On Wednesday The Australian published an editorial, titled ‘Bias aside, we do need to discuss quality of debate,’ with the subline ‘Social media sways Fairfax, ABC.’
The editorial was an incomprehensible, self-righteous rant about the ‘trashing of media standards’ and ‘devaluing of journalistic experience.’ I wondered how the writer managed to complete it without self-combusting from the paradox of a News Limited journalist utilising such phrases. I say this in the context of News Limited employing ‘journalists’ of such calibre as Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine. And there is their stablemate, that journalistic high-note The Daily Telegraph, recently involved in a vile attack on Burwood Girls High School over their Wear it Purple Day event.
This latest editorial from The Australian was sparked by Peter Dutton, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, accusing the ABC and Fairfax Media of ‘jihad’ against the government, and an agenda to bring the government down, taking political hyperbole to dizzying new heights.
The Australian Border F
oarce fiasco which started the latest round …
Mr Dutton was speaking after yet another Federal government faux pas, desperate to detract from this latest fiasco. The Australian Border Force (ABF) put out a news release about a law and order operation proposed for Melbourne, named ‘Operation Fortitude.’
Operation Fortitude was meant to be a joint operation between Metro Trains, Yarra Trams, the Sheriff’s Office, the Taxi Services Commission, Victoria Police and ABF supposedly targeting ‘everything from anti-social behaviour to outstanding warrants.’
Within the news release were two sentences that unleashed a media storm and public outrage over the apparent planned overreach of their powers.
ABF officers will be positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with.
You need to be aware of the conditions of your visa; if you commit visa fraud you should know it’s only a matter of time before you’re caught out.
In face of the immense public backlash the operation was cancelled the same day.
It wasn’t long before ABF and the government were back-pedalling, explaining the furore away with a badly worded press release, approved by a lower level ABF officer.
Unfortunately, it was soon revealed the news release came from the office of Mr Don Smith, the Regional Commander for Victoria and Tasmania, and Mr Dutton’s office was sent an advance copy.
The ABC and Fairfax Media pursued this latest government scandal. After all, they were put on notice by a news release from ABF itself, seeking media attention for their planned operation. The news release also clearly raised legitimate concerns about a potentially serious overreach of powers by ABF.
Mr Dutton has not backed away from his views on the media, despite sparking ridicule with his ‘jihad’ comment, and escalated his criticism describing the media response to the ABF fiasco ‘hysterical’ and ideologically driven.
The Australian editorial
The Australian acknowledged Mr Dutton’s media manoeuvres were ‘a kind of political suicide mission,’ but quickly went on to assert ‘there is nothing to suggest he wasn’t right,’ only to paddle back again by stating ‘there is no need for those interested in robust and productive debate to get bogged down in tit for tat allegations of media bias.’
By the beginning of the third paragraph I was scratching my head in confusion, but The Australian was just getting started. The editorial noted the issue is not really ‘media bias’ but ‘quality control,’ and made the incredibly presumptuous conclusion that ‘when groups of mainly young journalists are left to their own devices they will reflect the green, anti-establishment and progressive views of their cohort.’
For an editorial complaining about ‘quality control’ in journalism, that’s a pretty loaded and unsubstantiated statement.
News Limited, including The Australian, and its stablemate The Daily Telegraph, has a history of feeling like de facto publications of the Coalition government. This assertion is supported by the very prominent role they took leading up to the 2013 Federal election in campaigning for the Coalition, and against the then incumbent Labor government.
And it appears Rupert Murdoch is not yet done offering his opinions on who should lead Australia, so keep an eye out for that famous ‘strong and experienced editorial guidance’ at The Australian, and The Daily Telegraph, endorsing Tony Abbott in lockstep with their boss …
The Australian went on to take its usual swipe at the ABC, referring to the broadcaster as a ‘staff-run collective,’ divorced from mainstream opinions. There is a history of ill-will between News Limited and a digitally savvy ABC. The Australian has been attempting to paint the ABC as irrelevant, out of touch and caught up in its own hubris, for some time now. Over the past two years The Australian had a strong focus on attacking the ABC, but the ABC tends to give back as good as it gets.
The one thing the News Limited empire continues to overlook in its never-ending criticism of the ABC, is that the ABC is not a traditional commercial media venture. It is our public broadcaster, and while ratings are important for any type of media, the ABC’s success is not measured by ratings alone. It is of particular significance that the ABC remains the most trusted news and current affairs source in Australia, despite the best efforts of its political and commercial detractors. Perhaps it’s their quality of journalism …
A majority felt the ABC news and current affairs was not politically biased and that the ABC provided more balanced news and current affairs than commercial TV.
The latest The Australian Financial Review/Nielsen poll finds 59 per cent of voters believe ABC news and current affairs is not politically biased, and that 31 per cent, less than a third, believe it is.
‘Voters trust the ABC, says Nielsen poll‘, The Australian Financial Review (18 February 2014)
The ABC, like all other traditional media is also in the process of adjusting to a fast-evolving, increasingly competitive media landscape, especially when it comes to the changing consumption of media, and its success in the digital space has been seen as a serious threat by News Limited.
