Crikey is no great fan of Paul Keating’s ethics, media-bashing and closeness to Rupert Murdoch, but in researching this week’s Free Speech Victoria annual dinner, I came across this fabulous speech by Keating to the Sydney Institute last year.
The answer is, of course, that it is not. But does this deter one? Not in the least.
My credentials to talk about the Australian media are those of the specialist observer. I have been a close consumer of, legislator for, commentator on and subject of the media over many years. It’s a hobby of mine. I have enjoyed trying to fathom its complex workings, from the motivations of the proprietors through the power plays in the board rooms and editors’ offices to the strengths and flaws of the working journalists.
Some time ago, Frank Devine, whose regular column of puffery can be found in The Australian, wrote that he doubted that there was even one holder of substantial office in Australia who recognised a free press as an important social institution. It’s one of those glib lies that the right-wing punditocracy that dominates the opinion pages of the newspapers and the radio waves use to de-legitimise public life. That this sort of comment tends to screen the democratic defects of the same free press is doubtless accidental, but also true.
Of course politicians, like other members of the public, see the media as frustratingly inaccurate, bone-headed and trivial at times. And of course they try to persuade journalists of their case. Because unless you are prepared, like this Government is to rip hundreds of millions of dollars off the taxpayers to get them to subsidise your direct political advertising, the media is the only effective way of getting the message through to the people.
In fact, I have never known an Australian politician from either side who did not believe that freedom of the press is an essential, non-negotiable, part of our democracy.
That does not mean, however, that the media is above criticism. On the contrary, it makes such criticism more important. The media is powerful, and like all centres of power, it needs to be watched. Well watched and prodded where appropriate. Whether or not it is working well matters to every Australian. The large issues in Australian life — economic and social change, constitutional reform, cultural diversity, Australia’s view of its role in the world are all worked out through the media. The best journalists are right to think about themselves as having a high purpose in life. But that does not, and must not, put them beyond the reach of the critic in any less a way than those who serve the public directly.
My often-noted telephone calls of complaint or exhortation to journalists — and to journalists, note, not to their proprietors — reflect my frustrated but never abandoned hopes that journos would live up to their own standards. I always took them seriously.
Let me begin with the culture that underpins the Australian media’s behaviour. On the surface, few other industries have been so profoundly shaken as the media in recent years by the revolution in communications technology. Everything from the tools of trade for the working journalists to the delivery mechanisms for the product have been transformed. Beneath all this turbulence, however, lies a pervasive culture that is tenaciously resistant to some of the most powerful changes at work in our society.
The media world is still one of warring baronies, trying to operate within a 19th-century craft-based industry structure. The industry recruits eager young people largely from media courses and then does nothing much to train them in journalism’s craft, or in the responsibilities of the profession.
In the decade and a half of reform in Australia through to the middle 1990s, it is clear that most sectors of the economy, and indeed society, were subject to substantial and often fundamental change. Whether one speaks about business in general or the unions, the manufacturers, the import competitors, the primary producers, the banks and financial markets, the former government-owned businesses, the state utilities; you name them and they have changed or been obliged to change. Their culture has been pummelled, shaken and inevitably remade. This is just as true of the political system which had to adjust to the imperatives of the global competitiveness and a changing world.
But I am sure it is fair to say, that the estate of Australia that has changed least, that has obdurately clung to the old ways, that has been the most resistant to cultural adaptation, is the fourth estate: the media. It is the last frontier for ideas of transparency, disclosure and accountability.
In its technology, it has changed much, but of its essence and at its core, it is pretty much as it was and quite determined to stay that way. As in most things, this is not true of all of it or everyone in it. The spring winds of change have stirred some. But its old habits, its ingrained thinking, its herd instinct, make it in the modern age of Australia, very much a Jurassic institution.
At the ownership and management level there is, I believe, an enormous chasm between it and the world as it really is outside the boardroom. At its upper reaches, proprietors and boards could scarcely be less representative of the contemporary Australian public.
At the management level we see a truly shocking lack of quality control and a failure to make anything like the investment in human capital that is needed. The industry is often run by journalists who are informed, mainly by their own thinking. While that is often substantial, it all too often lacks the breadth and comprehension and management skills a manager at those upper reaches should have.
