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Speech by John Howard at Melbourne University.



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Audio Length: 73 minutes

Audio Quality: Excellent

Number of Facilitators: Two

Number of Interviewees: One

Other Comments: Questions from lecture attendees

START OF TRANSCRIPT

MICHAEL GAWENDA

Good evening. I want to welcome you all to this first public event under the auspices of

the University of Melbourne Centre for Advanced Journalism. My name is Michael

Gawenda, and I am the director of the centre. We meet today on the traditional lands

of the Wiradjuri people of the Coolum nation, we pay our respects to their elders, past

and present.

You will find on your seats a flyer for our next event, a panel discussion next Tuesday

August 11, with some of Australia’s leading journalists on the relationship between

politics and the media. It’s a follow-up event to our lecture tonight.

And there are flyers, I hope somewhere at the side, which set out the goals of the

centre, please take one. Our hope is that the centre will develop a relationship with the

general community that will enhance our understanding of the way the media and

journalists operate, and the role that the media plays in our society.

I would now like to invite the Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis to introduce our lecturer.

Professor Davis.

GLYN DAVIS

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Michael, thank you very much. May I join Michael in welcoming you all to this first

lecture from our new Centre for Advanced Journalism, and thank Michael for the

invitation to invite our guest lecturer.

The centre is a new entity at the university. It’s already doing great work to improve

understanding of journalism amongst practitioners and scholars and the public, but

tonight’s lecture, I think, gives us a taste of the vitally important work that it can do.

Our lecturer, of course, is John Howard, Australia’s second longest serving prime

minister after Sir Robert Menzies. Sir Robert, I should note in passing, was a graduate

in law from the University of Melbourne, while Mr Howard is a graduate in law from the

University of Sydney. Between the two of them, they were prime minister for more than

30 years, which only shows, too, the value of a great university education.

Alongside his 11 year service as prime minister, Mr Howard also served as federal

treasurer from 1977 to 1983, and twice as federal leader of the Opposition. He served

in Federal Parliament for an extraordinary 33 years. And of particular interest this

evening will be his attitude to the media, his interactions with journalists over the

course of a long and very distinguished political career. Indeed, no other Australian

public figure possesses anywhere near the same degree of eye-witness experience of

how the media operates in this country.

As prime minister, it was often remarked that Mr Howard innately understood the

importance of talkback radio, particularly in regional Australia and the elderly. But the

evidence suggests that Mr Howard also appreciated fully the importance of non-commercial media in reaching key decision-making audiences.

In a critical but not unsympathetic biography, Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen

quote Mr Howard as saying, “If I had the option of only one electronic media outlet for

messages to colleagues and opinion-formers, undiminished by anyone else’s

interpretation, I would choose an interview on AM radio.”

Unlike his Labor predecessors, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, Mr Howard was also an

astute cultivator of relationships with the Canberra Press Gallery. Errington and van

Onselen claim that where Hawke and Keating invited the same journalists time and

time again for hospitality at the lodge, John Howard invited most of the Press Gallery

on a rotating basis. Not, they say, to buy favourable reporting, but to use the

opportunity to sell his message to the widest possible audience.

The topic of tonight’s lecture, I hope, will give Mr Howard ample room for expanding on

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a unique set of prime ministerial insights into journalism. He will address us on politics

in the media: the good, the bad and the ugly. Please join me in welcoming the former

prime minister of Australia, the Honourable John Howard.

JOHN HOWARD

Well thank you very much, Vice-Chancellor, the Chancellor, Michael Gawenda, ladies

and gentlemen. You might well ask, and I suppose I ask myself this on a number of

occasions, given that in the time that I’ve been out of office, out of politics, I have given

very few lectures and very few set piece speeches. You might ask why I elected to

come here tonight and to respond to Michael’s invitation.

Well there are three reasons. The first relates to Michael personally. He’s a journalist

with whom over the years, like all of them, I’ve both agreed and disagreed and

interacted positively and negatively, but he won my undiminished admiration, affection

and respect when defying the left liberal tradition of newspaper the Melbourne Age, of

which he was then editor, he editorialised in favour of the Australian government’s

decision to join the coalition of the willing in Iraq. I thought it was an act of not only

high order judgement, but also an act of very considerable courage.

The admiration I had for him was then augmented by the excellent work he did as the

Washington correspondent for the Melbourne Age and for Fairfax papers generally,

where his coverage of the events entirely, of course, of the Bush administration, and

the coverage was critical, and I think on most occasions, very objective. He

augmented a very high regard I developed for his skill and balance as a journalist.

The second reason why I wanted to give this lecture tonight, and this may sound a little

convoluted, is that I am a very passionate opponent of what I may fear may be the

latest fad to be imposed on the Australian community, and that is some kind of bill or

charter of rights. And the reason why I am against a bill of rights, there are many

reasons, but one of them is that I regard the true guardians of liberty in Australia as

comprising three pillars of our nation. The first of those is, for all its faults, a vigorous

and highly competitive parliamentary system. The second is an admirably impartial

and incorruptible judiciary. And the third is a free and sceptical media. And I have the

simple view that if those three pillars are strong and are working well, then they are

greater guarantors of the human rights and the individual liberties of the citizen than

any stated charter of rights.

