Post-Truth media muddies the CFA dispute

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Michaelia Cash lies her way through a trainwreck interview with David Speers, August 2016.

The truth about the CFA dispute eventually came out but it was too little, too late. Fire fighter EBA Truth calls on mainstream media to adopt The New York Times' example of footnotes to back up claims.

THE POST POST-TRUTH era is slowly emerging, if The New York Timesadoption of footnotes is anything to go by. The appearance of those footnotes indicates that journalists are beginning to take seriously their democratic duty to illuminate issues with facts, if necessary by taking up the task of correcting falsehoods peddled by lying politicians. But when will the novel idea of journalistic integrity reach Australian shores?

That Australian journos realise they have a problem seems apparent from a recent story by The Guardian’s Melbourne bureau chief Melissa Davey. The article’s central premise is that the Andrews government has pulled back from its human rights agenda due because it has been spooked by media flak. Davey quotes political science professor Nick Economou, who notes that rhetoric and policy that is 'tough on law and order' is demanded by a press that 'loves running headlines about hard crime gangs running amok,' even though abundant evidence shows that 'such policies tend to be counterproductive in the long term.'

This is the essence of post-truth politics: emotive, counterfactual propaganda trumps facts and reason, skewing public opinion and yielding absurd political outcomes. As Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner wrote in the wake of Brexit, facts and reliable information are essential for the functioning of a democracy, and the need for serious public interest journalism has never been greater. Viner calls for a strong journalistic culture of 'building an informed, active public that scrutinises the powerful,' contrasting this with a picture that seems much closer to the Australian media landscape: 'an ill-informed, reactionary gang that attacks the vulnerable'.

Particularly at the level of state politics, post-truth folly rules the roost in Australia, and there is no better recent example of this than the Victorian Country Fire Authority dispute.

The scene for the CFA dispute was set by years of fake news, much of which was initiated by Murdoch's Herald Sun, citing anonymous sources. The 2015 Fire Services Review found the former Coalition Government and the senior management of CFA and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade launched a 'deliberately ideological attack on the United Firefighters Union,' waged in part through actions that were 'clearly inflammatory and designed to portray firefighters in a poor light.' That is, they launched a propaganda offensive against firefighters.

The fake news attacks did not subside with the change of government or the handing down of the Fire Services Review, the release of which was suppressed for months by Emergency Services Minister Jane Garrett. Indeed, they intensified, with Andrews and Garrett themselves generating fake news through the use of misleading wage claim figures.

On 1 June 2016, in the midst of the federal election campaign, the Fair Work Commission handed down recommendations that largely supported the union’s claims and Andrews indicated his intention to implement them. At this point, fake news went into overdrive

Of the many lies propagated by the media, one in particular struck such a chord with the public. The claim was made that, in the words of opposition leader Matthew Guy:

' .. volunteer firefighters would have to stand a watch a house burn until seven unionised firefighters arrive to watch over their work.'

After it appeared in Guy’s Herald Sun op-ed, this absurd lie spread to the point where it was being repeated by concerned volunteers to TV news crews on a near-daily basis. Anecdotally, it remains one of the most frequently voiced misconceptions firefighters encounter when discussing the CFA dispute with friends and acquaintances. This colossal lie, more than any other aspect of the dispute, swayed public opinion and, with it, the outcome of the federal election.

In the post-truth milieu of the Australian political media, this was a lie that was never adequately refuted. The media would not do it, because it is accustomed to the false balance of he-said/she-said journalism. Nor would Labor and The Greens refute this lie, even though they knew it was demonstrably untrue and was hurting their polling, because they saw it as an unwinnable argument. They know that facts don’t matter in a post-truth world. Better to keep quiet and let it blow over.

Later in the year, a Victorian minister would be pressured into resigning after the opposition and the press gallery called for blood over the terrible transgression of transporting his pets in a government vehicle. But for misleading the public, inciting widespread panic among volunteers, vilifying emergency service workers and perverting the outcome of an election, Guy escaped censure entirely.

A similar story of post-truth folly surrounds the second great lie of the CFA dispute: the claim that the proposed agreement grants the union "veto" rights over management decisions. Like the seven-firefighter claim, this is a lie that any journalist could easily have disproved by reading the agreement (and a dictionary, if needs be), but none cared to do so. The Herald Sun consistently reported it as fact. The Age followed suit in an editorial laden with factual inaccuracies, while its "news" articles (like those of the ABC) repeatedly propagated the claim without ever questioning its veracity.

