If you want an example of the Australian media’s ingrained toxicity, the reporting of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s decision on Saturday to reinstate COVID payments to casual workers is a splendid one.
Mr Albanese had earlier and wrongly decided that the payments, mandated to end on June 30 by the previous LNP government, should not be renewed. This unwise decision, taken in the midst of surging infection around the country, provoked alarm from many quarters including some media. It was accompanied by startlingly ill-informed comments from the Prime Minister, suggesting that “good employers” ensure that their casual employees can work from home when unwell. A great deal of casual employment cannot be undertaken “from home,” a fact one hopes would not escape a Labor Prime Minister’s notice.
However, after taking the criticism on board Mr Albanese announced that the payments would be extended until September and backdated, so no one would suffer from his earlier error in judgement.
Media, including the Canberra Times ($), the Sydney Morning Herald the Australian, Sky News, the Guardian and 6 News Australia are among those who chose to report these events as a “backflip” by the Prime Minister. “Backflip” is a derogatory term only ever used by media to imply weakness and inconsistency. The use of that one word signified the negative nature of their narrative. Albanese had not “reconsidered after listening to critics.” Albanese had “caved under pressure.”
“Backflip” in this context is a failed metaphor. All backflips result in the performer facing the direction from which they began the action so are not a change at all, but rather an elaborate means of returning to the same point of view. Nonetheless, the word has become a fundamental component of the lexicon of political commentary. This in itself could be considered a metaphor for the state of the industry.
The message conveyed to politicians is toxic: You must change this decision but if you do we will attack you for your weakness and inconsistency.
If you continue to attack someone for making a change for the better you’re likely more invested in attack than you are in change. Regrettably, our media frequently create the impression that they are far more dedicated to furthering the former than the latter. So wedded are they to negativity they are unable or unwilling to acknowledge that a government capable of reversing its bad decisions is a democratic rather than an autocratic body, and the kind of government we so desperately need at this time.
The “backflip” narrative is an elaboration of the press conference “gotcha” moment so beloved by many Australian journalists. It’s nothing to do with speaking truth to power or responsibly informing the public, rather when it works it’s a “look at me” reporter’s power trip, an opportunity to momentarily grab the spotlight if a politician can be made to look foolish, inept, or ignorant.
The moment a journalist employs the term “backflip” they have fallen into editorialising. They have made a choice, perhaps unconsciously given the prevalent misuse of the term, to contaminate their reportage with biased language rather than simply reporting the facts. It is a fact that the former Morrison government mandated the termination of COVID payments on June 30th. It is a fact that Mr Albanese initially intended to uphold that termination. It is a fact that he reconsidered this decision and extended and backdated the payment. A choice is made by journalists as to how to present these facts to the public: as reconsideration, or backflip. There is a glaring difference in the impressions created by these two words.
While we have managed to elect a new government, we are still stuck with the same old media who cannot or will not imagine a non-toxic politics. This will likely not be the last time the Albanese government may have to change its position. Any government must be granted the space in which to reverse bad decisions without enduring toxic criticism from toxic media who are more interested in furthering discord than they are in facilitating positive change.
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