I don’t intend to deal at length with that issue tonight, it belongs to another place and

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another lecture, but I do want to stress how important I regard, in defence of the

democratic rights of the people of Australia, the existence of a free and sceptical

media. Now let me say that I stress the word sceptical, and I’ll come in a moment to

the importance of scepticism as distinct from cynicism amongst people in the Australian

media.

The third reason why I wanted to give this lecture tonight is that I have to disclose to

you that my default career was almost certainly journalism. If I had not been either a

lawyer or a politician, I might have been a journalist. And as was the want then, and I

guess it is still the want, but in my final year at Canterbury Boys High School in Sydney,

I was invited to write down the careers I might be interested in. And after writing down

law, because at that stage I didn’t see politics as a career - in those days, the want

was that people actually practised a profession, ran a business, did something else

before they went into politics, that I wrote down journalism as one of the three things

that I might well be interested in doing.

And when my dear friend Frank Devine, the former editor of The Australian and erudite

contributor to Quadrant magazine died several weeks ago, I spoke very warmly to a

number of people who wrote obituaries of Frank of the great opportunity he gave when

I was summarily dismissed as leader of the Opposition in May 1989 - the opportunity

he gave to be a columnist in The Australian. And I enjoyed immensely writing each

week a column for the Friday issue of The Australian. And Frank gave me my first job

as a journalist, and we had one deal, and that was that if I ever returned to the

Opposition front bench, which I did six or seven months later, I would be as summarily

dismissed from my job as a journalist as I had been from my job as leader of the

Opposition, and that is exactly what happened. When Andrew Peacock invited me to

rejoin the Opposition front bench, and I accepted that invitation, Frank rang me and

said, you are fired.

And I did enjoy writing that column, and the one that I enjoyed most of all was writing a

column in praise of Allan Border for the leadership he gave to the Australian cricket

when it recaptured the Ashes in 1989. That has a particular resonance at the present

time.

But ladies and gentlemen, let me move very directly to some of the things I want to say

to you. And I want to speak from the vantage point as the vice-chancellor pointed out

of 33 years in Parliament, and of an extensive interaction with the media of Australia.

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I deliberately use the word scepticism as distinct from cynicism, because I think we live

in an age where we sometimes confuse concepts, and we suffer as a society as a

result of confusing of those concepts. We sometimes as a society confuse the notion

of tolerance with the notion of endorsement, and I think we run the risk of confusing

scepticism and cynicism, and I think this is very important for the profession of

journalism.

It’s important, indeed it’s critical that journalists be sceptical. It’s fundamental to the

profession of journalism that there should be a willingness to question what might be

regarded as the accepted and the status quo. But I think there’s an equal burden not

to cross the threshold or cross the border between scepticism and cynicism, and to

believe that there is no good in institutions in society, and there is no inherent good and

positive motivation in the attitude and the behaviour of people whether they be in public

life or in some other form of human activity.

There is, as the title suggests and as the foreshadowing of the panel next week, there

is a very close and intimate relationship between journalists and politicians. We need

each other. Whatever may be the attitude of journalists towards politicians, they need

to cultivate them, whatever may be the attitude of politicians towards journalists, we

need their engagement, hopefully their goodwill, and desirably their objectivity and their

faithful reporting in order to transmit our message.

In my time in politics, parliamentary politics, and I entered Parliament halfway through

Gough Whitlam’s term of office as prime minister. I entered in 1974, the election held

some 18 months after Whitlam’s election in 1972. And the Federal Parliamentary

Press Gallery, and indeed the way in which politics in Australia was reported in 1974

was a world away from the way in which politics is reported at the present time.

It was still a media that was dominated by print journalists. The colossus still of

Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1974 was Alan Reid, although he was in failing

health, and some might say his greatest days were behind him, he was still regarded

as the doyen. The author of three remarkable books about Australian politics, the

reading of which I commend to the younger members of this audience who are

interested in Australian political history.

One very quickly produced book called The Power Struggle, that was written about the

struggle for the leadership of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party after the sudden

death through drowning of Harold Holt in 1967. The next book was called The Gorton

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Experiment, which was a wonderful and vivid picture of the very turbulent and

interesting years of the Gorton administration.

Can I say by way of digression, John Gorton was a man who, when he was chosen as

leader of the Liberal Party, I wondered whether the Party might have done better to

have chosen Paul Hasluck as its leader - I was not then of course a member of

Parliament. John Gorton was a person who, as the years went by, I began to

appreciate a great deal more. I admired his passionate Australian nationalism, and I

understood many of his motivations much better later in life, and I was very happy that

one of the things I was able to do as prime minister was to spend some time with him,

and to be involved in the launch Ian Hancock’s wonderful biography.

And the third of Alan Reid’s books was The Whitlam Bencher, which was a book about

the tumultuous years of the Whitlam Government. So I would commend to people

interested in politics who haven’t read those books, I would commend them to you.

