When is a dramatic fall a “surge”? To answer such a riddle, we must turn to The Australian Financial Review for an answer: last Thursday’s industrial disputes data, which showed a big fall in days lost to industrial disputes in the December quarter, was report on Friday as a “surge in disputes under Fair Work”, based on annual figures.

The Fin even had its own graph, based on calendar years, to back the headline.

Noted scourge of the working man Don Argus was wheeled in claim that he saw no sign of the trend abating. Presumably they hadn’t faxed him the December numbers.

“The data fuelled the employer push for changes to Labor’s Fair Work Act, including narrowing the range of matters that can be bargained over,” mused the report. That’d be one of those journalistic phrases that suggest something is happening without specifying who exactly is doing it or happening to. “Fuelled” how? Fuelled whom? Like “concerns are growing”, “tensions are simmering” and “there are reports”. It’s events-as-mushrooms journalism — things just pop up spontaneously, without any human agency, removing from the journalist any responsibility for backing up a claim with evidence.

As Crikey has shown before, “narrowing the range of matters” involves returning to WorkChoices, rather than the framework of Peter Reith’s Workplace Relations Act.

Once you got to where the report continued, on page six, you would have seen the inconvenient admissions that the spike in disputes last year reflected militant employers like Qantas locking workers out. You wouldn’t pick it, but curtailment of this right doesn’t feature in too many employer submissions to the Fair Work Act review. Page six also had a graph showing the actual data from the ABS, with that pesky fall in disputes. Mere detail. There’s no sign of the trend abating, folks.

Yes, the AFR is on an aggressive IR campaign; many a front-page exclusive in recent months has been a corporate press release attacking unions, or an interview with a CEO railing against their slack workers.

But today the Fin went beyond business propaganda into something quite nauseating. Its editorial focuses on the “disturbing figures from the ABC last week”. Rant rant rant, union power, militancy, promote productivity, etc, etc, but then this:

“Labor says it is keen to reduce bullying in the workplace, but the most egregious examples of this are against workers who simply seek to go about their business in defiance of the labour collectives efforts to impose harm on their employers.”

Perhaps Michael Stutchbury and Paul Bailey might like to back this up. They could explain to the thousands of victims of workplace bullying across the country that what they’ve suffered is less than what has been endured by people defying trade unions. Perhaps they could tell that to the families of the many young people who have killed themselves after extended periods of workplace bullying, whether in small businesses, large companies or the defence forces.

A 2010 workplace bullying survey showed 16% of respondents knew of someone who had killed themselves after a period of workplace bullying. Five and a half per cent of workplace bullying victims reported thoughts of self-harm. And even if you don’t care about our young people killing themselves, workplace bullying is estimated to cost business between $6 billion and $36 billion a year.

Reflexive advocacy of the interests of companies is one thing but the Fin’s belittling of the real effects of bullying is another low moment for a newspaper rapidly trashing its reputation.

*For help or information visit beyondblue.org.au, call Lifeline on 131 114 or visit this page for a detailed list of support services

Peter Fray

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