#CashOut: Is it ever okay for journalists to protect politicians who have lied?

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This is latest saga is not the first time Michaelia Cash has told blatant lies, says EBA Truth (Image via @CFMEU)

The Cash saga reminds that a great many journalists are content to allow politicians to repeat lies unchallenged — even during close election campaigns. EBA Truth recalls the whopper that turned the 2016 Federal election.

IS IT EVER OKAY for journalists to protect politicians who have lied?

Media figures were divided on this question this week, in the wake of Michaelia Cash’s AWU raids scandal. After Buzzfeed reporter Alice Workman exposed the fact that Employment Minister Michaelia Cash’s office had tipped off the media prior to Cash’s hamfists-and-jackboots propaganda stunt, some opined that it was unethical for journalists to expose "sources". Others retorted that it was unethical for journalists to protect a politician who has given every appearance of telling a bold-faced lie. 

At least some journalists understand their overarching duty to report the truth. I would like to ask: where were these journalists during the federal election campaign?

At the centre of the Coalition’s campaign in Victoria was a bogus narrative of a so-called hostile union takeover of the Country Fire Authority and at the core of that narrative was a preposterous lie. That lie framed the Federal Coalition as the heroes who would save the Victorian public from a villainous union’s reckless disregard for public safety and volunteer self-worth. The lie  –  a complete fabrication  –  went like this: professional firefighters were demanding that volunteers stand and watch fires burn, for minutes or hours, until seven union members arrived to supervise them.

Michaelia Cash eventually repeated that lie in an op-ed published in the Herald Sun on 22 August 2016. Satisfyingly for firefighters, Cash was pulled up on the lie that so many before her had got away with. Greens MP Adam Bandt called her out in a media release and the media took it up. Bandt elaborated on his complaints on Sky News and Cash was forced to retract the lie. 

Later in the day, armed with a copy of the proposed Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, Sky host David Speers used an interview with Michaelia Cash to thoroughly demolish the Coalition’s narrative of a hostile union takeover. 

The Guardian and The Age followed up, confirming Bandt’s complaint that the "seven firefighter" claim was false.

This interview put smiles on fireys' faces for the first time in months and added a phrase to our vernacular: "What about Don?" But the damage had been done that couldn’t be undone. Lies usually gain purchase even when retracted the same day. This lie had been told for months on end, over and over, unchallenged.

To the best of my knowledge, this lie originated in a Herald Sun story by James Campbell and Matt Johnston on 20 April 2016. It was seized upon by Coalition MPs for its propaganda power and soon became a regular feature of news coverage. Seemingly nothing could stop the propagation of this lie. The CFA  –  which, at the time, was still in dispute with the union  –  refuted it on 20 May, but the lie lived on. On 1 June, the Fair Work Commission handed down a Final Recommendation that largely supported the union’s position and included clarified wording that left no doubt: volunteers would not have to wait for professional firefighters to arrive.

The publication of this Recommendation only served to encourage the Coalition. Its promise to interfere with the Fair Work Act to prevent the CFA from following the Recommendation became the major focus of its election campaign in Victoria. Correctly judging that the media would fail to challenge even a lie that was clearly disproved by public documents, the Coalition pushed the lie as hard as it could.

A 5 June, Herald Sun op-ed by Matthew Guy relied heavily on the lie:

Tony Abbott used it in his 21 June Herald Sun op-ed, too. I don’t have the stomach to check, but I’ll wager the lie also featured in some of the 19 front pages the Herald Sun devoted in that month alone to the Coalition’s CFA campaign. Day after day, the lie was retold to the TV news by angry volunteers who had been fooled by the Coalition’s unchallenged campaign of deception.

Immense damage resulted. The CFA campaign was probably instrumental in electing one of the most dysfunctional governments in Australian history, but to me that’s secondary. What’s worse is the irreparable harm done to the CFA and to firefighters and their families. 

The bitter divisions deliberately incited by the campaign destroyed the delicate integration of volunteer and career firefighters in the CFA’s suburban territory. Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley remarked in July this year to a Victorian Parliamentary Select Committee that the dispute had made Victoria’s fire services the worst in Australia. CFA Chief Officer Steve Warrington told the same Committee that he was "sick to death of good people being put against good people"Both argued strongly that the only viable way forward from this mess was major structural reform that would separate the volunteer and career workforces. 

Over 1,000 submissions from professional firefighters offered the same expert opinion.

As one CFA station officer remarked:

'This dispute has broken the CFA and, like Humpty Dumpty, I don’t think it can be put back together again.'

Her submission went on to say, ‘I will carry the scars with me until I retire’, before detailing, like hundreds of other submissions, the mental and emotional distress she had suffered as a result of political interference and media slander.

Yes, the media eventually called out the lie that propelled the Coalition’s campaign of fear, division and hatred. But it was too little, too late and it might not have been called out at all if Adam Bandt hadn’t provided an opening for "he said, she said" reporters to act.

So, ethical journalists of Australia, I ask you again: where were you during the election campaign?

EBA Truth is a firefighter, rank-and-file UFU member and former CFA volunteer. You can follow EBA Truth on Twitter @ebatruth or on Facebook here.

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