Woe is Me(dia)


Almost three weeks ago, under the cover of darkness, former NSW Premier Bob Carr snuck into the NSW election campaign.

His is the name that must never be uttered; his is the face that must never be seen in this campaign. In an irony that he might appreciate, Carr is now like a disgraced Politburo member in Stalin’s Russia, whose visage is airbrushed from the photographs of the comrades, gathered on the roof of Lenin’s tomb at May Day.

His successor, Morris Iemma who is a graduate of the office of notorious former Labor Senator Graham Richardson, has been a State Labor MP since 1991, and was a Carr Government parliamentary secretary or minister from 1999 is suddenly the man without a past. ‘When I became Premier 18 months ago,’ has become Iemma’s stock preface.

But on the evening of 23 February, Carr put his head above the parapet, addressing a closed-door ALP fundraiser in Sydney. According to a report in The Australian, three days later, Carr said the threat if any to the Iemma Government came not from Peter Debnam’s Liberal-National coalition but from ‘very strong media opposition from sections of the media restless for change.’

Carr has fallen back on that reliable old NSW Labor lament the press are against us!

The first thing I always tell Labor folk who complain about media bias against them is take it up with your poster boy, Paul Keating. It was Keating who, as Federal Treasurer, permitted today’s vast concentrations of media ownership in print and TV. Remember his quip: ‘You can be a queen of the screen or a prince of print but you can’t be both’?

Keating’s laws allowed Rupert Murdoch to own 70 per cent of Australia’s capital city press and most of the suburban press, and Kerry Packer to dominate the airwaves. When the media moguls decide who they’re against, there are very few places for readers to seek alternative news and views let alone dissenting journalists to seek alternative employment.

The second point to make is that NSW Labor, or at least the Right-wing machine, has never believed in a critical and probing Press. Carr is the living embodiment of this attitude.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he was a ‘journalist’ and I use the inverted commas deliberately at Packer’s Bulletin magazine, Carr saw his role as a public relations operative for Neville Wran’s Labor Government and the Sussex Street ALP machine that stood behind him. Carr’s journalism, no matter how elegantly worded, was merely an extension of his previous role as publicity and education officer at the NSW Labor Council. ‘Nobody believes an article that’s all positive,’ he would plead with his Labor cronies. ‘If I just include one negative point it has more credibility.’

Former Sussex Street boss Stephen Loosley said Carr ‘wasn’t going to cause aggravation’ for the Wran Government with his articles. So blatant was his propaganda, Carr later confessed to me on the record, that he was ‘ashamed’ of some of his work.

So it is in that context that we must view Carr’s complaint about ‘very strong media opposition.’

Thanks to Bill Leak

Certainly, two commercial radio disc jockeys Alan Jones and John Laws have been ceaselessly critical of the Carr-Iemma Government’s policies on land clearing in rural NSW. But Jones and Laws are now just white noise in the political debate. They have been banging on about land clearing and a handful of other issues for so long, and to audiences that are generally aging and Right-leaning, that they just don’t move that many votes.

What seems to have really gotten up the noses of Iemma and Co is the Sydney Morning Herald‘s almost 18-month campaign of overt skepticism about Carr’s legacy and Iemma’s plans. First, it was the dinkus (as these little graphics are called) that read something like ‘The Carr Crash’ which was placed above almost every NSW politics story; then, it was ‘Iemma’s Spin Cycle.’

These were provocative graphics to attach to news stories but they came after the Iemma Government’s press secretaries began leaking almost every major piece of news to the rival Daily Telegraph. In the industry, these are called ‘drops.’ Even the Telegraph‘s stablemate, The Australian, complained about this tactic. While the Telegraph does have a team of skilled reporters covering State politics, it is also in the happy position of serving a key demographic for NSW Labor and, as such, enjoys preferential treatment.

The SMH also refused to adhere to one of the conditions of receiving ‘drops,’ which was that they don’t include any dissenting comment from the State Opposition or any other interest groups, in any initial story that they were given. So in this campaign, the SMH a paper as replete with faults as any other has nonetheless adhered to form, and decided to pretty much oppose whichever Party is in power.

Labor should remember that during the Greiner-Fahey Government, the only place where Bob Carr and the Opposition could get a run, be it about Terry Metherell’s education polices or the National Party’s appearances before the Independent Commission Against Corruption, was in the SMH. I was there at the time. As a Herald editor once told me, ‘We’re the whingers’ paper, the place where people with an axe to grind against the government any government come.’

The Telegraph has slapped the Iemma Government around a bit and Piers Akerman is a reliable critic. But as the election campaign has progressed, and Labor’s easy re-election has become more imminent, the Telegraph appears to have eased off on criticism. It wants to back the winner. That is why, I suspect, NSW ALP machine boss Mark Arbib ‘dropped’ the Tele the internal Party polling purporting to show the election was much closer than the published polls suggest.

Labor, ahead on a two-Party-preferred vote hovering somewhere between 54 and 58 per cent, wants desperately to keep disillusioned supporters in the fold, and the Tele is happy to oblige if it means keeping sweet with the current and future Government. Like falling for an heiress, interest and inclination coincide.

If Labor is returned and returned easily expect the Fairfax Press and the ABC, and any journalist who does not suckle the teat of the Iemma Government, to have a terrible time of it when covering State politics. Already arrogant press secretaries most of whom only become Labor true believers after they began earning $100,000-plus taxpayer-funded salaries will become insufferable. You can hear them sneering already: ‘We done this without you and you threw everything at us and it didn’t work. We don’t owe you nothing.’ (That is how they speak, and that’s just the Ministers.)

All that may be true, of course but in a democracy, independent media are supposed to hold governments accountable, no matter how convincing their victories.

But that is something NSW Labor just doesn’t seem to get.

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.