Media Analysis

Australian media's shameful reporting of Senator Fatima Payman's suspension

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Senator Fatima Payman on ABC Insiders (Screenshot via YouTube)

The Australian mainstream media's treatment of Labor Senator Fatima Payman – and her suspension from the Labor caucus – has been shameful, writes Rosemary Sorensen.

IT'S ALL A GAME, like table tennis, for political reporters. There’s a flat surface with a little net in the middle, opposing players holding little bats who try to ping the little ball hard and low over the net and when the ball flies off the table, it’s retrieved – the job of the political reporter – and given back to the point winner for another go.

To use a different analogy, political journalism tends to be a hall of mirrors in which writers see themselves reflected and the shiny image blocks their view of what’s really happening outside their mirror world.

This was horribly apparent last week, first with the arrival back in Australia of Julian Assange.

The commentary that pinged off the little flat surfaces of our self-satisfied media either supported the Labor Government’s position that, whatever you think of Assange, he’d done his time and it was right that he was released — or he never was a journalist, so he deserved to be incarcerated.

This second option, coming from well-paid talking heads who sit in offices getting calls from PR units of powerful organisations, including the Government and Opposition, notably lacked something any decent person might have expressed when seeing the images from Canberra of that plane disgorging a man who has been in Belmarsh Prison for five years — compassion.

Apparently, imagining what it must have been like and sympathising – as Peter Greste did in an article for Seven West Media’s The Nightly – is beneath these hard-nosed, shrewd-eyed vultures of influence and authority. String him up, it’ll teach him a lesson.

Talk about out of touch.

And like wickets in a test match — one often brings two. But the bowling team in this second instance is high-fiving the umpires, which must, surely – after this version of the game is done and dusted – make the players wonder if they might have misunderstood the rules or damaged the pitch, or mistaken the point of the game.

Probably not, because the hall of mirrors doesn’t allow introspection.

ABC’s Sunday morning politics program, Insiders, usually lines up a panel of predominantly Murdoch commentators and often has a lead interview with an Opposition spokesperson — someone adorably resistant to the truth like Bridget McKenzie, say, or Simon Birmingham.

Then, host David Speers picks up PR-friendly talking points and lobs them softly over the little net where, with much whirring of arms, the interviewee whacks it back hard and low for Speers to watch it go by.

This last Sunday, the interviewee was Senator Fatima Payman. Fair enough, you’d think, she’s newsworthy.

Having crossed the floor in a way that – to use an expression regular Insiders panellist Samantha Maiden is fond of – provided memorable “optics”, the Senator was chastised by PM Anthony Albanese but not expelled.

Those phones would have been busy, no doubt. And, an invitation was made to Senator Payman to be the interviewee on Insiders, where Speers provided the question that then led to her indefinite suspension from the Labor caucus.

Of course, she said she’d cross the floor again on that same vote about recognising Palestine. As she made clear, this is not an issue that can afford to be slowly debated — each week, each month, as more Palestinians die, the Labor Government in this country expresses concern and does nothing.

What can they do? They can recognise Palestine, for starters. This casuistry about supporting a two-state solution but failing to support Palestine as a state is a pathetic play with words.

For Senator Payman, it was "gotcha". Job done.

The ABC, triumphantly, posted about the “explosive” interview. The Labor heavies called in the Senator and out came the news soon after that she was expelled from the caucus.

For the political commentary team, it was all and only about the game and who is winning. This is exemplified by the response from Karen Middleton — highly credentialled, very experienced and therefore both respected and on speed-dial, no doubt, in any media liaison office worth its salt.

Writing in The Guardian, Middleton puts the ball in Fatima Payman’s court — the Senator 'leaves Labor with little choice after vowing to cross floor again'.

Middleton then declares emphatically: 'Fatima Payman’s career as a Labor politician is over'.

Apparently, according to Middleton:

'Albanese and his senior colleagues viewed her vow to cross the floor again as supreme self-indulgence and utter disrespect for the party that had given her a political career.'

This is an astonishing paraphrasing by a journalist. Is that what Albanese or a "senior colleague" actually said? In which case, quote it.

Or, if they didn’t say it, is this Middleton calling Fatima Payman supremely self-indulgent? The point is, there’s a confusion – an elision – between what the journalist says is happening and what she thinks about what is happening.

The article continues in that vein, making it clear Middleton has direct access to the players but not directly quoting them. This is how journalists get the information they want, straight from the source. The game is fixed.

What’s even more distressing about this Middleton article is this:

'Beyond speaking up for the Palestinian people, some within the Parliamentary Labor Party are wondering what Payman is trying to achieve.'

Neither the journalist nor her sources in the Labor Party feeding her these non-quotes get it: 'speaking up for the Palestinian people'  is the point.

That the commentariat and the political class do not understand this is horrible evidence that they are playing ping-pong while Palestine burns.

Rosemary Sorensen was a newspaper, books and arts journalist based in Melbourne, then Brisbane, before moving to regional Victoria, where she founded the Bendigo Writers Festival, which she directed for 13 years.

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