It often takes a crisis for a society to reflect meaningfully on its institutions – their value, purpose, strengths and weaknesses. Do those institutions serve us or do they primarily serve themselves?
The global financial crisis, for instance, exposed how a large swathe of the international banking system had been corrupted by reckless risk-taking and had internalised the view that it could simultaneously privatise its profits and socialise its losses.
The banks, we belatedly discovered, had ceased being mere utilities. They were malevolent credit machines, manufacturing Frankenstinian products, preying on the least fortunate and sending the bill for the resultant mess to taxpayers. Goldman Sachs, said Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, was “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
But the sucking sound doesn’t end with the banks. Much of the commercial media, now drained of any notion of public service, has become a parasitical infection in the body politic, a hookworm that both breeds and feeds on fear, distrust and suspicion in the community and spreads its disease through calculated misinformation and hysteria.
Within hours of the start of the Sydney siege in Martin Place, and with the barest of information, News Corporation’s Daily Telegraph splashed its special afternoon edition with the headline ‘Death Cult CBD Attack’ – the implication being that ISIS-style terrorism had landed in the heart of Australia’s biggest city.
Of course, we now know the perpetrator was a lone-wolf, a sadly deluded and paranoid individual with a long criminal history using the props of Islamist terror to demonstrate his largely personal grievances with the state.
That the Tele rushed to print with the ISIS connection speaks volumes for how deeply invested this despicable publication is in fanning Islamophobia. This, after all, was a newspaper that sent the club mascot of the nutjobs on a daytrip to Lakemba to depict the entire western Sydney suburb as a sort of Kabul on the Cook.
Meanwhile, on Twitter, supposedly professional journalists were shamelessly recycling hearsay, rumour and the half-baked theories of talkback radio blowhards masquerading as public defenders.
On Ch Nine, @breenie9 says worrying reports from Ray Hadley that there may be devices all over the city. Just reports.
— Sharri Markson (@SharriMarkson) December 15, 2014
Your correspondent himself was holed up in a CBD high-rise during the siege and saw young staff in tears over the reports of bombs all over town. Angry at the half-baked theorising, one high-profile entertainment reporter lashed out at amateur correspondents.
To all wannabe media players & aspiring journos how about gagging yourself & critiques of people doing their best until this ends. — Peter Ford (@mrpford) December 15, 2014
Of course, the problem wasn’t so much the wannabe journos, the problem was the mainstream media itself, ghoulishly exploiting an unfolding human tragedy and urban crisis for cheap ratings and circulation points. The vampire squid again.
And, most tellingly, when the siege ended in gut-churning gunfire and bloodshed in the early hours of the morning, the biggest squid of them all appeared almost immediately on Twitter. In a jaw-dropping display of cynicism, New York-settled Rupert Murdoch used the deaths of young Australians as a cheap advertising opportunity for his media properties and a flippant debating point for his equally crazy ideology.
AUST gets wake-call with Sydney terror. Only Daily Telegraph caught the bloody outcome at 2.00 am. Congrats.
— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) December 15, 2014
Yes, but the Tele had got it wrong. Typically, the urge to be first with the news came ahead of getting the story right. Instead, it rushed into print with shameless speculation, innuendo and hysterical headlines calculated to generate fear.
Striking was the contrast between the Murdoch’s shameless exploitation of this event with the understated, intelligent and sensitive rendering on ABC News 24, where veteran journalist John Barron and others did what journalists are supposed to do – report accurately and fairly and with an appreciation of the media’s role as an institution that serves the public, not the other way around.
If ever you want to mount a case for the continued funding of public broadcasting journalism, this siege was it. Journalism, at its best, gives primacy not to advertisers or proprietors or shareholders or ambitious editors, but to the public. Journalists, worthy of the name, serve the public. And they do so by establishing trust, by exercising restraint and, most of all, by respecting the truth.
- New Matilda: “The Narrative Must Shift” – Randa Abdel-Fattah
- Crikey: “The Day the Media Lost its Credibility” – Bernard Keane
- The Conversation: “How the Siege was Reported” – Julie Posetti
- Overland: “On Martin Place” – Jeff Sparrow