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Depressed by the press: journalism bows to the authoritarians

In a moment when authoritarianism is on the rise around the world, our mainstream journalism is not up to the task of confronting the nation with the scope of the threat. Trapped in a paradigm shaped for a previous era where major parties roughly followed the same rulebooks, too many media bodies continue to normalise the shocking.

Of course the capacity of the media to change our awareness of norm-shattering behaviour, and provoke change, has collapsed since the “Moonlight State” and Watergate eras. Social media has crushed the business model based on advertising dollars and stolen much of the audience. Specialist journalists have too often been sacked in exchange for overworked and cheaper young entrants to the profession, who need to churn press releases into articles to fill space. Older heads are too often caught up in chummy friendships or the binds of “access journalism” where they can’t burn their sources.

Some great journalism remains: specialists who have the capacity to expose the crimes and scandals that betray our trust; people with integrity who challenge the whirlpool of nonsense with which our leading figures parry off the swords of enquiry; investigative heroes who adhere to the vocation of performing the role of watchdog to our democracy.

Too often these crucial individuals – and teams – are forced to operate in smaller organisations. Australia’s legacy media by contrast shames itself regularly. As a result, Australians’ news knowledge in is comparatively superficial. We have also lost the sense a shared reality, based on facts that can be interpreted differently but remain crucial to the discussion.

News Corp in Australia has increasingly taken on its American decay into propaganda for a frighteningly radicalised right. Culture-war framing shapes most stories. Victorians in particular have borne the brunt of its campaign to discredit the Labor Party. The pandemic hit the state hard for a number of reasons, but News Corp never missed an opportunity to make it worse, and redirect blame from the federal government. No wonder the “Freedom” rallies on Australia’s streets are largest in Melbourne.

One of the key strategies in a competitive authoritarian regime (where elections still happen but it is ever harder for the democracy-embracing party to win) is to cripple honest media. The ABC has borne the brunt of intimidatory attacks from our Coalition politicians with funding slashed, constant parliamentary attacks and investigations. It has also faced partisan appointments limiting its capacity to hold government to account. Discussion panels are made up of disingenuous political spin merchants or populist distractions, leaving expertise out in the cold. Acts of brave journalism still happen. These, however, are met with revenge in the form of inquiries such as Senator Bragg’s most recent effort, now delayed. Even the ABC’s co-operative chair, Ita Buttrose, was provoked to describe this one as an “act of political interference designed to intimidate.”

The audience is already primed to disregard disturbing revelations from the ABC anyway, since the News Corp outlets have joined the government in inoculating their people against trusting it. Just as Trump cast the mainstream media as “the enemy of the people,” the right has depicted the ABC as “lefty propaganda.”

Fairfax has also suffered. Its financial decline culminated in its “merging” with the Nine network headed by former Liberal Party deputy leader Peter Costello. The print mastheads are slipping towards partisan framing of their coverage.

Last week, The Sydney Morning Herald published an opinion column by the Human Rights Defence Alliance’s John Steenhof. He defended Morrison’s Religious Freedom bill as anodyne and safe. The broadsheet failed to declare that this is a body born of the Australian Christian Lobby and Steenhof a writer who has little time for the LGBTQI individual’s right to be free from discrimination. Paul Keating’s response to Peter Hartcher’s coverage of his National Press Club speech also highlights the limitations of some leading Fairfax journalists.

Older Australians still dependent on print news struggle to find honest coverage of issues and are often unaware the degree to which their preferred paper has declined.

Our commercial television news, which often takes its more important stories and their shaping from the print press, is similarly beholden to its corporate masters’ interests. Its viewership too has declined and the resultant sensationalism is partly to blame for the fact that too many Australians’ worldview is distorted.

The crisis in our federal government’s lack of integrity, with failures in facing both pandemic and climate threats, is thus not understood by too many. The decay of our democracy is not perceived by the establishment who still consume legacy news, as the crisis it is.

On Sydney’s streets last week, a former soldier in uniform spun a beguiling story to the “freedom” protest crowd that began with a prayer. He pointed out immediately that he was a prayer-and-bullets kind of guy, and lots of bullets would be needed. His QAnon speech bemoaned the infiltration of all arms of the Australian establishment with communists and pedophiles who need to be brought down. It was met with rapturous applause.

