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Journalism

Mar 17, 2017

Do pearl-clutching journalists understand what the law really is?

The reaction of journalists to innocuous comments by the new ACTU secretary reflect a poor understanding of what the law actually is.

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Occasionally an issue throws up an interesting insight into the mindset of media practitioners; the reaction to comments by incoming ACTU secretary Sally McManus about breaking laws — “…when it’s unjust, I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking it” — did just that.

The ensuing pearl-clutching from politicians, political journalists and commentators at a variety of outlets — the exchange originated on 7.30, Fairfax journalists tut-tutted, News Corp led the charge against McManus, Malcolm Turnbull attacked McManus, the Business Council issued a rebuke of McManus and professed itself terrified — was both amusing and revelatory.

The amusement comes from the quite colossal hypocrisy of those criticising McManus. Malcolm Turnbull’s own party branch, the NSW Liberal Party, broke that state’s political donations laws, to the tune of millions of dollars in illegal donations via the Free Enterprise Foundation and others. News Corp papers broke UK laws on an industrial scale in the most disgusting fashion, and many of its employees were sent to jail. Many of the Business Council’s members — including News Corp — engage in vast. systematic tax avoidance and, in some cases, outright evasion to escape paying anything like a fair share of tax; some of the biggest names in Australian business have been exposed for systematically underpaying staff or not paying their superannuation entitlements.

And journalists — well, it’s worrying that 7.30, Sky News, News Corp and Fairfax newspapers will never again listen to a whistleblower exposing wrongdoing by breaching confidentiality or accept leaked documents, or publish anything from WikiLeaks, or material from Edward Snowden. And, as many have pointed out on social media, presumably Fairfax journalists won’t ever engage in wildcat strikes again. After all, you can’t pick and choose which laws to obey, right?

While the posturing from The Australian et al is the usual partisan drivel, the reaction of journalists is illuminating for the attitude to the law it shows: that the law is a kind of holy writ, unconnected to ordinary human interactions, and thus inviolable. The rule of law is a crucial feature of democracy, but that doesn’t mean the law, and its application, isn’t also an expression of power balances within society. The law has long been used by elites as a weapon against those deemed dangerous or demonised as Other — we had a White Australia Policy, we had worker-hostile industrial relations laws, we criminalised homosexuality, we legalised discrimination against women, we banned protests. Many of these “unjust laws” were removed through illegal actions by individuals and civil groups like unions, people prepared to break the law and accept the consequences to remove unjust laws or mitigate their effects.

But “Sally McManus is not Rosa Parks”, thundered The Australian’s David Crowe yesterday. But that’s the problem — Rosa Parks wasn’t Rosa Parks when she refused to go down the back of the bus. She was just another criminal flouting the law. It’s only in retrospect we understand her action as one of drawing attention to an unjust law imposed by a racist elite.

Nor is this some sort of historical footnote, as if we’ve somehow purged the law of all flaws and emerged into the sunlit uplands of legislative perfection. Laws are used to hide evidence of the rape and abuse of women and children in our detention camps, and used to justify attacking government critics using personal information; laws are used to justify going after the sources of journalists by the Australian Federal Police and ASIO. The law remains, and will always be, a tool of the powerful as well as a crucial framework of civilised society — that’s why we have a legal system that continues to systematically devalue the basic rights of women and children.

It’s the job of journalists to understand that the law is a tool of elites, and to report on, and analyse, how it is used in that way, to the benefit of those elites and to the detriment of the rest of us. In their task of speaking truth to power — if they see that as their task, given many of them work for powerful corporations like News Corp — they must see the law not as holy writ but a product of clashes between competing interests. Without that understanding, no journalist can do their job properly.

Most media practitioners instinctively understand this. They don’t turn away whistleblowers or leakers, even though they are thereby facilitating a crime. They do publish material that is the result of serious breaches of national security laws, because it is in the public interest. And they do commit to protect their sources even if it means they themselves break the law — and News Corp has commendably been willing to stand by its journalists on that in the past.

