The Year The Media Old Boys Got It Wrong


I seem to have spent a lot of my time this year arguing against the dominant narrative put forward by my colleagues in the rest of the media.

In January, for instance, I was pointing out that the so-called "Australia Day riot" in which the Prime Minister unceremoniously lost a shoe, was neither violent nor a riot. No arrests were made. No injuries were sustained. No property was damaged. But the event was nonetheless portrayed as "mob violence", with a heavy undertone of sexism owing to the loss of that prime ministerial shoe.

In March, I was observing that the media criticism of the government’s Finkelstein Review into media regulation was little more than self-serving rhetoric from an industry that likes to believe that it should be above the law. The Australian Financial Review called it a "Labor plan to control the media."

In April, the Peter Slipper story broke — a sexual harassment suit we now know was cooked up by staffer James Ashby in conspiracy with LNP politician Mal Brough. At the time, I argued that Peter Slipper deserved to be presumed innocent, and that he stood a good chance of being "hounded from office on trumped up charges, spurious accusations, or lurid sexual slurs that have nothing to do with his or her competence in office". Much of the media didn’t worry about such niceties. In a low point for the national broadcaster, ABC Lateline present Emma Alberici summed up the media’s ignorance when she told Attorney-General Nicola Roxon that "virtually every commentator in the land is echoing the thoughts of the Opposition on this one".

In May, I tilted quixotically at windmills with a nutty argument that Labor was actually pro-business. With unemployment at 5.2 per cent, a budget in surplus, low government debt and a smaller size of government than the Howard years, Labor’s economic policies have been a model of neoliberal orthodoxy. The response of national newspaper The Australian to Labor’s budget was this bizarre front-page effort.

On 1 July, the Government’s carbon price and clean energy legislation came into effect. The News Ltd newspapers in particular campaigned strongly against this policy, in large part echoing the Opposition’s claims that the carbon tax would have devastating impact on ordinary consumers and the Australian economy. Of course, as the grateful citizens of Whyalla can attest, the impacts of carbon pricing have been much smaller than the fear campaign suggested. As I argued in July, Labor’s Clean Energy Future package is a profoundly positive one for Australia in the long term.

In July I had another go at defending the economic record of the Government, arguing that the economic gloom that seems to grip many conservative voters is completely at odds with the healthy state of the Australian economy. Of course, the economy has slowed somewhat since then, but even so, the economic performance of Australia is remarkable. Despite this, many voters seem to be taking their cues from conservative commentators in the media, who remain relentlessly and unjustifiably critical of the government’s economic management.

In October, I watched Julia Gillard give the most important speech of her political career. Immediately, I argued it was one of the defining moments of her prime ministership. In contrast, much of the mainstream media covered it almost as though Gillard was some kind of hypocrite for standing up for the principles in which she believes. My favourite example of the scale of the misjudgement was this opinion piece from Fairfax’s Peter Hartcher, who argued that the Prime Minster’s political trajectory "reached its lowest point yesterday when she showed she was prepared to defend even the denigration of women if it would help her keep power". Yes, he really did write that.

The utter failure of most of the Canberra press gallery to "get" the significance of Gillard’s misogyny speech should have shamed some of them into rethinking their reflexive hostility to the Prime Minister and this minority government. It didn’t. By November, the dogs were barking incessantly about some murky goings on in the Australian Workers Union nearly twenty years ago. Once again, much of the mainstream media devoted acres of newsprint and gigabytes of server space to the largely baseless accusations regarding Julia Gillard’s role in some alleged malfeasance in the AWU in the early 1990s. As I argued at the time, there was no substance to most of the allegations. When no evidence of any wrongdoing by the Prime Minister turned up, the judgment of many journalists and editors was shown up again.

You can see the pattern emerging here. I am by no means the only one to remark upon it — over at his blog The Failed Estate, former journalist Jim Parker has an excellent post surveying much of the same dismal landscape. Throughout 2012, the prevailing tone from what has come to be (rather disparagingly) called the "mainstream media" has been one of querulous conflict and cynicism. In general, the achievements of the current government have been viewed through a prism of Labor’s unpopularity. There are also specific and powerful remnants of the newspaper sector — most notably, of course, News Limited — that have campaigned strenuously and ceaselessly against this government, and all that it represents.

Perhaps the most obvious trend has been the continuing hostility of much of the old media, particularly radio and newspapers, towards Julia Gillard’s person and gender. It is no coincidence that the most hostile sections of the media have been those dominated by older white men — such as business commentators, press gallery journalists, talk radio hosts and conservative newspaper columnists. Their criticism of her has repeatedly been tinged with gender disdain, from the infamous "chaff bag" of Alan Jones to Hartcher’s twisted commentary on her misogyny speech.

