(Image: Getty)

There’s a paradox at the heart of Australian journalism at the moment: we are seeing some of the country’s best-ever disclosure journalism while at the same time the industry is in a state of collapse. 

Going back to the beginning of this year, the reporting has been as good as it gets, and as good as it has ever been.

In March, Four Corners documented the killing of an unarmed Afghani by Australian special forces, presenting a near irrefutable case of a war crime.

In June, a 60 Minutes/Age investigation revealed the branch-stacking enterprise of Victorian ALP minister and faction heavy Adem Somyurek and other ministers.

And kicking-off this week, The Sydney Morning Herald uncovered sexual harassment findings against former High Court justice Dyson Heydon, a man at the apex of the legal and conservative establishment, protected up until now by the power and influence of his role.

As a journalist I salute the professionalism that underpins this work, from the ABC’s Mark Willacy and Nine’s Nick McKenzie, Jacqueline Maley and Kate McClymont.

The journalists involved in all these stories will have dealt with people who have been carrying a huge burden of personal grief and torment. Taking the step of broadcasting that to the world, with all the risk and personal heartache that entails, is momentous. It takes real trust in the journalist.

At the same time, the journalist will have confronted serious legal barriers to publication, whether it be defamation laws, privacy laws or military secrecy laws.

The journalist will also know that the work does not stop at the moment of publication. In fact it may just be the start of a lengthy process of defending the work, line by line and word by word, as the powerful strike back.

A defining feature of the stories listed above is that they have all exposed the systemic failings of organisations that have proven incapable of reforming themselves, whether it be Australia’s special forces, the judiciary or the ALP.

In the latter case it is breathtaking that a political party can be so paralysed by its own corrupt arrangements that it has needed to outsource systemic change to the media.

All up, the work of the investigative journalist is, as they say, no place for the faint-hearted.

It takes personal commitment. It takes experience too — a minimum 20 years in the business in the case of the journalists involved in these stories.

But it also needs to be backed by an organisation that has the news culture, the belief in editorial independence and the money to defend a story — a set of criteria that rules out much of the Australian media landscape, including online startups who have the spirit but lack the backing to take on the biggest subjects. 

It leaves us in dangerous waters.

The work of the Nine/Age, SMH and ABC journalists shows us what vital work there is to be done. How can there still be soldiers that kill unarmed civilians in cold blood and get away with it? How can a political party have become a support system — again — for operatives and spivs who see it as a path to riches? How can there still be a sexual harasser at the top of the legal profession, intimidating young women, apparently heedless to a staggering power imbalance?

We know what system-shifting work has been done — but how much more could be done?

At Crikey we’ve put a lot of work into exposing the government’s war on independence, which began with Tony Abbott’s twisted determination to attack institutions which represent the public interest and at the same time to neuter systems of accountability. The Administrative Appeals Tribunal and, this week, Abbott’s beloved Order of Australia honours, are both examples.

We’ve also worked on exposing conflicts of interests and the pay-for-policy culture of Australian politics, shining a light on the transactional arrangement whereby mining interests have bought the government’s climate policies — or lack thereof. 

Colleagues at The Guardian have done important work on integrity in government areas such as robodebt and the never-ending questions surrounding Angus Taylor’s apparent conflicts of interest and fudges with facts. Independent journalists and Twitter operators Ronni Salt and Jommy Tee have published breakthrough research on Taylor and government grant rorts. 

Yet the revelations rarely provoke the reaction or the change they should. And you can be sure they are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to government impropriety. 

The government routinely shrugs off scandals that in other times would have led to the removal of a minister or an independent inquiry. That it can do so with impunity points to a media that has, by and large, become impotent.

The government has nothing to fear. It treats journalists with disdain and gets away with it. Got a question? Send an email, and we may or may not bother replying. 

We routinely trace the demise of the media back to the rise of the internet which first took the classified advertising revenue and then the big advertisers from media companies.

Tech giants Facebook and Google have delivered a devastating triple blow: they have hijacked the work of journalists without paying for it, they have taken audience and advertising dollars, and they have become conduits for truly shocking levels of misinformation.

And now the coronavirus has devastated large chunks of what remained of the industry.

For all that, though, the media has failed to acknowledge its own role in its downward spiral. The truth is that amongst the biggest enemies of journalism is the media itself — and not only because it has lost the trust of its audience through mashing up reality for so long with infotainment and plain dishonest reporting.

The devastating development in the media is that some of the biggest players actively set out to sabotage the important accountability reporting done by others, purely because it fits their business model which includes interests other than just media.

It is a statement of the obvious that News Corporation pursues its own commercial interests using its media platforms as a stick.    

But what’s not so well recognised is that when News Corp — in particular The Australian — undermines the good reporting of others, it also undermines any momentum for the government to act. 

It did so again, reflexively, just this week. As the SMH published the gravest of allegations against Heydon, drawing on the evidence of courageous, young lawyers, The Australian questioned whether or not Heydon had received “a fair go”.

It may or may not stop the momentum of the story in the Heydon case, but it has elsewhere.

Can you imagine that Angus Taylor — to name but one — would still have a job if News Corp was part of an honest journalism effort, rather than looking to bolster him for its own climate-denialist cause? 

Could the government shrug its shoulders over the continuing scandal of robodebt if News Corp had joined a media campaign for the government to act, rather than look the other way? (As it is the government has only acted in the face of a class action.) 

Getting governments to act on cleaning up corruption and impropriety has always been hard, but it becomes near-impossible when the country’s dominant news organisation not only fails to back good journalism done by others but actively runs interference on behalf of a government. 

It is possible to imagine an Australian media scene where the media is fully performing its fourth estate role and bringing government to account. It’s not that there aren’t enough journalists with the skills and desire to do it or that the media can’t survive. 

The point about Australia’s media is that one part of it is trying to destroy the other — no matter what the cost in terms of the public interest. 

News Corp ain’t gonna change, that’s for sure. The Australian appears determined to be a long, grey version of Fox News.

It would be indelicate to end with a plea for support. But there is a bottom line truth that without money there is no independent journalism.

With money there is — and a hope to arrest an alarming slide in transparency and accountability.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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