One of the most rewarding – and most deeply frustrating things about being a news junkie is that you get to see a lot more than the few soundbites that make the evening bulletins. Rewarding, because you get to hear what politicians say in context, and in full, when you watch the media conferences. Frustrating, because you also become rapidly aware that the treatment given to politicians is astonishingly uneven.
Greens leader Senator Bob Brown, Prime Minister Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott all gave media conferences this morning, and the contrast between how the media treated Senator Brown, and how it treated the two leaders, could not have been more marked.
In Brown’s conference, the questions and answers flowed pretty easily at first. For example:
What did Brown think of Malcolm Turnbull’s apparent disloyalty to Coalition climate change policy in his appearance on Lateline last night? Brown: ‘He’s been loyal to Australia and to the common sense that says we must tackle climate change … he’s exhibiting a wider loyalty’.
How about the UK government’s announcement of a 50% carbon reduction target, should Australia do the same thing?
Brown: ‘Australia has to take that into account … (but) the UK is not Australia’. Then came the first criticism from Brown: The maturity of the debate in Australia is very much under question … the Murdoch media has a great deal of responsibility to take for debasing that maturity’.
Asked about what sort of measures should be in place to ensure the carbon price scheme is ‘shyster-proof’, Brown responded simply, ‘Good ones’. He then addressed the journalist directly, pointing out that his position on a particular issue was misrepresented by that journalist in an article, and commenting, ‘Back to the question, we’ve got to look at shysterism and fabrication all over the place and do what we can’. (my italics)
That was the turning point. From then, the questioning became increasingly aggressive. Now, there’s nothing wrong with aggressive questioning in itself. It’s one of the ways the media can force a politician to answer. That’s not what happened here. Several times journalists attempted to interrupt Brown in his answers, and one journalist repeatedly interrupted Brown, describing his answers as ‘political gobbledygook’. She didn’t preface this with the phrase, ‘With respect, Senator …’, which usually accompanies a criticism.
Then Hugh Riminton dropped the bomb. He referred to Brown’s recent description of News Limited papers as ‘hate’ media’, and asked if this was a change in tactics for the Greens leader: ‘Are you on the front foot?’
Brown replied: ‘Yes, I’m being very much on the front foot here because I think the media – with some very, very good exceptions – can at times lose track of the fact that it’s part of the process of moving Australia into a much more secure future … some heat needs to be put onto those sections of the media which are trying to drag this process down’.
A journalist off-camera asked if Brown meant The Australian, and challenged him to name a paragraph, repeatedly interrupting Brown’s answer in an angry voice. Brown commented, ‘You compare and contrast and take on politicians and other sections of the media, but you don’t like it when we take you on … don’t be so tetchy’.
That statement apparently angered a 2UE journalist, who started haranguing Brown: ‘You just come out here every day and just bag out the Murdoch press …. why are you so obsessed with it … you bag out the Murdoch press, anyone you don’t like’. This went on for several more minutes, with the journalist not so much asking questions as taking Brown to task. It was difficult to follow Brown’s responses, due to the interruptions. Off-camera, several others called out, ‘Why won’t you answer the questions.’
It was a more aggressive and lively media conference than I’ve seen in a long time. Certainly, the media had no fear of Brown’s position as a party leader and influential Senator – in fact, their treatment of him bordered on completely disrespectful.
Gillard received very different handling. Questions were asked in an orderly manner, and in neutral tones. She was asked about Brown’s comments on the Murdoch media, the carbon price, and the UK government. Unless the question allowed her to score against the Opposition, she dodged it and served up a good helping of government talking points instead.
She was never pushed to answer the question, never interrupted and never subjected to insults or raised voices. Even when she brought up a recent example of The Australian misrepresenting the position of Westpac CEO Gail Kelly, she was not attacked.
Abbott, visiting a Sanitarium manufacturing plant on the Central Coast, was even more blatant in his refusal to directly answer questions. While challenged twice on Malcolm Turnbull’s comments, the questions were respectful in tone and did not interrupt. Abbott responded by restating coalition climate change policy, attacking the government (‘Our way is the smart way … theirs is the dumb way’) and bluntly informing the journalist that he was ‘completely misunderstanding Malcolm’s approach’.
Again, no attack followed this comment, and Abbott cut off that line of questioning. No one protested.
The rest of Abbott’s conference consisted of journalists asking questions, Abbott regurgitating talking points and criticism of the government, and never being challenged for it. Asked if Sanitarium had said they would suffer terribly under the ‘carbon tax’, Abbott replied that everyone would suffer. Asked if he thought Brown’s comments about the Murdoch media were fair, Abbott responded that Brown should tell the public about his dealings with Treasury on carbon pricing.
Not one of these evasions was challenged. Abbott controlled the media from start to finish.
This is not balanced coverage. This is not equal treatment. Each of these three leaders is enormously influential. What they say and how they say it informs the public in a way that no amount of sound bites can do. The media, as the sector that has the responsibility of bringing that information to us, should at the very least ensure that they subject them all to the same rigorous questioning. Why was Abbott allowed to turn the entire Q&A session into another platform for his message, while ignoring what was actually asked? Why was Gillard permitted to dodge a question on just how high she was prepared to consider setting her carbon price? And why was Brown the only one repeatedly challenged when his answers didn’t satisfy?
For that matter, why was Brown treated with far less respect than Abbott? Perhaps because – despite the Greens’ central role in policy and legislation under the minority government – he’s still portrayed as a Johnny-come-lately, an ‘extreme’ leader of a ‘fringe’ party. Or perhaps because he challenged some of the media for doing exactly what they are doing – giving the government and the Opposition a pass on actually providing any information, while focusing on trivial issues, misrepresenting people’s positions and generally engaging in blatant bias.
The report was nominally about Brown’s press conference. The headline? ‘Greens Leader has no plans to return’.
That should read ‘retire’, and speaks to how quickly the article was produced (and just how valuable sub-editors are, but that’s another story).
Sky’s headline, ‘Browned-off leader takes on media’, was a little better, but the story was the same.
Instead of talking about carbon pricing, asylum seekers or anything else that was actually asked of Brown (including the announcement he had made at the beginning of the media conference regarding a current enquiry before the Senate), the article opened with the news that Brown did not plan to retire any time soon. It mentioned that Brown had referred to Rupert Murdoch, who had just celebrated his 80th birthday with no plans for retirement.
Rupert Murdoch is, of course, the owner of News Limited, which controls The Herald-Sun and Sky.
The only other mention of the media conference conflated Brown’s response to the question about shysters with his response to the question directly about News Limited. Their selective reporting characterised Brown as taking a cheap shot at one reporter, to which all the assembled media rightly took offence – and that when they did so, Brown abruptly ended the conference.
Compare and contrast with the actual events, an audio transcript of which is available on the Greens website.
These are major news organisations. The Herald-Sun’s circulation alone is over half a million readers. They have a responsibility to report the news fairly and accurately, and to clearly label anything that is opinion. Their own code of ethics emphasises this:
1. Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.
And sadly, this is precisely what we don’t get.
Today is just a snapshot. The mainstream media gets away with this every day. And Murdoch media, at least, doesn’t take kindly to being criticised.
But this is precisely why they should be criticised. They should be held accountable to their own code of ethics, and be made to remember their obligations to the public.
Until they are, the only alternative is to find out for yourself what was really said, by whom, and in what context. Footage or transcripts of media conferences can usually be found with little difficulty.
It can be … enlightening.