Politics Opinion

Mainstream journalists are selling their souls for the dollar

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

The Morrison Government's election campaign is a disaster, but the real story is still the state of the press, writes Joel Jenkins.

AT THE HALFWAY POINT of the election campaign, inside one of the most pockmarked government terms in modern history, Labor Leader Anthony Albanese comes back from a week incapacitated with COVID-19. Live in Perth, at an important time in the nation's history, he stands before the media to take questions. After weeks of gotchas at the expense of genuine questions on policy — “Where’s Tanya?”, they ask.

Elsewhere in Tasmania, after gifting $4 million to a whiskey distillery owned and linked to people who are very rich, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was at a chemist dog-whistling to donors at the Pharmacy Guild of Australia. He offered cheaper prescriptions, something revealed and retracted around budget time, not challenged through his bluster, the “campaigner” that is somehow allowed to subliminally regurgitate something about “income management” before blaming the Labor Party for Robodebt.  

We see it all.

This week alone, we had startling developments in the Solomon Islands, a sharp rise in the cost of living, inflation and interest rates, low wages, Katherine Deves hiding in a shed, “Net zero is dead” and MP Alan Tudge still on the lam. Add that to the simmering incompetence of mass homelessness in flood zones, aged care catastrophes, the NSW Liberal branch war and long-term absenteeism with bushfires, pandemics, droughts and foreign affairs.

All of this is encased in the murky denialism of ICAC, the car parks, the sporting grants, the legal fees, the out of court settlements, the ministerial appointments and the moral shame.

This Government is in panic mode, overcome by a state of factional flux over sharply contrasting ideologies that ultimately manifest in grievances aired in public. The Prime Minister's character and his actions have had a significant outcome on the divisions taking place within the L-NP, putting unprecedented pressure on senior government ministers from Goldstein to Dixon and sending the political movement down a pathway of oblivion, with the press seemingly willing to join it.

The whitewashes in the WA and SA state elections, the historic results in NSW by-elections, and the consistent polling against the L-NP in all metrics reflect the public’s understanding of the Government's failings and perhaps an indicator of how they feel, too. Rising tides of public disapproval, yet this contrasts with the message emitting from our concentrated media apparatus, which seems increasingly unable to capture this growing public consensus.

Independent candidates look set to change the political landscape of this country forever, yet the press cannot conceptualise this grassroots groundswell, let alone present an accurate representation of a pie graph. If this Government goes out in a landslide it will be at the hands of voters that have had to choose without any objective guidance from the media.

Cleavages and contradictions are rife, the public can see it all, yet we have Channel Nine doing a piece on “benched” Labor members who are “frozen” out of the Election or News Corp doing a double-page spread on Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s 14th take on why Monique Ryan, a paediatric doctor who is beating him 20 points in the polls, is a threat to democracy.

Members of the press won’t seem to ask the questions required to illuminate the crucial key policies or challenge the PMO talking points that confound the public interest, leaving the Australian people alone to sift through the political spin on one side and the horse race journalism on the other.

Those in the media, before they were sucked into the travelling rodeo of political influence and big business, used to observe the corral from outside with the rest of us and understood it more from our position, too. Good journalists used to have ways to communicate something that was fundamentally flawed in a government, they could articulate policy as they understood it, reflecting their understanding of the public interest and, more importantly, the values of the nation.

Public interest reporting is not what the public wants to know, nor what the boss thinks it should know — but what it needs to know. The legacy of good journalism in this country is the profound responsibility of those who take part in it. In exchange for comfortable wages, the camaraderie of fellow travellers and the comfort of being safely ensconced in the bosom of the political class, the journalists working in these systems seem willing to not only trade the dignity and credibility of their profession, but the entire country.

Throughout this circus of a campaign, a majority of this country’s geopolitically detached press apparatus no longer exhibits the capability to understand the public it thinks it informs, presenting a modified experience as depicted by an ideologically fused and financially motivated information production line.

Many high-level political contributors and the aspirant journalists in the pay grades below have developed professionally in an industry rewarding those who spin content that compliments a politically motivated agenda.

The public broadcaster has become wedged between subjective journalism and the political class, unable to distinguish its charter from its Stockholm Syndrome. The ABC is now entirely beholden to the executive decisions of an organisational structure that has been lifted from former corporate media heavies who sit on the board.

Sometimes appointed by ministerial fiat, these former private sector executives seek to modify our public broadcaster to ape the production cycles of the private interest media entities they helped to define. Once the definitive baseline of journalistic standards and impartiality, the ABC has lost its identity, while a richly cultivated ideological torrent of “free speech” is articulately defined every day in the Nine papers and every evening on Sky After Dark.

Many of the key journalists in situ across the finite roles of influence in the media have risen to prominence in an environment and a narrative controlled by an L-NP Government. These days, with large six-figure tenures for those who exhibit the right traits, many aspirational journalists, shuffling around the bullpens and leaning over the post and rail fences in the press gallery, have forgotten the fundamentals of the trade they practice.

With wages and backgrounds more in line with the politicians, CEOs and business people they are meant to scrutinise, influential journalists, political editors and content producers cannot empathise with the public because they mostly do not know who they are.

The product of the media environment has been at odds with public interest for quite some time. When the cataclysmic fires raged on the east coast we didn’t need the media writing climate denialism. When the pandemic raged, we didn’t need misinformation so poor it was banned on YouTube. And now, heading to the most vital election in a generation, we do not need journalists squaring the circle on this Government's incompetence and the clear fact that its leader is clearly ill-equipped and unfit for office.

The death of public interest journalism will not happen at the hand of the corporate entities that wish to distort it, nor the journalists that wish to change its meaning for personal gain. Throughout this Election, journalists have been unable to provide an objective utility to the population, lacked the ability to articulate policy and have demonstrated a startling inability to incorporate this Government's actions into their analysis.

The results of this Election will determine the future of this nation and, pending the significance of the outcome, could also damage the public’s perception of the press for a generation.

This story was first published on Bogan Intelligentsia under the title, 'We see it all'.

Joel Jenkins is a writer and actuator. You can read more from Joel on Bogan Intelligentsia and follow him on Twitter @boganintel.

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