Historically, good, worthwhile journalism made a difference. Governments would react. Ministerial scalps would be claimed. Reports that attracted relatively small audiences could drive action if the report was shocking enough. The craft had important metrics to determine the worthiness of journalism; a mix of editorial judgement (what stories were splashed on the front page) and peer-driven prizes.
Last week in Sydney, the Walkley Awards again recognised the outstanding journalism that continues to be produced in Australia. The gold-winning story from Melbourne’s Herald Sun suggested, like last year’s gold winner, that journalism is valuing investigative true-crime reporting.
Meanwhile, in Canberra, the Morrison government was demonstrating again that when it comes to politics, it’s sometimes easier to deflect a damaging story than to give it impact by standing aside a minister. That’s because Australia’s conservatives have taken one-big lesson from Trump: for many, political alignment is more important than journalistic truth.
A big user of political truisms, Trump quipped back in 2016: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Over almost four years, Trump has repeatedly nailed this truth.
Now, with the Angus Taylor letter to Clover Moore, Morrison is seeking to determine how far this goes in Australia. The story has been on a slow burn since The Daily Telegraph first led its page three with the all-too-unbelievable report of excessive travel expenditure by City of Sydney. Yet another bit of red meat impact-journalism for the mutual climate-denying base of the government and the paper.
A month later, The Guardian revealed that the letter used false figures to stand up its allegations. Since then, while the minister has apologised for using incorrect figures, NSW Police have begun an investigation and the prime minister has been ringing up his old neighbour, the NSW Police Commissioner.
Not as dramatic as a shooting in Fifth Avenue, but dramatic enough for Australian parliamentary standards. Yet the government is standing firm in the belief that for all the noise, it won’t lose votes off the back of it.
It’s possible that the accountability built into a parliamentary (as distinct from a presidential) system will prove them wrong. But at the same time, there are other Australian media peculiarities that would give them confidence in their approach.
A combination of paywalls and click-driven priorities means that any story can struggle to catch fire across the media landscape as it once would have done. At the same time, the domination of News Corp in Australian media gives the government a ready-made fire break. Already the company’s commentariat is out putting out sparks, with fireman Chris Kenny in particular using the very Trumpian “too-dumb-to-be-a-crime” defence.
Of course, as Malcolm Turnbull could caution the prime minister, this is a greater comfort to the Liberal Party, than to its leader. News Corp is usually only one thought bubble away from promoting a leadership challenge as much for the clicks as for the politics.
Australia’s defamation laws restrain accountability. Journalistic reporting of any Australian political scandal has to be manoeuvred cautiously around the legal pitfalls, hedging the words with cautious denials of any suggestion of actual impropriety. Insiders may be able to read between the lines, but the general public may not. This is unlikely to change significantly despite the reforms proposed by Australia’s attorney-general last week.
The media focus on political personalities over government policy means that the big government stumbles — robodebt, Ensuring Integrity, medivac — have been driven by activist groups rather than the media.
Yet, the ABC demonstrates that media can continue to impact policy when it focuses on these big issues. Its reporting on aged care was the most influential journalism of the year, leading to a royal commission and, restoration of funding.
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