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July 06th 2009 print

David Flint

The PM had the last laugh: thanks to the besotted media

Isn’t it time the gallery got over its love affair with Kevin Rudd?  “Working families” will eventually realise they have been fed a diet of spin, and that will not be good for the future of a free press. 

No wonder the Prime Minister appeared on the TV comedy show “Rove”, rather than keep an appointment to address the WA Labor conference.

After all it’s not every day that a head of government can appear on the same programme where tasteless jokes were made about the recently deceased Michael Jackson and which featured an appearance by the international comedian, Sacha Baron Cohen. For that the compere Rove McManus appeared in a skin hugging suit and G-string which Cohen ripped off to reveal faux genitalia.

The Prime Minister was entitled to celebrate. As the parliamentary session concluded prior to the heavy winter season of endless international travel, he had the last laugh. Incompetence, massive waste, a succession of broken promises and the charge of misleading the parliament had been overshadowed by what the media decided was the story of the year.

This was that the Leader of the Opposition had relied on an apparently compromising email which the federal police now say was fabricated.

The treatment of this minor indeed trivial matter was consistent with the way the “serious” media refuse to subject the Rudd government to the same rigorous scrutiny which they applied, rightly, to the previous government.

The point is that if the “serious” media do not perform the role which is their very raison d’être, little in the way of real news percolates through to the sources of political information on which “working families“ typically rely.

These are principally the evening TV news, which are no more than illustrated summaries of the headlines to which busy viewers give only cursory attention. They will be doing other things – eating, talking and moving around.

During the witch hunt against Peter Hollingsworth as a surrogate for John Howard, I asked my barber and his assistant what he should do.  “Resign” they said. When I asked why they said they disapproved of his affair with a young girl in his charge.

The use of film of Dr Hollingsworth as a bishop, while reporting about a miscreant clergyman who was now also a bishop, led them to think they were one person.

It is now mainly the elderly, as well as those in offices which take newspaper subscriptions, who read newspapers daily.

Younger people will tell you they read newspapers on line, and newspaper executives will agree. What they usually do – at work – is to glance at headlines and read one or two stories.

They are not exposed to the way the newspaper is laid out, the prominence it gives, the images, and the succession of pages. They do not read the many stories people do with the print version.

In addition those newspapers without real proprietors, principally the Fairfax newspapers, are mostly under the control of journalist collectives. They are inclined to protect centre left governments and present the news to fit their agendas, such as anthropogenic climate change or the correct indigenous policy.  While the collectives disdain their conservative readers, more sensible editors try to overcome this by having a few nominal conservative commentators.

The absentee proprietor Rupert Murdoch maintains more credible newspapers here through a de facto viceroy, presently John Hartigan. The centrepiece for serious reporting among newpapers is now The Australian which a few years ago was indistinguishable from a Fairfax broadsheet.

But until the schools spending fiasco, it had restrained itself from applying the same vigour that it applied – and at times over applied – to say, the AWB affair, Haneef and the so called children overboard. 

In the meantime the public broadcasters continue to avoid even the appearance of reasonable balance in TV current affairs programmes. On almost all of these ABC there is no conservative journalist. The exception is The Insiders where most weeks there is one conservative – out of four panellists. 

The other area of serious reporting in Australia is on some of the commercial radio talk back programmes. These have large audiences but concentrated among the elderly.

Unlike John Howard, Kevin Rudd does not appear on these programmes or indeed any programme where he knows he will be subjected to rigorous scrutiny.

Is this cunning or is it a lack of courage?

In any event the result is that government spin is presented and shown as news. This of course explains the polling. It is not that “working families” are gullible. Unlike the mainly conservative and elderly talkback audiences, they don’t have the time and are little much interested in politics. They have few opportunities of learning what is really happening.

The mainline media decreed the email fiasco was bigger than anything else including the massive debt which is likely to release an inflationary plague on the unsuspecting country. Although the public distrusts the media they heard and saw nothing else.

But there may be a change in the air. The Australian has signalled that it is no longer protecting Kevin Rudd, as it seemed to do over the Heiner affair and the conversation he had with President Bush over the G20. This will have  a flow on effect onto the other media.

Imre Salusinszky has shown courage in mentioning the unmentionable: the way the Canberra press gallery tolerates government spin. He describes this as putting a spell on the gallery. He risks being sent to Coventry.

And as the economy sinks, the hospital queues lengthen, grocery prices increase, jobs are lost, and the burden of increasing and enormous national debt becomes evident “working people” may wonder why the spin they are being fed does not reflect the true situation.  

Just as people once did behind the iron curtain.