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Monday, 15 September 2003
Page: 20051


Mr DANBY (5:15 PM) —Today I want to grieve about the relationship between the political process, the media and the future of Australian democratic institutions. Obviously, as a parliamentarian, I have a particular vantage point on this issue. I grieve for the trend in journalism, and the process of alienation from our democracy that I believe is partially its result. It has become a cliche to say that a free and independent media is essential for the proper functioning of a democracy; but it is as true now as it was in the 19th century. In Britain the struggle for an expanded franchise went hand in hand with the struggle to abolish tax on newspapers and allow free reporting of the House of Commons. Similar struggles for press freedom have accompanied the growth of democracy in many countries, including Australia.

Like most members of the House, I grew up in what many regard as the golden age of political journalism—the period of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Certainly there has been a dramatic shift in power between people in politics and people who practise journalism since that great expose of the Nixon government by the Washington Post. But the increasing focus on investigating and exposing the secrets and deceptions of the powerful has come at a cost. I believe that the cost is to the integrity of journalism, to the trust that must exist in a democracy between the people and their elected representatives and perhaps, paradoxically, to the standards of integrity in politics and government.

A new class of journalism has grown up since the 1970s—journalism characterised by a deep cynicism about all governments and all politicians. Although some journalists of this school have backgrounds in the far Left, few of them have retained much in the way of political principle. What they have retained and probably what they were taught at journalism school is the ingrained belief that all governments lie and cheat all the time and that the first duty of a journalist is to expose this. This trend has been aggravated by the increasingly sharp competition between traditional print media and television, more recently between network TV and cable news, and now between the Internet and all established media. Having competing sources of news and opinion is obviously a good thing, but the unfortunate consequence of some of the cutthroat media competition in the established media has been to drive this media down-market. News executives are increasingly valuing shock, sensation and trivia over reporting analysis and investigation.

The success of the media satire series, Frontline, exposed some of these trends and is evidence that my views about this issue have a wider resonance out there. Certainly the Australian public has these concerns as well. Recently the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University published a survey of both news reporting and public attitudes towards news in the United States. The study showed that since the eighties the proportion of hard news—serious reporting of politics, international affairs and public policy—had fallen dramatically while the proportion of soft news—stories about crimes, disasters, entertainment and celebrity gossip—had risen correspondingly. I am sure the same trend is evident in Australia.

It was obvious, the report said, that media organisations—particularly network TV but also newspapers and news magazines—have deliberately pursued a policy of `dumbing down' the news in an effort to attract an audience they believe to be increasingly uninterested in news of any seriousness or depth. Along with increasing shallowness in media news reporting has come increasing aggressiveness—what is now commonly called `attack journalism'. In a recent article in the Guardian, Polly Toynbee—herself no shrinking violet in the media jungle—described what she called the `prevailing style, habit and mindset' of much British journalism. The rule, she said, was:

Get the politicians, catch the government lying, denigrate, mock, kill. Never mind the substance of a policy—that's boring and time-consuming

Undermining the idea that government may be a force for good may suit the mad militias of Idaho, but, argues Ms Toynbee, the political left which believes in government should be wary of joining the `all governments are the same and all are rubbish' camp.

The irony of this is that the combination of soft journalism and attack journalism has damaged the media and failed to achieve its main objective—boost the circulation of newspapers and increase the rating of TV networks that engage in it. The Kennedy School survey showed that both are continuing their inexorable fall. People who want serious news and analysis are increasingly turning to other sources such as the Internet. I often read the New York Times online before the news reporting outlets here use it. It is very disturbing to see sometimes a pattern of articles in that great newspaper that are left out here in Australia.

More serious in the long run is the damage being done to democracy itself. If, as so many journalists and commentators think, `all politicians are liars and all governments are corrupt', what is the point of voting for anyone? What is the point of having a democracy at all? There are of course some politicians who are liars and some governments that are corrupt. Investigative reporting and criticism by the media play a vital role in exposing lies and corruption. In recent times in this parliament we have seen the notorious `children overboard affair' in which it was shown that both the Prime Minister and former Defence Minister Reith were, shall we say, less than entirely forthcoming with what they knew and when they knew it. Both the media and opposition members of this House played important roles in exposing the truth of this matter.

But when the media goes overboard with what the Kennedy School calls `the journalism of outrageousness' it often defeats its own purposes. An example of this was the concerted attack on President Clinton over the Lewinsky affair. Here we had a president who engaged in grossly improper behaviour, then lied about it, but the media barrage against Clinton was so over the top, so sensational, so lurid and so rooted in hearsay that the American public opinion swung behind Clinton. In the end, it damaged the media as much as Clinton.

We are now seeing a more egregious example of attack journalism in Britain where the Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair is being assailed from both the left and right in the media for having joined the United States and Australia in the war in Iraq. Whatever one's view of the war in Iraq, the media shark attack on the Blair government is the issue that I want to focus on. The attack is not just coming from people who are opposed to the war, such as the Guardian and the BBC, but especially from Tory papers such as the Daily Mail, which have had some outrageous headings. For example, after the death of Dr Kelly the Daily Mail heading was: `Are you proud of yourselves?'

Indeed, the BBC news programmers whose controversial role was central to this whole affair were then given front page stories in right-wing news magazines like the Spectator to pursue their vendettas against Tony Blair. Most striking, however, is the fact that the attack on Tony Blair is being led by the state broadcaster, the BBC. Polly Toynbee writes:

The trouble is that a generation of young journalists now know nothing else, bred on the idea that attack is the only sign of journalistic integrity—all politicians are villains, all journalists their natural predators.

The effect on young people, in their non-consumption of news and their `turning off' politics, is clear from the Kennedy School of Government study, which should be read by all members of this House. The prize example of the mentality that Toynbee identified is the BBC journalist, Andrew Gilligan, who, as we now know, based his allegations that the Prime Minister had deliberately falsified intelligence information and lied to the House of Commons on testimony from a single anonymous source, contrary to the BBC's code of practice as well as basic journalistic ethics. Even then, as we also now know, Gilligan falsified what that source, the hapless Dr Kelly, had told him. Moreover, without the knowledge of the BBC board of governors, during the recent inquiry of the British foreign affairs and defence committee Andrew Gilligan prepared questions to other witnesses for members of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats—a really disgraceful involvement, which reflects not only on Gilligan but also on the BBC board of governors. No wonder the BBC now admits it is partly responsible for Kelly's death.

It would be a great tragedy if the ABC and SBS and our quality newspapers here in Australia followed the BBC and the London tabloids down the path of soft news and attack journalism. There were signs during the recent Iraq war that some people in the Australian media think this is the way to go. Recently Alan Ramsey in the Sydney Morning Herald has, for example, embodied this kind of attack journalism. He seems to think that it is his role to peddle his ancient grudges against the Labor Party and his conspiracy theories about the sinister influence of various lobbies on Australian politics. He does this without speaking to any of the people whom he criticises. For instance, I was the subject of one of his articles. Although I am not a national figure in Australian politics, I got three-quarters of a page and was mentioned 26 times without being spoken to at all. The ethics of that is something I will leave to this House to make a judgment about. The future health of Australian democracy depends on those who work in the media resisting the temptations that Polly Toynbee identified.