When MFB chief Peter Rau reiterated the claim in a letter provided to the Herald Sun, the media was abuzz for days afterwards. Yet, again, the claim went unchallenged. Only the ABC bothered to report (on a he-said/she-said basis) that Rau’s use of the term dates from MFB’s 2014 application to terminate its own workplace agreement, which was rejected by the Fair Work Commission on safety grounds. Nor did the media deem it relevant that the termination case was singled out by the Fire Services Review as the most egregious front of the coalition-led PR war on firefighters.

A few weeks later, CFA chief Steve Warrington made a thorough, factual refutation of the "veto" claim, in writing to the Senate Committee responsible for the Turnbull Government’s anti-firefighter legislation. The response from the media was non-existent. Silence.

This is post-truth politics, where lies and ignorance prevail, truthfulness is optional and facts are irrelevant. The lies around "seven unionised firefighters" and "veto" were propagated repeatedly, and article after article across all outlets omitted entirely the safety reasons underpinning the union’s claims, and the support lent to them by the Fiskville Inquiry, the MFB termination case and the Fire Services Review.

But where the media’s post-truth disdain for facts is most prominently displayed is in stories marked as "analysis" and "comment". The Age and Sunday Age, in particular, ran regular comment pieces (for example by political editors Josh Gordon and Farrah Tomazin) on the political aspects of the CFA dispute, which uniformly made little or no reference to facts. It would seem that in the eyes of these journalists, the political process is not a meant to be a reasoned debate in which arguments are made on the basis of evidence in order to further the public interest. No, these pieces read like their authors imagine themselves commentating upon theatre sports. Perception is everything, facts are nothing. The result is an echo-chamber, in which ill-informed opinions bounce about through a factual vacuum.

Only after the election campaign was over did the media and MPs deem it safe to emerge from their post-truth torpor.

On 22 August, both The Age and The Guardian called out Michaelia Cash for telling the "seven unionised firefighters" lie in a Herald Sun op-ed. A promising development, this was nevertheless an incomplete departure from post-truth norms: it took an angry demand for Cash’s resignation from Greens MP Adam Bandt before these outlets would expose the lie. When Guy had pulled the same trick as Cash months earlier, he had gotten away with it, presumably because no-one sufficiently notable had offered any criticism the media could use in he-said/she-said format.

The coalition’s anti-firefighter claims now declared open for criticism, later in the day, Sky News political editor David Speers used an interview with Cash to go in for the kill. Making detailed reference to the contents of the proposed agreement, Speers demolished the Coalition’s vacuous narrative of a “hostile union takeover” in its entirety. If Australian journalists need an example of how to take their professional responsibilities seriously, this interview is essential viewing.

Trainwreck interview by Sky's David Speers with Employment Minister Michaelia Cash on CFA legislation

More hidden facts that could have been revealed months earlier by bread-and-butter journalistic research finally got the he-said/she-said treatment on 19 September, when The Age reported on evidence heard by the Senate Inquiry into the Coalition’s proposed amendments to the Fair Work Act. Finally the public was informed, for the first time and albeit minimally, about the reasoning and evidence behind the union’s call for prescriptive conditions on staffing and consultation in the proposed agreement.

'Eventually, the truth about the

CFA dispute came out 

but it was too little, too late' 

Eventually, the truth about the CFA dispute came out, but it was too little, too late. The damage was already done. On the basis of a campaign of lies, professional firefighters have permanently lost public esteem and Labor have suffered lasting political damage. Thanks to cross-bench support, the Coalition’s bogus narrative has been enshrined in legislation that has stymied the CFA’s attempt to sign the workplace agreement. CFA staff are left wondering whether they will ever enjoy the safety protections they have fought long and hard for.

Will the media do better as journalists grow more aware of the importance of truth in reporting? On the CFA front, early signs are not promising. Potentially the next item on the conflict agenda is reforming Victoria’s emergency management arrangements for a clear separation between the volunteer and career fire services, as is the case in all other states. This is a reform that has long enjoyed support from a number of disparate quarters, on the basis of its potential to advance public safety and improve relations between volunteers and career firefighters.

But already, before the Government has indicated any appetite for reform and despite the fact that such a reform represents the polar opposite of the fictional “takeover”, the Coalition claims to be concerned about, the Liberals and the Herald Sun have begun a propaganda campaign against it. 

How will the rest of the media perform? Time will tell.

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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