May 4th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: The limitations of American power

When will John Howard step down?

BANKING: Kiwibank takes off in New Zealand

QLD: Philippines banana imports endanger Australian industry, wildlife

Straws in the Wind: Monocultured multiculturalism / Reporting China

LAW: High Court ducks IVF issue

ALP must put forward alternative program: Doug Cameron

Refugee stance defended (letter)

Banks' deceptive conduct (letter)

Tax holidays for multinationals (letter)

MEDIA: Shoot the messenger

The promise - and pitfalls - of free trade

What Gusmao's election means for East Timor

COMMENT: Holocaust taunts misguided

BOOKS: Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News, by Bernard Goldberg

Demons and Democrats: Kim Beazley's view

Books promotion page

Shoot the messenger

by John Styles

News Weekly, May 4, 2002

According to ABC radio presenter Sandy McCutcheon, Shane Stone's recent media critique, delivered to the Liberal Party Federal Council, "got a lather up amongst a huge number of [ABC] listeners".

The Liberal Party's federal president used his opening address to charge that some media outlets "lecture Australians on different issues", and he criticised "the failure of the media to live up to the responsibility [of being] an accurate recorder of our nation's history".

In particular, Stone attacked what he saw as an attempt by many in the media to portray last year's Coalition election victory as "a trick, a race election, a rigged result and an illegitimate mandate". He also accused the media of a two-year campaign of vitriol directed against John Howard in the lead-up to the election. Stone said the PM "has put up with this nonsense for his entire career of public service".

Shane Stone developed his thesis by naming journalists he believed to be guilty of these and other perceived journalistic sins.

Even if all that Shane Stone had achieved was to raise the ire of ABC listeners, that in itself would have made the exercise entirely worthwhile. But the Liberals' federal president achieved more.

The response to his speech revealed once again that some Australian journalists are far more relaxed and comfortable delivering criticism than receiving it.

Margo Kingston, Sydney Morning Herald columnist and diarist on the newspaper's website, described Shane Stone's critique as "pathetic". Her description more aptly fitted the shallow defence offered by her Fairfax colleague Claire Miller of the Melbourne Age. Talking on ABC radio (where else), Miller resorted to the tired old "shooting the messenger" cliché.

"One of the things that concerns me about attacks on the media," Miller said, "is that they're generally an attempt to attack the messenger rather than the message."

Come on! If delivering messages was all that journalists did, I doubt Shane Stone would have complained. But, as we all know, that isn't the way it works.

First, the journalistic messengers listen to the message. Then they decide whether or not they will deliver the message. If they choose to do so, they then decide whether to deliver all of the message, or just part of it. Invariably, if they do decide to deliver some of it, they will then rewrite it, emphasising or de-emphasising critical information according to their own belief system.

For example, in the coverage of the "children overboard" Senate inquiry, it would be like a journalist leaving out or playing down the behaviour of the illegal arrivals that might cast them in a less than sympathetic light. Or like, say, in the debate over logging in Australia's forests, an environmental writer giving great emphasis to the case of the greenies while playing down the rights and concerns of forest workers.

You see, messengers that behave like that aren't really messengers at all. They're propagandists - which was the point Shane Stone made in his speech.

However, not content with one cliché, Claire Miller inflicted another upon her listeners. "You know, a free and independent media is about basically allowing that debate to happen because that's what greases the wheels of democracy," she said.

That will come as a surprise to the readers of The Age who recognise that so-called "independent" journalism at the Melbourne broadsheet is largely about greasing the wheels of any fashionable left-libertarian cause that's going.

Also on the ABC, replete with glass jaw, was Mike Steketee of The Australian. Steketee is apparently pining for Paul Keating. Shane Stone's media criticism? Aw, that's nothing, compared to Keating's, according to Steketee:

"Really what Shane Stone is doing I saw as an attempt at intimidating the media. I just thought he didn't do it very well. It was a pretty crude attempt. I mean, Paul Keating used to do it much more effectively, I think. When I was in the gallery, which was when Keating was Treasurer and, well, during the time he was Treasurer, I think his intimidatory tactics did actually have the effect of making some people, particularly more junior journalists in the gallery, pull their punches because you knew that, you know, if you said something critical of Keating you were likely to cop a big blast, probably personally through a phone call the next morning. So even subliminally I think that had an effect."

Steketee made his comments on an edition of Radio National's Australia Talks Back devoted entirely to some of the issues raised in Shane Stone's speech. The program asked, "How well are we served by the Canberra Press Gallery?" One talkback caller would have spoken for many Australians when he answered that question with this view: "My distrust of the media goes back to the early 70s when so many journos lined up with Whitlam's crowd." Was he suggesting that the press gallery journalists were harder on the Liberals than Labor? "I would think, well, not so much necessarily the Liberals as the Liberals as such, but conservative voters generally, Christians such as myself, timber workers as opposed to environmentalists, they're harder on them. One thing that really annoys and puzzles me is they treat ex-communists with respect where I think they should treat ex-communists with the same scorn and derision as with which we all treat Nazis."

Shane Stone was criticised for daring to question the role of the Canberra Press Gallery. He should be applauded - the right people were complaining.


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