But Alan Reid, the fact that he symbolised, I guess, the strength and the history and the

culture of the Gallery, was an indication of how different an era it was. And one of the

most famous photographs, for which I’m sure he was responsible, at that time probably

one of the most famous photographs in Australian political history, was taken of Arthur

Calwell and Gough Whitlam standing outside the Kingston Hotel, when a meeting of

the National Executive, the Australian Labor Party was taking place, and they were not

members of that National Executive, and they were literally waiting to be instructed by

the National Executive as to what the policy of the Labor Party should be on the

establishment of a communications centre in Western Australia to be part of the

worldwide satellite network of the United States. And it was out of that photograph that

the expression, the faceless men, which was continued to echo through Australian

politics arose.

Now I mention these to put into context just how very different it was then, and how

much it has changed. And of course, that pre-dated the rise of the electronic media as

the major purveyor of regular daily news. When Gough Whitlam became prime

minister, he instituted a practice of regular, sit-down press conferences, and that was

regarded as quite an innovation, and a very good innovation in terms of the openness

of communications. And of course, Whitlam was a very good communicator. He was a

remarkably good parliamentarian, and he was a very erudite communicator.

I think one of the changes that really did occur in the Australian media, particularly

when it came to federal politics from the late 1970s onwards was the rise in the

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importance of relating economic and financial developments to political activity. Until

1972, Australian elections weren’t determined expect - with the probable exception of

1961 - they weren’t determined by economic issues, they often were determined by

national security and foreign policy issues. It was really not until the middle 1970s that

economics began to become, I suppose, the daily cattle prod of political activity and

political consequence.

And I often think of the contribution that Max Walsh made as somebody who had, as a

journalist, a profound understanding of economics and related that to political issues.

It’s popular of course to say that when it comes not only to politics, but when it comes

to everything that is reported, it’s popular to say that newspapers are dying, that the

rise of the internet, the dominance of electronic media, all the other forms of modern

communication and social interaction are producing the slow strangulation of

newspapers as the principal source of information. And whilst it is very tough times for

newspapers, and that’s recognised by people such as Rupert Murdoch, it’s also worth

remembering that every so often, we are reminded that there’s a lot of life in the old

newspaper dog yet.

And one very good example of that was the extraordinary expenses allowances

scandal in Britain in relation to members of Parliament. That story was broken by the

London Daily Telegraph, and it was a tailor made story for a newspaper. The Daily

Telegraph got hold of all of the information, and they dribbled it out day after day after

day, it was a form of Chinese water torture, complete with moats. It was dribbled out

day by day by day, and it was - and a very interesting reminder that there is still a real

niche for that kind of story in newspaper, and it was reminder that the idea that the role

of the newspaper has been totally supplanted by that of the electronic media is of

course, wrong.

So I think it’s also worth observing that during the currency of that issue, scandal,

whatever you call it, there was a very significant rise in the sales of the London Daily

Telegraph. So it’s an interesting study for those who want to delve into these things of

how there is life in the old newspaper dog yet.

Now, generalisations are always very bad. And they’re certainly bad when it comes to

the relationship between politicians and the media, but having said, I have every

intention of making some generalisations. I think it’s fair to say, and I use my softest,

least belligerent voice in saying this very, very quietly, I think it is fair to say that the

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majority, a fairly clear majority of working journalists do tend to be of a centre-left

disposition…

[Laughter]

JOHN HOWARD

…say that very, very, very gently. Of a centre-left disposition, and of a socially liberal -

and I use the liberal in I suppose the universal, or American context - socially liberal

progressive bent. Now that, I think, is a fact of life, there are many, many explanations

for it, and that is also something which is worthy of study. It has something to do with

the cultural and political shifts of our society going back to the 1970s, it has something

to do with the natural disposition of people who feel that major change in our society is

needed, that the replacement of the status quo with something better, something -

what they see as better, something different, is a desirable thing. But I think it is a fact,

and it’s something of which I’ve been conscious, but it is not something that should

ever make somebody who’s not of the centre-left disposition in any way despair.

I think it is also important when you’re reflecting on the mindset of the media in this

country, particularly the media that reports federal politics, that there are the older

section of the journalist profession, particularly those in Canberra, their attitudes were

also quite heavily influenced by two seminal events. And one of those was of course

the residue of the great debate in Australia about our country’s involvement in the

Vietnam War, and the second were the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of the

Whitlam Government. And I think both of those events predisposed some, at least,

journalists of the Federal Gallery to have a somewhat hyper-critical attitude towards the

conservative side of politics.

I’ve spoken earlier of the sort of influences that existed in 1974, and of the way in which

there has been a very significant rise in the role of the electronic media. And that of

course brings me to what I might call the beginning of the fragmentation of sources of

news and sources of reporting or politics, federally in Australia in the 1980s. And here I

come to something that the vice-chancellor referred to, and that is the great importance

of talkback radio, and radio generally as a medium of communication and a medium of

political reporting and political analysis.

Now what is interesting is that Australia is very different in this respect, from either the

United States or the United Kingdom, the two countries with which we most readily

compare ourselves when it comes to politics. The United States may have Rush

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Limbaugh, they may have people of that character, but their influence, relatively

speaking, is far less than the influence of talkback radio as a medium here in Australia.

