Right to know: the ‘nation’, the ‘people’ and the Fourth Estate

December 15, 2013

We might forgive politicians for putting the “national” interest before the “public” interest. But when the news media makes the same mistake, it is time to be worried.

The Guardian and the ABC rightly pursued the story of Australia’s spying activities on both Indonesia and Timor Leste. Not only have the revelations been embarrassing, they should also cause concern for anyone who values fairness and humanism in international relations.

It is therefore puzzling that News Corp broadsheet The Australian has so vehemently denounced the reporting of Australia’s spying activities. Why would one news outlet – one that so fiercely claims to be a champion of freedom in other realms – be so sharp in its criticism of fellow journalists who are really only doing their job?

The answer – in part – lies in unpacking the conceptualisation of the news media as the “Fourth Estate”, and also in differentiating the “national” and the “public” interest in these matters.

The media as the Fourth Estate

The “Fourth Estate” describes the journalists’ role in representing the interests of “the people” in relation to the business and political elites who claim to be doing things in our names.

The idea of the news media as the Fourth Estate has a chequered history. It began life as a term of abuse for the scurillous and ill-principled scribes of the press gallery at the Palace of Westminister. Conservative Anglo-Irish MP Edmund Burke coined the phrase as a way of mocking the gentlemen of the press.

However, in the intervening centuries, the Fourth Estate has come to mean taking a principled position to – as Australian Democrats senator Don Chipp would have put it – “keep the bastards honest”.

It is with this frame in mind that the news media should approach the Snowden materials and any story that arises from a careful appraisal of the revelations, allegations or speculations they contain.

National interest versus public interest

If we accept the premise of the Fourth Estate, we also have to ask ourselves if the “national” and the “public” interest are the same thing. It might be easy to think that they are, but it would be a mistake.

Both are abstractions and both are problematic. They exist as ideas, but in reality the nation and the public are not homogeneous. In a capitalist world both are divided along class lines. In this context, the national interest is about state secrecy and keeping things from us. On the other hand, the public interest is about disclosure and our right to know. As citizens we are “the people”.

The intellectuals of the 18th and 19th centuries who gave us the conception of the Fourth Estate as a civil watchdog to keep an eye on those in power also provided the philosophical argument for defining the public citizenry and the nation-state as two separate entities with differing interests.

This is clear from the writing of Thomas Paine and others, who pointed out and also acted upon the idea that we may have just cause to overthrow the state if it is seen to be no longer acting in our interests.

Today, governments that claim to act in the “public interest” must face daily scrutiny of their actions. They must be called to account when overstepping the bounds of what citizens will support, or when taking actions that are clearly not in our interests. We rely on journalists and the news media to do this job on our behalf.

This separation between the people and the state becomes more important when the economic interests of the powerful so frequently dominate society. In our modern world, the interest of “the nation” is no more than the collective interest of those who wield political and economic power. Today, the state is the executive branch of the ruling class.

The news media – as the tribune of “the people” – must be constantly on guard and alert to actions of the state, particularly when those actions may harm the interests of citizens.

The Snowden leaks

In the context of the Snowden revelations and, in particular, in relation to the allegations that Australian spy agencies were tapping the phones of the Indonesian president and his wife, we have to ask ourselves: Was that spying really in the interests of ordinary Australians?

We now also know that Telstra is collecting our phone metadata and that it can be accessed by government agencies without a warrant. Can we really see a benefit for ourselves in this action?

The answer to both these questions is a resounding “no”.

The Snowden materials should be published in all their embarrassing detail. Snowden is not a traitor or a “rogue”. He is a principled whistleblower whose actions have uncovered a global system of espionage and surveillance by powerful state security agencies against not only other states and agencies, but against anyone and everyone.

It is our right to be outraged at the actions of state agencies that eavesdrop on our conversations, emails and text messages without our consent. We should be more outraged that the spies and their masters then claim to be taking these actions in our name and in defence of our interests.

The actions of The Australian in denouncing the ABC and The Guardian and defending the government are therefore a complete betrayal of the Fourth Estate principles.

