The Sydney Morning Herald fades to a Tory sunset

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The Sydney Morning Herald appears to have learnt nothing since their 2013 embarrassment

The Sydney Morning Herald is stumping nakedly for Malcolm Turnbull, writes Dr Evan Jones, just like it did for Tony Abbott in 2013.

THE FEDERAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN and its rancid media coverage are desperately in need of the pen of Bob Ellis. Alas, it has been silenced.

Ridicule and outrage are the only appropriate emotions. The mass of pundits treat it as a game, as per usual.

I can barely stand to expose myself to any of it, and the rare peeps confirm my fears and disgust.

One day last week, the Sydney Morning Herald arriving in the front yard was lighter than a feather. It could have flown off with a breeze. Quality over quantity? Hardly.

The Herald gives a free plug to the Libs

The SMH is stumping nakedly for Malcolm Turnbull. As it did for Tony Abbott in 2013.

In an editorial on 11 May, the SMH gives Chris Bowen a half-hearted cheer, before qualifying it.

The SMH’s editorial on 11 June proferred:

Labor will be daunting to many voters focused on their own financial wellbeing and job prospects rather than the potential for education to lift growth and productivity down the line.…

But if the Coalition's starting point is better than Labor's, voters may choose the path of less risk and more confidence.

What? Utter jibberish.

It concluded with:

Labor's attempts to prove the Prime Minister guilty of mismanagement of the economy and the budget have yet to reach beyond a balance of probabilities, let alone reasonable doubt.…

Given a choice between a union-influenced Shorten government managing the economy and a Turnbull one influenced by businesses who employ people and will benefit from tax cuts, many Australians might choose self-interest over long-term social benefits.

This guff doesn’t even pass the smell test of intelligence, leave alone integrity.

The paper is still banging on about the corrupt Heydon Royal Commission into union corruption, with almost every article adding a tag about Labor’s dangerous union ties. But the Shorten election agenda displays more of, say, ex-academic MP Andrew Leigh than it does of union influence.

As for the claim that the “jobs and growth” mantra has substance, what a crock …

The editorial writers are at it again on 17 June:

In the past six weeks Mr Shorten and Labor have performed well. But the government's head start on economic management and asylum seeker policy [sic] will be difficult to overcome with just two weeks to go.

Head start on economic management? There is no economic management whatsoever. Turnbull doesn’t care. Chris Bowen has ten times more brains than Joe Hockey and Scott Morrison combined.

The SMH claims (11 May):

Labor has begun this campaign by presenting a legitimate challenge to voter preconceptions that economic management is the Coalition's strength.

The line is that running budget deficits is a Labor pastime, whereas the Libs are slaves to fiscal rectitude. All so much palaver. Voters have no such preconceptions. It is a fiction created and repeated endlessly by a media management not merely reactionary but ill-educated and dishonest.

What about the Lib’s so-called economic management credentials?

On the up spending side, for example, Turnbull’s "defence" agenda is over the top. Bizarrely, a cache of F-35s is still on the list. This disaster-waiting-to-happen flight of fancy by dropkick Tony Abbott should have been quietly relegated to the out tray. Apart from the massive sums down the drain, it’s a sign of the ongoing colonial cringe par excellence.

Even the Yanks are scathing:

A senior Pentagon official has slammed the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet, saying it could not win a dogfight against an older jet, could not meet its test and evaluation deadlines, and could not fly unsupported against a threat.

On the expenditure cutting side, the swathe of cuts to social services (health, education, etc.) are not driven by any desire to rein in the deficit. The Libs don’t give a rat’s arse about deficits. The cuts are ideologically-driven, pure and simple. And dysfunctional to boot, which is why the Senate gave thumbs down to Hockey’s two budgets.

On the revenue side, then Treasurer Joe Hockey, under pressure from a Senate Inquiry, belatedly made a token gesture towards reining in rampart tax avoidance by big multinational companies. But the massive cynical staff cuts at the Australian Taxation Office stay unremediated, while ATO Commissioner Chris Jordan claims that the cuts have not undermined the campaign against such avoidance.

Then there’s Treasurer Scott Morrison’s cut to the corporate tax rate in the 2016 Budget (adding to Abbott’s tax cuts), increasing the long term deficit, with no substantive link to “jobs and growth” whatsoever.

The Libs don’t want to generate more revenue because that would facilitate maintenance and expansion of social services and publically funded economic infrastructure. Maintaining pressure unnecessarily on Federal finances provides the cover for ideologically-driven cuts to social services, privatisations and privately driven (even if publicly subsidised) infrastructure development.

