Sometimes I despair of our media, I really do.
Today Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans announced their resignations from the Ministry and the Parliament. Evans will stay on until a replacement can be found for him, and Roxon will step down at the next election. Both said they’d discussed their plans with the Prime Minister a year ago, and decided that their family obligations (and in the case of Evans, the long commute from Perth) were the major factors in their decisions. They stressed their decisions were not due to a lack of confidence. The Prime Minister added that she’d decided to make the announcement now, after the election date was set and before Parliament sits again next Tuesday.
Cue the wild speculation. Cue the hyperbole. Cue a mainstream media frenzy, hurriedly written scream-sheet stories, and any number of pundits dragged from their Saturday brunches to give us their ‘expert’ analysis.
This is probably my favourite headline: Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Campaign In Disarray As Chris Evans Resigns And Robert McLelland May Vacate His Seat. Really, all it needs are four or five exclamation marks.
The campaign – you know, the one that hasn’t commenced, except in the minds of headline writers – is ‘stuttering’. The resignations are ‘shock’. The carefully chosen photo of the PM blowing her nose is captioned as ‘an emotional PM’. The government is ‘in chaos’. It’s triggered a ‘major reshuffle in Cabinet’ (affecting four out of over thirty Ministers is major, it seems). These resignations are a vote of no confidence in Labor. No less than seven – count ’em, seven – Labor Parliamentarians are about to resign. Oh, and these resignations are ‘really’ about punishing Kevin Rudd’s supporters. (The niggling detail that Roxon was one of Rudd’s most vicious critics when he challenged for the Prime Ministership last year seems to have escaped some reporters.)
Never mind that seven Liberal Parliamentarians have also announced their intention to resign. Most of them gave similar reasons – family commitments, felt they’d served their electorate well but wanted to move on, etc. Judi Moylan is one of those. She’s well known for crossing the floor on asylum seeker issues to oppose the Coalition’s draconian measures, and being a vocal critic of the Pacific Solution. Strangely, no reporter’s suggested that she was ‘invited’ to resign because of this.
And how about Mal Washer? He’s gone head to head with Abbott himself. His was one of the loudest voices arguing that Abbott should not have the right to veto the abortifacient drug RU486, and opposed Abbott’s proposal to make teens’ medical records accessible to parents. Again, no one has ever speculated on whether he’s being pushed.
I guess ‘personal reasons’ only apply to Coalition members when leaving Parliament. No Labor politician would do that – there must be a hidden (or not-so-hidden) agenda. At least as far as our media is concerned.
One reporter even helpfully suggested to Shadow Education spokesperson Christopher Pyne, in a media conference today, that it was a case of ‘rats leaving a sinking ship’. Well done, that journalist. Your cheque from Peta Credlin is in the mail.
Parliamentarians leaving before an election is nothing new, and the degree to which their departure might cause problems for their party varies. For example, before 2007’s election, 16 Coalition members resigned – including two who were under scrutiny for links to a convicted fraudster and for failing to make proper financial disclosures. Arguably, for Roxon and Evans to go now serves the government well; it allows time for the new appointees to settle into their roles and prove themselves. Not that you’d hear that from the media.
Then there’s the matter of the election date announcement. Senator George Brandis, Shadow Attorney-General, all but called the Prime Minister a liar in his appearance on Lateline, suggesting that had an ulterior motive. How curious, he said, that this happened just the day before former Labor, now Independent MP Craig Thomson was arrested and charged with fraud. Not that he’s saying anything, oh no, but isn’t it curious?
Pyne took up that theme today, but – as usual – went one step further. The PM had announced the election when she did simply so that she could avoid a by-election in Thomson’s electorate, he asserted.
For reasons passing understanding, these statements went entirely unchallenged.
For a start, it’s a ridiculous notion. If Thomson is convicted of fraud and sentenced to 12 months or more in jail, he will have to step down, and that will trigger a by-election. Announcing the date of the national poll does nothing to change that, and any political journalist would know it. So why did no one go after him?
Secondly, this is the third time in as many days that the Coalition has either implied or outright said that the PM is lying. There is no Parliamentary privilege here to protect them, yet they’re getting away with it. There’s not even a token ‘Mr Pyne, are you really accusing the PM or lying’ soft question.
And while we’re at it, what about the media and the circumstances surrounding Thomson’s arrest? Very interesting, those. Someone tipped off the media that the arrest was about to take place, and as a result some very tasty footage of Thomson being escorted out of his office by no less than six burly detectives was obtained. Remember, this man was arrested on suspicion of fraud – he was not considered violent, or known to be armed. But oh, what a lovely circus that was. And of course, no one employed by a news organisation who was there is going to ask questions about just where they got their information. Even though they should.
I know it’s an old and tired drum, but I’m going to keep beating it. News media exists for a number of reasons – but feeding soft questions to politicians and letting them get away with rehearsed answers that amount to mere noise is not one of them. We have a right to expect that if a politician makes unsubstantiated accusations, investigative reporters will uncover the truth and present it without fear or favour. We have a right to expect that a news organisation will attempt to be objective – or at least not show outright partisanship in its reportage. Op-ed columns (or more commonly, these days, blogs) are almost always going to display some leaning towards left or right, but there’s no excuse for the Daily Telegraph article mentioned above. That’s not news. It’s a Coalition media release dressed up in respectable clothing.
So often, mainstream organisations direct sneers towards independent and citizen media. This usually takes the form of accusations that bloggers, etc., are (a) not bound by journalistic ethics, (b) not properly trained (and therefore don’t know what they’re writing about), or (c) biased.
Insert obvious declaration of self-interest here. I’m not going to pretend that such accusations don’t infuriate me, and that’s at least partly because some blogs are little more than mouthpieces for a party line. But the rise of independent media isn’t just about having access to the internet, especially where politics is concerned. It’s born of frustration.
When the media people pay for is blatantly partisan … when the reporters appear to be either too lazy to ask hard questions or too oblivious to realise they’re being managed … when they don’t seem able to do even a little research into the claims of politicians … sooner or later, we’ll start to speak up for ourselves.
Maybe we don’t have access to the politicians (and I hereby invite any politician who’d like to be interviewed by independent media to step right up, leave your email address in the comments; I’d love to sit down with you), but we can ask the questions. We can challenge the message and demand answers instead of evasions and slogans. We can be aware that we have the power to shape the message, and the responsibility to do so in a way that relies on facts, not spin or outright fabrication.
In other words, we can be what the mainstream media should be – Marshall McLuhan’s watchdog of the mind.
Here’s an idea. Let’s replace the Canberra press gallery with independent media for the first sitting of 2013, and see what they produce. Let’s hold independent media to the standards of mainstream media, and judge the questions asked in pressers accordingly.
I think the results would be … interesting.
Even better, though, would be a situation where independent and mainstream media co-existed to call all politicians to account, to inform the public of the facts and to safeguard against the political desire to change not only what we think, but how we think.