In Melbourne 10,000 of the noose-wielding mob were on the streets. People of the artsy left as well as the angry right believe in Clive Palmer and Craig Kelly to promise freedom from oppression and access to ivermectin.

This might all die down as our strong vaccination rates grant most of us the ability to go back to life as “Covid normal.” We would be foolish to trust in this, however.

In the US, the commentariat is just beginning to confront the crisis of journalism that helped take them from Obama’s 2015 to a nation on the brink of authoritarianism or fracturing into civil war, a mere six years.

The hilarious and shocking Trump clown-car candidacy was given millions of dollars’ worth of free coverage because institutions like CNN didn’t see any downside to the boost to their own business. News Corp’s Fox News and the right’s talkback shock jocks continued to spin a nightmare vision of the country detached from reality to thrash up a profit as well as a terrified Republican voter base. Eminent establishments such as The New York Times gave harsh critiques to Hillary Clinton while largely ignoring the ridiculous Trump campaign as irrelevant.

While the organisations that confronted their role in electing Trump, or failing to pick his victory, spent much time trying to hold Trump to account in the years that followed, they have returned with frightening speed to “normalcy bias.” While leading Republican political and media figures try to overthrow democracy and foment racial violence, the press returns to “both sides” coverage. In a year with a constant and overlapping series of climate crises, they continue to try to avoid sounding hysterical, but instead promote a sense that little is at stake.

The ABC has shown something of the tendency, in an echo of US media, to practise “refuge-seeking journalism” where exaggerated efforts to display “balance” have crippled important civic debates. Accusations that the media has a “liberal (left) bias” in the US are met with overcompensatory coverage of news and argument. Some resultant timidity at the ABC can give undue weight to government distortions from our non-commercial source of news.

Clever spin from well-funded and organised lobby groups helps shore up discredited arguments or give them heft far beyond their worth. Understaffed media organisations, aiming to meet frenetic deadlines and demands for immediacy, are grateful for the easy filler.

Both The Australian and The Australian Financial Review in August this year accepted the government line that coal must continue to be subsidised to shore up the energy grid. The headlines – “Grid and bear it: subsidise coal” and “Coal will be paid to firm up the grid” – could have been written by the government’s, or lobby’s, own writers.

The fact that the global trajectory would demand this taxpayer money be spent on developing renewables is framed out of the discussion. And it is this issue of “framing” that is at the core of the failure of journalism.

The right in America has shown itself adept at “playing the refs.” This ability to daunt media organisations into accepting the right’s agenda setting and framing of a topic is one key to their crisis of democracy. Rather than focusing on the crisis of democracy which the Republicans are forging, the mainstream media obsesses over the comparatively trivial “Dems in disarray” as the leadership negotiates with its two golden-handcuffed senators.

In Australia, for example, coverage of asylum seekers in the conservative, particularly tabloid, media has over the last decade been based too often on the incorrect framing that they are “illegal” and “queue jumpers.” Too rarely is the coverage based on the facts. This media failure has enabled the government to continue to persecute innocent people who came to us seeking safety.

Culture war “games” have thus turned life and death issues into something too “political” to address intelligently.

Whether many mainstream journalists are too inexperienced to place PR in context, too overworked to have time to discover the background, too immersed in the truthiness of their world’s beliefs to challenge disinformation, they are letting the nation down. The spirit of Schwartz Media, Michael West Media and our other organisations dedicated to holding the powerful to account needs to be embraced by our legacy masthead writers.

We need to consider the laws that can be crafted to balance the damage done by Malcolm Turnbull’s 2017 slashing of our media ownership laws. In a moment when the climate and democracy decay form a deadly helix, we cannot afford to have entertainment or agenda masquerade as news.

We need to debate new ways to fund the reliable news utterly critical to the functioning of democracy.

Too much is at stake to allow our news to frame this moment as “business as usual.”


This article was originally published on Pearls and Irritations and has been reproduced with permission.


