Veteran political commentator Michelle Grattan gave a speech recently at the Deakin lectures in Melbourne. She argued that the relationship between media and politicians was at an all-time low:
When I arrived in Canberra in the 1970s, if you were armed with a Commonwealth Directory it wasn't hard to get to know a lot of bureaucrats and obtain basic background. Now, although some bureaucrats, especially senior ones, will talk to some journalists whom they trust, the majority will run a mile from the most innocuous media call. Most departments have strict rules that officers should report media contacts to the minister's office. Even the bureaucrats who will take the calls feel more constrained.
Her suggestions to improve transparency, accountability and honesty included making the media "simultaneously more constructive and more critical". Furthermore, Grattan talked of a need for “less trashing of politicians. On the other side of the coin, eyes should be sharper and should be more rigorous.”
Grattan made some valuable comments and was at least capable, unlike many senior journalists housed in the Canberra Press Gallery, of criticising her colleagues’ frequent lack of determination in pursuing stories and contacts. "Political investigative journalism is not strong", she said. "Where, for example, is the exposé of the culture of the Immigration Department?"
She did, however, miss some fundamentals. The failure of the mainstream media - certainly those not wedded to the establishment orthodoxy of market capitalism and gung-ho militarism (such as the Murdoch press and Fairfax management) - is the ongoing acceptance of government stalling on major issues as little more than unfortunate. Not detrimental to open democracy, they argue, or at least not serious enough to warrant major pressure to be placed on them. These same news organisations, including Fairfax, still support the re-election of John Howard, or say, Bob Carr in NSW, two masters of spin and duplicity.
Take this example of Grattan's hypocrisy. When Australian citizen Mamdoub Habib was released from Guantanamo Bay earlier this year and returned to Australia, Grattan wrote, he "cannot reasonably complain about [remaining under watch] by Australian authorities". Despite a lack of evidence produced by the Australian or American authorities against Habib, Grattan still accepted the spin put forward by Attorney General Phillip Ruddock that continued surveillance of Habib was necessary. Perhaps she'd forgotten that Habib was an innocent man, held illegally and not charged with any offence.
But Grattan also forgot something else. If she was so concerned about the lack of transparency in contemporary Australian life, she should take a closer look at the Canberra Press Gallery. The ever-increasing intimacy between journalists and politicians is one of the great shams of the system. Have you ever noticed that politicians call reporters by their first name? Ever wondered why journalists faithfully visit the Lodge every Christmas for the annual end-of-year drinks? It is this collusion, and the lack of distance between what should be competing players, that make for truly diminished media coverage.
Journalists should not be mates with politicians or their press agents. A healthy working relationship is clearly essential but socialising together is inappropriate. During a recent conversation with Robert Fisk in Beirut, he reminded me of the situation in Washington during press conferences with Bush, Rumsfeld and a handful of other American leaders. "The journalists rarely ask tough questions", Fisk told me. "They're called by their first names by the politicians and prefer basking in the glow of thinking some hot-shot politician is taking their question." The situation in Australia is often little better.
Grattan ignored the corporate pressures on mainstream media organisations. Journalists wanting the truth will often not be a strong enough imperative to upset advertisers. UK-based Medialens has long campaigned about the inherent inability of the mainstream media to actively engage in issues that require in-depth critiques of big business and its connection to government. Its report of February 16, 2005 discussed the ways in which Tony Blair is praised for his commitment to the environment:
This is the standard media view: on climate change, Blair is “determined”, “committed” and “listening” to the major NGOs. Thus: “The Prime Minister is hosting a 'power breakfast' of business leaders, politicians and environmentalists at Downing Street on Wednesday, where he will unveil a new five-year strategy to combat global warming.” Mr Blair is calling for Britain to “pull together as a country”.
Sadly, the facts simply don’t support the mainstream’s embrace of Blair. Greenpeace last November withdrew support from the Labour government saying Blair couldn’t be trusted to reduce global warming. Stephen Tindale, a former government special adviser on the environment who played a central role in Labour's policy on climate change, said Mr Blair "cannot be trusted to resist industry lobbying" from car manufacturers and airlines. "On the climate change issues we have been very supportive of the Government. We have been essentially trying to work with them to promote renewable energy. But we have basically taken a conscious decision that he [Tony Blair] can no longer be given the benefit of the doubt," he said. "So far Blair's record on climate change is almost entirely a record of fine words and no action. His repeated failures on this issue is undermining his diplomatic efforts." Yet we still read of Blair’s “commitment” to the environment.
Michelle Grattan may want tougher journalists and more pro-active editors but this wish will not be enough. How much longer will we rely on the mainstream media to deliver results when they are structurally incapable of delivering? Let us not forget the performance during last year's Federal Election. The ALP was seen as bad for business while the Liberals were seen to guarantee more of the same business-friendly, union-bashing policies.