Media: Journalism That Bites

0

At
the ABC, evidence of muted reporting and self-censorship emerged
quickly as Aunty was harassed by Howard’s henchmen from day one. The
National Broadcaster was beaten so viciously with the ‘anti-bias’ stick
its managers and editorial staff began to recoil from challenging
critique and tough interviewing. A form of self-censorship — conscious and unconscious — threatened the ABC’s integrity at times.

Richard Alston’s official assault on the AM
program via his abuse of complaints procedures, the stacking of the ABC
board with ultra-conservatives and revisionist historians, and the
appointment of seriously Right-wing commentators in an effort to create
the impression of balance, all contributed to timidity and a palpable
reluctance to criticise the Howard Government. There were of course
stand-out performances from some during the Howard era — with Lateline being the star rebel.

But
Howard Government bullying of the media didn’t stop with the ABC. More
recently, SBS has been in its sights. Commercial TV, radio and print
operations also reflected the resultant lack of strident, opinionated
journalism during an era where freedom of speech was under constant
attack, government spin was on overdrive, and scandal after scandal
failed to dent the Coalition’s electoral appeal. It’s not that there
was a total absence of enterprising journalism during this period —
ultimately, the Coalition was called to account by journalists over the
Solon and Rau cases, Children Overboard, Tampa and Haneef, but the
Government frequently got off lightly.

 
 

Take
the media’s treatment of Howard’s justification for Australia’s
involvement in the Iraq War. In a recent presentation at the Public
Right to Know Conference at Sydney’s University of Technology, free
speech advocate and former senior public servant Richard Mills
criticised the national media for its unquestioning stance on the
Weapons of Mass Destruction debate. According to Mills’
research, newspapers largely failed to link the tenuous security advice
being claimed by Howard as justification for going to war to an
assessment of the consequences of invasion and a longer term plan for
Iraq.

One explanation for the media’s lack of censure of the Howard
Government may lie in Mills’ identification of at least six well known
techniques of media manipulation. He listed these as 1) Selectivity, 2)
Denial of Fact, 3) Deception, 4) Fabrication, 5) Deliberate Misquoting
and 6) Bland Deflection.

These trusted tools of spin-doctoring
were put to very effective use on the Canberra Press Gallery which was
under constant assault from Howard’s PR apparatchiks. Add to this the
daily grind of journalism with its ever increasing deadlines, multiple
platform reporting requirements and under-resourcing and you can
further understand the diminution in quality of critique.

In
the Howard years, those of us seeking serious critical
analysis ironically turned to satire. In the aftermath of APEC,
following the episode in which The Chaser drove a ‘Trojan Horse’ through the security overkill, I asked if it was the new model for Australian investigative journalism. The program is billed as comedy but at times it came close to the most confronting, critical TV journalism on offer.

The
Haneef case, however, marked a turning point in the media’s attitude to
the Howard Government. Finally fed up with the deception and spin,
journalists seemed to put their teeth back in and used investigative
skill to extract fact after fact with which they exposed the injustice,
duplicity, bigotry and fallaciousness inherent in the Government’s case
against the Gold Coast Doctor who’s still fighting to have his visa
reinstated. This was a transforming moment in Howard Era journalism —
an era which I believe required activism in combination with stringent
investigative techniques and more enterprising journalism.


 

This
is a controversial view in Western journalism because the model of
Advocacy Journalism is eschewed in favour of outdated notions of
objectivity which value and present arguments and perspectives equally,
regardless of their validity. Is that ‘fair’ reporting?

This
approach to objectivity allowed the Howard Government to beat
journalists around the head with allegations of bias or a ‘lack of
balance’ whenever the Coalition was critically scrutinised. This policy
of media manipulation succeeded in part because journalists interpreted
balanced reporting as equal measure of time and tone when democracy and
social justice demanded a more strident approach. The ‘he said, she
said’ model of reporting on which so many journalists rely, delivers
the sort of benign societal reflection that conservative politicians
would like to restrict journalists to — like a populist version of
Hansard, instead of the critical analysis a healthy democracy demands
of its independent media.

Those who rejected the activist,
liberal model of journalism should consider the role that radical
journalism played in South Africa during apartheid. In that setting,
journalists who failed to critique the racist regime effectively aided
and abetted the oppressors, and it wasn’t accusations of bias that
stole their integrity and professional credibility. Those who toed the
Government line soon found themselves confessing their sins — for
helping to sustain official racism.

I’m not suggesting the
pro-Howard sycophancy evident in much mainstream reporting of politics
and social policy in the past 12 years equates to the succour given to
the apartheid regime by weak and/or racist journalists in South Africa,
but the ‘balance defence’ in response to coverage of Howard’s
xenophobic politics and policies springs from the same well.

I’m
advocating a model of journalism which values social justice and sees
itself as a democratising force — a model informed by alternative
international professional practice. I’m hoping the election of a Rudd
Government will be a victory for free speech, unleashing journalism
with bite in this country. We need more inspiring, brave, forthright,
reflective and analytical reporting which challenges the
straight-jacketed approach of the Howard years.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

Comments

comments