The media is happy to oblige. The SMH’s Peter Martin, 10 June, called the tune with 'Labor’s new savings welcome, but not enough'. Martin has in the past displayed detachment in his columns, but he’s fallen into line with the mantra.

Martin’s pressure came a day after a screaming SMH front page 'Labor plans threaten AAA rating: economists', behind which:

Federal Labor's decision to allow bigger budget deficits over the next four years if it is elected would place Australia's AAA credit rating at risk, according to three of Australia's most reputable economists.

Ah, “reputable economists” — I’d like to see that. Disgraceful.

An apparatus conducive to deficit fetishism

This mantra about budget deficits (ultimately not really about deficits at all) is facilitated by an institutional flaw in Australian governmental structures.

The annual budget combines deliberations in two related but distinct domains — a statement on economic and social priorities, and a statement on how those priorities are to be financed. But the budget is presented by the treasurer (undeservedly elevating his status) and, as a “budget”, gives implicit prominence to the financing aspects rather than the government’s political priorities.

This structure provides a natural vehicle for the honing in on the overall deficit and for the privileging of narrow-minded economic commentators.

Fixing this murkiness requires a radical departmental reorganisation. In my view the prime minister should deliver a statement on economic and social priorities (forced to be up front rather than hidden). Revenue as well as expenditure control should be handed to the (now junior) Department of Finance, with the minister of finance to deliver a complementary statement on the financing of the government’s program. The Treasury, long dysfunctional regarding its allocated responsibilities, should be dismantled. But explaining that agenda requires another article.

Such an organisational change would put the “deficit fetishists” in their appropriate slot.

The Herald gives a free plug to Hillary Clinton

But back to the SMH’s prejudices and failings.

There is the matter of the paper’s coverage of the U.S. Presidential campaign — massive but partisan. It has essentially been a fan club for Hillary Clinton.

Donald Trump is the candidate from outer space, but his success to date is the result of tangible public disenchantment with establishment politics. He hasn’t bought his popularity under the table. Hence “expert” opinion: the masses are as crazy as Trump. In any case, Trump’s opposition Republican candidates were all spivs. Trump is an unknown quantity (even to himself), and where he would draw his advisors from would significantly determine his agenda.

Hillary Clinton is a known quantity. She is unprincipled, corrupt and a mass murderer. Ah, the ideal candidate to lead the most powerful country in the world, with an establishment determined to keep it that way.

She is in thrall to her major backers, not least Wall Street and the Israel lobby.

The dissident U.S. media has covered Clinton’s sins comprehensively. The two lead articles on Counterpunch for 17 June are representative.

Here’s Andrew Levine:

Clintonism exacerbates inequality, encourages murder and mayhem abroad and terrorism at home, and renders the country dependent on a perpetual war regime that undermines First, Fourth and Fifth Amendment protections along with other traditional rights and liberties.

And here’s Alan Nasser, in brief:

Neoliberalism at home dovetails with imperial aggression abroad. Washington’s overall agenda is nothing if not consistent. Clinton’s regime portends intensely worrisome outcomes here and abroad.

As secretary of state, she was instrumental in the destruction of Libya and the coup d’état in Honduras. She remains unrepentant, as highlighted in her 2 June speech in military establishment-dominated Southern California, determined to maintain the U.S.’ full spectrum dominance globally.

The SMH’s senior foreign affairs columnist, Paul McGeough, has covered the U.S. campaign extensively. McGeough has seen the whites of their eyes in the Middle East and has given us, amongst other books, the non-mainstream 2009 Kill Khalid. But something gets in journalists’ drinking water when they report from inside the citadel.

McGeough’s hagiographic piece on Clinton on 11 June is exemplary in this regard.

McGeough notes:

But some will never forgive her vote to go to war in Iraq or her enthusiasm for regime change in Libya.

Quite. A flippant remark indeed. And why should they?

The other Democrat Party candidate Bernie Sanders is treated as unpresentable and his supporters screwball and aggro. Yet the corrupt Democrat Party elite have unscrupulously denigrated Sanders (with the mainstream media in tow) and have reputedly unconscionably manipulated Primary voting procedures in some States in favour of Clinton.

Then there’s the female angle.

SMH columnist Julia Baird has exposed Trump for his condescension towards women (and policy itself) — 16 January, 13 February and 7 May. The agenda, implicit, is support for pure-as-the-driven-snow Hillary, straight out of Girls’ Own Annual.

Baird reports from her New York Times contacts that, of the Obama vs Clinton Democrat candidacy in 2008, Clinton differentiated herself in 'her confident command of policy detail'. Well, yes, and it is all, if disingenuous, a lie, or, if honest, appalling.

