They’re all symptoms of a particular class of political journalism that is closer to propaganda than news. These examples show that some journalists would prefer to advocate for powerful interests instead of holding the powerful to account.
Australia has many quality journalists who rightly subscribe to the idea that their job is to speak truth to power and to represent the voices of the marginalised who don’t have powerful platforms to speak on their own behalf. But these ideals seem quaint in much mainstream journalism, particularly at powerful outlets like the Murdoch media, Nine and the Daily Mail.
For these outlets, media power is a weapon to be wielded against those they oppose. This weapon is used by journalists, commentators, and editors, or by faceless political players who have friendly media in their corner.
In the case of the bong photo, either the journalist scrolled back a decade through Tame’s Instagram feed looking for something smear-worthy, or someone else did and the journalist gladly published. Either way, it is not a coincidence that this smear was published the day after the Prime Minister’s wife accused Tame of lacking “manners and respect” for committing the supposed sin of – shock, horror – not smiling at the Prime Minister.
The bong photo, like most smears that emerge out of right-wing dirt units, did nothing but remind the public how dirty the Right wing is. Morrison has been thoroughly and rightfully shamed by Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins for failing to take any meaningful action to clean up the toxic, misogynistic, unsafe culture of sexual abuse and harassment in Australian Parliament and in turn, wider Australian society.
We all understand why Morrison and his supporters want to intimidate Tame into silence, but why would the Daily Mail fire shots in this war?
The same goes for Channel 9’s 60 Minutes and other outlets who reported Jenny Morrison’s foray into Scott’s public relations campaign like it was legitimately newsworthy. When journalists actively partake in public relations for the Prime Minister, knowingly allowing Morrison to curate his own image, to insert his own ukulele, this is not news. It is political propaganda.
The story should be “why is Morrison’s Government so unpopular that he has to call in his wife to save him?” but instead, much of what we get served up is “Jenny says Scott is a nice guy and Grace Tame is rude”.
When this same Prime Ministerial desperation leads Morrison’s Government to dangerously try to wedge Labor on China, using national security Australia’s crucial trading partner as a political plaything, journalists shouldn’t be playing along. Indeed, it’s those who call it out who differentiate themselves from spin merchants.
News media is not meant to actively assist the Prime Minister to smear his rivals and to oppose his political opposition. It is not meant to be used vindictively to discredit voices who challenge the Prime Minister. Journalists aren’t meant to be playing the game. When the audience is only being served up one version of reality – the version the Prime Minister chooses – they are being served propaganda, not news.
This problem in Australian media is compounded by the intense concentrated power of Murdoch and Nine outlets, and their agenda-setting influence on all other outlets. Voters deserve a news media that will scrutinise power to help them make decisions in their own best interests at the polling booth. When they’re being served politicised spin instead of objective scrutiny, they’re being manipulated.
This manipulation is worthy of news media scrutiny, too. It would be great if those journalists who do speak truth to power would turn their attention to their media colleagues and critique how media power is being used to undermine democracy.
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