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Truth or tennis? The media’s failure to serve the public interest

By Fiona Armstrong - posted Thursday, 4 November 2004

The latest Federal election campaign was one of the longest on record in Australia. By the time the October 9, 2004 election rolled around, most voters had turned off, or turned away. Jaded by the demands of scrutinising the minutiae of policy, they switched off and waited for it all to go away.

How else could the population reappoint a leader who is widely considered a liar, who is accused of breaching human rights, and who is, according to some of our most experienced commentators, systematically setting about removing all traces of moral responsibility in government, and by extension, in Australian society?

It seems the population gladly leapt upon the excuse offered to them to stick with the incumbent and ignore that nagging feeling in their gut that shrieked of selfishness and greed.


“It’s the economy,” people said to each other, all the while glad that the campaign driver of fear had been given another name, one that allowed them to pretend their choice was valid, that didn’t mention justice, or fairness, or moral responsibility.

“Vote for someone else,” urged the socially conscious Brotherhood of St Laurence, but sadly these sentiments were drowned out by the Coalition’s plea to “Vote for yourself”.

And in the end they bought it. No doubt reassuring themselves that the safety net would catch their relatives no longer able to afford to go to the doctor, that when global warming flooded their beachside homes, they could simply move to higher ground. By pretending that the government did have control of interest rates, they could even put in that third bathroom.

This was no doubt influenced by the print media, which all the while pretended to impartiality, but bought the scare story themselves, with every major metropolitan newspaper (apart from the Canberra Times) on the eve of the election advocating to return the incumbent. Hardly a view represented by the community, when over 50 per cent of the population responded by voting for someone else.

But do our newspapers represent the views of the community or, like most media outlets across the globe, represent those of their proprietors? The latter of course, because independent media can only exist where a large number of media owners represent a diversity of opinion, a situation which in Australia will be furthered threatened under proposed changes to media ownership.

Australia already has one of the most concentrated media industries in the world, with just two proprietors for nearly all of the major newspapers in the country.


This is not a climate where a diversity of opinion (or true competition) can flourish. Truth can only flourish where the final emphasis is not so much on the bottom line, but on the moral line. But what is the truth? Well, it’s hardly seen these days, except on the ABC. Reporting the truth is harder than lifestyle stories, but it costs more. There is no incentive to pursue a costly investigative story when you can sell more copies writing about the romantic dilemmas of a sports star.

But journalists are taught to be the custodians of the truth, that journalism is the first draft of history, and that our responsibility is not just to report, but also to do so truthfully, objectively, and in the public interest. This imperative is beginning to disappear from sections of the Australian media, and it is regrettable indeed.

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About the Author

Fiona Armstrong is a Melbourne based public policy analyst and commentator. She has a background in health policy and is an active campaigner for health reform in Australia. A longstanding environmentalist, she has recently turned her attention to climate policy.

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