Our media asleep at the wheel


The outrage of the London bombings has brought out the worst in Australia's parochial media practitioners. Acknowledging the viciousness of the attacks and expressing determination to find those responsible is the least we should expect. Channelling government propaganda is another, wholly unacceptable development. And yet, it is what passes for 'serious' journalism in Australia in 2005. As a journalist myself, I'm constantly amazed at the lack of thoroughness when reporting stories related to the 'War on Terror.'

Prime Minister John Howard announced the deployment of 150 SAS troops to Afghanistan on 13 July. Speaking at Parliament House in Canberra, Howard explained that the 'legitimate' government of Afghanistan, along with the United States, needed more grunts on the ground to ensure 'the progress' already made in the country and the need to root out Taliban and suspected al-Qaeda militants. His announcement received almost universal praise from the Australian media. The Age editorialised on 13 July that our intervention would assist a 'stable and secure Afghanistan'. President Hamid Karzai was 'convincingly elected by Afghans' in October last year and there was 'evidence of real progress.' Michelle Grattan, the paper's political editor, agreed. The Sydney Morning Herald chief correspondent, Paul McGeough, concurred. The pursuit of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, he said, 'would be a money-where-our-mouth-is use of Australian military resources that has been absent in post invasion Iraq and Afghanistan.' The SMH editorialised that it was time for Australia to wield 'a bigger stick' in the 'War on Terror' and contribute troops to 'help fill the vacuum created by the end of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein regime.' Rupert Murdoch's Australian melded the various fronts in the battle against Islamic fundamentalism and conflated Iraq, Afghanistan and the London bombings. 'This is a war that is not of our making,' they bellowed.

The Fairfax and Murdoch press, increasingly allied on matters of foreign affairs, chose the most gutless interpretation of the current situation. Perhaps they would care to read the recent report issued by Human Rights Watch. 'Numerous high-level officials and advisors in Afghanistan's current government are implicated in major war crimes and human rights abuses that took place in the early 1990s,' they wrote in early July. Moreover, 'many leaders implicated in the abuses are now officials in Afghanistan's defense or interior ministries, or are advisors to President Hamid Karzai. Some are running for office in parliamentary and local elections scheduled for September 2005. Others operate as warlords or regional strongmen, directing subordinates in official positions.'

None of these uncomfortable facts surfaced in the Australian press. When one journalist asked the Prime Minister about the role of the SAS, he muttered something about 'operational matters'. We have a right to know what our troops will be doing in Afghanistan and yet no reporters pushed the PM for an answer. Will they be assisting alleged war criminals in keeping the fragile peace? As they will be working with American troops, will they be involved with those committing violent interrogations and subsequent deaths? Our media prefers to see the American and Australian presence in Afghanistan as benign, Western nations on the frontline of the fight against terror. For them, our complicity in US-led Afghan forces beating and killing prisoners for information can be ignored. Historical amnesia infects every inch of our morally bankrupt media establishment. The fact that President Karzai is a US-puppet, funded, supported and protected by US money, is also forgotten.

Any Western responsibility for Muslim anger is airbrushed. How quickly they forget the death of more than half a million Iraqi children under brutally maintained US and UK sanctions. While journalists parrot the government-fed lines of the other side's inhumanity, where is the examination of the war crimes committed in Najaf, Jenin, Qaim, Fallujah and Afghanistan itself? Salim Lone, former spokesman for the UN mission in Iraq put it best last week: 'Yes, the terrorists are barbaric “ but who is more so?'

The SMH claims that the 'morality of the invasion of Afghanistan…is clear cut' and although readers may have concerns about the Iraq war, Australian troops must remain 'as long as it is needed.' If further evidence was needed of Fairfax capitulation, competing with the Murdoch press on matters of 'freedom' and 'democracy' showed the desperation of a so-called news company left to buy an online dating service, RSVP.com.au, to shore up its faltering business. Group executive Alan Revell explained that, 'it's been a while since we referred to ourselves as a newspaper company. We're a media company.' Perhaps Revell would like to explain how purchasing an internet company for $38.9 million will assist his newspapers reporting more honestly about the wars they're now so keen on championing.

