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January 29th 2009 print

David Flint

The time for electoral campaigning is over

It is surely time for so many in the media to stop campaigning for the governments they were so determined to put into office. They should go back to their duty which is, as The Times declared so long ago,  to obtain the best intelligence of the time and make it the common property of the nation.

“Relations between the government and the press have deteriorated, they are deteriorating, and they may deteriorate even more.”    Lord Jacobsen, a war hero and former editor pictured below, continued: “And on no account – on no account – must they be allowed to improve.”

This warning has universal application.

I cannot remember a media as amorous of any government as they are today. And their love is strongest for the new American president. While President Obama is an impressive speaker, he comes to office with little experience in administration, and with many of his policies unknown and untested.

Because he has a Kenyan father, the bien pensant categorise him as Afro-American. One reason for classifying people with such hyphenated appendages, to emphasise their sex or indeed sexual preference is to make this a positive consideration in any appointment. This is of course usually irrelevant as is the only worthwhile criterion is merit.

And it only seems to work one way. I do not recall euphoria over Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell – were they too conservative?  I suspect that the British press did not swoon when Benjamin Disraeli was first made prime minister. Nor do I recall anything like this when the first British woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was appointed.

The first duty of the press


The Times in 1851 declared the standard which all serious media must follow. This is as relevant today as when it was first enunciated.

 "The first duty of the press,” The Times declared “ is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation.” The editor went on to say that there can be no greater disgrace than to recoil from the frank and accurate disclosure of facts as they are, without fearing the consequences.

But in recent years something terrible has happened to the practice of journalism. Too often the news is reported through the prism of the journalists’ current ideological attachment. I do not of course include all journalists, but there are too many for this not to be a significant trend.

The effect of this has been magnified with the decline in the readership of newspapers. It will be said in reply that this is balanced by the internet, but few people actually read a newspaper on the internet as you do in print. Instead they glance at one or a few stories.  With the exception of a minority, most people today receive their news from broadcasts and the web. This is a highly digested form of information which comes from the large media organisations.

As a result most people probably think that the Pope, Benedict XVI, said that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour is just as important as saving the rainforests from destruction. He said nothing of the sort. This was a BBC interpretation of a speech which fitted the image of an allegedly homophobic Pope.  Damien Thompson in the London Daily Telegraph said this was very close to being an outright lie.

The new administration

Among several current examples of this presentation of the news through the prism of a campaigning media, two issues are in the forefront – global warming, and anything to do with Israel. There is also  the new American administration.

Unlike his hero Abraham Lincoln, the President’s inauguration speech was prepared by a team of writers and delivered with the aid of an auto cue. "Our founding fathers," he declared “faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world’

The War of Independence ended in 1783. The draft of the Bill of Rights was not introduced until 1789, and not adopted until fifteen years after the Declaration of Independence. Without it there would have been no union of all the thirteen colonies. It was to ensure all of the thirteen former colonies entered the union. Based on the British version, it was to limit the powers of the new federal entity, not to protect individual rights.

If  the Founding Fathers had introduced the Bill of Rights during the War of Independence for the purpose of assuring human rights , the President could have been seen as moving from those principles established at the foundation of the nation in closing Guantanamo Bay, and taking the curious decision to suspend the prosecution of all detainees, including those on the most serious terrorist charges.  But the Founding Fathers did no such thing. 

Incidentally, the President   would of course be well aware that if he does not go down the offshore military commission path, he might as well let them go, such is the lawyer designed technicality of the American criminal justice system. (If he is not so aware he ought to be.)

The curious aspect of all this is that in the vast number of analyses of the speech, it is hard to find any indication that this significant claim was erroneous. The media’s love affair with the then Senator Obama seemed to begin once he defeated Mrs. Clinton for the party nomination. It became embarrassingly obvious when Governor Palin was chosen as the Republican vice presidential candidate. 

The media’s rigorous assessment of her compared with the gentle treatment they accorded Senator Joe Biden. Remember, for example, his comparison of the way President George W. Bush communicated with the people over the economic crisis with the way President Roosevelt rallied the American people on national television at the outbreak of the depression. This was of course the wrong President and the wrong medium.


The Rudd government

This different approach is mirrored, to a lesser degree in Australia. The media subjected John Howard to continuous, rigorous and challenging reporting. If there was a story, for example the sale of wheat to Iraq, it was pursued prominently, almost every day and for months. That was perfectly correct. But nothing like that is happening to Mr. Rudd.

Take just one example, the disastrous way he awarded a guarantee for bank deposits. This completely distorted the market, leading to a run on the property funds. As a consequence probably hundreds of thousands of retirees are still unable to access much of their capital.  If John Howard had done this, it would still be front page news. Unlike the victims of WorkChoices, where are the regular press and television stories of people who have been disadvantaged?

Rather than leaving the work to enclaves in commercial radio talk back and the exceptional journalist or editor, when will the media stop campaigning for those governing politicians who have well and truly won their elections?