Thursday, November 29, 2012

Safety in Numbers

The self-mythology of journalism is that its practitioners are dissidents, contrarians, professional sceptics and iconoclasts. But the behaviour of our media through the so-called AWU affair reveals an easily manipulated, compliant and cowardly press pack.

One can excuse News Ltd its ideologically driven news agenda. After all, it has made no secret of its desire for political regime change. It has spent the last few years dedicating itself to manufacturing a reality that says the current government is hopelessly incompetent despite evidence to the contrary.

What's harder to understand is why the national broadcaster should so timidly echo News Ltd's partisan line on the AWU story, essentially cutting and pasting from the front pages of The Australian, Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun and aping those publication's same hysterical tone.

Parts of the dying Fairfax empire have dutifully chimed in, with News Ltd-in-exile business lobby journal the Australian Financial Review helpfully letting down the paywall for stories on the affair that make the government look bad. Meanwhile, one reporter at The Age has been in full crusade mode over the story.

Yet outside the mainstream media, the tone is one of incredulity. Where is the public interest? What are the accusations? Why is so much space given to something that happened two decades  ago and which is so complex and mind-numbing that even the most diligent readers have trouble following it?

One is tempted to draw the conclusion that this is a smear campaign orchestrated by a few fringe-dwellers on the far right and pushed along by a news organisation that long gave up any pretence of even-handedness. The public is not tuned into it. No-one cares; no-one, of course, except for the accusers and the journalists pushing the barrow.

Funnily enough, the ABC jumped onto the barrow only in the past couple of weeks after receiving a ticking off by Media Watch's Jonathon Holmes, who for all his school masterly rectitude, seems to be strangely naive about the motivations of the people at the centre of this story.

And that really is where the media are falling down. By all means, look into the AWU allegations. But first, be clear about what the allegations are. To date, there has only been a vague and hard-to-pin down suggestions of wrongdoing. When the prime minister has fronted the media, journalists go back into the shells unsure of what line to pursue - until they spoon fed anew by the far edges of crazy.

In their herd-like behaviour here, the media are acting like economists afraid of going out on a limb and challenging consensus. An academic study a few years ago found an asymmetry around economists' analysis. In other words, the negative consequences of being bold and inaccurate exceed the positive consequences of being bold and accurate. So it is here.

No-one wants to stick their neck out here and say the bleeding obvious. This campaign is politically motivated. The accusers either have personal vendettas or monetary and career incentives to push this barrow along. The government's political opponents are desperate. And the media cheerleaders are conflict junkies who have a commercial interest in breathing life back into the corpse of their decaying industry.

All this for a "story" where the public interest is obscure, the accusations vague, the background almost impossible to fathom and the news value far less than the market price it is fetching.

There is a story here, but it's not one a gutless media seems able or willing to tell. In the meantime, the rest of us here on Planet Earth wish a storm would come and blow the whole sorry circus away, for good.

See also: Jonathan Green: 'Fear of Being Beaten to the Shadow of a Story' - ABC Drum


  1. Not all ABC have followed the pack. This morning Jon Faine and Barrie Cassidy on 774 Melbourne were scathing about why the accusations to Julia Gillard were still being raised.

  2. @Guido True but the flagship ABC news programmes have acted exactly as Mr Denmore has stated. 7pm ABC news, 7.30, Lateline, AM, [not PM so much, thanks Mark Colvin] ABC News 24 is a journalism free zone, Lateline, The Drum, Q&A etc have followed the News Ltd line and provided no context whatever. I suspect @ABC are as scared as Fairfax & News of media regulation & are happy to assist to the best of their ability in the demolition of any government which proposes it.

    1. Agree 100%. So when did these programs get sold to News Ltd and how much Murdoch pay for them?

  3. One good outcome of the so called AWU scandal - Julia Gillard has been able to demonstrate a major strength as a leader of her party and the nation. She is able to focus on a crisis as well as many strands of policy and also the many more routine needs of government. Tony Abbott seems unable himself to cope with more than one issue at a time or to allow his team to front up in the House of Reps to deal with important policy matters of significance to their constituents. The mind boggles at what could have been happening in the LNP party room while the historic NDIS was being introduced to Parliament this morning.

    1. Yeah Patricia, strong in defence of herself, not terribly strong though in the torture and abuse of others with no voice.

      Like this lass.
      Dear Mr Bowen,

      I am writing as an 18 year old. I have been on Christmas Island for 41 days then they transferred me to Manus Island. Before I came to Australia I had a different view about the Australian government. I was under the impre
      ssion that Australia is a developed country and observed human rights. Unfortunately they don't seem to care about us and it seems like they are just pretending. The Australian government would like to appear to the world that they observe h
      uman rights but they don't. As a human being I have the right to know about my future and make decisions about it. I have the right to not let people treat me in a bad way. I have the right to have the same life as other 18 year old girls. I have the right to choose. I have the right to not let people put videos of me on the Internet or on tv. I just turned 18. I have lots of hopes and visions but now they are all ruined by you. People like you destroyed my future because of your political position. You sacrificed me just to show the whole world that you observe the human rights. If you don't want people to come by boat, why would you sacrifice me? You can close the sea boarder, but you don't care about me. It's about 3 days that I haven't eaten anything. I am doing this because maybe you care. I want a clear future. I didnt find any justice in your country. Everything is fake.