The London Review of Books published a report in July that investigated the missing US$8.8 billion during the reign of the American pro consul in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, until June last year. It told of endemic corruption, oil kickbacks and multi-million cash deals with no paper trail. Since the 'reconstruction' of Iraq is being partly funded by the Iraqis themselves, this lack of accountability is criminal. Our media ignored this report. An Iraqi humanitarian organisation reported in mid July that 128,000 Iraqis had been killed since the beginning of the US-led invasion in 2003. 55 per cent of those had been women and children under 12, according to Dr. Hatim al-'Alwani, chairman of the Iraqiyun humanitarian organisation in Baghdad. An international research organisation in Switzerland claimed that US troops had killed 39,000 Iraqi civilians since the beginning of the war and 100,000 Iraqis had died since the US invasion. None of these figures appeared in the Australian media.

While tens of thousands of Iraqis are massacred by 'Coalition' forces, our media guardians prefer to talk about there being 'little prospect of an early exit' from Iraq or Afghanistan. The above figures should not be accepted on blind faith, to be sure, but how many more Iraqis need to be murdered by American, British and Australian troops before the penny drops: 'our' occupation of two troubled countries is contributing to the instability in the region and the wider world.

It is therefore far too simple to merely blame the rampaging pro-war Murdoch press. Melbourne academic Robert Manne fell into this easy trap during his recent cover story for The Monthly. Titled 'Murdoch's War', it tells the compelling story of the media owner, the Australian's Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan, and Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt. Manne systematically dissects the Australian's support for the war, its ability to bypass facts on WMD, Iraq nationalism and US foreign policy and constantly move the goalposts when previously claimed justifications no longer exist.

Manne says reading Bolt's columns is akin to 'being trapped in a small room with an angry, indignant, simple-minded man who believes the best way of convincing you that he is right, yet again, is to ridicule and shout.' Sheridan's 'journalism' is dismissed as the 'kind of uncritical enthusiasm one might expect from a teenager in love.' The Melbourne academic convincingly argues his case, dismissing the numerous factual errors, assumptions, articles of faith and outright lies told by the Murdoch press to convince a wary public that the Iraq war was essential to democracy and freedom. The Murdoch press is shameless, deceitful, devious and unethical. But then, what's new?

Manne dismisses the Fairfax press as 'no longer playing the kind of balancing role they once did. Now run by a board of corporation investors, they have almost altogether forgotten the tradition of fierce independence that still produces the best family-owned quality newspapers in the US: the New York Times and The Washington Post.'

Come again? Let me get this straight. Manne slams the Murdoch press and praises two American papers that, without a doubt, contributed a barrage of mis-information and propaganda before the Iraq war. Is Manne unaware of this? It's hardly possible. Does Manne think that the actions of Times journalist Judith Miller – perhaps the person most responsible for channeling false WMD claims through Ahmed Chalabi – are less responsible than the Murdoch press? If so, he's delusional.

Manne's censure of the Fairfax press is warranted. They have indeed become a shadow of their former self, preferring to follow rather than lead and positioning themselves as the media company best suited to pursue the new lifestyle agenda of the 21st century. Brave stuff, indeed. But by simply highlighting the Murdoch press – easy targets and thoroughly predictable – Manne has missed a golden opportunity. His slavish praise of the American media shows a disturbing sign of cultural cringe. Of course, certain American outlets have behaved admirably over the last years, but the Post and Times are not two of these publications.

It is time to demand that our media establishment develop a back-bone and historical perspective. Their consistent failure to challenge government propaganda proves once again that the free and fearless attitude clocked off years ago. To those still asking, 'what do they hate us?' the Australian media is providing few answers.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.