It is an industry that operates behind a cloak of secrecy and insider knowledge. It is riddled with nepotism, back-scratching and interlocking interests in a way that would bring snorts of admiration from the members of the Melbourne Club in 1960.
Criticism of the media is invariably met by ritual incantations of the phrase “freedom of the press” rather than by serious efforts to address its own responsibility. As anyone who has tried to complain about a media story knows, the response is always defensive. Almost any complaint can and will be rationalised away. The quick and graceful acknowledgement of error is a rare event. If the industry is not quite blind to its own failures, it is certainly myopic.
Let me give a couple of examples. They are about me, but that is simply because I know them best. Thousands of others could offer similar evidence. I received a fax the other day from an American publication seeking to check two facts about me that were to appear as a small part of a story they were printing. This was a surprising approach. It hardly ever happens with Australian journalists.
Here, regrettably, fact-checking is not only foreign to the journalistic culture but antithetical to it. Facts too often lie in the way of a story. If you check them, they may be denied, and where to then? It is not just the young and inexperienced who are to blame for this. They simply follow the pattern of their seniors.
A couple of months ago, Alan Ramsey, in The Sydney Morning Herald, accused me of petulantly refusing to let Tony Blair stay at Kirribilli House while I was prime minister — when Blair had not only stayed there, but we had had several hours of conversation. Ramsey followed this up within weeks with a breathless claim that Graham Richardson and I had been at a mysterious lunch in Sydney. He asked, portentously, what all this meant. Well, it meant nothing at all because neither it, nor anything like it, ever happened.
Such charges are not merely the inevitable factual errors that will slip into the copy of the most punctilious journalist. They were being used by the writer as evidence of certain behaviour on my part. Any journalist ought to have checked them. A phone call to my office was all that was necessary.
When I became aware of the first of these errors, I wrote to the Herald, only to be told by the letters editor that as a matter of policy at the Herald, all letters about senior journalists, including Ramsey, were passed to them first. The result is that although corrections might be published in a small box on page two, anything which comments on the behaviour of the journalist or goes to imputations or motive will not appear. The likes of Ramsey can impute and misinform in cinemascope on the opinion page on Saturday; the correction will be in a small box generally at the bottom of the page on Page 2 on Tuesday; with none of the positioning and a fraction of the readership.
Imagine if a government tried this? Imagine the Herald editorial, or Ramsey’s column, about a decision by the Carr Government or SOCOG to refer all critical comments to the person about whom the criticisms were made before decisions were taken about whether they should be publicised.
Richard Walsh noted in The Age recently that this sort of automatic referral often happens with senior journalists.
“Papers obsessively correct absurdly trivial errors, to give the impression that they have a meticulous eye for self-criticism, but often fail to correct major mistakes, except under threat of litigation.” How true. He continued: “In this collegial world, journalists who are admired by other journalists are given Walkley awards.”
We also find the blurring in the media in Australia, between reporting and comment. Too many journalists seem simply unable to see the difference. I’m not just talking here about the obvious sloppiness of commentators, but the routine use of headlines and placement to imply comment and to denote weight. In one sense, of course, all editing does this by its nature. But Australian editors far less than the best of their American, European and, increasingly, Asian, counterparts, seem prepared to give readers room to make their own judgments.
Sometimes, there is nothing hidden about the agenda. Last year, with the acknowledged approval of Kerry Packer, the Nine network’s 60 Minutes program launched an unprecedented attack on me — unprecedented because never before in the program’s history had it devoted an entire hour to one subject, let alone one person. The program accused me of corruption and treason. It suggested that I had used my official position to generate business opportunities in Asia and that the real reason I wanted to develop better Australian relations with Indonesia was for my private profit. The claims and imputations were as absurd as they were outrageous.
The bulk of their material had been collated by the Liberal Party under the direction of the then president, Tony Staley, and peddled around many parts of the [Canberra] press gallery. Over an eight-year period, Staley had been going around telling the business community and anyone else at a loose end in an airport lounge that I was one of Australia’s richest men. A fact that was patently untrue.