      [Name removed]

      Strength comes from supporting and helping the underdog, not ranting like a banshee to protect your own backside.

      Gillard is a coward and a bully.

      Today we discover that there are 65 Parachinar shi'ites from Pakistan sent to Nauru even though they are currently being subjected to actual genocide in Pakistan - Bowen is under the deranged impression they will go home to die.

      A leader protects the weak, Gillard abuses them.

  4. Not all News Ltd journalists are on the bandwagon either. I think Dennis Atkins at the Courier Mail has been calling it for what it is for a while ... a crock of crap. I guess it all come down to a journalist's need to be a player in the game. They forget they are supposed to be observers, but hey, how good would it feel to be to one who broke the yarn that brought down a PM? And if you keepn trying you might just eventually pull it off and if you are wrong most people will forget about it. Or at least that's what Dennis Shanahan probably hopes.

  5. Let's see how this issue is handled by the Insiders panel - the ultimate insider-beltway, navel gazers.
    The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

    1. What pudding? They never bag journos for running silly stories, never bag editors for making dumb choices. Why even care what those people think?

  6. Must admit. I have never watched Insiders. Not interested. Don't care what those people say. Irrelevant, self-serving tosh.

    1. Our opinions on Insiders are so closely aligned it makes me want to know what you think of Mediawatch! :)

  7. You should listen to Clarke and Dawe, they are spot on in their analysis

    1. You can watch them here:

  8. Earlier today I was paid AU$0.50 to complete a survey which asked questions like:
    "Do you think Julia Gillard displayed strong leadership in the face of the AWU Scandal?",
    "Do you believe the prime minister has the responsibility to produce records of activity in response to allegations?" and the all-important kicker,
    "Will the media coverage of this even your vote?"

    There were some leading questions which attempted to prime respondents before those important three, and possible answers were limited to yes, no, and don't know.

    To answer, I don't know (because I wasn't paying attention), yes, and no.

    Why didn't I care enough to notice as it happened? Because paying constant attention to what you well describe as "conflict junkie media cheerleaders commercially interested in breathing life back into the corpse of their decaying industry" is a pointless waste of energy and time. I'm discontented enough with reality without watching this poor excuse for a trained animal circus. It is 2012, a time when this sort of mud-slinging is utterly unacceptable behaviour for members of political parties. Responding with "herd-like behaviour" is just as unacceptable for media organisations.

    Everyone must stop consuming low-quality swill and start demanding better. Initiating any discussion which stands a chance of benefiting _everyone_ would be good starting point.

  9. So true.
    Today, in response to MB and PH's articles in FF, I had the following comment rejected … "Honestly, I don't think you guys have twigged yet that social media has moved the goal posts. No disrespect personally to you Peter, but just how can anyone take MSM reporting at all seriously when we have a whole bunch of matey journo's who do not declare their interests when reporting, and who appear to have no compunction in making often incorrect or misleading reports, and then continually using 'locked' opinion pieces to shoot down anyone who may have called them out. It seems if anyone knows about mates and corruption then it is journalists in spades! (Leveson, anyone?) Meanwhile, it all is...Pot. Kettle. Black."
    Go figure.

  10. This is what I wrote to PH this morning.

    Dear Mr Hartcher, Your article in Saturday's papers - contains this piece:

    "Remember the outrage over John Howard's alleged conflict of interest when his government handed ethanol subsidies to his brother's firm, Manildra? Remember the parliamentary convulsions over Paul Keating's piggery? The accusations were tested in public; the leaders passed the tests."

    Just to clarify, you have combined two of the many conflicts of interest which occurred during the Howard years into one. In fact Howard bailed out his brother Stan's company National Textiles in the first case, and made generous policy concessions on ethanol to prominent Liberal Party donor Dick Honan's company Manildra, in the second."

    Now, I'm not paid to follow politics but if I can remember the details of those two incidents, why can't a supposed professional who is supposed to be across all the issues?

    1. Anon, I've been bleating about this all over the place. The goldfish recollection of the press gallery is driving us, with reasonable memories, round the bend!

