The Journalism We Really Need


I hold in my hand the future of quality journalism in Australia. It’s a newspaper, not actually published here but in Johannesburg: the South African Mail and Guardian. It scored the highest in the comparative content analysis I’ve been carrying out on media from around the world.

It’s all part of my present research to put forward a Global Standard for Reporting Conflict. In many respects, it is the newspaper we need, and could have: page after page of in-depth reporting, multiple-sourced, written by the paper’s own specialist correspondents.

There’s also a comment section equipping readers to peer round the side of truisms from the neo-liberal orthodoxy of economic and political analysis, and challenging readers’ prejudices. Then I turn to the Sydney Morning Herald, to read columns by Paul Sheehan and Gerard Henderson…

An easy jibe, perhaps, but the depressing fact about Gina Rinehart’s play for control of Fairfax is that it will almost certainly be met with far less concern, from far fewer people, than it should be. In the same research, articles from excellent Herald reporters such as International Editor Hamish MacDonald and Middle East correspondent Jason Koutsoukis (the data are from when he was still in Jerusalem), and in-depth features on home stories like the battle over water in the Murray-Darling basin, scored highly.

But there was too much padding: as well as some dull and dreary opinion pieces, too many important foreign stories were covered with "raw" dispatches from Reuters or the Associated Press — devoid of meaningful context and background, and sticking slavishly to official sources, as wire copy often does.

Then there was the political reporting. The paper’s lead story last Saturday, in what might be its last weekend edition as an independent publication, was a typical piece of Canberra insiderism: an involved tale about sexual harassment allegations against the Parliamentary Speaker.

One feels a strong inclination to purchase a rubber stamp with the words, "Who Gives a Toss?" and tour Sydney newsagents, marking every, say, fifth copy, till the message sinks in.

This is not an argument to ignore such stories: this one hinted at an important message about the modus operandi of Murdoch-owned news organisations in their relationship with parties of government, a subject that has received welcome illumination recently, and could do with some more. Rather, it is about the way politics is covered in general, not just by the Herald but in Australian journalism more generally.

Rinehart’s appetite for Fairfax was whetted, it’s often said, by her successful campaign against the mining tax, when a government policy was torpedoed, and an elected Prime Minister defenestrated — all for the knockdown price of $20m in advertising spend.

One of the reasons why it is so easy to turn political debate in this country is that political journalism is so self-referential. Far too seldom are the perspectives of party leaderships in Canberra explicitly juxtaposed with those from the real world. This is why climate change denialism can lurk so close to the surface of mainstream political discourse: dog-whistled, even when not referenced explicitly, as in the scorn heaped on the carbon tax, to take just one recent example.

The same applies to the political displacement activity of alarums over asylum seekers. Despite the prominence of so-called "solutions" (Malaysia; Pacific) in debate over the issue, a moment’s comparison with other countries’ experience should be make it clear that Australia does not, in truth, have a "problem". Trouble is, such comparisons are too rare.

Looking back on the anti-mining tax campaign, what is extraordinary is how far and how cheaply we were bamboozled. For claims over the effect on jobs to become the touchstone of debate was particularly fraudulent: as Chris Nash and Wendy Bacon, two of our top journalism professors, pointed out recently, more Australians work in McDonalds restaurants than in the entire mining industry. At least then the Herald had Marian Wilkinson on its books. Nash and Bacon draw attention to her work as the paper’s newly appointed Environment Editor, exposing the hidden machinations of the coal industry in suborning various functions of Australian democracy and due process.

Not long afterwards, Wilkinson, one of the country’s ablest investigative reporters, left the paper to return to the ABC and a role on Four Corners. There’s a nagging sense that successive waves of downsizing have left Fairfax almost too feeble to be really worth caring about as the jaws of the mining industry close around it.

Recently Jen Rosenberg, the Herald’s Higher Education Reporter, has been covering the dispute over job cuts at the University of Sydney, in which I’ve been involved through our union, the NTEU. She did a good job, considering she is employed part time, and free to pursue her specialist brief for only some, not all of the three days a week for which she is paid. But of course those limitations — in a city where several large universities make this an industry of strategic importance — restrict the scope to delve beneath the surface and reveal what is happening on issues of public interest.

It’s part of a pattern in which journalism can be seen as increasingly beleaguered. Journalism plays the important social role of distinguishing claims from facts. For most of my own career both as a journalist and, latterly, as an analyst and advocate of reforms in journalism, the danger was that news would add an undeserved stamp of authenticity to claims, enabling them to be passed off as facts (obvious example: "Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction"). The remedy was for facts to be reported with greater critical self-awareness, openness about assumptions and curiosity about agendas, than news conventions generally allowed.

Now, we have the opposite problem. Social truths, backed by evidence, are being attacked by vested interests to induce us to regard them as merely claims, requiring attribution and balance: variables, in our appraisal of the world around us, rather than parameters.

Human-induced climate change is a case in point, and therein lies, no doubt, the incentive for Gina Rinehart. Israel’s illegal military occupation of Palestinian territory is another: remember the memo SBS sent to its journalists a couple of years back, instructing them to avoid using that phrase on grounds that the land in question should be seen as "disputed" instead.

The twist, with South Africa’s Mail and Guardian, is revealed inside its front cover: its investigative reporting is supported by the Open Society Institute. To justify that, of course, it has to be clear that journalism is worth having, and capable of fulfilling a socially useful function as a civic tool in democracy.

The SMH and The Age could play that role, and much of their journalism would be worth supporting: where commercial revenues fall short, charitable giving, by individuals and foundations, could fill the gap. But it would require a much clearer vision for the papers and their position on key issues affecting Australia. It would require dead wood to be chopped away and political reporting to be radically reformed. Then they would be worth supporting as assets in the struggle to infuse Australian public life with progressive liberal values. That is the alternative future for Australian journalism, and it has never been in as much need of support as it is now. 

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