It’s only been 18 months since John Howard was in charge, but I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling like the intervening period has been much longer. When you hear him talk at length these days — as he did on Tuesday night at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advanced Journalism (you can watch the speech online here) — you get a bit of a shock. Despite the defeat of his government, despite losing his own seat, despite the abysmal state in which he left his party, his world view is utterly unchanged. Indeed, he’s able now to reveal it even more clearly, free as he is from the confines of day-to-day politics.
He was asked by the centre to speak about the Australian media — "the good, the bad and the ugly". In doing so, he offered a retrospective assessment of his own relationship with the media. As he outlined his views, I realised how much one man’s hunches, strategies, and ideological obsessions shaped — and continue to shape — our national conversation. It was also a reminder that Howard left Australia’s public sphere in a far worse state than he found it.
Surprisingly, Howard confided that had he not gone into the law and politics, he may well have opted for journalism as a career. He recalled with fondness his time as a columnist at The Australian, during a stint on the back bench after his first period of Liberal leadership, and under the editorship of the late Frank Devine. His journalistic ambition and experiences did not give him much sympathy for the profession though. He repeated succinctly the claim that he made in various guises throughout his career: that journalists are, by and large, and with few exceptions, of a "centre-left" persuasion.
He didn’t offer anything to substantiate that claim and he never really has. The evidence for Australian journos being leftists deep down inside is weak and mixed, and his own government’s protracted persecution of, and repeated inquiries into, the ABC never turned up any solid proof of bias where it counts: in what journalists say and do in their professional practice. But it’s clear that this belief of his was always sincerely held, and was the underpinning of his own treatment and use of the media. Journalists, for Howard, were basically the enemy; scratch a journo and you’ll find a lefty. Accordingly, they don’t feature too prominently in Howard’s assessment of the "good" aspects of the Australian media.
Instead, he spoke of his preference for talkback radio as a place to get out his messages, uncontaminated by the noise of interpretation by journalists, whom he clearly assumed would not give him a fair run. He talked at length about the virtues of Neil Mitchell, and described Alan Jones as "one of the most well researched, highly intelligent people … that I’ve ever met". High praise for a man who was, during Howard’s tenure, involved in both the "cash for comments" affair and the prelude to the Cronulla riots — and it’s telling that Howard offers it to someone who doesn’t actually engage in any journalism.
In the speech, Howard claimed that talkback hosts would disagree with him and ask him tough questions when they were warranted — but with Jones at least, the former PM could be comfortable in the knowledge that any criticisms would be made from the populist right, the same part of the political spectrum that he himself occupies. Quite simply, on a show like Jones’s, Howard faced no uncomfortable scrutiny on issues of substance and pretty well had a free rein.
When describing the "bad" in journalism, Howard took the media to task for what he described as its tendency to "cynicism". Many other people would probably make that very same criticism, but not for the same reasons. When Howard talks about the media unjustly vilifying people, he doesn’t talk about Mohammed Haneef or the many legitimate refugees on the MV Tampa, but about short-lived Governor-General, Peter Hollingworth, whom he says was treated "disgracefully". Howard concedes no ground to the view that, given Hollingworth’s mishandling of sexual abuse of vulnerable people, he was unfit for high constitutional office.
Howard was reasonably restrained in talking about the "bad" aspects of the mortal foe of his political imagination — the ABC — confining himself to the observation at one point that especially on the national broadcaster, "there is an unwillingness to accept … any suggestion that there could be some doubt … about climate change". I recall him saying something similar, very early in his prime ministership, regarding reconciliation: that the media had trouble accepting that there was a "legitimate conservative position" on the topic. In these kinds of attitudes, Howard displays the conviction that room ought to be made in the media for the uncritical transmission of any conservative position, no matter how wrongheaded, and that the problem with getting his "legitimate" messages out through the media was the inherent left-wing bias of journalists.
Over his 11 years in power, these personal beliefs became elements of media strategy, and then actually began to frame the way the media conducted itself. Despite being cleared by a series of inquiries demanded by Howard’s hatchet man, then communications minister Richard Alston, there’s no doubt that the ABC lost some of its critical edge over Howard’s tenure, began self-censoring, and eventually made counter-productive broadcasting decisions that were never going to placate its partisan critics.
Howard’s dubious gift to the Australian media, and especially the ABC, is a continuing adherence to an utterly spurious version of "balance". The assumption that journos are lefties by default, and that this inflects their work with bias, has been institutionalised. It’s the assumption that makes room for the likes of Piers Akerman and Andrew Bolt on the couch at Insiders. In fact, it’s difficult to discern the political leanings of many other regular guests — who knows how George Megalogenis, Malcolm Farr, Lenore Taylor or Chris Uhlmann actually vote? But the analysis such guests offer is derailed by ideologues who are putatively there in the interests of "balance", but who simply run partisan lines.
Howard’s preference for appearing in media outlets that didn’t offer too much scrutiny has been continued by Kevin Rudd, who has never appeared on Insiders, and favours softer options like FM Radio or Rove. While there’s no doubt that a cadre of writers at The Australian were and are little more than a Liberal Party cheer squad, that doesn’t mean that Rudd’s apparent desire to freeze out News Ltd, and to use his prime ministerial platform to attack particular journalists, is good for democracy or public debate.
But Fairfax’s recent decision to publish a long essay by the Prime Minister without critical comment or context is also less than ideal.
Of course, Howard’s mission now is to entrench his mythology. For example, he argued during his speech that he was the only one who really knew how to handle Pauline Hanson, and that the media made a mistake in vilifying her. No-one in the audience responded with the uncharitable suggestion that when it came to Hanson, he was making it up as he went along, and that in neutralising Hanson he dragged his party so far to the right as to be ungovernable and, in his absence, unelectable.
But we shouldn’t allow Howard’s own version of his engagement with the Australian public sphere stand unchallenged — understanding what happened to our key news media over the last decade or more is the first step towards repairing and renewing them.