The Kevin Rudd and Niki Savva approach to people they disagree with.
We don't trust the media - and we don't trust each other.
Today, 3 May is 'World Press Freedom Day'. I won't spend time contemplating the irony of the United Nations in 1993 creating such a day, other than note that the member countries of the United Nations Human Rights Council include China, Cuba, and Qatar.
According to the World Press Freedom Index of the Reporters Sans Frontieres out of 180 countries ranked from best to worst for press freedom China is 175, Cuba 130, and Qatar 128.
To coincide with the day a poll from Associated Press and the University of Chicago was released showing just 16% of Americans have a 'great deal' of trust and confidence in the news media. Here in this country survey of 1,000 respondents for Edelman a global public relations firm found 48% of Australians believed the media was 'a source of false or misleading information' while only 37% said the media was 'a reliable source of trustworthy information'.
The journalists union the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) said today highlighted the need for reform to national security laws, freedom of information, and defamation. Which is fine as far as it goes, but then the MEAA president Karen Percy said:
In Australia, we like to think of ourselves as progressive and world leaders when it comes to democracy, with a free media playing an important role in ensuring our democracy functions effectively… Today, World Press Freedom Day, is an opportunity to take stock and have a hard look at what needs to change to deliver on the promise of democracy.
She said that defamation laws 'which favour the rich, and are designed to muzzle brave reporting' must be changed because 'Too many important stories never see the light of day because of the chilling effect of these outdated laws have on journalism.'
Has the MEAA looked in the mirror lately? Where have the MEAA's members been for the last three years? What did they do to deliver 'on the promise of democracy' while parliaments were suspended and Australian citizens were locked in their homes and prevented from entering or leaving the country. 'Democracy' is a handy catch-all phrase for the MEAA to bandy about but when democracy actually was threatened they were nowhere to be seen. During COVID the mainstream media adopted a completely uncritical and unthinking attitude to whatever the government told/forced Australians to do. There were two or three exceptions but that was it.
The mainstream media's support for the narrative continues to this day. A few months ago following the public release of the so-called 'Lockdown Files' - more than 100,000 private WhatsApp messages from Matt Hancock, the British health minister during COVID, I wrote in the Australian Financial Review about them and what our media had to say about them.
While it's unlikely Hancock will be arrested for wilful misconduct in public office, as some have suggested, the comparisons being made between Watergate and the British government's actions during COVID-19 are not entirely out of place. One difference is that no one died because of Watergate.
The WhatsApp messages show, for example, how Hancock rejected advice to reduce the time required for COVID-19 isolated because to do so 'would imply we've been wrong', and that he planned to 'frighten the pants off everyone', and that school students in England were forced to wear face masks because officials declared it was a measure 'not worth an argument'.
Hancock's WhatsApp messages isn't just a parochial story about British politics. During COVID-19 governments around the world copied each other and here in Australia those in the media who barracked hardest for lockdowns and mask mandates regularly referred to what was occurring in the UK, the United States, and China.
So far nearly all the of the Australian media has carefully avoided any mention of the Hancock WhatsApp story. No media outlet in this country was more enthusiastic about lockdowns and masks than the ABC. Which perhaps explains why the government-owned news agency has all but ignored Hancock and his messages. There are twice as many news stories on the ABC website about Hancock appearing on 'I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here (two) then there are about his WhatsApp messages (one).
That single story was a nine-minute interview on ABC Radio National earlier this week with Isabel Oakeshott, the British journalist who revealed Hancock's messages. The first six minutes of the interview were taken up with question about the ethics of releasing private communications, and then for the next three minutes the ABC host Patricia Karvelas attempted to argue there was little that was newsworthy in the messages.
This country's media spent two years telling Australians to unquestioningly obey the government. It would disturb the narrative for journalists to admit to the public or to themselves that so much of what they were told to do during the COVID-19 crisis by politicians was the product of the selfishness and self-interest of those politicians.
It might be true as Karen Percy said that 'too many important stories never see the light of day because of the chilling effect' of outdated laws on journalism. But it's not because of laws on national security, freedom of information or defamation the Matt Hancock WhatsApp story has not seen the light of day in Australia. It wasn't just the ABC that did it's best to ignore the scandal. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age simply didn't report on it. If the only media you consumed was The SMH you wouldn't know that much of what the British public were told about COVID-19 was wrong. If somehow you managed to discover the Hancock story you might question whether Australian politicians engaged in the same sort of deceit as did their British counterparts.
At least as it applies to the English-speaking world it's hard to be excited about a day dedicated to 'Press Freedom'. A 'World Freedom of Speech Day' would be a different matter entirely. But journalists don't think like that. For them freedom of speech is 'for me but not for thee'. You shouldn't have to be a 'journalist' working for 'the media' to enjoy the basic human right of freedom of expression. During COVID it wasn't 'the media' holding the authorities to account - those who defended 'democracy' were everyday, normal people using the power of hand-held cameras to tell the stories most of the media refused to cover. Which the mainstream media did not like one bit.
