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A sneer could cost you democracy

By Judy Cannon - posted Friday, 11 November 2005

Soaring numbers of journalists and photographers have been killed doing their jobs in the past decade. Such a high number of deaths was unheard of in the past. Journalists have also been deliberately killed or kidnapped, as in the horrific case of Daniel Pearl, murdered in Karachi in January 2002 on his way, so he thought, to an interview with a terrorist leader. Many others, including photographers, have lost their lives bringing us the news, informed comment, photographs and filmed segments. Their courage and fortitude have been astounding.

So it is sad that, at the same time, journalists’ standing is at an all-time low, and the job they do is so often dismissed sceptically, with a trendy comment or two. We are accused of being sensationalists, liars, political propagandists and pursuers of perve - among other scurrilous things. And most hurtful - that we care nothing for truth and integrity.

You know, you can get sick of it.


It is ironic, because those who criticise us so readily ignore the fact journalists are the front-line defenders of democracy (or has that word too become besmirched by Bush overuse?) and of the way of life and rights most western people expect to enjoy. The maxim “Be ever vigilant” is trotted out but what tools can the public use when faced with a whittling away of, or threat to, rights so hard fought for over centuries?

Well, they can first go to the media. The very people so many are happy to bag, unless, of course, they want something aired, done or achieved. The ironic thing is that by such bagging, the public is endangering itself.

In times of crisis or catastrophe we all rely on the media, just as we rely on the police, the fire brigade and the ambulance services. When the problem is political, it is the media which informs, keeps people up-to-date and contributes various points of view. It is one of the guardians of democracy, such as in reality, democracy is. The current debate over Prime Minister John Howard’s plans to rush his anti-terrorism Bill through parliament is a prime example. An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald (October 31, 2005) warned:

As it stands, its (proposed legislation) provisions strike straight at the heart of ordinary democratic rights and freedoms. It gags public debate. It bans information. It empowers police to make people disappear and punishes anyone who talks about their disappearance. The government has never explained why those draconian measures are necessary. It has never taken the Australian people into its confidence. The final contents of the bill, even now, are a secret. The government prefers the tools of the propagandist: the scare, the talk of nameless threats, the hint of traitors in our midst. We must give up our freedoms, and quickly, for fear the bogeyman will get us. It is a base and cynical approach which puts a democratic country to shame.

The editorial also said:

Parliament will see the Bill this week. It will view for the first time legislation which represents a serious reduction of the ordinary democratic rights of all Australians on the day it must start to debate it. There is no time for a considered reading, no time for reflection ... Legislation about which some of the most eminent legal minds in the country have expressed the gravest doubts, and which finds almost no other lawyers in support, is to be rammed through with a minimum of debate. Meanwhile, the government is already hinting it knows whom it would like to lock up in secrecy under the preventive detention provisions. The arrogance is breathtaking.


So the serious journalists are out there, fighting the good fight, so crucial when a government controls both houses of parliament. Crucial not only to journalists but to every Australian, and generations of Australians, because once enacted such legislation is likely to be highly difficult to get rid of, sunset clause or no sunset clause.

Chris Connolly, of the NSW University Law Faculty, wants to see the proposed section on sedition laws abandoned and terrorism tackled under existing laws. He has made a submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee.

You have to ask yourself how, if a country has sedition laws that hobble journalists and  media organisations in the extent of their discussion and comment, how then can they protect people's rights? 

It is timely that the International Federation of Journalists and the Walkley Award Foundation, supported by the Myer Foundation, have organised a conference in Sydney at the end of November, to discuss "Free Media in a Democratic Society". The focus will be on the media in a healthy democracy. Leading journalists from Asia, Europe and Australia will debate "critical topics including the decline of journalists' rights in the new media landscape, journalism in a time of national security and new journalism and new media". To take a lead from the Sydney Morning Herald, journalists are both alert and alarmed.

Like any other, the profession of journalism has its problems. Because its nature is commercial - except for public broadcasting systems and alternative media, such as On Line Opinion - it is driven by what people will pay for. And if some newspapers and magazines rely on the salacious, the titillating and the make believe for sales, the customer is the culprit. If that rubbish did not sell, it would not be published. It is a matter of public choice.  It is somehow ridculous to call our times an information age when so many people appear to want to be permanently amused and entertained by a continuing mush of irrelevancy and idiocy. Call it plain commerce, for that is what it is, and blame the "journalists" who write the rubbish. There is no call to condemn the whole profession.

It could not be more important at the present time for the public to differentiate between the titillating and the serious media, and to acknowledge the necessity of factual reporting to a democracy. The public also can help by insisting that where there is comment, it is identified as such, not worked into a story as fact. If the public continues to be  dismissive of all media no matter how serious journalists struggle to do a professional job, then the influence of the media is lessened and the public is throwing away some of its ammunition. The easy sneer or dismissive throw-away could come back to bite. Independent journalists and the serious media need the public’s support to fight for the public’s interests. Please, think about it.

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About the Author

Judy Cannon is a journalist and writer, and occasional contributor to On Line Opinion. Her family biography, The Tytherleigh Tribe 1150-2014 and Its Remarkable In-Laws, was published in 2014 by Ryelands Publishing, Somerset, UK. Recently her first e-book, Time Traveller Woldy’s Diary 1200-2000, went up on Amazon Books website. Woldy, a time traveller, returns to the West Country in England from the 12th century to catch up with Tytherleigh descendants over the centuries, and searches for relatives in Australia, Canada, America and Africa.

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