Why Are Journalists So Unkind?


Kerry. Kerry. Oh, Kerry. Come on, Kerry. Talk to me. I want you to look me in the eye, Kerry, and admit that what you did was wrong.

Believe me, it gives me no pleasure to berate a fellow journalist in this manner. Particularly one as eminent as you, Kerry.

You’ve always been a hero of mine. In fact, I modelled myself on you to no small extent. I always hoped that I would one day be known as the "Kerry O’Brien of online satire". Now that I’ve achieved that goal, it might feel a bit like you’re yesterday’s man, like the world’s passed you by, like there’s not a place for old-fashioned journalism and hard-hitting questions in today’s instant-gratification society of Twitterers and knife fights and over-diagnosis of autism, but you should not let the grain of truth at the heart of that quite accurate description of your own professional decrepitude get you down.

And in particular, you should not allow your natural resentment at the fact you have been overtaken by younger and sexier media stars like me cause you to run off the rails and rain down such interviewish hellfire as you did on poor Malcolm Turnbull, the gentle marsupial of Australian public life, the other night.

Why did you do it, Kerry? Did you think it would make you look cool? Did you think you’d suddenly be down with the kids, if you could just persuade them that you were the sort of right-on, funky hipster who could humiliate a beloved Opposition Leader on national television as easily as pulling on a pair of stonewash jeans? Or are you the kind of sick pervert who gets his jollies from ruining political careers, like a sort of taxpayer-funded, prime-time visit to a bath-house?

The only conclusion we can really draw is that you are an angry, bitter old man who can’t stand the fact that Kevin Rudd would rather go on Rove than trade quips with you, and takes it out on innocent bystanders like Malcolm Turnbull; a man, I might point out, who was only trying to enunciate his bold and exciting new hybrid baseline credit triple-frosted retrofitted Blu-Ray compatible carbon pollution reduction scheme to the Australian public.

He had no idea he was going to be ambushed by a screeching red-haired man-harpy blathering questions about Godwin Grech and Senate Estimates that were not only inane and irrelevant, but that — as Turnbull himself pointed out — he had already been asked last week, and that he had spent much time dealing with.

Had he answered the questions? Well, no he hadn’t, because that’s how classy he is — he is able to handle questions tactfully and with style, without resorting to sordid and vulgar forays into the world of answers. Which he may not know anyway. Does anyone really know whether Godwin Grech is a mole or not? He’s certainly some kind of insectivorous mammal but details are surely unimportant.

It didn’t used to be this way, Kerry. There was a time when 7:30 was uplifting television. There was a time when you stood for integrity and ethics and an almost-unbearably sensual way with a biro. And now look at you, taking out your menopausal frustrations on a great Australian who has spent countless hours of his life keeping Tony Abbott heavily medicated for the good of the country.

Happy with yourself?

Of course some people, like well-known media analyst Andrew Bolt, claim that your vicious assault on Turnbull was simply down to partisan politics. Oh how I wish I could believe that. Indefensible bias is nothing new; if that was all it was, we could relax, knowing that you were merely carrying on a proud tradition in Australian media ethics. And it is true you have a history of leftishness, having served as press secretary to Gough Whitlam and been briefly married to Cheryl Kernot.

But sadly, that hypothesis was blown out of the water the following night by your senseless character assassination of Penny Wong, during which you not only lapsed frequently into a mock Chinese accent and shouted "That’s the WONG answer!" after every response; you actually suggested to her that Malcolm Turnbull had "a valid point".

Well now that was just rude, Kerry.

You don’t simply walk up to someone and tell them that their mortal enemy has a valid point. Would you tell George Pell that Bob Brown has a valid point? Would you tell Jesus that Satan had some interesting ideas? It’s called manners, Kerry, something you apparently left behind in the green room.

So no, the problem isn’t your airy-fairy leftist principles. It’s something else. Innate bitter misanthropy? Yes, that plays a part — there is no doubt, Kerry, that you harbour a deep loathing of humanity, particularly those parts of it that have achieved a high station in life and are therefore not stuck behind a dusty desk in a grotty studio waggling a cheap pen for the 80th year in a row. But there’s something else going on here, Kerry, and I think you should confess — you are part of a wider campaign of abuse and vilification among the media.

Because it’s not just you, Kerry. It seems like all the journalists are throwing their weight about, insulting and criticising and causing deep emotional scarring to our sensitive and talented political masters. Look at Fran Kelly. Oh sure, she comes on all nice, with that warm avuncular cardigan-y manner of hers, but you can just hear her waiting for the interviewee to drop their guard, and then Kelly pounces upon them, crushing them, savaging them, tearing out their throats in a terrifying sort of journalistic Hound of the Baskervilles moment.

Every morning it happens, poor politicians, trying to use the wonderful tool of the wireless to get their important messages out to the people they serve so selflessly, and Fran harangues them, needles them, questions them. Hurling query after query as if the democratically elected representatives of the people of Australia were a common bunch of train-crash witnesses existing only to answer her petty interrogations.

Frankly Kerry, if this goes on much longer, we won’t have any politicians left. "I’ve had it," they’ll all say. "I’m chucking it in. Who needs the aggravation of working your fingers to the bone in the service of freedom and democracy, when you’re constantly beset by aggravating weasels wanting to know what you’re doing about things?"

Is that what you want, Kerry? The death of politics? I think not, which is why I hope you’ll heed me when I say that your repellent display on Monday represents an opportunity to turn it around, to change things, to take journalism back to the old days, when it was about informing the public, and not about embarrassing politicians just because they’re not completely across policy details, or because they don’t have 100 per cent party-room support, or because they are, technically, criminals.

I want you to take this opportunity, Kerry. Before every interview, from now on, I want you to look in the mirror and say, "Politicians are not the enemy. Politicians have not done anything to me. I do not need to tear others down to boost my own self-esteem. I am a journalist, not Todd McKenney."

Will you do that, Kerry? For me? For your biggest fan? Will you show the way to your brothers and sisters, and bring about a gentler, kinder era of journalism, based not on harassment and adversarialism and facts, but upon friendliness and politeness and healthy platonic love.

Because the alternative, Kerry, is rather awful. Today it’s "We’ve spent more than half the interview discussing that Mr Turnbull"; tomorrow it’s "So Mr Rudd … have you had any experiences other than that?"

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.