The 60 Minutes program was a disgrace. No mention whatsoever was made of the Liberal Party’s involvement. No effort was made to explore, or even note, the background or motivation of the disgruntled former business partner out for revenge. No effort was made to seek my reply to the allegations or innuendo in advance, presumably because a denial would have spoiled the story, and the mud-slinging which was an essential part of the exercise. An invitation to appear in a kangaroo court on the program without warning of the matters to be raised was the idea of fairness and ethics held by the program’s executive producer, John Westacott, the producer Peter Wilkinson, and the frontman, Paul Lyneham.
But the point was not just the program itself. The allegations were carried fully on the Channel Nine News — from which, as we know from their self-promotion, more Australians get their news than from any other source. They were promoted and covered on the ninemsn website. My long press release rebutting the claims, with documentary evidence, received not a word of coverage on the channel’s news that evening. After the deluge, nothing.
Leave aside everything about that 60 Minutes attack, however, except this one thing. Does a television journalist like Lyneham, who is about to accuse any person of serious impropriety, let alone a former holder of high office, have any sort of professional obligation to put the claims to the person to be accused to enable him or her to rebut them before they are run on national television?
If the answer is yes, then one might have hoped that other parts of the media would have taken up the issue. Unfortunately — with a couple of honourable exceptions, and they were very honourable exceptions, for which I am grateful — there was no such discussion of those basic ethical issues.
In the end, it was not me who was being sent a message by that politically motivated, proprietorially approved program but every serving politician in Australia. Better to do as the Packers want. Better to end up as a celebrity interviewer on 60 Minutes than end up the subject of a Packer-inspired story.
What redress does one have for such behaviour? How can we get the media to meet standards of accountability and transparency we demand elsewhere in society and in the economy?
In the case of defamation, you can go to the courts, of course. But ordinary people can’t afford it. And for a public figure, legal action simply provides an opportunity for the perpetrators to run the stories again, while throwing in under privilege any other wild allegation they can get away with. Vindication, when it comes, is blocked from view by flying clods of mud. The small story on page seven is inadequate redress for pages of gossip and malice-filled columns over the preceding weeks. The opportunity costs of suing rather than getting on with your life are also enormous. The defamed spend months engaged with the defamers’ lawyers, not the perpetrators of the defamation. And defamation insurance ensures there is no monetary pain for the perpetrator in a victory. So I believe there is inadequate remedy available to public figures and others too.
I don’t believe financial redress should be abolished. It is nevertheless a much less effective response than a speedy and prominent right of reply.
The NSW Attorney General, Jeff Shaw, recently put forward some sensible suggestions for defamation law reform involving speedy correction of factual error. These have been greeted by the usual cries of “It will never work” from the vested interests.
What else is there? If it’s a newspaper, you can think about going to the Press Council. We can pause here for polite chuckles.
Or with radio or television you could go to the Australian Broadcasting Authority, under David Flint. Almost without exception in Australia, the heads of high statutory offices have held the view that their role was to stay above the political fray. But this Government, in its reckless politicisation of the Australian public service, has chosen a different breed of statutory office-holder from any we have known in the past.
David Flint, for example, apparently sees no problem with the head of the organisation responsible for monitoring and regulating the broadcast media publishing speeches on the ABA website complaining that the press is being nasty to John Howard (or too nice to me). He sees no difficulty being a spokesman for Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy even though he is forced to stand down from an inquiry into talk-back radio because his impartiality is drawn into question. Surely such behaviour is at least unwise and ill-judged. Just as it is surely unwise for the chairman of the ABC to participate in a Liberal party fundraiser and eulogise the prime minister.
The Senate Committee on Information Technology recently recommended the establishment of a Media Complaints Commission to deal with public complaints about the media, with the power to enforce non-pecuniary sanctions. The media reacted with horror. I do not favour such an approach, but I can understand exactly why people want it.
But in the end legal or regulatory mechanisms will only get you so far. The only lasting improvement in transparency and accountability will have to come from the behaviour of the media itself and the individuals who call the shots day to day. That requires the industry to become less self-absorbed and altogether more self-reflective.
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