Lacking true self-criticism

Veteran political commentator Michelle Grattan gave a speech in Melbourne last night for the Deakin lectures. She argued that the relationship between media and politicians was at an all-time low:

“When I arrived in Canberra in the 1970s, if you were armed with a Commonwealth Directory it wasn’t hard to get to know a lot of bureaucrats and obtain basic background. Now, although some bureaucrats, especially senior ones, will talk to some journalists whom they trust, the majority will run a mile from the most innocuous media call. Most departments have strict rules that officers should report media contacts to the minister’s office. Even the bureaucrats who will take the calls feel more constrained.”

Her suggestions to improve transparency, accountability and honesty included making the media “simultaneously more constructive and more critical.” Furthermore, Grattan talked of a need for “less trashing of politicians. On the other side of the coin, eyes should be sharper and should be more rigorous.”

Grattan made some valuable comments and was at least capable, unlike most senior journalists housed in the Canberra Press Gallery, to criticise her colleagues frequent lack of determination in pursuing stories and contacts. “Political investigative journalism is not strong”, she said. “Where, for example, is the expose of the culture of the Immigration Department?”

She did, however, miss some fundamentals. The failure of the mainstream media – certainly those not wedded to the establishment orthodoxy of market capitalism and gung-ho militarism (such as the Murdoch press) – is the ongoing acceptance of government stalling on major issues as little more than unfortunate. Not detrimental to open democracy, mind you. These same news organisations, including Fairfax, will still support the re-election of John Howard or, say, Bob Carr in NSW, two masters of spin and duplicity.

Take this example of Grattan’s hypocrisy. When Australian citizen Mamdoub Habib was released from Guantanamo Bay earlier this year and returned to Australia, Grattan wrote that he “cannot reasonably complain about [remaining under watch] by Australian authorities.” Despite a lack of evidence produced by the Australian or American authorities against Habib, Grattan still accepted the spin put forward by Attorney General Phillip Ruddock that continued surveillance of Habib was necessary. Perhaps she’d forgotten that Habib was an innocent man, held illegally and not charged with any offence.

But Grattan also forgot something else. If she is so concerned about the lack of transparency in contemporary Australian life, she should take a closer look at the Canberra Press Gallery. The ever-increasing intimacy between journalists and politicians is one of the great shams of the system. Have you ever noticed that politicians call reporters by their first name? Ever wondered why journalists faithfully visit the Lodge every Xmas for the annual end-of-year drinks? It is this collusion, and the lack of distance between what should be competing players, that make for truly diminished media coverage.

Journalists are not supposed to be mates with politicians or their press agents. A healthy working relationship is clearly essential but socialising together is inappropriate. During a recent conversation with Robert Fisk in Beirut, he reminded me of the situation in Washington during press conferences with Bush, Rumsfeld or a handful of other American leaders. “The journalists rarely ask tough questions”, Fisk told me. “They’re called by their first names by the politicians and prefer basking in the glow of thinking some hot-shot politician is taking their question.” The situation in Australia is often little better.

Grattan ignores the corporate pressures on mainstream media organisations. Journalists wanting the truth will often not be a strong enough imperative to upset advertisers. UK-based Medialens has long campaigned about the inherent inability of the mainstream media to actively engage in issues that require in-depth critiques of big business and its connection to government. Their report of 16 February 2005 discussed the ways in which Tony Blair is praised for his commitment to the environment:

“This is the standard media view: on climate change, Blair is ‘determined’, ‘committed’ and ‘listening’ to the major NGOs. Thus: ‘The Prime Minister is hosting a ‘power breakfast’ of business leaders, politicians and environmentalists at Downing Street on Wednesday, where he will unveil a new five-year strategy to combat global warming.’ Mr Blair is calling for Britain to ‘pull together as a country’.”

Michelle Grattan may want tougher journalists and more pro-active editors but this wish will not be enough. How much longer will we rely on the mainstream media to deliver results when they are structurally incapable of delivering? Let us not forget the performance during last year’s Federal Election. The ALP was seen as bad for business while the Liberals were seen to guarantee more of the same business-friendly, union-bashing policies.

Former media guru Max Suich may think that media owners have little influence anymore – “Australia’s media outlets are less politically predictable these days. Why? Because of the freedom from board, management and proprietor interference that editors and reporters now enjoy. This journalistic freedom, an event of the past 15 years or so, is greater than at any time since World War II” – but he clearly has no understanding of media management in 2005. The Fairfax board, as one example, is made up of executives with no media experience and individuals determined to be bought by a financed media mogul after the cross-media laws inevitably change soon after July 1. Editorial quality is the least of their concerns. A high share price certainly will be their priority.

Grattan may have the best of intentions, but her naivety is stunning. Once again, independent media will continue to play an essential role in keeping the bastards honest.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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