I frequently used to call talkback radio, and radio generally, when I was in Opposition, I

used to call it the iron lung of Opposition. And the great value of radio is that you can

never fill, you never satisfy the appetite that radio has for information and for

interviews. And I was perfectly astonished some years ago when I was in Britain as

prime minister, and I had a meeting with the then leader of the British Conservative

Party, Iain Duncan Smith. And he was talking about the challenges of Opposition. And

I said, well of course, you do have talkback radio which I found very helpful, and I was

looked at almost with blank disbelief as to what this medium really was. And when I

delved into it, I was amazed at how insignificant it was.

I did use talkback radio a lot, and it’s been the subject of analysis, the subject of

criticism, the subject of anguish and the subject of wonderment from other sections of

the media, and some journalists who were critical. What I did not seek to do in relation

to the use of talkback radio was to replace the regular holding of news conferences

with appearances on talkback radio. In fact, I would argue, and no doubt somebody will

do the analysis, I would argue that measured by regular news conferences, I have

probably been the most accountable prime minister that Australia has had.

Now as to what happens over the years with my successor, well time will tell. I mean,

he is a regular used of the media, and I haven’t come here to talk about his media

methods, but I do want to make the point rather strongly that my decision to use radio a

lot was not designed to avoid the scrutiny of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery.

The reason I chose to use radio a lot was that it is the one medium where you are

guaranteed that if you’ve got something to say, somebody will hear it in its entirety if

that want to sit and listen. You do a news conference, you answer a question, you

make an announcement, you are beholden to the gatekeeper as to what is then

reported to the public. The journalist decides what to write, embellished with his or her

interpretation. The television news editor, the radio news editor, takes that grab he or

she might like. When it comes to radio, it’s a different kettle of fish. And no matter how

small the audience may be, and often they were small, many other occasions they

were very large, you did have the opportunity of actually getting a message across.

From about two years after I became prime minister, I began a regular half hour slot on

3AW with Neil Mitchell, a broadcaster of great skill and great quality. The value of that

program, and I hope to the listeners, and I hope to the presenter, was absolutely

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priceless. Because why it worked so well, was that, although we never negotiated the

understanding, there was almost an implied understanding that if I had something as

prime minister that I wanted to say and it was of some value to the Australian people, I

would be allowed by Neil to say it with a minimum of interruption - appropriate

questions and prompts, but with a minimum of interruption. Now that was the part of

the deal that worked for me, and hopefully for the audience.

By the same token, if I didn’t have anything particular to say, or if I was in great

difficulty politically on certain issue, then there was no more lively interrogation one

could possibly get than I got from Neil. And I can think of some memorable examples

of his cross-examining me on petrol prices and the responsibility of the Federal

Government to provide more money for hospitals, particularly hospitals in Melbourne,

and he paid no regard at all to the fact that there were federal, state and local

government responsibilities - his typical cut-through response was, when I raised that

as a defence, he would say, well you’re the prime minister, you’ve got to fix it. And

there was a certain amount compelling logic in that, I could certainly understand it.

But the point I make is that this was a wonderful opportunity for both him as a skilful

broadcast, and me as prime minister to have a dialogue which was balanced, I had

something to say, I said it and he allowed me to say, and he had enough news sense

to know what the public was interested in hearing, and what they weren’t. But equally,

I wouldn’t imagine, I couldn’t imagine that I could get away with skating through an

interview if there was something that was really hot.

The other talkback radio person that I was associated with a great deal of course was

Alan Jones, who is a very significant media figure not only in Sydney, but throughout

the country. Can I say that one of the great mistakes Alan Jones critics make is to

dismiss him as a shock jock. Alan Jones is one of the most well-researched, highly

intelligent people on individual subjects that catch his fancy that I’ve met in my life, and

there’s been many of the occasion that I’ve gone on one of his programs, and despite

the fact that he is from time to time identified with my political thinking, that I’ve gone on

one of his programs and I’ve received the most severe grilling in relation to the wisdom

of free market economics, or other matters; and the depth of research and

understanding that he’s brought belies the attempt by some people, particularly in the

Federal Gallery, to dismiss him, they make a great mistake and they misunderstand.

This is one of the mistakes the Federal Gallery makes from time to time, they

misunderstand the extent to which people such as Alan articulate in a very effective

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way the concerns and the aspirations of a lot of Australian people.

The other two very interesting developments in the manner in which news is presented

politically in my time, especially over the last 15 to 20 years, is there’s been a shift from

what I might call the afternoon to the morning. And it’s best, I suppose, epitomised by

two things: the rise of the impact of early morning television programs, it’s no secret

that my successor as prime minister achieved a great deal of prominence through his

appearance on the Sunrise program. It’s equally interesting that when I was in

Opposition in the early to middle 80s, an absolutely essential program to appear on

was the evening PM program on ABC Radio. And I have to disclose that when PM had

celebrated its 25 years of existence as a program, I was informed that I had been the

most frequently appearing political figure on the PM program as of the late 1980s or

early 1990s.

That has changed. And I hope if anybody’s present from ABC Radio current affairs,

they won’t be offended by my saying it, when I’ll very quickly say that the contribution of

the AM continues to be very important, and it is still, I regard as a very, very important

program for the transmission of a message. But I think it has something to do - and

the editors here tonight will know whether I’m right in saying it - I think it has something

to do with the shifting of newspaper deadlines. Whereas often, I found in Opposition I

could use something I said on PM as a way of getting it into particularly the

broadsheets, that no longer appears to be the case. So there has been something of a

shift in the centre of gravity of not only the way in which news is reported, but the time

in the day in which judgements are made about what is going to be an important news

story.

