism, attacked Albanese at almost every step and played down the censure of Morrison’s performance by the solicitor-general and others. The Murdoch media has begun a campaign of disruption that’s exemplified by its early promotion of a “No” case on the proposed referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament – even going so far as to deploy Andrew Bolt, who played the race card on the issue in one evening program recently, saying that the prospect of a Voice is “tearing us apart already”. Two of their more foolish and irresponsible journalists, Rowan Dean and Paul Murray, have been given platforms to run their bile and prejudices, even though the dishonest campaign they ran against Anthony Albanese and his team failed to get their favourite elected.

 

Clearly a media inquiry would need to review the performance of other key outlets and journalists, including Nine Entertainment and the ABC. Nine, too, has been an apologist for the Coalition, on all platforms of print, radio and television, while the debate continues as to whether the ABC has been biased and met the requirements of its charter. That said, much of the criticism of the ABC has been driven by the Murdoch media, which is seemingly obsessed with seeing the government cut the national broadcaster’s funding further or privatise it.

Hopefully an independent review would restore some integrity to our media. There is, of course, and should always be, a place in public discourse for all views and ideas to be debated and contested. Even the crazies have a right to be heard. However, to be able to broadcast your views on free-to-air television, accessible to all, should be considered a privilege that entails a responsibility – a responsibility to inform rather than to prosecute.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 3, 2022 as "Buzzwords, bullshit and mockery".

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