But the political animus in 2012 went further than just hatred of our first female Prime Minister. It extended, whip-like, to wrap itself around all those who assisted her to gain and remain in office, such as Greens leader Christine Milne, Peter Slipper as the "rat" Speaker betraying his conservative colleagues, as well as the lower house independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott.

Common in these criticisms is the presumption of the illegitimacy of the current minority government, a government which by any objective measure has been unusually productive and legislatively active.

There are also structural issues at play. For many parts of the Australian media, the rapid erosion of the media’s gatekeeper business model has been bewildering, even infuriating. The old certainties, in which the possession of a television license or a newspaper monopoly guaranteed power and prestige for the owners, and by delegation, the senior editors and commentators of those industries, are breaking down. For journalists trapped in the old model and seduced by the old temptations, that’s a tragedy to be railed against — and indeed it is a concern that so many journalists are losing their job. But as the Leveson Inquiry in Britain has amply demonstrated, the power that the mass media has amassed in western democracies has not always been accompanied by a sense of responsibility.

Speaking of Oakeshott, the independent Member for Lyne has a thoughtful blog post on his website this week that illuminates the changing terrain of our democratic public sphere. Responding to a typically unfocused tirade from another of those angry old men, Gerard Henderson, Oakeshott calmly and a little sadly points out his reasons for supporting Labor and Julia Gillard. "Better education and health polices, a market based emissions trading scheme being implemented, a rate of return and equity being delivered through a national broadband strategy, progress on bipartisan recognition of Australia’s 40,000-year-old history in our Constitution, and the starting elements of tax reform, are all positive reasons why I did what I did, and why I stand by it," Oakeshott writes.

Oakeshott’s blog post points to the alternative universe of Australian media, and what could be possible if more of us were prepared to step back and honestly assess the progress of our government and our community.

In fact, it is possible to construct an alternative narrative of the achievements and failures of the Gillard Government, one that applauds the achievements of Labor’s minority Parliament and criticises its failures.

The achievements are weighty: pricing carbon and maintaining a Renewable Energy Target, maintaining a healthy economy, cutting taxes for the middle class and for low income earners, introducing important social reforms such as paid parental leave, and pressing ahead with valuable infrastructure projects for the future of Australia like the National Broadband Network.

Such an alternative narrative would also reserve harsh criticism for some of Labor’s larger failures, such as its unnecessary obsession with the budget surplus, and its mean spirited treatment of single parents on benefits and asylum seekers looking for a better life. We might even reserve judgment altogether on big policy agendas like the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski reforms to schools funding, awaiting the development of these important but still unrealised reforms. Such a narrative would be much more optimistic on many things — including the economy, and on the opportunities that increased immigration affords our nation. But on the biggest issue of all — civilisation-threatening climate change — we would probably have to throw our hands up in despair.

An alternative narrative is in fact available to any informed citizen without any recourse to Australia’s media-makers and journalists — indeed, without ever venturing onto Twitter or Facebook. All that is required is an independent mind. It is a narrative that a substantial minority of us are already constructing. At any rate, it is a narrative which would argue that the achievements of the Gillard government are substantial and real.

Perhaps this is why the angry old men were so enraged in 2012. On many fronts — from climate policy to the resurgence of feminism — the reactionary, conservative agenda went backward in Australia this year. The Gillard Government has endured constant criticism and no little hatred. But it has also put in place long-lasting policy reforms that will slowly make our nation a more progressive place.

Julia Gillard has done this in the most obvious and old fashioned of ways: by negotiating a majority on the floor of Parliament, and using it to change Australia’s laws. For Tony Abbott and his supporters in the media, it must be especially galling to see her do this so successfully. The hard truth of being in Opposition is that power in a Westminster Parliament is not consensual. Only by winning votes can a political party changes laws and effect policy reforms.

This plain truth is what politics in 2013 will be all about. If the Coalition wins next year, Tony Abbott will have the opportunity to roll back much of what Labor has achieved since 2007. If Labor wins, Julia Gillard will likely entrench it, and continue Australia’s gradual march towards a more progressive Australian polity. In contrast, a Tony Abbott prime ministership promises to be even more conservative on many issues than John Howard was.

Federal elections are always important. But 2013 will be a particularly stark choice. It should be a fascinating year.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.