The Australian’s editorial at this point gets bogged down in the flagellation of ‘strong and experienced editorial guidance,’ and ‘collective wisdom of journalists and editors who have spent decades amassing knowledge and insight in their chosen fields,’ clearly insinuating The Australian has those in abundant supply, unlike their Fairfax competitors:
The trashing of media standards, devaluing of journalistic experience and persistent tendency for even traditional media stalwarts such as The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age to allow the social media tail to wag their editorial direction is a live issue of public concern.
Oh dear, we can’t have the plebs of social media influence how mainstream media reflects the public opinion! It appears The Australian doesn’t care for the democratisation and socialisation of news and current affairs delivered by social media, and the consequent diminishment of their power in forming public opinions through editorial direction. Such as the one exercised by News Limited leading up to the 2013 Federal election.
In the past two years, the media landscape had shifted even further, and social media now plays a more significant role in both expressing and shaping public opinions. The Australian sees this as a danger to ‘the quality of the product’ when it comes to media, and derides Fairfax Media for what it perceives its capitulations to social media trends. This objection of The Australian links right back to the social media outrage stirred up by the ABF fiasco detailed above, and the consequent investigative focus on the matter by Fairfax Media newspapers.
Sure enough in the final paragraph of its editorial The Australian makes some curious observations on the subject:
When the ABC and Fairfax became excited by the Australian Border Force press release story, they didn’t stop to ask whether our law enforcement authorities would plan an operation for which they had no legal authority. By following a Twitter storm they appeased a fringe audience while offending the good sense of a wider readership.
Well, I never … the ABC and Fairfax taken a press release by an Australian law enforcement agency literally, and pulled them up on the legality of what they said they were going to do, in a release to the media, designed to create media attention. Because law enforcement authorities never overstep the mark … Burn these witches of pesky journalism!
There is nothing wrong with expecting a significant law and order body to be precise about their language and intentions when enforcing the laws of the nation, and giving them a good old-fashioned media walloping over their spectacular failure to do so. We expect more of our government and law enforcement agencies.
The social media outrage that followed simply highlighted the significance the public placed on this latest breach of trust by the Federal government, and Fairfax Media responded rightly by investigating this troubling matter that goes to the very heart of our democracy and the rule of law. That’s exactly what good journalists and editors do.
The Australian editorial goes on to rage about the recent media attention on Andrew Hastie, ex-SAS commando, faithful Christian, now the government’s candidate in the Canning by-election, and refers to questions raised by The Age surrounding his military past as a ‘front-page slur.’
The reality is that any government candidate would have attracted significant media attention in the current political climate, in an unexpected by-election, at a time when Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership hangs by a thread. And then, the Liberal Party chose a high-ranking ex-SAS officer linked to war crimes allegations as its candidate. The issue is unquestionably of extreme significance in a civilised society in its own right, and relevant in the context of such a man running for public office.
It was later reported by The Age that Mr Hastie has been cleared of any wrongdoing by an internal Defence Force investigation into the matter, which involved the chopping off the hands off dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan for ‘for the purposes of identifying them by fingerprinting.’
Admittedly, many are still uneasy about seeing a man enter our Federal Parliament under whose leadership a military unit engaged in such horrific practices, and the choice of words to explain the events did not ease those concerns: ‘[t]he principle of military necessity says in extreme circumstances that if there is no alternative you have to do things like this.’
At least it would appear Mr Hastie and The Australian are soul mates when it comes to their distaste for social media, judging by Mr Hastie’s comments which resulted in the trending hashtag: ‘#eastcoasttwitterati.’
This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship between The Australian and another Liberal MP, provided the people of Canning elect Mr Hastie.
It would appear Mr Hastie has an interesting election campaign ahead of him. Despite proudly announcing his Christianity when he introduced himself to the Liberal Party’s West Australian state council meeting, he has become more guarded about his religious views since and, despite making his opposition to marriage equality known, he told the media he would not answer any questions about his faith, or family.
This sudden ‘shyness’ about religion and family is not surprising given media reports his father is Reverend Peter Hastie. Reverend Hastie is Principal and Pastoral Dean at the Presbyterian Theological College. His online presence at Creation Ministries International indicates he’s likely a creationist who believes the Earth is 6,000 years old and rejects the theory of evolution. He is also believed to have been behind the March 1993 heresy conviction of fellow Presbyterian Minister Peter Cameron, over a sermon a year earlier in which Cameron had supported the ordination of women, criticised the church’s hard line on homosexuality and questioned its fundamentalism.
One has to wonder whether Mr Hastie does not wish to talk about his faith because he holds the same, or similar, views as his father, and he’s smart enough to know that kind of Christian fundamentalism may be a turnoff in modern Australia.
Finally, The Australian also took The Sydney Morning Herald to task over its call for the resignation of Bill Shorten in June, following his arguably disastrous appearance before the Royal Commission into trade union governance and corruption, and calling for the resignation of the Commissioner himself just two months later, referring to these editorial calls as an ‘immature volatility’ which ‘smacks of an effort to exploit the vibe of the day rather than reflecting coherent values or providing a reliable collation of news and analysis on which readers can rely.’
