The self-mythology of journalism is that its practitioners are dissidents, contrarians, professional sceptics and iconoclasts. But the behaviour of our media through the so-called AWU affair reveals an easily manipulated, compliant and cowardly press pack.
One can excuse News Ltd its ideologically driven news agenda. After all, it has made no secret of its desire for political regime change. It has spent the last few years dedicating itself to manufacturing a reality that says the current government is hopelessly incompetent despite evidence to the contrary.
What’s harder to understand is why the national broadcaster should so timidly echo News Ltd’s partisan line on the AWU story, essentially cutting and pasting from the front pages of The Australian, Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun and aping those publication’s same hysterical tone.
Parts of the dying Fairfax empire have dutifully chimed in, with News Ltd-in-exile business lobby journal the Australian Financial Review helpfully letting down the paywall for stories on the affair that make the government look bad. Meanwhile, one reporter at The Age has been in full crusade mode over the story.
Yet outside the mainstream media, the tone is one of incredulity. Where is the public interest? What are the accusations? Why is so much space given to something that happened two decades ago and which is so complex and mind-numbing that even the most diligent readers have trouble following it?
One is tempted to draw the conclusion that this is a smear campaign orchestrated by a few fringe-dwellers on the far right and pushed along by a news organisation that long gave up any pretence of even-handedness. The public is not tuned into it. No-one cares; no-one, of course, except for the accusers and the journalists pushing the barrow.
Funnily enough, the ABC jumped onto the barrow only in the past couple of weeks after receiving a ticking off by Media Watch’s Jonathon Holmes, who for all his school masterly rectitude, seems to be strangely naive about the motivations of the people at the centre of this story.
And that really is where the media are falling down. By all means, look into the AWU allegations. But first, be clear about what the allegations are. To date, there has only been a vague and hard-to-pin down suggestions of wrongdoing. When the prime minister has fronted the media, journalists go back into the shells unsure of what line to pursue – until they spoon fed anew by the far edges of crazy.