Another fine mess Australia's media has gotten us into

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The ABC's predominant anti-Gillard sentiment was pretty obvious at times.

If Australia’s mainstream journalists had been financial advisors giving their clients the same standard of advice before the last election, they’d be in gaol, writes Tom Orren.

ANYONE OLD ENOUGH to remember Laurel and Hardy on Saturday afternoon TV (and no, I’m not old enough to have seen them at a Saturday Matinee) will remember a rather rotund Oliver Hardy delivering that catch-phrase after Stan Laurel had led him into some dire, but hilarious, situation:

“Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.”

They’ll also remember that Ollie was always a willing participant if ever there was something in it for him.

Now, you might ask:

“What’s a catch-phrase doing in a piece about politics?”

(Apart from the obvious answer.)

To which I'd respond:

“Well, I’ll tell you then…”

(You have to imagine me fiddling with the end of my tie as I say that.)

It’s because, every time I see or hear Tony Abbott, or one of his Liberal cronies on TV or radio, my skin crawls as I think back to the absolutely pathetic job done by our political media in scrutinising his policies ‒ no, his catch-phrases ‒ in the lead up to the 2013 election.

Actually, absolutely pathetic might not be anywhere near strong enough, culpable negligence may be more apt … present company excluded, of course.

The Media and the 2013 Campaign

From 2010 to 2013, almost the entire focus of the media was on Kevin Rudd stirring up trouble in order to resurrect his Prime Ministership and the rest was taken up belittling anything that the Gillard government tried to do, or giving oxygen to the catch-phrases dreamt up by ATPC (Australian Tea Party Central) for Abbott to use.

The end result was that, all the public ever saw were bad-news stories about the ALP — criticisms, questions, suggestions, allegations, stories about infighting … and catch-phrases, of course. Anything that was in the least bit negative got a run, to the almost total exclusion of any of the good it had done.

Et tu, ABC?

You’d be excused for thinking that my wrath is directed entirely at the Murdoch media ‒ Foxtel, The Daily Telegraph, The Herald Sun, The Courier Mail, The Australian, The Advertiser, the NT News, The Mercury and so on ‒ but you’d be wrong.

It’s also directed at some of our more credible networks and journalists, including; the Fairfax media, various independents and even the likes of Fran Kelly, Leigh Sales and good old Barrie Cassidy at the ABC.

The nadir of this was when the normally reputable Four Corners did a piece entitled The Comeback Kid, by Andrew (What-a-way-to-end-your-career) Fowler. This was long before a Rudd comeback looked even remotely possible. In fact, it may have even kick-started it…

I could have added former 7.30 host (as well as one-time ACT candidate for the wacky “pro-life” Osborn Independent Group) Chris Uhlmann to the above list, but he has been so vitriolic towards the ALP for so long that he doesn’t deserve a mention in the same sentence.

As for Michelle Grattan, who appears daily on Kelly’s breakfast program, I just don’t know what to think. She’s supposed to be the doyen of Australian journalism, but I don’t think I ever heard her utter a kind word about Julia Gillard throughout that entire campaign. In fact, she even flat out told her to resign at one point.

At same time, Grattan spent countless hours of airtime and rolls of newsprint time extolling the virtues of Tony Abbott’s political ability.

Negative Comment

During the 2013 election campaign, I was an avid listener to Radio National, in particular to Fran Kelly’s influential RN Breakfast program.

Over the course of about three weeks, I kept note of the negative mentions made of the ALP, the LNP and the Greens and the approximate ratio was around 150:30:2. That means Fran Kelly spent about five times longer bagging the ALP government than she did bagging the policies of the LNP (and almost none criticising the Greens), which had a predictable and inevitable effect.

But Fran Kelly wasn’t the only one. In fact, she was among the more balanced of them, because nearly every other news program in the country at the time, was getting its leads from the same place as Fran — the morning print media, which was (and still is) overwhelmingly dominated by the Murdoch Press.

Who got us into this mess?

So, was it News Corp that led our media astray and got us into our current ‘fine mess’?

It’s not enough to say that our media was tricked or led, because it should have known better. It should have set its own agenda and gone through the LNP’s policies with a fine-toothed comb.

But it didn’t.

It should have picked up the flaws in their arguments and their figures, and questioned many of their claims.

But it didn’t.

It should have driven semi-trailers through the web of fallacies that the LNP was spinning, but it didn’t do that either. And it should have done its due diligence.

But it didn’t.

In other words, if the country’s journalists had been financial advisors who gave such bad advice to their clients, they’d be in gaol.

While we (the voters) might try to blame the media by saying:

"Well, here's another fine mess you've gotten us into!"

… like Ollie, we’re also partly to blame.

Because, like him, as voters, far too many of us thought that there would be something in it for us.

It’s not just Australia…

But it’s not just Australia that’s in a ‘fine mess’.

About half way through Thomas Picketty’s excellent (but excruciatingly long) book, Capital in the 21st Century, he makes the point that, for some unknown reason, income inequality is far greater in the English-speaking world (USA, UK and Australia/NZ) than anywhere else. He then leaves it for others to decide why.

Well, I think I can make an educated guess about why — the Murdoch media.

If you need any proof of that just think back to how quickly news of the immense bonuses paid to financial sector executives (using government bail-out funds) at the height of the GFC faded into insignificance so quickly, to be replaced by a crusade against Obama’s health care plan.

And then ask yourself:

“Which story was most deserving of a good old-fashioned media crusade?”

You might also reflect on how the recent U.S. Congressional elections went so badly for the Democrats and how most of the anti-Obama commentary during that campaign stemmed from the Murdoch media. This negative coverage has been so successful that even respected Australian commentators have begun labelling him a lame duck.  

The media in the USA and the UK are no different to ours – literally – because they are largely run by the same man and they too have led their countries from one fine mess to another — from Iraq to ISIL, from lower taxes for the rich to greater financial system deregulation, and from small-government to anti-gun control.

In every case, the ring-leader appears to be one and the same. 

Professor of political science at Sydney University in the 1970s, Henry Mayer, used to say,

“Whoever controls the media, controls what people think and therefore, who they vote for.”

That is a hell of a lot of power for any one person to wield.

Let’s face it, anyone who can get the country’s media to follow them around like an obedient dog is capable of anything, so only when that media frees itself of such control will we have any hope of getting out of the fine mess they have gotten us into.

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