When the news of JFK’s assassination hit the world in 1963, the media race to grab the shiniest news baubles was all-consuming. Back then, as now, most journalists covered the major parts of the story staring them in the face. Because, why not?
But one journalist at the time looked around: Jimmy Breslin. He chose to look beyond the obvious. He looked for the little people. The undertaker who prepared the body, the grave digger, the priest. For there among the madding crowd the honest, unadorned stories could be found.
It doesn’t seem as if the death of one of the most famous politicians of our time and a shearing shed up the road from Dubbo would have much in common. But on April 27 last year, in the midst of our most recent federal election campaign, the ghost of Breslin probably heaved a pissed-off sigh.
On that day, in an average shearing shed on an average farm, Scott Morrison the electioneering prime minister performed an average job of shearing a sheep. But the thronging press corps gasped, enthralled.
Fresh from the Canberra-bubble-on-wheels bus, they hovered around Scott Morrison’s form, scrawling notes and photographing the pre-packaged political theatre in front of them.
Here was Scott Morrison in his Wally the Shearer outfit. The week before, they’d lapped up Morrison in his Scotty the Carrot Picker costume. No questions. No worries. There’s the nightly news story for you all neatly tied up in a sheep’s fleece. Just the way the Liberal campaign operatives planned it.
But if the media had bothered to step away from the fleece-covered stage for a moment; if they’d bothered to go out behind the shearing shed to talk to some of those shearers, they might have discovered a very different view of the world — one far removed from the one carefully crafted for them that day.
They might, for example, have discovered that local Nationals member Mark Coulton had been hard at work handing out a cheque for $146,000 the month before to a tiny pony club just down the road with only 43 members.
They might have discovered Coulton’s electorate had been the recipient of $913,481 worth of luck courtesy of Coulton’s National Party comrade Bridget McKenzie and her magical community sports grants bucket.
Ten days before that, the hermetically-sealed media bubble had followed Morrison to Tasmania where the scrum surrounded the prime minister as he performed another important policy announcement worthy of nationwide front-page coverage: picking carrots.
None of the media caravan broke loose to speak to the small-town workers in Forth or the shopkeepers of nearby Ulverstone, Tasmania to discover just why the local potato processing factory had received $12 million the week before from a mysterious cabinet slush bucket called the Regional Growth Fund.
Nobody in the media looked up in the following weeks to see page after page of small-town groups all happily receiving comically oversized cheques, all happily smiling in a production line of campaign razzamatazz that smelt suspiciously like a set-up.
They didn’t look while hundreds of millions of dollars were splashed around during the 2019 election campaign. They didn’t question it and they didn’t examine it because it would have involved walking away from the beaten path and talking to the types of people Breslin would have sought out: factory workers, volunteer organisers and people who’d never read a media release in their lives.
The sports rorts saga was missed because it happened in small-town Australia.
The story of the year was missed, overlooked because it lacked the gravitas of a policy announcement or the sexiness of a leadership spill or even, dare I say, because the stories of small-town Australia are beneath some of the political journalists busily booking their next stint on the ABC’s Insiders.
It was an outrageous failure.
Not of government probity or accountability, because we all know that’s long gone. It was an outrageous failure of journalism in its most basic form.
Perhaps in the years to come, just like some of James Breslin’s articles, the story of how the sports grants rorting saga was perpetrated right under the noses of the distracted media might be taught in journalism school.
Perhaps political journalism in this country might use it as a wake-up call, a chance to examine whether they need to get away from the bullshit bus next time and ask a few basic questions.
Perhaps next time they might even think about speaking to somebody other than a politician’s press secretary for their next injection of information.
Ronni Salt is a social media commentator with a rural and legal background and a strong interest in environmental issues. She hails from the Riverina and much prefers dogs to people.