Now of course, all of this has accelerated over the last five years with the coming large

amounts of news from cable TV, not only Sky, but also of course the overseas news

bulletins. And I think it’s fair to say that the contribution that is now made to the

formulation of opinions by not only the public, but also opinion formers in Australia have

ready access not only to our own free-to-air news bulletins, our own radio, Sky news,

but also Fox news, CNN, BBC world news and the like, all of them represent a further

fragmentation of the sources. And when you compare that with the sort of sit-down,

newspaper dominated news conference in Canberra in the early 1970s, compare the

two, you have a vastly different picture.

Now, I want to look at some case studies. I was asked to talk about the good and the

bad and the ugly. So I’m going to take some case studies. Some of them reflect very

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favourably, and I say this as a former practising politician, reflect very favourably on the

media for its contribution to the enhancement of debate. And then I’ll come to some

that reflect very poorly, where I think the media has badly mishandled an issue to the

detriment of the public.

But before I do that, I want to make a point which I think is very important to an

understanding of this relationship, and that is that the Australian media, indeed any

media, should never make the mistake of imagining that the Australian people don’t

have a capacity themselves to be extremely sceptical of what they are being told.

I have the view that one of the reasons why the Australian people voted no in 1999 to

the proposition to make Australia a republic, that one of the reasons why they voted no

was that virtually all of the media were telling them to vote yes. It was an unusual issue

when it came to the media, because you had the ABC just in full republican mode, you

had the Fairfax press in full republican mode, and you had the Murdoch press in full

republican mode. And sure there was talkback people who had a different view, and

there were others were taking a more sceptical view, and I thought it was an interesting

reaction that despite all of that, and the stronger - the greater the crescendo came, it

was almost as if the resistance began to build. So it’s one of those interesting case

studies that in a sense reminds us of a general proposition, and that is that the

Australian people themselves have a great capacity for scepticism.

And I think that one of the defining differences between Americans and Australians

when it comes to things such as this public affairs, is that Australians are a more

deeply sceptical people than sometimes our American friends and cousins are.

But I can take three good case studies where I think the media has played a very

positive role. I think from the 1980s onwards, the media in Australia, by and large, has

adopted a very sensible attitude towards the need for ongoing economic reform in this

country. Now you might say to yourself, he would say that, wouldn’t he, because he’s

been associated with a lot of that economic reform himself. But I’m talking here not

only about economic reforms that I’ve been associated with, but also economic reforms

that the other side of politics have been associated with.

Take something like the decision in the 1980s to significantly reduce tariff protection in

this country. Now, that’s something that obviously was in the long term interests of the

country, but it was also something that was susceptible to a fairly vigorous fear

campaign. Now that fear campaign I might say immediately was not embraced by the

then Coalition Opposition, but nor was it embraced by the media in this country, and

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overwhelmingly I think the media of Australia adopted a very, very responsible - not

just the Financial Review, you expect it from the Financial Review because it’s been,

you know, a standard bearer of economic rationalism - but more broadly, I think the

media, not just in relation to obviously tariff reductions, but taxation reform - I thought

that when we were working hard on taxation reform before the 1998 election and

generally its implementation, I felt the Australian media, by and large, decided that it

was in the long term interests of this country to at least have a go at this. And I thought

they did play quite a constructive role.

And I thought, if I may single out the ABC for praise - I will single them out for some

criticism in a moment as well - but if I can single out the ABC for some praise in

relation to the industrial relations debates of the early 1990s, and I’ve often said that

one of the most satisfying intellectual periods I had in politics was when I was in

Oppositions in the early 1990s, and I was the Oppositions spokesman on industrial

relations when John Hewson was leader, and I was arguing for greater deregulation of

the labour market, and it was a great debate, and it was a debate that the ABC took a

great deal of interest in. And I never had any difficulty at all in getting a run on some

ABC program, and there were always plenty of ABC current affairs programs. I thought

they made a very, very interesting contribution.

And then more recently on one particular issue, I thought that the role of the ABC’s

Lateline program in providing a platform for those very disturbing revelations about the

abuse of children in the Northern Territory, and the Little Children are Sacred report

that was the cause of the then government’s intervention in the Northern Territory in

2007, I thought the role that was play by ABC Lateline was then very, very laudable. I

just mention them, there are many other examples, but they are three that come to

mind.

On the negative side, I have to say that I thought by and large the Australian media

treated Peter Hollingworth disgracefully. You could criticise his judgement, you could

criticise the prime minister who was responsible for the recommendation, but I thought

the relentless pursuit and character assassination of a very, very decent man, I thought

that was appalling. And it went largely right across the media.

