When a political event unfolds, you would expect that each media outlet, and each political journalist might report that event from a different angle. You would expect a diversity of opinion and commentary in the stories, depending on the subjective and independent analysis of the individual journalist. But, my research into the stories told by the media shows this is not how political journalists behave. Instead, a media narrative springs up immediately to explain the what, why, how, when and who, and this narrative is adopted as given by the rest of the pack, with very few, if any, journalists willing to look at the story from a different perspective. Simply put, it is much more common for the political media to all tell the same story, and democracy is the loser.
I wrote recently about the success Alice Workman from Buzzfeed had in questioning the facts behind the AFP’s raids on the AWU, and how her reporting blew a hole in the media’s usual ‘unions are corrupt’ narrative, simply by investigating how it came to be that the media arrived at the scene ahead of the police. This type of brave, swimming-against-the-narrative-tide reporting is the exception, not the rule, in the Australian political media. Usually, political stories follow a far more uniform pattern of characterising the ‘facts’ of events as a ‘given’, in what I call the ‘train track narrative’ – as if the train only has one option – following the other trains ahead of it, instead of weaving its own path.
The train track media narrative was exemplified this week by the media’s reporting of the ongoing parliamentary citizenship saga. There seem to be some train tracks which are particularly popular, used as templates in media reporting, like a train set to auto-pilot. For example, there is the ‘they’re just as bad as each-other’ template. It appeared to be a relief to most journalists last week when Labor finally had some citizenship problems of their own. David Feeney’s lost paperwork and five others who claim to have taken reasonable steps to renounce their citizenship, who didn’t receive a response to their correspondence in time to tick that box before the commencement of a new parliament, have been a gift to this template narrative.
As the results of the audit came in, immediately it was the Labor MPs under a cloud who were the focus of the media’s attention. Just to name a few, we had Katharine Murphy at the Guardian making the story all about Labor. The ABC also did their best to paint Labor as the losers in the story, framing Labor’s cross-bench-supported bid to send all un-confirmed citizenship cases to the High Court as a ‘failure’, right there in the headline. Adam Gartrell and James Massola for Fairfax wrote a similar story under the heading ‘More Labor referrals loom as Bill Shorten’s horror fortnight ends with infighting’. David Speers, in the Daily Telegraph, reported Turnbull’s week as ‘the best for this year’, while labelling Shorten’s week a ‘shocker’. And so on and so forth.
To a casual observer of this story, it would seem that Shorten’s Labor opposition were the only party in parliament last week who had any issues with citizenship uncovered in the audit and that Shorten was mismanaging those issues by refusing to sort them out via the High Court. This narrative, however, doesn’t reflect the true reality of the situation.
Let’s look at some of the big things missing from this ‘thank goodness Labor can now be bashed about citizenship problems too’ narrative. Not only is Turnbull facing a by-election this weekend over his own citizenship problems with John Alexander in Bennelong, a by-election which could undermine his government’s numbers on the floor of the parliament (you would think this was a huge story, remember Craig Thomson?), he also has more citizenship problems uncovered through his pathetic attempt at an audit which looked more like a rabble of scant paperwork and disorganisation by the Liberal Party, who clearly have never had a proper process to deal with the requirements of Section 44 of the Constitution.
A reminder at this point that the Liberals and Nationals are in GOVERNMENT. The political stakes are higher for government than opposition I would have thought. The audit showed there are at least four Liberal MPs who still haven’t lifted the cloud of citizenship-doubts through their statements, who need to be referred to ensure they met the requirements the same as everyone else.
Even if you want to leave Josh Frydenberg out because his mother was a Jewish refugee, which Labor have chosen to do (as sympathetic as we all feel towards Jewish refugees, I’m not sure what this element of the story has to do with Frydenberg fulfilling the requirements of the Australian Constitution), there are still four who definitely need to be referred, as argued by Labor and the cross benchers – including Julia Banks, Nola Marino, Jason Falinski and Alex Hawke.
Falinksi has been named in the Daily Telegraph today as being ‘snared’ in the saga – a fact that was obvious last week as soon as the audit was released. All four of these Liberals aren’t arguing that they’ve taken ‘reasonable steps’, as the Labor MPs are, but rather are claiming not to be dual citizens of their respective ancestors’ birth nations, ignoring the fact that S44 requires that dual citizenry AND rights to dual citizenry be denounced.
So have their rights been denounced or not? The High Court are the only ones who can decide this. But even a non-lawyer like me, whose only education in S44 has been to follow the citizenship drama since June, can see that these four have a problem, just by looking at the paperwork they’ve submitted through the audit. Anyone reading media stories, however, this week would think these four MPs were being unfairly targeted by mean-big-bad-bully-Labor, who apparently coerced the cross-benchers into believing their conspiracy against the Liberals for political point scoring. That’s how the ‘they’re just as bad as each other’ story was old last week.
The fact is, Turnbull is shit-scared to send these four Liberals to the High Court because he knows that they are on shaky ground, and if even one or two of them was forced to a by-election, his government’s wafer-thin majority is at risk. So, why do journalists not report from this angle – from the angle that Turnbull blocked a bid by Labor to check both their own and Liberal citizenship cases – to get it all sorted at once – when it is clear that Turnbull would only fight to block the referral if he himself had doubts about his MP’s eligibility? If he thinks they are fine, as the journalists seem to agree, why not let the High Court lift the cloud and everyone can move on, starting 2018 afresh?
The media narrative straight out of the blocks in reporting the citizenship dramas unfolding last week was to rush for the ‘Labor are now on the bad-guy scoreboard and just as bad as the Libs’. But it is Turnbull, not Labor, who has the most to lose, and it is Turnbull’s MPs, not Labor’s, who can’t claim to have taken reasonable steps to renounce their citizenship. This is the crux of the story.
It stuns and frustrates me in equal measure that the political journalists are so quick to all write the same story, that they misrepresent the truth of the citizenship saga, and fall into unquestioning line with each other, leaving the public in the dark about what is really going on. There are many sides to every story, and when journalists all choose to go along the same track, the lack of diverse opinion is not just a bad look for their professionalism, but is also detrimental to democracy. We all lose when journalists don’t do their jobs well.