After reviewing material produced by Australia's
leading journalists on subjects as diverse as the troubles
in Iraq and Pauline Hanson's stiff prison sentence,
I have decided that newsroom culture inspires journalists
to say some silly things.
Exhibit one in my case for the prosecution is the
material Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald has been writing from Baghdad.
The Herald is one of the few news organisations
to have interviewed members of the resistance. … They
were Sunnis and they argued that they had thousands
of their own people fighting and willing to fight for
a nationally controlled resistance that had banned former
Ba'athists from any leadership position.
Morning Herald, August 23, 2003.
There is much more of this written by a host of others.
The US is teetering, yet again, on the brink of a catastrophe; they have got themselves into another Vietnam; and so on. The recent bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad and assassination of a leading Shi'ite cleric fits right in with this picture of a country spiraling out of control.
Although Iraq does seem to be a troubled place no
matter who is in control, journalists could paint quite
a different picture of the US occupation if they chose
to do so. For example, attacks against occupying soldiers
seem to be declining, rather than increasing; a point
the Americans have been making to anyone who will listen.
A part of that decline may be because the soldiers are
becoming warier but if there were thousands of death-seeking
resistance fighters flooding into the country we would
expect to see a sharp increase in activity, no matter
what the soldiers did. The UN bombing could also, perhaps
more plausibly, be seen as one of a series of virtually
pointless attacks driven by a hatred of all things Western
felt by extreme sections of the Islamic faith. The recent
bombings in Jakarta and Mumbai, for example, could not
be explained as attacks against an occupying power.
As for attacks against Shi'ite clerics, well the new
breed of terrorist seems to hate anyone who even tolerates
the West. All arguable points perhaps but as the same
journalists a few months ago were writing with equal
certainty that the Iraqis would fight house to house
rather than surrender to the US forces, one would have
thought they would leave themselves with a few face-saving
qualifications in their stories.
This is to miss the point. Journalists like McGeough,
a former Herald editor and author (and far above
me in the profession) does not get sent to Baghdad to
write about how the US occupation forces are doing a
good job. This does not happen. He had many other Western
journalists go there to write about doom and gloom,
and to attack the biggest, fattest target they can find
- in this case, the US forces. Apart from their own
beliefs they were part of a newsroom culture (or bar
room culture for foreign journalists) in which problems
are talked up, not down. The bigger the problem the
better the story and senior journalists get to be senior
by writing good stories. A last but certainly not least
point is that doom and gloom sells newspapers.
Then there is the case of Pauline Hanson being found
guilty of electoral fraud and being sentenced to three
years. I do not intend to comment on the sentence itself
but I do know that it came as a shock to the community,
with the shock extending to those who would not be caught
dead at a One
Nation rally. I am not exactly sure why this was
so but probably because the crime was seen as being
technical and because she had long ceased to be a political
figure of any consequence. Better to let her serve a
few months, at most, then let her go back to the fish
'n chip shop from whence she sprang, or so community
thinking ran. But political journalists do not write
in vague terms. They do not say they are "not quite
sure why", or qualify themselves. Otherwise another
journalist who is more certain will come along and take
the front-page byline, or coveted "analysis"
spot. Political writers have also never understood Hanson
or the segment of the electorate she briefly represented
- I think partly because they are from such a completely
different electoral segment themselves - their take
on Hanson's sentence was most peculiar.
One senior writer whom I shall discreetly omit to name,
said on August 21:
The three year sentence for
Hanson and co-accused David Etteridge sent shock waves
through the political community last night with the
general view it was too harsh.
But maybe that's because they all know the
art of manipulating party membership books to ensure
control over a party apparatus is their stock in trade.
Steve Lewis in The
Australian, August 22 said, "The Labor
and Liberal parties routinely engage in branch-stacking
activities; electoral rolls are routinely breached;
complex arrangements are used to disguise the source
of corporate donations - all because the main parties
have the administrative apparatus to get away with such
What has this to do with Hanson and electoral fraud?
Misbehaviour such as branch stacking occurs, although
I doubt whether it is now as widespread as the writers
claim. In any case they seem to be confusing internal
party rules with legal electoral requirements and confusing
the act of evading legal requirements with the act of
avoidance. Further, the shock of Hanson's sentence was
felt by that large part of the community that has nothing
to do with the organised parties.
Try telling that to the journalists concerned, especially
when they're part of a newsroom of individuals telling
each other that everything is wrong and corrupt. Try
selling the right story (stories have to be "sold"
to editors) to the front part of the newspaper when
the competition for space is fierce and when both colleagues
and journalists from competing newspapers are prepared
to go that extra mile in wild, over-statement. Last
but not least the "not sure but" line does
not sell newspapers or, for that matter - gulp! - now
that I think about it, pull in visitors to online opinion
All this means my spot on this esteemed online site
may soon be up for grabs. Any Hanson experts out there?