This post originally appeared on New Matilda
One of the early casualties of the Howard era was journalism with bite.
At the ABC, evidence of muted reporting and self-censorship emerged quickly as Aunty was harassed by Howard’s henchmen from day one. The National Broadcaster was beaten so viciously with the ‘anti-bias’ stick its managers and editorial staff began to recoil from challenging critique and tough interviewing. A form of self-censorship — conscious and unconscious — threatened the ABC's integrity at times.
Richard Alston’s official assault on the AM program via his abuse of complaints procedures, the stacking of the ABC board with ultra-conservatives and revisionist historians, and the appointment of seriously Right-wing commentators in an effort to create the impression of balance, all contributed to timidity and a palpable reluctance to criticise the Howard Government. There were of course stand-out performances from some during the Howard era — with Lateline being the star rebel.
But Howard Government bullying of the media didn’t stop with the ABC. More recently, SBS has been in its sights. Commercial TV, radio and print operations also reflected the resultant lack of strident, opinionated journalism during an era where freedom of speech was under constant attack, government spin was on overdrive, and scandal after scandal failed to dent the Coalition’s electoral appeal. It’s not that there was a total absence of enterprising journalism during this period — ultimately, the Coalition was called to account by journalists over the Solon and Rau cases, Children Overboard, Tampa and Haneef, but the Government frequently got off lightly.
Take the media’s treatment of Howard’s justification for Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War. In a recent presentation at the Public Right to Know Conference at Sydney’s University of Technology, free speech advocate and former senior public servant Richard Mills criticised the national media for its unquestioning stance on the Weapons of Mass Destruction debate. According to Mills’ research, newspapers largely failed to link the tenuous security advice being claimed by Howard as justification for going to war to an assessment of the consequences of invasion and a longer term plan for Iraq.
One explanation for the media’s lack of censure of the Howard Government may lie in Mills’ identification of at least six well known techniques of media manipulation. He listed these as 1) Selectivity, 2) Denial of Fact, 3) Deception, 4) Fabrication, 5) Deliberate Misquoting and 6) Bland Deflection.
These trusted tools of spin-doctoring were put to very effective use on the Canberra Press Gallery which was under constant assault from Howard’s PR apparatchiks. Add to this the daily grind of journalism with its ever increasing deadlines, multiple platform reporting requirements and under-resourcing and you can further understand the diminution in quality of critique.
In the Howard years, those of us seeking serious critical analysis ironically turned to satire. In the aftermath of APEC, following the episode in which The Chaser drove a 'Trojan Horse' through the security overkill, I asked if it was the new model for Australian investigative journalism. The program is billed as comedy but at times it came close to the most confronting, critical TV journalism on offer.
The Haneef case, however, marked a turning point in the media’s attitude to the Howard Government. Finally fed up with the deception and spin, journalists seemed to put their teeth back in and used investigative skill to extract fact after fact with which they exposed the injustice, duplicity, bigotry and fallaciousness inherent in the Government’s case against the Gold Coast Doctor who’s still fighting to have his visa reinstated. This was a transforming moment in Howard Era journalism — an era which I believe required activism in combination with stringent investigative techniques and more enterprising journalism.
This is a controversial view in Western journalism because the model of Advocacy Journalism is eschewed in favour of outdated notions of objectivity which value and present arguments and perspectives equally, regardless of their validity. Is that ‘fair’ reporting?
This approach to objectivity allowed the Howard Government to beat journalists around the head with allegations of bias or a ‘lack of balance’ whenever the Coalition was critically scrutinised. This policy of media manipulation succeeded in part because journalists interpreted balanced reporting as equal measure of time and tone when democracy and social justice demanded a more strident approach. The ‘he said, she said’ model of reporting on which so many journalists rely, delivers the sort of benign societal reflection that conservative politicians would like to restrict journalists to — like a populist version of Hansard, instead of the critical analysis a healthy democracy demands of its independent media.
Those who rejected the activist, liberal model of journalism should consider the role that radical journalism played in South Africa during apartheid. In that setting, journalists who failed to critique the racist regime effectively aided and abetted the oppressors, and it wasn’t accusations of bias that stole their integrity and professional credibility. Those who toed the Government line soon found themselves confessing their sins — for helping to sustain official racism.
I’m not suggesting the pro-Howard sycophancy evident in much mainstream reporting of politics and social policy in the past 12 years equates to the succour given to the apartheid regime by weak and/or racist journalists in South Africa, but the ‘balance defence’ in response to coverage of Howard’s xenophobic politics and policies springs from the same well.
I’m advocating a model of journalism which values social justice and sees itself as a democratising force — a model informed by alternative international professional practice. I’m hoping the election of a Rudd Government will be a victory for free speech, unleashing journalism with bite in this country. We need more inspiring, brave, forthright, reflective and analytical reporting which challenges the straight-jacketed approach of the Howard years.
Update: Read this great article by Mark Davis for New Matilda for more detail on the impact of Howard's media management and his assault on Australia's public institutions [read more]
11 December, 2007
This post originally appeared on New Matilda