Politics Analysis

'Friendly' media and Coalition colluded to silence Robodebt victims

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Cartoon by Mark David/@markdavidcartoons

The evidence is damning: many outlets in the mainstream media worked in support of the former Coalition government's establishment of its illegal Robodebt scheme, writes Dr Victoria Fielding

THERE HAVE BEEN hugely concerning findings revealed in the 'Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme'. With the consequences for those involved yet unknown and the possibility of a civil case for public policy misfeasance on the table, the public continues to watch in horror as new evidence of wrongdoing by former Liberal politicians and public sector leaders emerge.

An element of the findings that are most repulsive are the insights into the coordinated political manoeuvrings between the former Liberal government and “friendly” media. As reported by Rick Morton in The Saturday Paper, as soon as there was a whiff of media scrutiny of the debt averaging policy, the Liberals called in favours from their partisan-media friends.

Morton reports how then-Human Services Minister Alan Tudge’s senior media advisor, Rachelle Miller, strategically helped release private Centrelink information about the people who were brave enough to help raise alarm bells about the scheme by telling their stories in the media.

Miller released this information to “favoured” journalists, including particularly Simon Benson at The Australian, because she wanted news stories presented “in a way that the minister liked”. Benson was, surprise, surprise, apparently “very good at doing that”.

The goal, Miller explained, was the establishment of a “counternarrative”, which would distract from the growing story which framed the Robodebt scheme negatively. This counternarrative was weaponised, she said, in the tabloids, The Australian, commercial television channels, Sky News and 2GB.

Once Miller had got her front-page smear story in The Australian, other friendly media followed along, including Nine’s A Current Affair, where Tudge threatened that people who didn’t pay their debts could go to prison.

The goal of this counternarrative was not only to reframe the front-page media agenda about Robodebt, but to frighten other debt notice recipients to put them off complaining. This apparently was quite successful for a time in making the negative media coverage go away.

This smear story about Centrelink recipients is premised on the customary Liberal, right-wing master narrative, which characterises every dollar spent on the social safety net as a "waste", characterising those who receive Centrelink benefits as "undeserving". This is a moral-based narrative which defines what the Liberal Party, and their partisan media mates, stand for.

I have academic expertise in strategic political narratives. I research how narratives are used to influence news media, and in turn, public opinion. What I have seen in the evidence of political collusion between the Liberals and some news media is hugely concerning. It shows how news media is used to shield Liberal governments from scrutiny.

We knew this stuff was happening, and now we’ve seen it described by Miller in excruciating detail.

News media is notionally meant to contribute to a healthy democracy. Journalists’ two key functions are to be a watchdog over the powerful, and to facilitate a vibrant and diverse marketplace of ideas. The first of these functions is the one that is most often idealised in relation to political reporting. The job of the press gallery is meant to be to "bark" when they discover wrongdoing, bad behaviour, incompetence, corruption, and any act of government which has a negative influence on citizens.

Journalists are also meant to serve democracy by ensuring a myriad of voices can access the news marketplace of ideas to represent different perspectives, tell diverse stories, and ensure all parts of society get a voice about issues and events that impact them. This diversity is particularly important when it comes to lifting up the voices of people without power and giving them a chance to talk back to those in power.

Like Centrelink recipients, for example.

When you dig into Robodebt collusion between the former Liberal government and their mates in the media, you can see just how badly these journalists and outlets are undermining democracy by abandoning their duty as watchdogs and failing to represent diverse stories.

Indeed, by agreeing to collude with Liberals to help cover up and divert from the truth of the illegality of the Robodebt "extortion scheme", news media played its part in reinforcing the powerful anti-welfare narratives of politicians who were using their power to harm the public. They helped to keep the Robodebt scheme alive for years after initial concerns were raised.

This is literally the opposite of the expected role of news media in a healthy democracy. Powerful media voices, working for large corporate media organisations, particularly News Corp and Nine, who have mammoth concentrated power, are using that power to promote the voices of power, squash the voices of those without power, and intimidate the victims of Robodebt, which resulted in untold harm and hundreds of suicides.

It is worth noting that although some media behaved reprehensively over Robodebt, there was excellent watchdog reporting which gave voice to victims, and continues with coverage of the Royal Commission.

Standout reporting has come from The Saturday Paper, The Monthly, The Guardian, The ABC, Crikey, New Daily, some Nine reporters, Independent Australia, and citizen journalists and activists on social media.

Yet, it's concerning to note that in Miller’s evidence, she referred to this excellent reporting, particularly naming the ABC and even Nine’s The Sydney Morning Herald, as “left-wing media” which she said was attacking the former government over Robodebt.

Miller’s commentary reveals a culture within the Liberal Party where quality watchdog journalism is written off as "left-wing". This political game-playing no doubt gives Liberals’, in their minds, a justification to "use" their right-wing media friends to fight back against perceived attacks. And it just so happens their right-wing media friends dominate the Australian media landscape.

It shouldn’t have to be said, but I’ll say it. Quality journalism is not ‘left wing’: it’s quality journalism. The job of legitimate news outlets is not to promote the narratives of the powerful, but to tell the stories of people impacted by political policies and to hold the government to account.

When members of the media don’t do their jobs, and instead use their power to help their political friends hide from scrutiny, governments can, as we’ve seen with the illegal Robodebt scheme, get away with anything.

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

If you would like to learn more about how strategic narratives are crafted and how they influence news media (because narratives can be used for good as well as evil), attend Dr Fielding's free master class.

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