I do not see how these two issues can be conflated and characterised in the manner editorialised by The Australian. These were two distinct events in the context of the Royal Commission, neither occurrence had a bearing on the other, and each issue had to be evaluated on its individual merits.
I couldn’t identify any editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald that specifically called on Mr Shorten to resign. On 17 June the paper did take a strong principled stand and had called upon him to ‘respond to the questions [raised by his Royal Commission appearance] immediately, in full, rather than wait until he fronts the royal commission into trade union corruption in late August,’ and noted ‘[t]he Opposition Leader should also reflect on the damage his continued leadership is doing to Labor, and as such to the interests of the people he claims to represent.’
This was an interesting move from Fairfax Media, considering they are being accused of being co-conspirators in a ‘jihad’ to bring down the current government. Their message to Mr Shorten, Leader of the Opposition, would indicate a far more balanced approach than that insinuated by Mr Dutton and The Australian.
Consequently, I struggled to understand the point The Australian was trying to make here. You would think The Australian would celebrate the fact that a newspaper often accused of a pro-Labor bias, had no calms about calling out Mr Shorten on his highly unsatisfactory performance before the Royal Commission.
As for the call on Mr Dyson Heydon to step down as Commissioner, again the paper was arguably performing its public duty over the unavoidable perception of bias hanging over his position. Mr Heydon may have rejected the application to recuse himself from the Royal Commission, as he is entitled to do, but that decision did not diminish the general public perception of bias, endangering the credibility of any findings the Commission may make.
Clearly, there are significant governance issues to address when it comes to the union movement and union officials. In the past I expressed my support for the introduction of new laws which would hold unions and union officials to the same standards as companies and company directors. However, such fundamental changes can only be achieved through a transparent, trusted, and apolitical process.
The Royal Commission is costing the taxpayers over $60 million and it is exploring an area critical to Australia’s future economic growth. Consequently, the only concern should be its ultimate success, to ensure its work will be effective, and its outcomes respected.
If The Australian is truly concerned about the future of the nation, it should support principled stands on issues of public importance from all quarters, rather than permit petty commercial competitive squabbles and partisan political alliances result in nonsensical, intellectually flawed editorials.
Bias aside, we do need to discuss quality of debate
The Australian, 2 September 2015
Peter Dutton sent himself on a kind of political suicide mission yesterday by claiming Fairfax Media and the ABC were waging a “jihad” against the government.
Politicians never win by carping about media coverage; they seem weak, sound shrill and provide more distractions from messages they self-evidently are struggling to convey. The act of complaining exacerbates the difficulties; better to call out jaundice and assert your own authority during interviews in real time. That said, there is nothing to suggest he wasn’t right.
There is no need for those interested in robust and productive debate to get bogged down in tit for tat allegations of media bias. The issue at hand is more about quality control. It should be no surprise that when groups of mainly young journalists are left to their own devices they will reflect the green, anti-establishment and progressive views of their cohort. That is why the tendency of the national broadcaster to operate as a staff-run collective takes it ever away from the mainstream and why, in commercial media, this will also be the natural slide if there is no strong and experienced editorial guidance. At The Australian we know newspapers and media organisations cannot make perfect calls on each and every issue but the general tone, crucial editorial decisions and quality of coverage and analysis will be greatly enhanced, and protected, by the collective wisdom of journalists and editors who have spent decades amassing knowledge and insight in their chosen fields.
The trashing of media standards, devaluing of journalistic experience and persistent tendency for even traditional media stalwarts such as The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age to allow the social media tail to wag their editorial direction is a live issue of public concern. The interplay between media and politics is crucial for any democracy, and no less so because the landscape is changing with tectonic shifts in the digital landscape. Crucial elements such as experience, fairness, good taste and social responsibility should not be sacrificed in the pursuit of Twitter-generated clicks or Facebook shares. To be sure, boosting online and mobile readership must be a crucial element in any strategy for print, radio or television. But if the quality of the product is diminished in the process, then rather than avert the road to ruin, companies may find a short cut.
It is important to nurture emerging talent without undervaluing the contribution of those who have seen governments rise and fall, markets boom and bust, threats emerge and pass, and scandals come and go. When we see a relevant story about Andrew Hastie turned into a front-page slur against the SAS commando turned political candidate we have to wonder about the checks and balances at play — especially coming just weeks after Fairfax was found to have shown malice against Joe Hockey. When the ABC and Fairfax became excited by the Australian Border Force press release story, they didn’t stop to ask whether our law enforcement authorities would plan an operation for which they had no legal authority. By following a Twitter storm they appeased a fringe audience while offending the good sense of a wider readership. In June The Sydney Morning Herald called for Bill Shorten to resign in the wake of his appearance at the trade union royal commission, but then just two months later it called for the commissioner to resign. This immature volatility smacks of an effort to exploit the vibe of the day rather than reflecting coherent values or providing a reliable collation of news and analysis on which readers can rely.