When a newspaper claims to speak to and for the nation – that is, to and for the people – but instead appears to speak for the government, it abandons any claim it may have had to independence of thought and action.

[This piece was first published on The Conversation on 11 December, 2013]


The Daily Telegraph has no credibility on journalism standards

December 15, 2013

It is simultaneously amusing and sickening to see News Limited newspapers attempting to lecture the ABC on standards in journalism.

Coming from the organisation that brought you the Abbott government, whether you wanted it, or not, it is a bit rich to complain of un-Australian, left-wing bias at the national broadcaster.

The chief stenographer at the Daily Telegraph is gainfully employed re-writing press releases and disguising advertising as news and the columnists are at the bar dictating their arid thoughts to the keyboard chimps.

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The ABC is right to pursue the Snowden documents; The Australian is so predictable

November 24, 2013

Oh dear, the predictability and monotony of The Australian‘s whining about the ABC was taken to new heights this week on two fronts: firstly, the revelation that the national broadcaster has to pay market rates for its premier on-air talent and, secondly, feigned moral outrage that the ABC would cover the very newsworthy disclosure that the Defence Signals Directorate wanted to listen-in on the phone calls of the Indonesian President and his wife.

Any reasonably briefed chimpanzee would be able to write the coverage of these issues for the News Limited papers. There’s a template, a formula and a draw full of boilerplate copy that oozes vitriol, arsewipe and stinking double standards.

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From hack to Hell and back again

July 7, 2012

Graham Johnson. (2012). Hack: Sex, drugs and scandal from inside the tabloid jungle. London: Simon & Schuster.

Graham Johnson was for years an important member of the Screws of the World news team. His time at the paper predated the phone-hacking scandal, but Hack clearly shows that the culture which led to the criminal behaviour was well-established on the paper.

Johnson owns up to some pretty awful scams himself, including ruining the lives of people who were only featured in the paper to further its commercial success.

At the heart of the paper’s methods was destroying the lives of people who could not fight back. As Johnson puts it, they were usually too poor and powerless to prevent the NotW from giving them a right royal fucking over.

This is a terrible tale of what can happen when a talented reporter goes off the rails. Johnson worked for the News of the World for years and his insider story reveals a rotten culture. So rotten, in fact, that the phone-hacking and police bribery that finally brought the paper undone in July 2011 seem to be the inevitable end-result of endemic corruption and a conscious disregard for morality, ethics and the law. Read the rest of this entry »


Online debate – “free speech” trollworld style

May 29, 2012

This is a classic comment, it speaks volumes about the type of free speech that’s acceptable to the cosy club.

You are entitled to free speech but you are not entitled to exercise it in someone’s privately owned forum.

It is the same logic used by the Victorian police to stop the BDS protests in Melbourne resulting in a court case that has 19 young people arraigned on ridiculous charges such as “trespass in a public place”.

It is a pity that the free speech fundamentalists like Tim Blair, Chris Berg and Andrew Bolt really don’t care about such cases.

Their silence condemns them.

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Talking Points: The Australian’s cosy little club of groupthinkers

May 25, 2012

If you get to the bottom there is a topical easter egg surprise for loyal readers.

Over recent months many of my colleagues in the Journalism Education Association of Australia (JEAA) have attempted to get responses to The Australian’s attacks on us (over many months) published. We have had very little luck. One open letter that was sent from the association with more than 50 signatures was made available as a PDF from a deep recess of The Australian’s website,but not easily searchable and just last week I received this response from editor of Media Diary Nick Leys.

A right-of-reply @leysie style

Some of the attacks have centred on Dr Matthew Ricketson who was engaged to assist with the Independent Media Inquiry. The Australian‘s coverage of this issue has been appalling and one-sided, but when Matthew tried to defend himself he was not given space, instead Nick Leys cobbled together a piece from second-hand sources. It is what The Australian‘s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell would call “four or five out of 10″ journalism.

Editor in chief of The Australian Chris Mitchell questions the journalistic credentials of those passing judgment on the industry. “Ricketson, Simons and their mate Andrew Dodd (Crikey contributor and Swinburne University of Technology journalism course convener) all worked for The Australian and you would give them barely a pass mark as journalists,” he says.

