Politics Analysis

Scare campaigns built on lies not policed by the media

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

The Voice Referendum has shown we have a toxic, broken media institution where lies are not only excused, but are characterised as clever political campaigning.

Even worse, the victims of the scare campaign are blamed for its effectiveness.

As a teenager, I was on my school debating team. We followed simple rules in the conduct of debates. You were required to debate the issue and never attack the person. Your arguments had to stick to the topic and be based on truth. If you didn’t meet these standards, the adjudicator would deduct points, criticise you in their feedback and you would lose.

How I long for those simple rules and quality adjudication as I watch the nation debate about the Voice Referendum.

We have not only reached a point where there is no standard of accountability around personal insults and truthfulness, but we also have the adjudicators – our news media – taking sides in the debate.

At ABC's Media Watch, rather than adjudicate misinformation being spread by News Corp and the Liberal Party about the length of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, host Paul Barry said, “There may be some point in what [Peta] Credlin is saying”.

This endorsement of misinformation legitimatised not just Peta Credlin’s misrepresentation of the length of the Uluru Statement, but the News Corp-led scare campaign that went with it. Credlin claimed the Uluru Statement’s hidden pages had “plenty of stuff in there about treaties, compensation and a whole lot of stuff that they’re not being upfront about”.

I recalled Credlin’s threats about the supposed hidden “Voice agenda” when it was reported by The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald that the “No” campaign was driving ‘fear and doubt’ about the Referendum by instructing volunteers to phone people and say:

‘I’ve also heard that some of the people who helped design the Voice proposal are campaigning to abolish Australia Day and want to use the Voice to push for compensation and reparations through a treaty. All of these things raised a few questions in my mind and made me wonder if there was more to it all than meets the eye.’

It was great to see the media finally scrutinising the “No” campaign’s tactics of lying about the Voice to scare voters. But where was the scrutiny of News Corp voices saying this exact same thing? And Liberals repeating the Uluru Statement lie to reinforce these same apparent threats?

In the Murdoch Referendum Accountability Project, we have found that the second most used argument against the Voice throughout the first seven weeks is that the Constitutional change has a hidden agenda to enact radical Indigenous activism, including reparations and a treaty.

Why are these media adjudicators more worried about a handful of people phoning a few hundred with a scare campaign about the Voice, when the same lies are being used every day to undermine the Voice by the nation’s largest media organisation? These lies are amplified by News Corp and the rest of the media just walk past them like they do not matter enough to mention.

If lying and misrepresentation ( also known as cheating) was allowed in high school debating, there would no doubt be a free-for-all, where lies just got bigger and debate standards would spiral downward.

That is what we have seen happen with the Voice Referendum. Media commentators have characteristically entered the debate and are using lies to undermine the truth about the Voice.

Small lies, like Andrew Bolt regularly referring to the Voice advisory body as the “Aboriginal only parliament”, ramp up to much bigger misrepresentation that the Voice “completely changes the nature of democracy” because if “three per cent of the people say no, they can stop the other 97”.

The Voice, of course, does not have the power to usurp parliament and the suggestion that an advisory body could do this is clearly ludicrous. But since this scare campaign has been allowed to fester and grow over months, unchecked by the mainstream media, it is now too big and too widespread to correct.

There is a saying: To hide a lie, you need thousands more. This is evident in the way that the “No” campaign’s fearmongering just gets bigger, uglier, and more malicious by the day because to remain scary, it needs new and more audacious lies.

This lie monster reached a vile crescendo last week when Opposition Indigenous Australians spokesperson Jacinta Price said at the National Press Club that Indigenous Australians had not suffered “ongoing negative consequences” from colonisation.

This denial of Indigenous history is akin to denying the holocaust, a lie that is outlawed in many countries. Yet, incredibly, Price’s comments denying the intergenerational trauma of dispossession, violence and structural inequality were met with laughter from her supporters, made into a gag.

As is usually the case, rather than adjudicate and condemn Price by naming her as a liar, journalists rushed to her political opponents – the victims of her offensive lie – to seek their response. Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Linda Burney, said she was betrayed and shocked. And just like that, Price’s denialism was turned into a “she said–she said” debate, Indigenous history a matter of opinion rather than clearly documented historical fact.

Worse than not adjudicating the lies, the media instead frames them as “effective”. For example, Brett Worthington at the ABC wrote a piece about how the “No” campaign was “leading” the debate. He said Price’s comments were ‘widely condemned... And yet they played perfectly for a campaign that at times wants to debate everything but the question being put to Australians next month’. Denying Indigenous and Australian history is a perfect play, apparently.

Many other commentators and journalists not only fail to call out the “No” advocate’s lie-based scare campaigns, but also blame Labor for not responding to them well enough. For instance, Phillip Coorey claimed that ‘the “Yes” case has been outplayed’ by Jacinta Price and criticised Prime Minister Albanese for not being able to ‘carry the argument for a “Yes” case with any cut-through or consistency’. Lies beat truth every day of the week.

The Voice Referendum is not the first time the Labor Party has met a Liberal-News Corp scare campaign. The mining tax, the carbon price, franking credits, electric vehicles, industrial relations — the list goes on. Indeed, any progressive reform Labor brings to the national debate is met with a Liberal-led lie-infested scare campaign, amplified by their media mates and walked past by the rest of the media.

When lying is framed as a clever campaigning strategy and the victims of those lies are criticised for not countering them well enough, the media adjudicators show they do not have the ability to inform a healthy democratic debate, and instead, contribute to its destruction.

School debating is just a sport. The consequences of the Voice Referendum failing are not a game for Australia.

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

If you would like updates from the Australians for a Murdoch Royal Commission Murdoch Referendum Accountability Project, join here.

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