During the recent national consultation on the protection of human rights in our country, those arguing both for and against a Bill of Rights talked of the vital role played by the media in strengthening transparency and accountability.
Journalism of course has a seminal role in any democracy. Information is power — we rely on it to inform our vote. It plays a central role in shaping our perceptions of conflict, truth and justice.
We rely on the media to empower us to better engage with the democratic process. After all, our democracy is only as strong as our interest in engaging with it and our capacity to engage with it. A diverse and independent media is critical in expanding that capacity.
The obligations of the media are to inform, to scrutinise and to hold governments to account for decisions made in our name. The public interest should be at the centre of decisions taken in media organisations and should inform the culture of media organisations.
But the mainstream media are notorious for letting the public down. Why can’t the mainstream media fulfil this role adequately? Well the answer lies in timidity, conformism, a cynical and unwarranted sense of superiority in relation to the public, and vested interest.
There is little room for new ideas in the mainstream media. You see copycat rundowns and copycat angles on stories: the same view of what is newsworthy and the same assessment of the essence of the story, unfortunately too often ignoring the fundamental issue at the heart of a story for the trivial political squabble over a detail. Those in positions of power love this. As long as we are not engaged in questioning the basis of many assumptions, they can get on with the serious business of running the country without being challenged by a public distracted by trivia, led by media addicted to sloganeering politicians and media beholden to proprietors like Murdoch, Stokes, Packer and Rinehart whose interests they must protect.
Consequently the coverage of important issues such as carbon pricing and the NBN is woeful.
There is also a condescending attitude in parts of the media towards the public, a belief that "the punters" are stupid, have very short attention spans, that we have to be entertained every minute, that we love to be shouted at by opinionated hosts, and are glued to the set watching panels of experts who know little about the topic but have an opinion and bang on with endless speculation.
The mainstream media don’t challenge government press releases and statements that demonise people the government doesn’t like. By failing in this responsibility it is colluding in demonising vulnerable people such as David Hicks, Mamdouh Habib, and more recently Julian Assange.
Journalism needs courage. Yet if you challenge conventional thinking in mainstream media, you are derided and marginalised.
Speaking to John Pilger about the appalling failure of media organisations to ask governments the pointy questions on Iraq, Dan Rather said journalists behaved like stenographers in reporting the Iraq war. Embedded meant they were in bed with the administration; reflecting on his own failure, he spoke of the fear of being ostracised, regarded as unpatriotic, of losing his job.
In the same Pilger documentary — The War You Don’t See — a prominent BBC journalist also admits he unquestioningly trotted out statements made by the government as fact and failed in his duty and responsibility as a journalist.
In response to pressure over stories perceived to give credence to points of view that antagonised major lobby groups, SBS News managers issued a directive stipulating any term used by parties in a conflict be referred to as "so-called". After all we should not report what people said in a way that appeared as fact. I started to refer to the "so called war on terror". And I can tell you, that is not what they had in mind.
SBS’s Mark Davis was barred by the then Foreign Minister from gaining access to cover stories because he was deemed to be "un-Australian".
The Wikileaks Iraq video incensed politicians because someone dared to show a glimpse of what is actually happening. We don’t see horrors of war — including civilian deaths — that’s what allows us to live our daily lives in comfort and to allow the war policies to continue to be prosecuted. All is sanitised in journalism-by-government-press-release and crosses to embedded reporters who are singing the same song.
Because of independent journalists, whistleblowers and independent publishers, we know the scale of civilian deaths in war is vast, even though the victims of our efforts to secure our interests, including oil, have no voice.
Iran is covered with the same media credulousness — an incredible double standard over who is allowed and who is not allowed to have nuclear weapons goes unchallenged.
Former government officials and military intelligence officers who are prepared to speak about secrets the elites don’t think the public have a right to know because they may interfere with policies that benefit corporations are given little to no airtime in the mainstream media.
Mindful of the emphasis on balance and neutrality in journalism — stipulations that are often used to prevent journalists from doing their job properly — Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation Stuart Rees said "injustice is almost always about imbalance".
SBS is highly regarded by comparison because the rest is mostly woeful. Yes, SBS ran stories about the rest of the world when Australian media was even more parochial than it is today. But does SBS give a different perspective on conflicts or issues? I’m afraid the answer is on the whole no. SBS did not tackle unrest in the western suburbs among Muslim youth when it should have. It was too sensitive and politically incorrect. It was left to the tabloids and radio shock jocks to expose it in the predictable way. SBS covered the Sheik Hilaly story in exactly the same way as other media outlets, failing to expose the widespread sexism and subjugation of women in other communities — such as the Greek Orthodox community where Hilaly’s metaphors are regular fare. Not to mention coverage of the wars in Iraq or the Middle East.
We can’t rely on the commercial media — read Bruce Guthrie’s Man Bites Murdoch if you doubt the price of not realising you must not offend the proprietor — and public broadcasters are generally risk averse .
Governments have honed their skills at managing the official media — that is why Wikileaks is such a threat, because they can’t be managed.
But independent media don’t have to sing from the same song book. They can publish considered and alternative views. They can give a story the time and space it deserves.
Mary Kostakidis will be speaking at New Matilda’s relaunch in Sydney tonight from 6.30pm: Upstairs at the Beauchamp Hotel, Corner of Oxford & South Dowling Sts, Darlinghurst. All welcome.
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