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The failure of Australia’s political media

By Peter McMahon - posted Friday, 8 December 2006


A tired and emotional Glenn Milne’s rampage at the Walkley awards recently reminds us once again just how dodgy our political journalists are. We rely on people like Milne, Michelle Grattan, Paul Kelly, Laurie Oakes and the rest to inform us about our nation’s politics. They wield real power since they not only tell us the news, they tell us what it means as well.

One of the interesting things about Mark Latham’s diary was his comments on the media. They were almost uniformly negative, which is likely why his analysis of the political system did not receive more serious attention in the media. They mostly just went along with the “oh, he’s just bonkers” line taken by the politicians, otherwise some explaining would have been required.

As I recall, Latham called Milne the “poisoned dwarf”. I don’t know how tall Milne is, and certainly don’t support heightism, but given Milne’s excuse for the attack, perhaps Latham was just being accurate about the poisoned bit.

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But enough cheap shots, the failure of Australia’s media in covering politics is a huge problem for our democracy. Journalists are the intermediaries between the people and the arcane world of politics, and we rely on them to interpret events meaningfully. If they are continually biased or lazy, then the electorate cannot make reasoned judgments and democracy cannot function.

About 20 years ago I worked in Parliament House, Canberra, for a Labor senator where I encountered the Canberra press gallery. I was struck by how much time journalists spent reading newspapers in the library, and how rarely they talked to ordinary politicians. Then I discerned a pattern; the leaders broke the stories, and the others hurriedly joined the pack. There was minimal serious investigation going on.

In our office we made constant efforts to alert journalists to issues of substance, but they were rarely interested. Then one day I suggested to my boss we attempt to organise left staffers into a research pool to better deal with issues as they arose. The left was continually creamed by the right because they were not on top of the issues. It came to nothing: as one honest MP told me, we don’t want our staffers working on joint projects, we want them following us around.

The funny thing was a few days later a story appeared in The Australian about a secret left think tank being organised. I could only wish it was true.

About the same time I was having a beer in the old non-members bar with a youngish print journalist (who afterwards went on to have a successful career as a senior staffer in state politics) when the topic got onto Indigenous issues. To my great surprise, out came the usual prejudices - aborigines were weak and would not fight for their own culture (compared to say, the Maoris), so why should we care? I pointed out to him some of the literature on Indigenous resistance, and hopefully he read it. He certainly needed to actually find out something about this important subject.

These three realities - the ignorance and personal bias of journalists; the failure of journalists to actually find stories; and their inaccuracy in reporting when they did - typified my experience with political journalism.

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The role of the media in politics has always been central. It was newspapers that arguably invented modern politics. Once each political party or viewpoint had its own paper, and news and debate flowed freely. Now we typically have only one or two newspapers in each city, all owned by rich conservative old men whose politics range from right wing to far right wing and who impose their will on their papers more or less overtly.

In my own home town a brash young man has attempted to turn a staid, dull but reasonably reliable paper into a tabloid cheerleader with all the emotional manipulation this entails. He has already had brushes with ethics groups and the law, but so what? His vendetta against the current Labor Government has become utterly inane (what’s next -“Carpenter Devil incarnate, says poll”?). The sad thing is The West Australian is one of the few independent papers left.

The situation with the electronic media is worse. With the honourable exception of the fast-diminishing ABC, political news and debate on radio is almost entirely banal, or just rabid. As for TV, aside from a couple of ABC and SBS programs and the odd tit-bit elsewhere, TV is a political commentary free zone.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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