“Seriously. People who I would score four or five out of 10 are trying to determine the future of media regulation in Australia. Everyone in the business knows it is a self-serving joke and these people are dupes for Conroy.”

Chris Mitchell quoted approvingly and at length in his own newspaper. A cosy club Chris – you’re the patron

As the national association representing journalism educators and academics, you might think that the JEAA would be given some space to respond to criticisms and abuse hurled at us. For some reason, we are not considered worthy of space in the paper’s letters pages, let alone to write a column.

We have been accused of being a “cosy club” prone to  “groupthink” even though there are many disagreements among us. It is a puzzling charge and one that The Australian rejects when it is levelled against them.

It is puzzling because the op-ed pages of The Australian display a remarkable and consistent commitment to groupthink. Its columnists all sing off the same conservative songsheet with the libertarian soloists taking center stage all too often.

However, it might come as a surprise to readers of our national broadsheet that this same groupthink is also displayed in the letters pages.

For example, Mr Brenton Minge, of suburban Bulimba in Brisbane, must be one of the luckiest writers of letters to the editor in Australia. A Google search shows up a Brenton Minge who it seems has a  bent for letter writing, particularly on topics of religion, science and the “Leftist” ABC.  Maybe this is why he so popular with The Australian‘s letters editor.

Mr Minge has had nine letters published in The Australian’s Talking Points column since May 2011, for a total of around 1400 words. He is not the only one.

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Sleazy, nasty, dirty and wrong: Just another day at The Australian

May 19, 2012

In recent days The Australian has launched a vitriolic and highly personal campaign against Margaret Simons the director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at Melbourne University. The campaign is aimed at discrediting Meg and her colleagues (me included) who teach journalism and who are critical of some aspects of the Australian news media.

The Australian thinks that Margaret and others are part of some leftwing conspiracy. In other words, anyone with an opinion that editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell disagrees with is fair game for slander and professional assassination.

The premise for this nasty war against Margaret Simons and other journalism academics is that Meg is somehow in the wrong for not ‘disclosing’ that she was asked to provide a name to the Finkelstein review of someone who might make a useful research assistant for the inquiry. The undertone is that anyone critical of the current set up is naturally a Stalinist who wants to shut down the free press in Australia on behalf of the political class.

This is ridiculous and unsustainable, but it doesn’t stop the News Limited papers from barking on about it.

I am a defender of Margaret Simons, though I don’t know what ‘Advanced Journalism’ might be and Meg and I probably disagree on elements of both the Finkelstein inquiry and its value and on aspects of journalism education.

As is usual in such situations, The Australian has made no attempt to find an alternative viewpoint, instead over the past few days it has rolled out the usual suspects – convenient sources who have been used before and who are guaranteed to sing off the same hymnsheet as The Australian and who can be used as ‘useful idiots’ to promote its editorial line.

Shameful, sleazy, nasty and dirty. It is exactly what we have come to expect from this self-indulgent rag.

I have written an open letter to Nick Leys and other journalists at The Australian who are involved in this beat up. I am challenging them to offer a right of reply and indicating that I am willing to provide it at short notice so that it can be in Monday’s media section.

An open letter to Nick Leys & others at The Australian

Dear Nick,
I’m disappointed with the piece today by Christian Kerr, (additional reporting by you),

We now know academics favouring a new regulatory regime were brought into key roles in the inquiry.

Cosy club behind a media watchdog

Actually, you know nothing of the sort. Your paper has accused Margaret Simons of being a conspiracy theorist, but on this yarn you lot have out-conspiracied the Roswell crowd.

It is not unusual for government departments to discuss and recommend to ministers on the appointment of advisors and inquiry personnel. There’s nothing at all unusual in that.

But your motivation is not honest reporting, it is part of a political agenda you are running to shut down discussion and debate about the lack of transparency and accountability in the Australian media. You have built a monster out of spare parts and bullshit and now you want to chase it down.

Meg Simons becomes a ‘hot topic’ on The Oz Media pages

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