Perhaps journalists think they’re special, that they themselves can be trusted to know when it’s OK to break the law, but no one else — certainly not some unionist — can. Or maybe they don’t quite understand what their job is.

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32 comments

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32 thoughts on “Do pearl-clutching journalists understand what the law really is?

  1. Frank Brank

    What an entirely apt description; pearl clutchers nails it Bernard!

    1. Dog's Breakfast

      I thought so too, Frank.

  2. Darren

    Thanks Bernard for a well thought out explaination and discussion.

  3. Kevin_T

    Our laws are constantly evolving – and should. Protest actions of various types have assisted that evolution, for the benefit of society as a whole.

  4. Noel Turnbull

    A pearler of an article.

  5. Tony Foot

    If people did not break the law South Africa would still have apartheid.

  6. Ian Roberts

    To quote Jay, ‘It’s a bit galling’ when the media cry crocodile tears about public figures perennially sticking to talking points but then weighing into the all-to-predictable partisan biffo after someone doesn’t.

  7. JMNO

    Very well said, Bernard. Women didn’t get the vote by being nice and doing as they were told

  8. Phen

    The Australian makes me feel guilty for not always waiting for the green man before crossing the road.

  9. Vincent Matthews

    Bernard’s analysis is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There’s no justice in this world. Only bad judges and good lawyers. Public protests and defiance have forced changes in bad laws for centuries. Those protests and changes will go on, despite the complaints of the powerful and privileged who own and control the media and the naive journos who work for them.

  10. maureen

    It is a pity that we have a community who immediately give no thought to comments that are made by people who are asked questions about civil liberties. Without the breaking of some laws that were considered at the time to be against the rights of a large percentage of people. Without these people who did break laws that were considered to be against civil liberties we would still be living in the ages where children were working in mines at the age of 8 and other reasons for law breaking. This article should be read by all people and all politicians and every journalist. Congratulations for you article.

  11. maureen

    It is a pity that we have a community who immediately give no thought to comments that are made by people who are asked questions about civil liberties. Without the breaking of some laws that were considered at the time to be against the rights of a large percentage of people. Without these people who did break laws that were considered to be against civil liberties we would still be living in the ages where children were working in mines at the age of 8 and other reasons for law breaking. This article should be read by all people and all politicians and every journalist. Congratulations for you article.

  12. klewso

    Why can’t the media crusade against unjust laws?
    Or the way parts of the media use their elite positions to play favourites rather than just report news – in what that’s doing to our society?
    Those examples of “bending the law” by our all-knowing media – is there a journalist’s union?
    When it comes to “valid” breaking of the law “Some unions are more equal than others”?

  13. Susan Anderson

    Or maybe they are just toadies to their owners and shareholders and dont give a crap that law breaking dodgy builders ripoff and even cause the death of CFMEU members on a not irregular basis, the holier than thou attitude of journalists, and in particular Fairfax, is utterly offensive, who would pay for that rubbish ?

  14. CML

    Isn’t the Attorney General currently refusing to obey a court order to release his diaries? Isn’t that ‘breaking the law’?
    Hypocrites all in the LNP (and their mates in the media)!!

  15. lyn.biner

    Who are those male “pearl clutching” journalists swanning around, out of touch with the unsophisticated swill……Lyn Biner

  16. Janet Gardiner

    Excellent piece, Bernard. Bravo.

  17. John Newton

    Well said. Reminder that the lawmakers are currently attmepting to make it illegal to protest against environmental vandals.

  18. AR

    Excellent exposition BK. Pity that journalism has sunk so low.
    And let’s not forget gumBoil Shlernt’s craven response – Alternative Liberal Party indeed.

