Media Analysis

'Voice' lies and mistruths bolster calls for media royal commission

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Cartoon by Mark David/@markdavidcartoons

The "No" campaign won the Referendum by muddying, misrepresenting, contradicting and lying about what the Voice is and its consequences, writes DVictoria Fielding.

*Also listen to the audio version of this article on Spotify HERE.

OPPOSITION LEADER Peter Dutton's "No" campaign was ugly, aggressive and deceitful.

It also openly spread hate towards Indigenous people and misrepresented factual history about the experiences of Indigenous people post-colonisation.

The campaign itself and its success marks a new low in Australia’s political history, akin to a Trump-like movement built on bad faith deceit and dirty tactics. That the "No" side was able to use its campaign to divide and, in many cases, radicalise Australians by using the accusation that the unifying proposition of the Voice is itself “divisive” shows just how effectively its deceitful fear campaign worked.

The "No" campaign succeeded in turning voters against a simple advisory body for Indigenous people to have input into the policies impacting them, a concept that came from Indigenous people and which promised to be an important step on the pathway to reconciliation for all Australians.

But let’s be clear, without mainstream and social media platforming the "No" campaign, it would never have been able to succeed. Its success shows just how broken Australian “media” is. Wholesale reform is needed to ensure there is not a repeat of this disgraceful outcome in future elections — and referendums if any political leader is game to have one again. When cheaters win, the cheaters are emboldened.

The health of Australian democracy relies on media in all its forms to make cheating untenable.

Where to from here? The Albanese Government should hold a royal commission into the strength of Australian media and its ability to underpin a healthy democracy. There are four key areas of media practice and regulation that should be investigated.

Truth in political advertising

It was clear from the beginning of the referendum campaign that the "No" camp was reliant on misinformation to make its case. Yet, despite fact checkers finding that the "No" arguments in the referendum pamphlets were misleading, they were sent to every Australian household regardless.

These lies were allowed and were emboldened because there is no federal truth in political advertising laws that held the "No" campaign accountable for lying in its advertising. Without these laws, Liberal politicians were allowed to legally post misinformation-ridden materials to voters.

"No" campaign groups Fair Australia and Advance were also able to use social media platforms like TikTok to create viral content based on deceitful scaremongering and false information.

If the Federal Government had in place laws similar to those in South Australia and the A.C.T. which outlaw deceptive advertising, there would be accountability and a disincentive to undermine democracy through deceit.

Abuse of concentrated media power

Through the Murdoch Referendum Accountability Project, my research team found that News Corp swung its concentrated media power behind the "No" campaign. When the country’s largest and most powerful media organisation is campaigning for one side in a referendum (or an election), this skews the debate in that side’s favour.

The one-sidedness is not the only problem identified by our research. We found political commentary regularly uses misinformation and hatred as part of its attack against the people and causes they oppose. Only a royal commission can investigate why and how this is happening, and what regulatory options are available to the Government to address this gross misuse of media power.

Identifying the shadowy puppeteers

At a speech last week, "Yes" campaigner Noel Pearson referred to "No" campaigners Jacinta Price and Warren Mundine as the “front people” of Right-wing think tanks. What Pearson was referring to is Price and Mundine’s well-known links to the Centre for Independent Studies.

Dr Jeremy Walker from UTS has written a paper arguing that the "No" campaign was conducted 'on behalf of fossil-fuel corporations and their allies' who have previously worked to undermine the public’s knowledge of climate change. Walker’s research suggests that opaque "No" campaign outfit, Advance Australia, 'shares the aims and methods' of organisations like the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute of Public Affairs, who, along with over 500 other “think tanks”, are part of the global Atlas Network.

Walker points out that Australia’s weak political funding disclosure laws mean the public does not know who funds these “think tanks”. Indeed, Australians do not know who funded much of the "No" campaign.

These groups operating behind the scenes of Right-wing politics deserve greater scrutiny to understand where and who this money comes from and why, and how this funding is being used to support political campaigns.

As former Independent MP Rob Oakeshott says: 

'All Australians need to meet and understand the puppeteers.'

Mainstream media’s ability to hold power to account

Aside from the political campaigning media at News Corp and other Right-wing outlets, a royal commission is needed to assess why Australian media failed to ensure that voters made their decisions about the Voice Referendum using accurate and truthful information.

Australian democracy relies on journalists holding political campaigners to account for the veracity of the information they put on the public record. Although there were times during the Referendum when journalists at all outlets, including Chris Kenny at News Corp, called out misinformation being platformed either by or on behalf of the "No" campaign on both mainstream and social media, this fact-checking was entirely too little and often too late.

Instead, a tsunami of disinformation was allowed to take hold and those spreading it were emboldened to keep doing so without consequence to the point where the country was drowned in deceit.

The ABC’s referendum coverage was particularly disappointing in its failure to hold "No" voices accountable for misrepresenting the Voice. To put it bluntly, journalists at the ABC seem more interested in ticking the "he said, she said" balance box by platforming "Yes" and "No" voices in equal measure than they are in being watchdogs in holding those voices to account.

When the "No" campaign is able to use the mainstream media to platform lies that undermine democracy, journalists are failing at their most important task of ensuring the public is not misled.

A royal commission is needed to understand the complex failures of Australia’s media landscape where mainstream and social media platforms are being used to subvert the public’s access to truth. These four areas of media are each a major problem and crucially, are interrelated.

Until we grapple with them, democracy will continue to degrade.

*This article is also available on audio here:

Dr Victoria Fielding is an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @DrVicFielding.

If you would like updates from the Australians for a Murdoch Royal Commission Murdoch Referendum Accountability Project, join here.

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