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Coverage of Hanson and Iraq proved there's silliness in journalism culture

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Wednesday, 10 September 2003

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.
- Sydney 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 behaviour".

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 sites.

All this means my spot on this esteemed online site may soon be up for grabs. Any Hanson experts out there?

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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