I felt that the media misunderstood what was happening with Pauline Hanson. I think

the media trivialised and therefore did a disservice to our longer term national interest

in suggesting that Pauline Hanson was all about racism and nothing else. Sure, there

were some remarks she made that were quite objectionable, particularly the suggestion

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that our country was being flooded with Asians, I think she displayed a

misunderstanding of the extent of, as a group, Aboriginal disadvantage in this country,

but I think there was a lot more to what was occurring then, and I think many in the

media failed to understand that she was articulating a sense of dispossession and a

sense of being left behind felt by a section of the Australian community, and also a

sense that some of the attitudes and values of this country were being changed without

the country being consulted.

Thirdly, I do think, and this does apply particularly to the ABC, I do think that there is a

complete unwillingness to accept that there is really any room for any suggestion that

there could be some doubt or some scepticism about climate change. I still remember

that extraordinary moment on the Lateline program in the middle of 2007 when that

British program, I forget the exact title of it - the [Great Climate Change Swindle (sic)]

was shown. And the presenter of the program actually said that the views expressed in

the program were not the views of the ABC. Now, which I thought was quite an

extraordinary thing to do, because, I mean, of course, they’re not, nobody suggests

that, but there are plenty of other programs of equal prejudice on other issues that do

not carry with them the dignity of that kind of disclaimer.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I mention those case studies, some good ones and some

bad ones, to make a point. And that is that the media is a very serious fundamental

part of our society. It’s crucial to our freedoms. The quality of the media is very, very

important to Australia. It’s very, very important to our future.

I have, in the time that I’ve been in politics, I’ve enjoyed my interaction with the media, I

regard a number of people in the media as friends, I respect the durability of many

people in the media, and I have a particular regard for those that have started off as

newspaper journalists and been able to make the transition. People like, I mean,

Laurie Oakes is a good example of that, I think his first association was with the

Sydney Daily Mirror, and he - when I first came to Canberra, I think he was a

correspondent for The Sun pictorial, and then of course became Channel Ten, where

he got hold of an entire budget of mine, one of the more spectacular leaks in my

existence. I mean, I keep reading about things coming out of the public service at the

present, can I say, you know, that’s chicken feed to a whole budget, compared with a

whole budget, absolutely chicken feed, compared with an entire budget. And you

know, I think we have to keep a sense of proportion about these things.

But it is a very, very important part of our society, and we have an obligation to hold the

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media to account, just as the media has an obligation to hold us to account. I guess I

was seen over the years as somebody who was often in fairly regular conflict with large

sections of the media, and probably, for the sake of Australian democracy, that was a

good thing, because I was prime minister for a long time, and I was significant decision

maker in other positions for a long time as well. And I think it’s important that that kind

of creative tension always be maintained, no matter who is in office.

I think the penultimate thing I’d say is that I find it interesting that there is less talk now

about the concentration of media in this country than there was five or 10 years ago,

and I ask myself, why is that so? And I think the reason has obviously got to do with

the fact that, for some of the reasons that I’ve tried to describe in my lecture tonight, the

fragmentation of the sources of information and therefore the formulation of opinions

has been quite marked, and whereas when I came to office as prime minister, there

was an almost total obsession with the idea that Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch

completely dominated the media in Australia.

That is no longer the case, and I think it’s not only got to do with the fluxion of time, and

of course, Kerry Packer’s death and whatever, and the change in the Nine network,

and the movement of the Packer family out of the media, but it’s also got to do with the

fragmentation in other ways of sources of news, and that obviously has to be a good

thing, because we are all in favour of diversity.

My final word, I guess, is to the journalists, and to those in the audience, and I hope

there are some who are interested in making journalism a career. Can I say that I’ve

just been in Britain for three weeks, and I spent five days at the Lord’s Test, and didn’t

assist our team, and a couple of days at the Cardiff Test, and I enjoyed immensely

responding to an invitation from the Australian issue of Spectator to write a diary on

those experiences, and it reminded me of just a significant default career journalism

really was to me. But I think it is important to understand the importance and the

responsibility of the profession of journalism, and something caught my eye - an

obituary in The Economist for Walter Cronkite, that great, that giant of American

journalism, and it had this to say: “His career was founded firmly on reverence for facts.

The natural bent of an old wire reporter, who had done his footwork at the Battle of the

Bulge and the Normandy landings. The rise and rise of infotainment on television

distressed him. Features were fine in their place, but a news bulletin should contain at

least a dozen bits of hard news that made sense of his complicated country, and if

possible the world.”

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Thank you very much.

MICHAEL GAWENDA

Well thank you very much, Mr Howard. We’ll take some questions now. Can I ask you

to ask questions, be as brief as you can, don’t make statements if you can help it, and

if you can’t help it, I’ll stop you. So, questions now. There are two people with

microphones, so put your hands up and we’ll get to you.

QUESTION

Mr Howard, I’m very interested in your views on paid media and how appropriate you

think it is, you believe it is for governments to be spending millions and millions of

dollars on communication messages through advertising. I would use perhaps the

example of WorkChoices and the millions that was spent on advertising WorkChoices.

How do you think that plays into the mix of communication?

JOHN HOWARD

Well, I think paid media is - paid advertisements by governments, they are a legitimate

part of the market, they are a legitimate part of what governments do. All governments

do it, there will always be cases of something being in the eye of the beholder. I mean,

I’ve seen plenty of paid advertisements, feel-good advertisements about climate

change issues in the last 12 months, they make most people feel good because it’s

one of those issues where to be sceptical or to dissent is almost sacrilege at the

present time, such is the mood of the community on some of these issues.

