Independent media: Our democracy depends on it

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Newly tertiary-qualified veteran journalist Cathy McQueen says Australia's democracy depends on our support of independent media.


I RECENTLY graduated with a communications degree.

I had to temper my thrill at finally receiving this qualification nearly 30 years after my peers – I was a cadetship-trained journalist – with the awful thought that the profession I entered in 1990 and was for so long proud to be a member of, had, in the intervening 28 years, become something I was totally ashamed of and, at times, I have to say, even disgusted by.

When I was a young journalist at Cumberland Newspapers in Sydney in 1993, our cadet counsellor, the inimitable Judy Prisk – who was the Sydney Morning Herald readers’ editor for a number of years, among other roles – took us to Canberra on an excursion to meet our colleagues in the National Press Gallery.

While we were there we also had the privilege of meeting then-Prime Minister Paul Keating.

People seldom realise the power of suburban newspapers and one of our fellow cadets, who was a journalist on Cumberland’s Bankstown paper, had pre-arranged for the man himself to meet our small group of about ten young journalists and impart some wisdom about our very important jobs. Keating was more than happy to do it, because he knew her well and liked her, and wanted to keep the local paper happy.

Keating, apart from being incredibly good looking in real life, met us outside the House of Representatives Chamber after Question Time and, for the next 45 minutes, was gracious, polite, interested in our careers and full of good advice about what we would face as members of the Fourth Estate.

He answered our stumbling, tentative youthful questions, but he also gave us advice that has stuck with me to this day.

Journalism, particularly political journalism, in Australia, was becoming far too full of opinion, our Prime Minister believed. We needed to make sure when we were in a position to, that we reported facts free of opinion. Unless we were actually writing opinion that was marked as such.

He went on to say that in his view, in the Western world, Australian journalists mixed their reporting with opinion like no others, which made it biased, unfair and in fact, dangerous.

How prophetic his words were. It is hard to open a newspaper of the mainstream media (MSM) or indeed watch a television “report” today without seeing content littered with the journalistic opinion of the person writing or reporting it — even if it purports to be "straight" news.  

I hate to think of what Keating would think of the Australian MSM now. We have a good 70 per cent of it – the Murdoch press – that only publishes far-right propaganda most of the time and blatant lies the rest..

The remainder of the MSM does its best to do their jobs – I am talking Fairfax and The Guardian and the ABC – but even they are not immune from serving the far-right agenda of the Liberal Party at times. The African gangs outrage in Victoria provides the perfect example in recent times. The ABC and Fairfax both fell into the trap of pushing Minister for Home Affairs Dutton and Prime Minister Turnbull’s divisive agenda with this, instead of calling power to account and debunking it as the myth it was.

The Guardian is another great example of a publication that is less than perfect on this front at times. While its content is usually truthful and could even be said to be somewhat left-leaning, its headlines make the whole idea of language intelligence pointless.

Every day, The Guardian’s Australian edition serves us up a slew of headlines that not only reinforce the far-right by directly quoting the latest outrage from a Turnbull Government minister – as in, 'Victorians are scared to go to restaurants because of African gang violence: Peter Dutton ' – but they almost seem to glory in it. Headline after headline does this. Are they just being lazy or are they deliberately trying to confuse?

My husband, who has studied the greats of language intelligence and significance – like linguist George Lakoff – is frequently horrified by these headlines, so much so that he can’t read The Guardian anymore.

I try as hard as I can to justify this to him as just journalistic conventions of getting a reader’s attention and telling him that Guardian readers are mostly leftwing anyway, so these headlines won’t influence them. But then I can’t argue with his assertion that these headlines still colour the way readers think and normalise and legitimise outrageous rightwing ideology.

When you write a headline bursting with far-right ideology you do much to legitimise and justify it.

“They need to stop doing it and if they really were on our side they would," Joe keeps telling me.

Again I cringe from my former colleagues, much as a part of me still tries to understand why they do it. They must know deep down how they give the right the thumbs up when they write headlines like this:

  • 'African gang crime 'out of control' in Melbourne: Greg Hunt' ~ ABC
  • 'Scott Morrison says claims negative gearing benefits the rich are 'a complete and utter myth'Sydney Morning Herald
  • 'Safe Schools is like child grooming, says Nationals MP George Christensen' ~ The Guardian

My disgust with my former profession extends to the entirety of News Corp's workforce.

How do they sleep at night, I often wonder? Apparently, a lot of News Corp journalists vote Labor, which begs the question: How on earth do they get through a day at the office?

When I was a young cadet at the Newcastle Herald, one of the aspects of my new job I loved so much was that everyone I worked with seemed to be leftwing and passionately so. I was relieved I had found a profession where members thought the way I did. Alas, the Andrew Bolts, Miranda Devines and Niki Savvas of this world soon put paid to that notion.

What I wonder about these people is this: How can anyone who cares about journalism – a profession whose main role is to call power to account, to uncover corruption and act as society’s democracy watchdog as well as informing and educating – write far-right propaganda and lies every single day? Every single day. They obviously believe it, but how can seemingly intelligent people believe this dangerous rubbish? Are they sociopathic? You have to wonder.

And it is not just the aforementioned who are the offenders. The ordinary, everyday journalists at Murdoch publications are frequently called on to rabble rouse about "dole bludgers", or "Kooris", or African "gangs" or you name it. They attack the very working class and middle-class people that read their publications and write stories that push the agendas of the one percenters and Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal Party mates — the banksters and Big End of Town.

It must be either soul-destroying or they must be so desperate for money they have no choice. I could not live with myself — which is why I am studying law now. I have two years to go and I am hoping the ethics of my future profession is not going to be besmirched like the ethics of my former one. It is safe to suggest that many Australian journalists have forgotten that ethics even exist.

So is there any hope left for journalism in this country? Will we ever see reporting that is free from opinion, like Keating encouraged, or that actually does the job a member of the Fourth Estate should do — call power to account, uncover corruption and act as a watchdog on our democracy?

I remain positive. Publications like Independent Australia are leading the charge against the rightwing propaganda that has crept into our MSM — and they are doing a great job. Every time I click on an IA story, I am so grateful that journalists like David Donovan and Martin Hirst still exist and are brave enough to carry on a tradition that has kept democracies healthy all over the Western world.

By only writing rightwing propaganda thanks to the Murdoch Press and the rest of the MSM, we lost a decent ALP government under Rudd and Gillard. We have been left with the current travesty of far-right ideology that governs only for its mates and the one per cent — the banksters and big business. The rest of us, along with health, education and the social safety net and, indeed, the greater good of the country can go to hell. Throw in a little racism and lack of humanity in the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees for good measure. And don’t even start me on the egregious way the MSM have dealt with climate science and climate change.

Australians should think long and hard about their media and what it serves up to them. We have a lot of talented journalists in this country who I know would like to write the truth, be independent and not serve up rightwing propaganda, constantly. We need to encourage independent media like IA as much as possible by republishing its stories on social media like Twitter and Facebook, by telling our friends and family about it, and by generally supporting it with our clicks every single day. We need to thank people like David Donovan and Martin Hirst, personally, for what they do.

If we don’t, we risk the only decent journalism – The Guardian and Fairfax press sometimes excepted – left in the country. The ABC has moved so far to the right it is almost unrecognisable.

Next time you open an MSM paper, read it and its headlines critically; remember most are serving the far-right agenda of Murdoch and his cronies — the IPA and the Liberal Party.

Tell your family and friends to be sceptical and read your independent media and press as much as possible.

Our democracy depends on it.

You can follow Cathy McQueen on Twitter @banditmcq.

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