  11. I posted this on The Political Sword this morning.
    I couln't believe that WANKER: Van Onselen wanking on the ABC. this morning to Jonathan Green about the "tactics" of Tony Abbott!!?...TACTICS!!?..They got done like a dinner...smashed like a friday drunk..beaten like a bogan bully and Van Onselen says'.."Ah!...but it's the tactics"..
    What a crap artist!...what a p*ss weak ar*elicker!.
    I have a cartoon from my 1954 "Esquire Treasury" anthology, it goes like this :
    There's this beat-up looking boxer in his corner between rounds, he's got a black-eye, is battered and bruised and he is being advised by his manager on tactics...:"Now in this round, lead with your left, feint with the right, jab with the left, cross with the right-get up at the nine count."
    Van Onselen, you're a dickweed!

  12. Mr, D, I strongly disagree with the first thing in your article.

    You have to replace that picture with this one:

  13. Mark Baker says the Vexnews report about his alleged relationship with Styant-Browne at Slater and Gordon is not true. In fact he says Vexnews is not a credible source.
    Mr D - please don't let me down by linking to BS.

    1. Could you please provide your source for Mark Baker's statement about his relationship (or otherwise) with Styant-Browne?

    2. Mark Baker - I emailed him saying it reflected badly on his integrity. He emailed back saying Vexnews' report was wrong.
      It's not that hard to go to the primary sources to verify a story.

  14. On the subject of Woodstein and Watergate and the "self mythology of journalism".

    Its a mythology based partly on smoke and mirrors.

    From Herman and Chomsky "Manufacturing Consent" p. 299ff [some paraphrasing].

    ".... to those who proudly defend the media it [Watergate reporting] illustrates their independence of higher authority and committment to the values of professional journalism....The Democratic Party represents powerful domestic interests, solidly based in the business community, Nixon's actions [ breaking into the Dem HQ and subsequent cover-up] were therefore a scandal.
    The Socialist Worker's Party. a legal political party, represents no powerful interests. Therefore there was no scandal when it was revealed , just as passions over Watergate reached their zenith, that the FBI had been disrupting its activities with illegal breal-ins and other measures for over a decade, a violation of democratic principles far mor extensive and serious than anything charged during the Watergate hearings...these actions of the national political police were only one element of government programmes extending over many administrations ...these covert and illegal programmes were revealed in court cases ...during the Watergate period but they never entered into the congressional hearings and received only limited media attention"

    There is more of significance, I cannot do justice to the theme developed by Hernman and Chomsky in this space but suffice it to say that they point out that with the so -called great success of journalism there was a great failure.


  15. It's remarkable, the groupthink! Today, with nary an apology or a mea culpa, the "serious" news (Fairfax, ABC) have virtually dropped the story, obviously decided that we weren't interested in it. how shameless of them.

    1. They may have dropped that aspect of the broader story but at least Ms Grattan has picked up on Margo Kingston's piece about Abbott's involvement in slush funds, and his lying about them to the Aust Electoral Commission and his refusal to name donors because, after the passage of six years, "it was too long ago".

    2. Picked it up, like a week old fish head, and then binned it as quick as she could

  16. FYI - The West Australian and their political reporter Andrew Probyn have also given this issue short shrift in recent months. The West even ran an editorial last Tues saying in effect, there was no substance to the claims and that it was time to move on. As a member of the press gallery, Probyn has consistently played his own game, and not the groupthink I see elsewhere. Thought it was worth mentioning.

  17. Before we go any further debating the state of the journalism profession, can I ask - should it actually be called a "profession?" Plumbers are a profession; you pay them to unblock your drain, and usually they succeed. Firemen are a profession; they usually succeed (if only eventually) in putting out fires.
    Imagine for a minute if we lived in a world where firemen went about their job as the media does:
    1) Sometimes you'd ring 000 and you'd then have to convince the firemen that it was in their commercial interests, or in keeping with some sort of "human interest" angle, to come and put out the fire.
    2) Sometimes they'd send several trucks just to snuff out a minor blaze in a parking lot somewhere, or even send them to a potential fire that never ends up happening.
    3) Sometimes they'd commit acts of arson themselves for the express purpose of putting them out on a "slow fire day".
    4) Sometimes they'd commit acts of arson for the express purpose of NOT ever putting them out.
    5) Existing fire-fighting agencies would often complain long and loudly about attempts by governments to grant firefighting licenses to other would-be firefighters, on the grounds that the community was already well enough served by them, despite some fires being left to blaze for decades.
    6) Just occasionally, firemen would actually put out a fire in a timely, proportionate and efficient manner with as little loss of life and property as could be expected. They'd hold an annual awards night to congratulate themselves for such feats, and cite such feats as examples of the good work that firefighters do which is jeopardized by any attempts to regulate their profession.
    In short, if any other profession were as slipshod and selective at doing their job as journalists are, most of us wouldn't bother using their services. So why is the media so surprised that nobody wants to pay for journalism anymore?

  18. Dear Sir,

    This is the first time I've read your work (been an internet refugee for years). I thought you might be interested in an emerging citizens journalism project I'm participating in to get the truth out about Abbott's slush fund and his misleading letter to the Australian Electoral Commission. If so, check out

    Yours sincerely,

    Margo Kingston