Look, you can’t stop governments advertising - I think obviously all governments on

occasions can be guilty of doing too much of it, but in the long run, that tends to even

out. But I don’t think you can sort of ban it, I mean - I think we ban too many things

when it comes to the articulation of opinions. I think there’s a case for banning certain

things when the community’s sense of good taste is affronted and is crossed, but I

think we’ve got to be very, very careful about devising rules and bans in other areas.

QUESTION

Hello. Question John…

JOHN HOWARD

Can you speak up a bit, I’m quite deaf. Seriously.

QUESTION

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How do you feel about parliamentarians using Twitter as a means of communication?

I’m hoping you do know what Twitter is.

JOHN HOWARD

Good luck to them. I’m all for it. I’ve just - it’s arrived just after I left. I’m intensely

disappointed.

QUESTION

Mr Prime Minister, you mentioned infotainment. To what extent do you think the media

has a role to play in shaping public opinion rather than just responding to what they

think the public cares about?

JOHN HOWARD

Well I think the primary role of a journalist, the primary role of the media is to report

events objectively. I don’t have any argument with the expression of an opinion, or the

presentation of a piece of analysis, provided there is a rigorous separation of reporting

from the presentation of an opinion, and that I think is where a lot of media, both print

and electronic, although it varies from papers to papers, where that demarcation is

broken down; where quite plainly the story is a contemptuous put-down of public

opinion, the prime minister John Howard said, as distinct from simply saying, the prime

minister John Howard announced today that the government would legislate to do

something. Now that happens very frequently, and I’m sure it happened to

governments on both sides of the political divide, and I think you do have to guard

against that.

I think the reason I quoted what I did from that obituary to Walter Cronkite was that it

made the point that the reporting of facts, and that he learnt his craft to just tell it how it

was, then there would be room. I mean, he was famous, incidentally, for on CBS

Bulletin in the late 1960s in effect saying that he didn’t think America could win the war

in Vietnam, and it was, I think was it Lyndon Johnson who famously said, well if I’ve

lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost America. Now he wasn’t reluctant to have a view, and

whether you agreed with about Vietnam or not is beside the point, but I think you do

have to have this dividing line between the two, and there is a - well, not a tendency,

there is a widely embraced practice of many journalists not to respect that anymore.

QUESTION

Mr Howard, I wanted to ask a question about government giving the media access to

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government. One of the criticisms that particularly under the current Federal

Government is, I suppose, a stereotypical example, where the government makes a

regional announcement and it might invite a cameraman onto the plain, but say there’s

no room for any journalists, so when the government makes the announcement, there

aren’t any sort of pesky journalists who ask questions on the camera. I suppose my

question is, to what extent do you think that does go on, and what’s the solution to it?

JOHN HOWARD

Every government tries to present news about itself in the most propitious way

possible. When I was prime minister, I did not say to my press staff, I want you to

arrange this announcement in a way that is calculated to get a completely negative run,

not only in the print media, but all around the country. I mean, everybody tries to do it.

The key thing is, in my view, and what I believe I practise, I mean others will make a

judgement, is that you have to make yourself available to most forms of the media.

Sure, I did a lot of talkback radio, sure. But I also, when I did talkback radio, I had a

camera in the studio, and I gave the transcript out. I mean, there was value in that,

because not only did I get my message across on radio, but you get a good television if

- somebody like Mitchell who knew what questions to ask to get a news story, you’d be

guaranteed to get on television that night, and probably a couple of stories, particularly

in the Melbourne papers, on the Saturday morning.

But I also appeared very regularly on the serious current affairs programs such as The

7.30 Report, I mean I had some famously combative interviews with Kerry O’Brien, but

I could count on the fingers of one hand in the last two or three years I was prime

minister when I knocked a request from Kerry O’Brien to appear on that program. I

think that’s important.

I think one of the things you’ve got to do, you’ve got to be prepared to front up when

things are going badly as well as when things are going well. Now, I think if you do

that, you are entitled occasionally to invite a journalist with whom you have a freer

dialogue than some other journalists to accompany you on the [bip] and have a bit of a

yarn.

Now as for taking television cameras, one of the reasons why I did, and I’m sure the

same thing applies with Mr Rudd, you might take a television camera is that the TV

networks when, say you’re going to the Solomon Islands, or you’re going to Papua

New Guinea or something, and there’s only a limited amount of room, they have a

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pooling arrangement. There’s nothing particularly sinister about that.

QUESTION

Mr Howard, some time ago, Herman and Chomsky wrote a book titled Manufacturing

Consent, in which they argue the mass media, particularly because of corporate

control, has become rather narrow in its discourse. And a alternative media exists out

there, both in terms of print, and radio and even TV. What is your impressions of that

alternative media? In Australia and around the world?

JOHN HOWARD

What do you classify though, as alternative media?

QUESTION

Well community radio, for example. That sort of thing.