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  1. Phil Pryor

    Merde Dog, the media Maggot of Massive Measurements is so inflated, so S S assertive, so Fuhreristic and selfindoctinated, we fail to notice what a sublevel savage the old wart is. He has no attributes of a civilised citizen doing his bit, playing his part, acting his role, to make this a better world for all. Masturbatory selfglowing magnificence is his credo, lying, exaggerating, publicising, propagandising, fomenting and fantasising, these are glorious policies, for a cerebral runt. Full of cunning stunts, fostering filth, encouraging deviation, twisted ambition and self fixation of underlings, he hires and fires to get his way. And, for this planet, his way stinks, oozes, festers.

  2. Jack Cade

    The cartoon Murdoch at the top is interestingly topical today – for me, anyway – in that a member of the management of the Port Adelaide Football Club has just been appointed as the head of News Ltd in SA.
    Port Adelaide is – or so I believed – a quintessential working class footy club, and yet for years it had Amanda Vanstone as a board member.
    No effing wonder I have lost all sense of where I belong in this country, or the UK (dual nationality, and ashamed of them both).
    My views are not represented by any political party. I simply do not understand how any country can voluntarily give up ownership of its resources to any foreign nation. Or how we can spend countless billions in armaments manufactured by a foreign country when the only use we will ever make of said armaments will be in wars provoked by that country, the most untrustworthy nation there has ever been. Just ask native Americans about broken treaties, or Great Britain about how the US put a price on joining the Second World War and reneged on a major promise concerning nuclear weaponry.
    The ABC model suggests I’m a natural Green, but Bob Brown and his bloody caravan proved the nonsense of that.
    Oh for an honest Indi who is not a disaffected former LNP candidate…
    Buckleys and Nunn.

  3. Michael Taylor

    Jack, that’s depressing news. The only good thing I’ve seen her do was wear a Port scarf at the 2004 GF. But it stops there. We can wipe our hands clean of her now.

  4. Roswell

    Some good news would be wonderful. Does anybody have some?

    I’m clean out of it.

  5. Harry Lime

    Yeah, Roswell,we’ll soon all be dead ,and that includes mendacious Morrison and his gaggle of incompetent and corrupt puppets.
    Vanstone? The stench of the Howard years still pervades the body politic.How old is Murdoch?..137?

  6. Kaye Lee


    We focus a lot on politicians and their lies here. That can be soul-destroying at times – it seems futile when the wrongdoing is so obvious and yet nothing happens.

    But it’s a fight worth fighting. Have a look at this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners. Murdoch doesn’t rule everywhere.

    Maria Ressa of the Philippines said the greatest threat to democracy is “when lies become facts”, while Dmitry Muratov of Russia said society is currently in a dangerous “post-truth period”.

  7. Roswell

    Kaye, great article. This appealed to me:

    When asked by a young female journalist for advice, Ressa said while the “world as it used to be, our world, is dead,” there is still “the excitement that you can help create what journalism is going to be like in the 21st century.

    I was feeling a bit low earlier. The death of those children in Tasmania shattered me.

  8. Kaye Lee

    I have found there are places I just cannot let my mind go. I cannot begin to think about the Tasmanian tragedy. I just can’t.

    When things go wrong in my life, I always think so what can I do to fix it. I cannot send my mind to what has happened there. It is devastating.

  9. Roswell

    Kaye, good tactic.

    I think there were a few cracks in my armour today.

  10. Kaye Lee

    My father always said give me the courage to change what I can and the strength to endure what I can’t. He has been dead for 25 years now but I often repeat his words to myself when I am struggling.

  11. Roswell

    I’m stealing that.

  12. Andrew J. Smith

    Very good article from Ms. Hamilton, and most relevant to Australia, UK and US or the Anglosphere, while too many other nations have also learnt how to leverage media for power and influence, e.g. Russia, Poland, Hungary, Turkey etc.. (joke/rumour a decade ago that their populists were all sharing a .pdf file of tactics that would be familiar in Australia e.g. ‘dog whistling’, ‘whataboutery’, playing the victim or martyr etc.).

    Jane Mayer’s Dark Money was prescient in identifying the ‘wheels within wheels’ of US power, including the Koch ‘Freedom Works’ audit of media to then develop ‘architecture of influence’ e.g. not just funding lobbyists, supporting astroturfing e.g. Tea Party, Capitol Hill and Covid ‘Freedom & liberty’ protests, research institutes in universities etc.; ‘media assembly line’.

