COVER STORY: The media elites versus the public
by Prof David Flint
News Weekly, March 12, 2005
What has happened to Australia's media? Journalists have all but abandoned diligent and impartial reporting and become unelected and unaccountable participants in the political process, argues former head of the Australian Broadcasting Authority, Professor David Flint. The following article is taken from Flint's newly-released book, Malice in Medialand (Melbourne: Freedom Publishing Co.).
During the Second World War, among the significant weapons the democracies had against Nazism were their media, especially radio. This continued during the Cold War. In the evil empires, it was a serious offence, at times even a capital offence, to listen to Western radio.
During the last war a BBC producer would react to poor quality work by asking the offender this searching question: "Would you risk your life to listen to this?"
This is the ultimate test. Would you risk your life to read, to see or to listen to this?
Of course, not all news and current affairs could, or even should, reach that standard. But when content breaches accepted ethical standards, when the highest professional standards are not being attained or maintained by those who claim to be at the quality end, then it is a question which could well be asked.
Perhaps the Australian media and the public should use this as a benchmark for quality. Which stories, which programs, would pass this threshold?
If few would, raising their performance is not something which requires government interference. To perform its crucial function, indeed its highest duty - informing the people on all aspects of governance, and scrutinising the nation's centres of power - the media must be free from interference or control by the organs of the state.
Overwhelmingly, the people expect the media to exercise their vast powers responsibly, and are constantly disappointed that this is not being attained, a conclusion confirmed yet again in the latest surveys taken in October 2004, reported in The Reader and The Australian, October 7, 2004.
The media's ethical failures are well known. While the news should be accurate, impartial and objective, too often it is not. This is principally because it is riddled with comment. As C.P. White famously observed, comment is free, but facts are sacred.
This intermingling leads inevitably to the selection of some news to fit the agenda of the commentator. And for our public broadcasters, the ABC and the SBS, opinion, clearly identified as such, must always be balanced. Not one news or current affairs program on a public broadcaster - not even one - should ever be, or ever be seen to be captured by one part of the political spectrum.
It is sometimes said that with the advent of TV news, the newspapers are no longer able to provide the latest news so they now provide analysis. Rather, instant news, without analysis, it is said, comes from TV and radio. This is in part true, and in greater part an excuse for the inexcusable.
Television, too, is now afflicted with that vice, the seamless and confusing melange of news and comment. This affliction was ensured on the ABC by the effective amalgamation, against some Board opposition, of news and current affairs which, for reasons of self-evident propriety, had hitherto been separated.
The result is that the reports, opinions and gossip of that ubiquitous corporate oracle, the gallery, slither and slide elliptically in and out of what is alleged to be the news.
When this occurs on ABC radio, the often unaesthetic intrusion of the untrained journalist's voice, particularly in the early morning, at least gives the warning to the more wary that the listener is in for the received view of the commentariat.
For years now the elite media has campaigned to achieve its political ends in those columns and on those programs where they not only should not, and where they know they should not, assuming thereby that the Australian people are too stupid, too forgetful and too uninterested to notice, to care or where they so often are wrong, to remember.
As Gerard Henderson puts it in the title of his report on the media and the 2004 election, "Political Journalism Means Never having To Concede Your Errors".
Martin Woollacott, a former foreign editor of The Guardian, in a recent lecture told his Australian audience, at least according to the sub-editor, that foreign correspondents are never neutral (Sydney Morning Herald, January 14, 2005). Those reporting a war in which their country is involved have particular difficulties - but elsewhere the public might have assumed a serious attempt at neutrality.
In a description reminiscent of our own political journalists, he says foreign correspondents are "instinctive moralists" and as such, are activists. Those on the spot tend to operate as a collective. And on the big stories they take similar positions, constituting a kind of "moral corporation". For example, from the 1970s, they have been harder on Israel, which may explain their reporting of a massacre in Jenin which did not occur. They welcomed the revolution in Iran, and were unsympathetic to the Shah, which interestingly reflected the misplaced views of the Paris intelligentsia and the French Government who thought that the Ayatollah Khomeini was a Francophile, and also the unfortunate Carter Administration.
The campaigning media was at its most brazen in the 1999 republican referendum. As I noted in Twilight of The Elites (Freedom Publishing, 2003), Lord Deedes, the distinguished British editor and writer, wrote that he had rarely attended elections in a democratic country where the press had demonstrated "more shameless bias".
