Australia's frayed fourth estate

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A debased fourth estate contaminates the fabric of the polity and leaches into parties of all political colours and persuasions, writes Paul Begley.

WRITING OF THE British fourth estate in 1891, Oscar Wilde declared:
‘…at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism.’

Much has come to pass since Wilde looked down his long nose at the scruffy British press. Yet here, on the other side of the world a century later, it can now be said with regrettable confidence that the impact of the fourth estate in its various guises is all but pervasive.

The first three estates are now usually taken to be the legislators, the judiciary and the police.

The fourth has no official place in the Australian body politic but, because it is notionally regarded as an extra check and balance with a direct line to the people, it enjoys at least three types of semi-formal privilege.

One is that members of the press have their own gallery in the parliament, where they get ready access to the lawmakers. A second is that unnamed sources quoted in stories that reporters file are protected, and that the protection is respected as a ‘right’ by the courts, though a very wealthy Fairfax shareholder is presently challenging that proposition. A third is the principle, which still nominally prevails, that journalists in the fourth estate should be free to write without the intervention of the other three or the owner of the media company that employs them. Rupert Murdoch and other owners called the bluff on that idea many moons ago. It can now safely be consigned to history.

Despite the tumultuous environment in which journalists find themselves these days, the mainstream media outlets for which they work do not just dominate what facts we get to read and hear — they also set the rules on how we see and hear them.

Take a recent sandwich throwing affair, for instance.

When a second sandwich was thrown in a copycat schoolyard incident at the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, most media networks described it as a case of schoolboy tomfoolery. By contrast, the school principal took it seriously and suspended the young offender, despite his mother's avowals of blamelessness. The tabloid media ran interviews and pictures of the poor boy and his mother in light-hearted reports to the nation. The prime minister herself anticipated the media reaction by passing it off as an occasion of youthful exuberance and joked, "He must have thought I was hungry." The nation’s citizens were therefore expected to laugh along and move on. Yet the incident resonated.

The sandwich incidents were not acts signifying disgust borne of conviction, as was the case when an Iraqi journalist hurled his shoes at George W. Bush. They were the acts of children who had been given permission to treat the head of the government of their own country with derision. That permission may or may not have been given explicitly or wordlessly by their parents, but it was a permission given openly by many Australian media outlets.

The largest circulation newspaper in the nation, the Melbourne Herald-Sun, ran an unrelated street-interview story a week or two after the sandwich incidents, in which a kebab shop owner was asked his opinion of the prime minister. His immediate response was to offer the view that if he saw her he would throw a kebab at her. The shop owner well understood that carelessly throwing a soft object at Australia’s prime minister was a right and proper thing to do. The tone had been set. The Herald-Sun story gave its readers no reason to question whether the would-be kebab thrower was misguided in his zeal to demonstrate casual contempt for the most influential office in the land.

What had the PM done that could have offended the shop owner? She was planning a trip to Indonesia. Had that upset him? Or was it that, over the last twelve months, she had personally reached a strategic partnership with the new leader of China, a major economic power and our foremost trading partner?

Perhaps it was that she personally negotiated a substantial deal with the Prime Minister of India to sell Australian uranium to that trading giant? The India deal upset a few anti-nuclear advocates, but was unlikely to have perturbed the kebab man, because the only extensive press coverage of the India visit was when the PM’s high heel was caught in soft ground causing her to trip.

As a shop owner, he could not have been offended by the fact that the country Julia Gillard had been leading is one of a handful of nations in the world to have earned a AAA credit rating from all three international rating agencies. This has been reinforced by Moody's reaffirming Australia's AAA rating today.

The international media have consistently been reporting Australia as an economic wonder, while our domestic media reports us as an economic basket-case.

On domestic matters, the shop owner may have been affronted by laws the former PM passed on disability insurance, on education equity, or on fast broadband access for urban, regional and rural Australian citizens? Or perhaps he was distressed by the carbon price she introduced after saying she wouldn’t, or maybe he was disturbed that she was party to big spending initiatives designed to protect the nation from a financial crisis that still severely troubles the economies of Europe and the United States.

DisabilityCare Australia will be one of Prime Minister Julia Gillard's eduring reforms.

More likely, it was none of these matters, for the simple reason that they are mostly policy accomplishments of the Gillard Government — and for that reason have not been widely reported in the Australian press, especially the popular tabloid press. So the kebab man probably didn’t know much, if anything, about the substance of those things.

Routinely excluding coverage of stories that show the nation’s world standing in a positive light, while concocting relentless daily bad news stories about government, may be a way to sell newspapers, entice television viewers and compel a radio audience. But if that’s all the media does, it abrogates its legitimate role as the fourth estate and unofficial guardian of the polity, and deserves to have questioned its role as a worthwhile instrument for social good.

Why, for example, did Australian media outlets not report the utterances of Opposition education spokesperson, Christopher Pyne, immediately following the schoolyard sandwich episodes? The shadow minister has often declared that what matters in schools is not money and resources, but good teachers and student discipline. As the alternative education minister in an election year, he might have raised the profile of the incident from that of a joking matter to a subject commanding appropriate gravitas in support of the school principal.

If, by chance, the shadow education minister said nothing, then that in itself might have been reported.

There are a great many countries in the world that do not regard as sacrosanct the idea of a free press — a notion we hold dear because we equate it with our egalitarian founding. But to what extent do the principles of press freedom rely on a utilitarian test that includes the newspaper acting as a reliable journal of record that also exercises principles of fair play? Authoritarian and dictatorial regimes often require newspapers to suppress news reports critical of government activity. In ostensibly ‘free’ societies, what is the effect, over time, of routinely exercising self-censorship of news reports that might upset either a government or an opposition? Don’t both forms of censorship distort truth and sully public discourse? Would we be better off without a media that picks favourites and reports its news accordingly?

In the light of widespread litigation in the British courts and moves towards much tougher press regulation following the excesses of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers in the UK, those questions might prompt a constructive reflection by Australia’s media owners and publishers, especially in view of the all-embracing reach of News Limited papers in this country.

The present British Prime Minister David Cameron has been persuaded that the Murdoch press cannot be relied upon to regulate its own behaviour and has acted to impose some sort of regulation in law. Yet despite our own Finkelstein media inquiry recommending legislative modifications and the introduction of modest regulation, that penny does not appear to have dropped in this country.

The recent British experience is a useful reminder that a debased fourth estate contaminates the fabric of the polity and leaches into parties of all political colours and persuasions. It also prompts the reflection that the gains for the anointed are transitory and reliant on the whim of a self-serving patron. The lavish press backing that Tony Blair enjoyed from his American benefactor did not transmit to his Labour successor Gordon Brown, just as the fawning media support Margaret Thatcher received as Conservative leader was not replicated when John Major succeeded her.

David Cameron courted and won the patronage of News International papers, but now sees himself as a casualty of the corruption that has infected successive governments in their frantic pandering to the power and influence of the Murdoch press.

‘It is on my watch that the music has stopped,’ Cameron pronounced.

Time will tell.

 (Paul Begley works in public relations. Views expressed here are his own.)

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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