Journalists traditionally pride themselves on being outsiders. They’re not corporate types, they’re not joiners, they’re square pegs. So why are they suddenly dictating the terms in which everyone else can express their displeasure with the government?
The most divisive, contentious federal budget in decades – one that even former Liberal Party leader John Hewson says “screams inequity” – has drawn students into the streets in numbers not seen since the Vietnam war, before the fog of 80s consumerism snuffed out any principle other than the shallowest acquisitive materialism.
Yet the former outsiders of the media, despite their own craft being in peril, are lining up to identify with the power elite. So we see Annabel Crabb beumused that the students are favouring ‘outdated’ Soviet-style protests over other means of expressing their views – presumably, in her case, having cosy afternoon teas with their mates.
Over on the ABC, Q and A host Tony Jones, on his $350,000-a-year salary, goes out of his way to side with the establishment, telling students who disrupted a recent program
“That is not what we want to happen on this program. That is not what democracy is all about. And those students should understand that.”
On a subsequent program, in which a beleaguered Joe Hockey sought to defend the budget against a hostile crowd, Jones was no less a supplicant to the powerful, telling a rowdy audience they were there to listen and essentially shut up.
And, of course, we are talking here about moderate, supposedly centrist media figures. If you take into account the hysterical reactions to protests by the likes of Alan Jones and Miranda Devine and the legions of Murdoch serfs that call themselves journalists, you find an Australian media which sees its interests as identical to those of the politically powerful.
Partly driving this ingratiating behaviour on the part of media figures is clearly outright partisanship (or doing what Rupert requires), but part of it reflects a desperate and pathetic attempt by journalists (fearing the loss of jobs) to position themselves as ‘balanced’ and outside the political debate. As Tim Dunlop observed:
It is not just that there is a right wing media that dominates and is biased. It is that the opposite of right wing media isn’t left-wing media, it is sensible journalism.
Sensible journalism is what you get when media organisations or individual journalists try self-consciously to be neither of the right nor the left. They try instead to be “balanced” or “objective”. They see this as being professional. But what they end up doing is simply discounting left wing positions and arguments and thus by default give credence to right wing ones.
We saw this same panicky, existential attempt by the media to frame the debate in conventional, ‘objective’ terms quite starkly in the attempts earlier this year to downplay or completely ignore the significance of the March in March protests. Any political expression that comes from outside the narrow Canberra-defined world of ‘politics’ is discounted as naive or wrong-headed or a throwback to a quaint 60s idealism.
It’s hard to escape the view that with the public losing faith in institutions, including the media itself, journalists are subconsciously fighting a rearguard action to seize back control of the narrative and cast it in a comfortable framework that suits them and the political classes they report on. In this, they are betraying the principles of their craft – representing the powerful to the public rather than the other way around. Worse for them, they’re also missing the bigger story.
It’s why social media is now where the conversation has moved. The media has been disintermediated. It is talking to itself and the powerful. It is on the other side of the rope, like the favoured head prefect who takes tea with headmaster and then finds on returning to the dorm that no-one takes them seriously anymore.
And the longer they stay there, the less able they are to do their real job – to ask the right question, to be provocative, to make the powerful squirm, to represent the public and to take nothing for granted.
That’s what journalists do.
(See also: Mark Bahnisch: ‘Post-Budget: What Happens Now?‘)