JOHN HOWARD

Well, I think - I tried to make this point in my address that they’re all part of the far

more fragmented mix that exists at the present time. I mean obviously, blogosphere,

obviously the disposition of so many people now to get all of their information from the

internet, and all of the possibilities opportunities of that opens up. And even, I mean, I

find in the 18 months that have gone by since I was otherwise engaged, I find that I get

a lot more information from more informal sources than was the case even a couple of

years ago. So I think all of those things are part of it.

And I think they’re - it helps to explain what I said a moment ago, that five or 10 years

ago, people were a lot more obsessed about concentration of ownership of the media.

Now I’m not saying they’re still not obsessed about it, but I think the obsession is at a

lower level, and one of the reasons for that is that I think the whole thing has become a

lot more fragmented, and a lot more dispersed, and as a consequence I don’t think it’s

possible to control - I mean, look at, what’s this extraordinary phenomenon in Iran, the

way in which so much of that information, because of technology, has gone out to the

world. There’s no doubt that the uprising in Tiananmen Square was inspired by the

Chinese knowledge of what had happened in Eastern Europe, and in turn, the chain

reaction of events in Eastern Europe was due to communications being so rapid. Now

how much more dramatic is that situation now, as evidenced by what’s occurred in

Iran.

MICHAEL GAWENDA

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I think we’ll take one more question. Two more question

QUESTION

Mr Howard, do you think the rise of internet media and the like, and that fragmentation

you refer to, do you think that’s actually going to mean that more people are actually

interested in politics and the way it’s communicated, or do you think more people will

simply retreat into a sort of celebrity news driven trivia?

JOHN HOWARD

I don’t think it will necessarily lead to more people being interested in politics, no I don’t

think that. I think you will have a displacement effect. I think as a result of people

getting information in this more informal way, fewer of them will get their information in

a more formal way. I don’t think it will just retreat more into celebrity media, in fact, I

actually think it’s the reverse. I think getting your information from the internet, getting

your information through blogging and reading what other people have got to say, I

think that actually is going down a path to a more secluded way of getting your - I think

it’s actually the reverse, I’m not sure that - see, one of the things I find quite interesting,

I should of included in my speech is that the evening current affairs programs, I’ll leave

aside say The 7.30 Report, but those on the commercial news are far less influential

politically now than what they were 20 years ago. Far less. Now, it’s a study in itself

as to why that would be the case, but people would say that’s because they’ve become

more trivial as programs, maybe that’s part of it, but I think also that’s a reflection of

community - of taste, and - and the other thing is, people’s viewing habits. People

don’t uniformly sit down for dinner at the same time anymore, and you need to have -

and all of this is part of the fragmentation process. And I think that helps to explain it a

great deal.

QUESTION

Mr Howard, there’s a school of thought abroad at the moment that we’re going to lose

some of our collection and concentration of really talented journalistic people because

of the dumbing down that, of necessity, is arising from the loss of revenue to print

media, and the loss of viability and profitability. That a lot of these most highly trained

and professional people will be lost to journalism and the media because of this

change. Would you comment on that please?

JOHN HOWARD

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Well I’m not as pessimistic as that. Look, every newspaper company, whether it’s

Fairfax or Murdoch or whatever they all have to, you know, they all have to make

money, they have to raise revenue, and no government can be in the business of tilting

things in any particular way. The obligation of the government is to make sure that the

public broadcasters remain balanced and objective, I just sort of make that general

observation and I think that is very important.

But look, my sense is that journalism is still a very virile profession in this country. I

think just based on my time in the last few years in Canberra, there seemed to be

evidence of a new generation of younger journalists coming into the Federal Gallery,

and I thought many of them were very, very high quality, and I think the desire of

people to go into journalism, and now that some of these extraordinarily fabulous

salaries in the financial community may not be as great as they used to be, you may

get a greater flood of people into financial journalism, for example. You may in fact get

a lot of people who were sort of employed as bankers who are wanting to become

financial journalists. And that will sort of provide a ready pool of talent.

But I think all of these things are far worse in the reality than they are in the

expectation. I think this is an open, vigorous profession in an open, vigorous society,

and I’d be reasonably optimistic that we’d preserve a pretty good talent pool.

MICHAEL GAWENDA

Okay, I think we’ll have to leave it there, we’ve gone overtime. I’ll invite Professor

Davis to move the vote of thanks.

GLYN DAVIS

Michael, thank you. We’ve been privileged tonight, I think, to hear from John Howard

speak on a topic that fundamentally shapes our democracy, but is very hard to see it

work first hand, the relationship between politicians and the media. I’m delighted Mr

Howard shares this university’s enthusiasm for Michael Gawenda, and that he chose

The Centre for Advanced Journalism as the natural place to discuss the good, the bad

and the ugly in our Press Gallery.

On behalf of this audience, Mr Howard, can I thank you for sharing those insights and

experience. Many of us read this morning of your impending memoirs, to be published,

alas, by other than Melbourne University Press, but we hope to read in that memoir,

your further insights from 33 years of public life, and in particular, of that relationship

with the media that we as consumers can’t see, but you have lived so closely.

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So on behalf of this audience, may I thank you for your willingness to speak to us

tonight, may I think you for your frankness in response to questions, and I think it’s

important to say, may I thank you for a lifetime of contribution to Australia’s political life.

END OF TRANSCRIPT