Hillary Clinton could be the first female U.S. President. Hallelujah, says Anne Summers on 11 June. And her only opponents are the septuagenarian loser Bernie Sanders and the dangerous buffoon Donald Trump.

Well, we’ve had the first black President in U.S. history. Revolutionary in one sense, more of the same in what matters. The Obama Presidency has been a disaster (and not from a right-wing kook perspective). Obama has stared down the neo-con/pro-Israel establishment in forging the Iran treaty and in declining to bomb the Assad Syrian regime into oblivion. These are important stances. But, domestically and internationally, the promises that the magnetic Obama offered to his electors in 2008 have been illusory.

The absurdity of this elevation of gender over substance is exposed in a reporter’s cornering of Sanders in early June and his presumed illegitimate candidacy:

Bernie Sanders laughed out loud when he was asked if he was “sexist” for staying in the presidential race as he was making it harder for the US to elect its first woman president.

“Is that a serious question?” he asked the female reporter. “Yes it is a serious question,” she replied.

“Your question implies that any woman, that any person, any woman who is running for president is by definition the best candidate,” he said. “So if Hillary Clinton runs for president, is your point that it is sexist for any man to oppose?”

Ultimately, race and gender are of marginal significance when it comes to substance.

The Herald’s truncated and selective reportage

On the general reporting front, the SMH is a seriously incoherent mixed bag.

Its foreign coverage is systematically awful, mostly reproducing the correct line from the Anglo-American media — which can consistently include utter misrepresentation of serious conflict, as in Ukraine.

Its social policy coverage is good, ditto environmental policy. It has given up on rural affairs and science, and offers only spotty reportage of workplace labour relations and of the state of the labour market.

In spite of the retrenchment and paying out of myriad top rank columnists, several remain at their posts — as with Adele Ferguson on skulduggery in business affairs, and Jacob Saulwick’s coverage of the Baird Government’s disastrous transport and commuter policies.

The penchant for explicitly right-wing and Tory columnists is entrenched. The cosseted Paul Sheehan ironically wrote himself off the page with his “racially charged rape allegations”. But he was soon replaced by Tom Switzer, a man already over-exposed via myriad think tanks and opinion outlets, but given new broader spectrum exposure by Fairfax.

There is the appalling appointment of Peter Reith, the former Howard Government Minister, petty pilferer,  corrupt manipulator of the 1998 waterfront dispute and all round political hack.

Political partisanry without insight.

Add the useless Amanda Vanstone.

The only reliably uncontrollable dissident columnist was Mike Carlton, but he was conveniently forced out in 2014 over his unacceptable honesty regarding Israel’s mass murder in Gaza.

These days, Elizabeth Farrelly plays the token dissident. Having been appointed as a specialist columnist on architecture and urban space she has de facto branched out beyond her brief into assertive critiques of political and (in particular) developer sector chicanery.

The SMH’s business coverage, with some exceptions (Adele Ferguson, Nassim Khadem and some others) is now lamentable. The ad man Harold Mitchell, historically confined as a curiosity deep inside the paper, has now been elevated as a serious economic columnist.

As for priorities, top billing was given, 15 June, to blather about jitters from the ever-prescient “market” with respect to the “fear” of the Brexit referendum — the British voting to exit the European Union. Pure white noise.

If Fairfax were to take the Brexit issue seriously, it would engage journalists to cover (or reproduce serious analysis from Europe) how Brussels works (essentially undemocratically — c/f the Greek coup) and what makes the British economy tick (in which, for example, the unwavering political devotion to the City of London’s self-interest is paramount).

But the coup de grâce regarding the business pages is, of course, the brutal sacking of Michael West in early May. Crikey’s Myriam Robin reports the sacking of West, and the names of countless other Fairfax journalists, editors and cartoonists retrenched or moving out.

West was a legend in his own time. As Crikey notes, many corporates hostile to the in-depth reporting of their skulduggery will be reaching for the bubbly.

Can Fairfax hold its readership on a cooked up and slimmed down diet?

In short, on politics, global affairs, business investigations, Fairfax has displayed inexcusable partisanry and shameless capitulation to various establishment forces.

We loyal Fairfax readers over decades, keep hoping that this strategic attack on coverage and journalistic integrity under CEO Greg Plywood will come to an end. But optimism has, to date, proved without foundation.

Meanwhile, we watch as Fairfax editorial tightens the screws against Labor until election day (and, indeed, beyond). And the rest.

There has to be a point at which one draws a line on one’s masochism. I’m just about there. When one says — that’s it, Fairfax, I’m off.

Dr Evan Jones is a retired political economist. 

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