  19. Bill Hilliger

    Quote from the last paragraph above: …Perhaps journalists think they’re special, that they themselves can be trusted to know when it’s OK to break the law, but no one else — certainly not some unionist — can. Or maybe they don’t quite understand what their job is…
    Yes Virginia, we the media consumers know these kind of people as just churnalists, stenographers and town criers, mostly of low integrity and even intellect, of late this is especially so of the ABC and certainly its new stable mate the NewsCrap organisation. They think they’re special but nowadays we the media consuming public see them as just muppets serving their masters. We consume less and less of their product, so much so, that these days their masters know their business model is breaking and adjustments need to be made. Adjustments generally come by way of sackings and redundancies we the general public quietly cheer and say good riddance. Its only a few years ago the ABC was a worthwhile organisation that commanded respect, but no longer. Its few news and current affairs programmes are sometimes agonising to watch. So we go online and seek what the ABC no longer provides and what the NewsCrap organisation has never been able to provide.

  20. Dog's Breakfast

    So well put Bernard. So glad that Crikey had the good sense to run the opposite direction to the MSM.

    I thought of two things when I read about this kerfuffle.

    One was a saying which I can’t quite remember, but paraphrased said something to the effect ‘that it was a righteous man’s duty to dispute and break unjust laws’.

    The second thought was of the Nuremberg trials (I hope that’s right) and how the defence ‘that I was just following orders’ went for the Auschwitz guards.

    Law breakers. Mandela and Ghandi!

  21. aliso6

    excellent article!

  22. Northy

    Great piece Bernard!

  23. Hamis Hill

    A fine”psychotropic”article which expands the intellectual limits of readers.
    How about some “time travel”,a well of a few centuries, with a short paraphrase of the last paragraph of the first book of a famous Enlightenment treatise which raises similar points about obedience to laws: “those who live by profits…who commonly employ the largest capitals…have interest(s)..always, in some respects different from, and even opposite to that of the public. ..The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from such people..ought be listened to with great precaution, with the most scrupulous and most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, and who have generally an interest to deceive and oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed the public (through such laws).
    Where “bad” laws come from, in the main, and why the public should break such laws in the public interest, their own defence?
    The accumulated effects of the ensuing centuries of constant deception and oppression of the public properly taken into account, of course.

  24. June Factor

    Bravo Bernard!
    June

  25. The Curmudgeon

    The intervention of the mincing poodle Pyne (one of Gillard’s best barbs) had me reflecting that if it were not for civil disobedience, we could still have conscription, or at least, we may have had it when Pyne was of conscriptable age. Probably a challenge that the Army would have preferred to avoid.

  26. Beth Robinson

    It is okay to break some laws apparently, Turnbull and his lifetime refugee ban, Brandis and his diaries, Downer and his wheat exports to Iraq and so on.
    McManus was speaking honestly and she has been this week’s diversion for this do nothing government.

  27. Geoff Powell

    Worth the totality of my renewed annual Crikey subscription. Thank you Bernard Keane.

  28. rlynch01@bigpond.com

    Interesting there is such widespread naivety about morality, when it doesn’t match one’s own social hypocrisy. Hooray for Sally McManus, because she identified that sometimes social disobedience is necessary! Can we get back to a moral Australia, please?

    1. AR

      Alas, no. We killed that gold egg laying goose with greed.

  29. Aussie4real

    Thanks for the clarity you have bought to this episode. We live in a democracy and each individual has a voice that should be heard. The Liberal governments have done their utmost to break and destroy our very important union organisations, who give a voice to the worker and the powerless. It is really sad that today people are reluctant to join a union because membership seems to be tainted with corruption, but without a strong and energised union movement the powerful business interests and lobbyists would be able to pursue what ever they choose. In this neoliberal economic system, business and profit come before anything else and the more a right-wing government is allowed to remove regulations, the more important becomes the union movement. Yes, there is corruption in some unions, as there is within the financial and business sectors of our economy, but please remember how important it is to give a voice to the worker and protect their safety and pay. We all know what Sally McManus was talking about and for me it was a breath of fresh air, to hear someone say that they intend to stand up for working people and protect them against the big end of town.

  30. Srs21

    Wondering why Bill Shorten and Labor are distancing themselves from this brilliant Sally McManus?

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