The Media Have Failed Us On Thomson


As a white Australian male with a wife, children and poor impulse control, I’m ashamed of many things. But until now I never thought I’d be ashamed of my chosen profession of senior investigative journalist. Today I must confess: I am ashamed to call myself a member of the Australian media, for my colleagues’ behaviour has plumbed a nadir of inexpressible depth, having gone past "inappropriate", kept falling straight through "disgraceful", and now reaching levels that can only be described as "Naomi Robson".

For here we are, at a moment in our country’s history when our very democracy stands upon a knife-edge, when the future of this great nation hangs in the balance, and what does our so-called Fourth Estate do? Waste its time on shiny baubles and mindless trivialities, obsessing over the frivolous and the banal in preference to doing the hard yards of serious reportage and insightful analysis.

Want an example? Tragically, there are many. One of the most egregious comes from The Age, once a reputable news organ. See this story from Michael Gordon, who has the gall to pass himself off as "National Affairs Editor". National Manure Shoveller, more like. Read that story carefully. Note all the mentions of "High Court", "national security", "ASIO", "natural justice"; notice something a little askew about it?

That’s right — the story contains not one mention of Craig Thomson’s use of prostitutes.

This, frankly, beggars belief. I knew journalists could be shallow, but I thought they had some shame. Yet Gordon’s report doesn’t even contain a passing mention of the most significant parliamentary scandal since Edmund Barton’s secret cockfighting ring. He doesn’t even try to incorporate the issue, even obliquely, making no attempt whatsoever to link this dull refugee kerfuffle to the real story by including a line like "Ranjini, the pregnant (possibly to Craig Thomson) mother of two boys". Nothing. To Michael Gordon, the Thomson story might as well not even be happening.

OK, you say, but maybe Gordon is an outlier, gone rogue after one too many years pounding the beat. Surely the rest of our media are savvy enough to keep their eyes on the ball?

Oh if only that were so. Check out this from the Herald Sun. An Egyptian election story! At a time like this! When the wellbeing and security of all Australians is threatened by the looming spectre of misuse of union credit cards, we have a major daily newspaper gallivanting off to Africa, cooing at pyramids and rubbing up against Arabic ballot boxes! So much for accountability!

As far as the Herald Sun is concerned, Craig Thomson can hire as many prostitutes as he likes, crushing the aspirations of working families in the process, as long as it doesn’t interfere with reporters and their Middle East junkets. Oh, millions of Egyptians are voting in an historic election? Well, whoop-de-frigging-doo — big story for pyramid fetishists, perhaps not so big for those of us who, you know, live in the real world, AKA not-Egypt.

What’s more, not once in that story does the Herald Sun muse on what effect Kathy Jackson’s boyfriend might have had on the poll, or whether it’s possible the result was skewed by phone cloning.

And the pattern keeps repeating: stories about the decriminalisation of drugs; about terrorist attacks; about, can you believe it, the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The airheaded triviality is mind-boggling, and can lead the reasonable media consumer to only one conclusion:

The media just don’t care enough about Craig Thomson.

Why this strange indifference? Why this bizarre reluctance to really sink their teeth into the affair? Why this diffidence when approaching the story that touches each and every one of us? It’s almost as if they are afraid to get their hands dirty with real news and prefer to paddle about in the shallow waters of gambling reform and murder investigations.

And that’s a shame, because the fact is, we don’t know nearly enough about the Thomson saga. I mean, yes we know what happened, and yes we know what everyone involved says, and yes we know what’s been done about it, and yes we know the broader implications, but is that enough?

When it comes to keeping the Australian public informed, it behoves any responsible newshound to probe into every dark corner. For example, we know that Thomson’s credit card was used to hire prostitutes, but what were their names? What were they wearing? Would they kiss on the mouth if paid extra? Why don’t we know these things, press gallery? Why aren’t you doing your job?

We hear all about this union credit card that has been abused, but nobody’s thought to ask what colour it is. We have read of the Health Services Union, but not a single reporter has thought to investigate the question of what a "union" is and why it exists. These things remain shrouded in mystery due to the press’s short attention span and tendency to drop everything and go scurrying off madly at the first hint of major economic reform or military engagement.

That’s a shame, because the Thomson issue isn’t going away for a good while yet — decades, some experts say — and it’s one that strikes at the heart of everything it means to be Australian.

Through his nefarious alleged behaviour, he is ripping and tearing with savage, hooker-scented claws at the fabric of the Westminster system. His worst sin is that he is damaged the standing of Parliament in the eyes of the public.

He’s turned pollies into laughing stocks, a far cry from their pre-2010 position as the most respected segment of Australian society. Now it’s difficult to believe it was only a few short years ago that parliamentarians were regarded with love and reverence, that to be an MP was the highest calling one could aspire to, and that little children, when asked "What do you want to be when you grow up?" would invariably answer, "Manager of Opposition Business!" Thomson has ruined all that.

And that is why this story, like a rare gem, needs to be picked up and examined from all angles, scrutinised and squinted at and held up to our ears and shaken a little bit, to make sure every last drop of public interest is wrung from it.

We need to put all other news-gathering on hold until we can be 100 per cent certain that there is nothing else to know, no perspectives left to be explored or conclusions to jump to. No detail, however minor or sordid or defamatory, must be left out of the narrative we build for ourselves, and we are depending on our so-called news people to do that job.

So pick up your game, mediocracy. Pull up your socks, prick up your ears, spruce up your cellars. Stop obsessing over the petty minutiae of government policy, geopolitical instability, or crimes against humanity, and bring us the straight dope on the stuff that actually affects us — internal union politics and censure motions.

Because if we ever reach the point where those we have entrusted with speaking truth to power and holding authority to account can find something more important to talk about than who can most effectively use the past misappropriation of union dues for corrupt officials’ sexual gratification to advance their own ambitions towards political power, then brother, we really have hit rock-bottom.

Vale the media, Australia. Vale indeed.

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.