Elite media unanimous
In 2001, the elite media was almost unanimous in campaigning, with the Greens and the Democrats, against a border control policy which had bipartisan political support and the overwhelming endorsement of Coalition and traditional Labor voters. (This may explain the practice of balancing comment on a range of issues by both major political parties with comment not only from the Democrats but also the leader of the Greens, even when their size was such that they were too small to have such status in the Senate).
If the elite media had had its way, Australia would be a republic - any sort of republic, provided the present Constitution were radically changed; we would have a new flag; our borders would be open to an increasing flood of clients of criminal people-smugglers; the federal government would have, on the basis of an inadequate report leaked to a supportive media, apologised to the so-called "Stolen Generation"; ATSIC would still exist, while the failed policy of throwing money at the indigenous issue would continue; welfare would be distributed to an increasing number of dependents without mutual obligation; sentences in criminal cases would be even more lenient; all indications of Christianity would be removed from public places; all cultures except the Judeo-Christian would be encouraged; the Howard Government would have been condemned for the so-called "children overboard" affair and for some sort of complicity in the Abu Ghraib affair; Israel, having offered Mr Arafat almost all of his demands except the right of return, and refusing to surrender to the Intifada now enhanced by suicide bombing, would be ranked among the rogue states; Saddam Hussein would be still in power; the Oil for Food programme would have continued and the US and UK blamed for the sufferings of the Iraqi children.
The elites are of course entitled to their views - but they are surely not entitled to requisition the news columns and news broadcasts of much of the nation's media, with the consequent flow-on to other media, nor are they entitled to expropriate so much of the current affairs programs of our taxpayer-funded public broadcasters to propagate their personal views.
It is ironical that the systemic ethical and professional failure of our elite media has occurred at the very time when our journalists have enjoyed more freedom from proprietorial or managerial control than at any time in the history of the Australian media. They have significantly failed to take advantage of this freedom to fulfil their high duty - to subject the nation's centres of power to proper scrutiny.
It is well established that the majority of journalists are further to the left in their opinions than of the overwhelming majority of Australians, including both Coalition and Labor voters. This is reflected in similar studies in the United States. It is not surprising, then, that a vast proportion of opinion in the media does not reflect the views of the majority. In itself, this would not be objectionable from an ethical viewpoint. But the improper insertion of opinion into what should be objective news, and at times in the determination of what is newsworthy, must be a significant factor in the decline in the credibility of the media.
In the United States, in both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, most of the mainline press campaigned against George W. Bush. This led to the early retirement of well-known presenter Dan Rather, and the dismissal of CBS staff when humble internet bloggers demonstrated that the Vietnam War documents - so damning to the President - had been manufactured by word processing software not then in existence.
In Twilight of The Elites, I recalled the way in which the elites had achieved a considerable part of their agenda over the last three decades of the 20th-century without the consent and often against the wishes of the Australian people. I referred to that well-observed phenomenon in the US and Australia, the long march of the elites through our institutions, particularly the media.
So in the 2004 election - as in previous elections and the 1999 referendum - news and current affairs in much of the mainstream media was presented to Australians through essentially elite eyes. As a class, the media elites despise John Howard, who is their Great Satan.
Just as Australians were often told over the preceding years that at some point John Howard was fatally wounded, so the election was presented as a series of devastating defeats for John Howard, with victories for Mr Latham who "won" the TV debate, who "won" most weeks of the campaign, and then who "won" the campaign itself.
Notwithstanding the insistence of the commentariat, Mark Latham did not win the campaign nor did he win that non-event which essentially exists to entertain the media, the TV debate.
The election result surprised the media elites. The reaction of some was amazement that the people would reject the counsel of their betters. The people had lost the confidence of the media elites!
This recalls the action of the Secretary of the East German Writers Union after an uprising by workers against the elites, their communist masters. He had flyers distributed in East Berlin's grand avenue, the Stalinallee, declaring that the people had frivolously thrown away the government's confidence. They could only regain it, he insisted, through redoubled work!
In reply, Berthold Brecht's suggested: "But wouldn't it be simpler if the Government simply dissolved the People and elected another?" (Die Lösung, The Solution, 1953.)