    Dynamic ecosystem of Koch linked think tanks promoting radical right libertarian socio-economic ideology (plus climate and now Covid science scepticism/denialism), Tanton Network informing alt right etc. on the ‘great replacement’ via a faux environmental ‘hygiene’ lens of refugees, immigration and population, backgrounded by PR and comms by NewsCorp’s growing network of influencers and grifters to fill the spaces, then to create conservative voter coalitions.

    In the case of Australia, a decade ago, some wag described our media and its role as, to insularise the electorate (precluding awareness and empowerment), especially from the outside world. This has been so effective that most mainstream or legacy media miss clear transnational links, related to above e.g. Voter ID was spruiked by both the LNP and UK Tories without any evidence of need, nor knowledge that it’s a pet issue, including draft bill, of Koch’s US ‘bill mill’ ALEC…..

    One of the most shocking examples was Steve Bannon (whose muse was John Tanton), being platformed by ABC’s Four Corners…… now in the UK, frequent guest of the ByLine Times TV, is conservative journalist Peter Oborne who explains here in Open Democracy UK what is wrong:

    ‘British journalists have become part of Johnson’s fake news machine It’s chilling. From the Mail, The Times to the BBC and ITN, everyone is
    peddling Downing Street’s lies and smears. They’re turning their readers into dupes.’

    Peter Oborne 22 October 2019, 11.10am

    Not unlike how the nation’s PR, spin, dog whistling and comms central office, masquerading as the PM’s Office, drops policy and related news to a small coterie of trusted journalists (avoiding the majority) who present the government’s side the right way; societal outcome is confused, erratic and gamed electorates.

  13. GL

    Well gosh and gee whiz, what completely unexpected behaviour from the saviour. I expect Jackboots Gaetjens will be behind this.

    What a shame that the Serbian government isn’t like the LNP. Rio Tinto could slip them a few brown envelopes and the deal would be done.

  14. GL

    My morning started out great. Opened the back door to be greeted by mum and bub Potoroo (nicknamed Tiny and Tiny Tiny) and two Wallabies all waiting for their morning handout of leftover duck pellets and seed. Then I put out the ducks food bowl, freshly topped up, and went to let them out of their shed. Got back only to find a yellow and green Rosella sitting in the bowl flicking the pellets out to get at the seed.

    This is how my morning starts each day, so if I’m feeling blah it brightens me up quite a bit.

  15. wam

    Thanks, Lucy, for a great article, especially about the ABC. Over the last 10 years the ABC been shifting away from the centre. It became obvious when the 7.30 team lost o’brien and became hard on labor with ‘have you stopped beating you wife?’ questions and ‘have you anything to say mr abbot’. The current darwin situation has a surfeit of murdoch trained employees and their right thoughts are aired. The bias is exacerbated when, rupert’s editors have fallen over themselves carrying out their perceptions so that easy to read headlines often belie the facts in the story which are lost by most people reading the negative headline not the positive article. Many editors are so zealous to their beliefs that they went well over the journalistic mark and were prosecuted.
    ps we lose lives every year to wind and castle

  16. Ross

    A couple of gripes, Is there a rule at the ABC that says no current affairs program can go to air without someone with an American accent?
    There are around 200 other nationalities in Australia without a north American accent.
    And why would any sane person watch commercial TV station news?
    Half the time is devoted to adds, the weather is important but can’t be classed as news and what you are left with is four fifths of not much that actually matters.
    The on the spot reports with some talking head spouting inane crap is mostly just cringe worthy.
    Last but not least, anything Murdoch needs a cast iron black ban set in reinforced concrete.
    There is enough crap news to go around without the Murdoch’s sticking their oar in.

  17. GL

    Ross, The ABC is getting ready now for when Rupert takes over and makes it another part of his American style Fox Network. That was meant as a bit of sarcasm, but, on second thought, when Scummo and Crony Co. Inc get back in…well…

    Kaye Lee,

    Don’t forget the quotation attributed to Goebbels:

    “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

    Seems to sum up the LNP, ably assisted by that vile creature Murdoch along with 9/Fairfax and Stokes, pretty well.

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