On Friday of last week an organisation of which I have been a member for many years asked me to be their nominee to go to the 2020 Summit. My heart leapt — as though I had been waiting to be asked.

I said yes without too much thought, and in between appointments in a crowded day began to dream of all the fine things I would say and do were I in Canberra on that April weekend as one of the chosen few.

Yet by the end of Friday I had decided – with many pangs and some anguish – to refuse the nomination.

Flattery is such a dangerous thing, and for a journalist it is particularly risky.

I don’t want to make too much of this. There are several country miles between being nominated and invited. Most likely I would never have made it to the summit in any case, but I think my reasons for ruling out the possibility are important enough to justify this piece.

The lesson of history is that the journalist with something to lose — the one who has been embraced by the powerful, whose career and sense of self depends on being well regarded – will be safe for those in power. Such journalists won’t take risks. They will be proper and acceptable, with an eye for their own reputation affecting what they write and how they write it.

Journalists these days are everywhere co-opted – most of all by flattery, by being fed tidbits of information, and by the seductive sense of being insiders.

It is not that I don’t think the summit is a good thing. I take it as a given that it is three quarters public relations and symbolism, but that is not a criticism. Public relations and symbolism are important political tools and I approve of them being used to build an event that gets the nation’s attention focussed on the medium term future, and on big ideas. I think the summit may be broadening and strengthening, not only or even chiefly in itself but in the debates it will spark in schools, streets and homes. I hope it succeeds.

Criticisms could be made. Once upon a time the political process combined with parliamentary debate was the accepted method for working out national directions and big ideas. The idea of having a chosen few perform this task could be seen as counter democratic.

But I don’t really buy that argument. We live in the real world, and our political and parliamentary processes are debased. It is fanciful to image that all the ideas worth discussing can emerge through the political process.

That this is so is, of course, is largely the fault of the media, and the silly way in which politics is reported – as a highly managed spectator sport, rather than as though it actually mattered. Doubtless the Rudd summit is a politically smart response to these facts, and the impossibility of getting big ideas reported in any other way.

Yet politics-as-spectator-sport has emerged because journalists are co-opted and made safe – literally and metaphorically herded on to busses to cover events designed for their consumption. Is it any wonder that they become cynical about big ideas?

I am all for scepticism, but I regard habitual cynicism as a personal and professional failing.

These days although much lip service is given to the notion of journalistic independence and media freedom, the practice is everywhere eroded.

The most powerful media executive in the country, News Limited’s John Hartigan, is helping to run the summit, and I gather Fairfax editors have either been invited or are touting for invitations – itself an unedifying spectacle.

This is against a background of our major media organisations being sponsors of almost everything that moves in cultural Australia. Alliance, rather than independence, is the media marketing model of our times.

The media executives involved in the summit are the same as those who have recently been campaigning for more media freedom – yet their co-option in this summit suggests a constrained idea of what might be done with such freedom.

Certainly, their outlets will run criticism of the summit – but from within a framework that accepts the broad thrust of what Rudd is trying to do. They will be inside the tent, rather than pissing in from outside. There will be drinks parties. There will be – must already be – behind the scenes consultation. There will be backslapping and mutual congratulation.

The historian Mitchell Stephens has concluded that once journalists have investments, good wardrobes and networks of friendship with the powerful, then they will probably be satisfied with an occasional exposé.

Prosperity and the business of media mean it can no longer be a revolutionary force. At most it may be a force for reform and often it is not even that.

Now I am no revolutionary, but nor do I want to be neutered. I was trained and gained my experience in the belief that journalistic independence was very important indeed, and I still believe these things. The new media world makes them more important, not less. We should be focussed on carrying the good things of past journalistic practice into the future, rather than giving up the ghost.

I have spent a good part of the weekend regretting my decision to refuse nomination. I am not silly enough to think this stand will make a jot of difference when the most powerful media figures in the country are already inside the tent. It may well be a pointless act of sanctimony – a choice of impotence, rather than power.

But in the end the only reason I might conceivably be invited is because of what I have written as a journalist and author. And if journalists are any use at all, it is because of the potential for them to provide disinterested reporting and analysis.

Journalistic independence either matters, or it doesn’t.

I think it matters a lot.

*Sigh.*

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.

 

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW