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Australia's Right-wing stranglehold over public interest journalism

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The tighter the grip on our media by the Government, the less fairness and truth we find in mainstream news reporting (Image via Pixabay)

Fair and unbiased reporting is disappearing in Australia as the Coalition Government and Murdoch Mafia gain control of our news, writes Ranald Macdonald.

LEWIS CARROLL famously wrote:

‘“The time has come,” the walrus said, “to talk of many things.”’

 It has and let us be blunt about it.

The Australian Coalition Government and the Rupert Murdoch empire, the “shocking” jocks and the Right-wing ideologists are limiting any chance of informed public debate in this country.

We in Australia, sadly, are moving towards the news access of those who live in the “democratic republics” of Korea and of the Congo.

Public interest journalism is in limited supply for Australians — and it is of real concern.

Under Article 19 of the U.N. Charter for Human Rights, there is clearly stated the requirement for a free flow of information — not propaganda.

So, what do we believe and who are actually journalists?

I have four areas of real apprehension, with some suggestions for improvement.

First concern

Led by the Federal Government and often using the weapon of national security, there have been increasing limitations imposed on reporting, which should be about telling the community what is happening, or, with factual support, what is likely to happen.

Journalistic freedom is a great catch-cry, but it can allow for unnamed or even fictional sources introduced to flesh out a good “tabloid” sensational story.

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton – in whom so many have to trust – is actually right that no one, not even journalists, is above the law.

But, there are cases such as where corruption is involved, secret and unlawful decisions being made by the Government or others, where airing of the issues is justified “in the public interest”.

In those cases – provided we do not have protection specified in a bill of rights – the justification of genuine public interest must be strengthened in law.

We cannot allow our politicians to determine when sanctions are imposed or news is restricted.

The defence of publication “in the public interest” must be robustly and clearly incorporated into our legal system.

Though the simple push for “press freedom” is naïve in that it would allow even worse examples of made-up or mischievous stories to appear through the mouths and words of those who claim to be journalists, but are simply attempting to boost public profile, sales or ratings.

Second concern

The Federal Government made the decision to pursue the death of the ABC “by a thousand cuts”, supported by many in the Coalition and boosted by the Murdoch "Mafia", the Institute of Public Affairs and other short-term thinking critics with political or other agendas.

Already, budget reductions have cost the ABC its radio and news “voice” in countries to our north, with our PM now pathetically offering $17.1 million for Australian content to be transmitted but not allowed to be sourced by the ABC — despite the free-to-air operators not asking for it.

Australia is at risk of losing a strong and independent news and current affairs voice, as well as gifting to the commercials and pay-for-view (Murdoch) countless millions of dollars on top of what has already been gifted by this Government.

Further, weakening the ABC lessens diversity and increases the power of one particular organisation which revels in the use of it. 

These attempts to weaken the ABC are a second threat to the “public’s right to know” designated by the U.S. President Jimmy Carter as a basic human right.

Third concern

(And this one is not motivated through prejudice as a former Managing Director of David Syme and Editor in Chief of The Age newspaper.) 

The Nine Entertainment or “Nine” organisation takeover of the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Australian Financial Review is already showing itself to be an imperfect fit.

The awful recent hatchet job on the Duchess of Sussex on the current incarnation of 60 Minutes was based on the most dubious of sources and reminds one of the Beirut child abduction piece, and other less-than-worthy journalistic efforts.

Further, there is the unhealthy influence of advertisers on segments in Nine’s Today show and its news choices, plus the crashes, fires and heart-tugging stories, which it features so heavily.

As I say, not a good fit with The Age, AFR and SMH with their outstanding investigative journalism, which – despite the staff losses and lesser pages – still provides cutting edge and courageous journalism “in the public interest”.

Fourth concern

The Murdoch Mafia, as I refer to his empire through his News Ltd newspapers, his Fox television and other interests, demonstrably does not believe in the concept of journalism being fair or independent.

In fact, as we have seen in the last Federal Election, his “troops” seem remarkable in their devotion to the political Right and espousing of causes which are either supported by Murdoch or are in his interests.

Where the ideals of democracy in this country are not well served is through his cohort of journalists/commentators/columnists – and it is so hard to separate their roles – who collectively provide a very one-sided coverage of the news.

Under the national Australian ''Journalists'' Code of Ethics'', accuracy and fairness are important, as is disclosing interests which may have an impact of perception of, or impact on, a story.

It is hard to know who is actually a journalist in News or, for that matter, at Fox.

For example, the appallingly (in my view) opinionated and partial Chris Kenny is listed as an Associate Editor of The Australian. So, is he a journalist and bound by the code of his profession?

Having read the ''News Corp Australia Editorial Professional Conduct Policy'', I can see why the rules which apply to all other Australian journalists and legislatively to ABC journalists (where accuracy and impartiality are enshrined), seem to have little bearing on what News requires of its editorial employees.

For it begins:

1.1 Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate and not misleading.

 

1.2 Publications are free to editorialise, campaign and take stances on issues providing they take reasonable steps to fulfill the requirements of 1.3 and 1.4.

 

1.3 Comment, conjecture and opinion are acceptable in reports to provide perspective on an issue, or explain the significance of an issue, or allow readers to recognise what the publication’s standpoint is on the matter being reported.

Contrast that to the national ''Australian Journalists'' Code of Ethics'', which requires honesty, fairness, independence and respect for the right of others.

It begins:

‘1. Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.’

So, to some specifics about its flagship newspaper, The Australian, which features:

There are many others who present their one-sided views through the Murdoch newspapers and through Fox, such as Andrew Bolt (now appearing in the West Australian as well), Rita Panahi (Herald Sun and Fox), and Miranda Devine (who has a lot to say in the Daily Telegraph and elsewhere as well as on Fox — which incidentally gives the discredited 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones air time).

The trouble is that Murdoch’s Empire is so one-sided and its enthusiastic adherents take it all to the ultimate degree with the power of interlocking radio, television and print.

My solution is that all the above contributors, plus Murdoch’s companies, should be officially added to the Federal Lobbyists Register. Their game is not journalism, but power through influence and persuasion — and through promoting fear and discord.

Democrat Mayor of New York Bill de Blasio sees the influence of Murdoch in supporting Donald Trump, his involvement internationally in elections and role on Brexit in the UK, and on such issues as climate change and the refugee debate, as being unhealthy. The Governor has had a running battle with the Murdoch-owned New York Post.

But, I fully agree with de Blasio’s quotes of last year:

“If you could remove News Corp from the last 25 years of American history, we would be an entirely different place.”

And:

“Without Murdoch and Fox news, we would not be suffering a lot of the negativity and divisiveness we are going through right now.”

He also referred to the steady decline in democracy in the States as, I believe, is happening here in Australia.

I leave the last word to the clear thinking associate editor of The Australian, Chris Kenny, who recently wrote that the real cause of disharmony and the spread of hatred in the United States was not the actions of the President, but of Democrat candidate Joe Biden, repeating and highlighting what Donald Trump had been saying and tweeting.

But, this type of “reporting” does not conflict with his newspapers’ editorial professional policy.

So, it is okay then?

Ranald Macdonald is the founder of the Australian Press Council and former CEO and editor in chief of The Age.

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