Once the media believed 'there's two sides to every story'. Not so much these days. To give both sides of an argument is to risk individuals making up their own minds. During COVID the people giving both sides of the story were who we once called 'citizen journalists' - a term that's dropped out of favour as the media doesn't want to dignify their competitors with the title 'journalist'.
During the COVID lockdowns in Melbourne Rukshan Fernando, a wedding photographer streamed live on the internet coverage of some of the protests. On some days more than 70,000 people would watch his live broadcasts on Facebook where he had more than 200,000 followers. The attitude of the mainstream media to what Fernando was doing is revealing. There was no 'let a hundred flowers bloom' approach. It was more 'don't interfere with my closed shop'. According to the ABC's Media Watch program he was 'not a real journalist'. (Which begs the question of what is a 'real journalist'.) An academic at Deakin University even went so far to claim 'His filming of the protest is actually part of the problem'. A profile piece on Fernando summed it up well, he
occupies an unusual spot in a complicated media landscape. The media commentators sought out by established publications are clearly uncomfortable with this fiercely independent Melbourne wedding photographer, who tens of thousands of people trust more than their local news station.
The word 'trust' in that sentence is interesting. The Edelman survey shows it's not just 'trust' in the media that's falling in Australia. Out of 27 countries Australia was the tenth 'least trusting' as measured by respondents' trust in NGOs, business, government, and the media. The United States was the eighth least-trusting, and the UK the fourth least-trusting. The most trusting countries were China (!?), Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, and India.
In Australia the government is only slightly less mistrusted than the media. 45% of people believe the government is 'a source of false or misleading information' while 36% think it's 'a reliable source of trustworthy information'. Meanwhile 33% of people don't trust business compared to the 44% who do. In other words none of the media, government, or business are trusted by more than half of Australians. Significantly Australians on 'high income' are more likely to trust the media, government, and business than those on 'low incomes'. Which intuitively makes sense. If you're on a high income your more easily able to afford the consequences of what the government does to you, and the media is more likely to cater to you because you can afford to buy what the media's advertisers are selling, and businesses will care about you more too because you'll be a better customer.
According to the Edelman survey the Australian community is becoming increasingly polarised. Apparently there's six countries that are 'severely polarised' - Argentina, Colombia, the United States, South Africa, Spain, and Sweden (so much for the 'Swedish model…'), nine countries 'in danger of severe polarisation' - Brazil, South Korea, Mexico, France, the UK, Japan, the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy, and a handful of countries 'moderately polarised' including Australia, Canada, and Ireland. Of course it all depends on the definition of 'polarised' and in this case it's based on respondents' views on whether their country is 'divided' and whether they fell those 'divisions can be overcome'. 61% of Australians say 'the lack of civility and mutual respect is the worst I have ever seen' and 54% say 'the social fabric that once held this country together has grown too weak to serve as a foundation for unity and common purpose'.
There's a final point from the Edelman survey. Only 24% of Australians 'would help someone in need if that person strongly disagreed with me or my point of view'. If you're not going to help someone you're probably not going to trust them either. To trust someone you need to have something in common with them. Today in Australia what do we have in common with each other? Our politics is based around not what we all share together but on our differences.
In 2007 when Kevin Rudd said climate change was a 'moral challenge' he was saying anyone who thinks climate change is either not a challenge, or not a moral challenge is immoral. As I've mentioned before, if you think all Australians should have equal legal and political rights regardless of their race and so you'll vote 'No' at the referendum you risk be labelled a racist. Or according to Sydney Morning Herald and The Age columnist, Niki Savva even if you're not a racist you'll be voting as racists vote. Savva last week wrote in both newspapers - 'While it is not true to say that every Australian who votes No in the Voice referendum is a racist, you can bet your bottom dollar that every racist will vote No.' (Apparently this is what passes for political commentary in Australia these days.)
Alexander Downer noticed this too in a piece he wrote a few weeks ago.
One of the great strengths of Australia, and the reason that it has been close to the most successful country in the world over the last 70 years, is that it has often done things differently from other countries, not copied them. But now the fashion seems to be to copy what's in vogue, particularly in North America.
So while the country is passionately debating the Voice and dividing down the middle over the issue, what is interesting is that the traditionally dynamic Australian economy is losing its mojo.
[I]n private discussions over Easter I barely heard anybody talking about the economy. It was all about how they hated the people who disagreed with them on the Voice. How very American Australia has become, I thought.
Actions have consequences. When you take the Rudd or Savva approach to those who think differently from you, you get exactly the sort of results the Edelman survey reveals. And that's not good.