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February 21st 2011 print

David Flint

Ministry of Propaganda

In the absence of proprietors and strong editors, the strongest influence on our journalists is other journalists. This is manifested in the herd mentality of the press gallery, and the emergence of the journalism cabals which run Fairfax, the ABC and SBS.


The Australian media is today afflicted by a pincer movement.


On the one side, there is a distinct lack of checks and balances.  Murdoch apart, the media proprietor has almost completely disappeared from metropolitan newspapers, radio stations and television networks. Perhaps he will be joined by Kerry Stokes.

By media proprietor – or media baron or press lord – I mean an individual owner who understands the media and is prepared to get his hands dirty. Media proprietors are of course not perfect. But in the many years I spent on the Press Council I cannot recall even one complaint by a journalist concerning improper interference by a proprietor.

Without a media proprietor – and an editor answerable to him – there are really no internal checks and balances. Apart from the Murdoch’s News Limited, most major media outlets seem to be run by cabals of journalists. Worse, they tend to think along similar lines.

The other side of the pincer movement is that the practice of journalism has changed.  No longer a trade, journalism is now seen by many insiders as a profession requiring university training. But university communications departments are mainly about left wing politics, and attract students who tend not to read newspapers but whose ambition on graduation is to join the ranks of the celebrity journalists.

In the absence of proprietors and strong editors, the strongest influence on our journalists is other journalists. This is manifested in the herd mentality of the press gallery, and the emergence of the journalism cabals which run Fairfax, the ABC and SBS. At the same time there has been a blurring of the separation of news from comment, so much so that the public have difficulty in determining just what is news and what is comment.

The sceptical principle no longer dominates, or at times even applies. There is a tendency to subject news which is consistent with the politically correct view of say, climate change or multiculturalism, to less rigour than other news. Indeed material which challenges the politically correct is given limited coverage. No wonder the ABC’s Barrie Cassidy was surprised by the Wikileaks revelation that the US Embassy was better informed about the likely fate of the Rudd government than he and his colleagues were.

We saw the consequences of this absence of internal checks and balances when Channel 7, in the person of Mark Riley, decided to squeeze out of some Afghan footage Tony Abbott’s famous observation that “shit happens”.
 
On this occasion the public were a wake-up to what was obviously a “gotcha” moment. The hostile promotion, the introduction and the editing confirmed this. Later some journalists tried to draw attention away from this to footage showing Tony Abbott’s restrained silence. But most viewers understood this. Given the suggestion was that he had belittled the soldier who had given his life for the nation, most Australians concluded that an aggressive reaction would be justified. Viewers saw that Tony Abbott was restraining himself, and commended him for that. He had indeed given Riley the answer he deserved.

In the meantime the fact that the government is in the process of building something resembling a Goebbels’ style Ministry of Propaganda has hardly been noticed in the “serious” media, with the exception of The Australian.

Now it is true that most governments in recent years have been guilty of spending too much of the taxpayers’ hard earned money on political advertising. Fortunately, most of it was so bad that it had little effect.

But just this year new tools designed to manipulate the news have been created. We are to have an office of climate change propaganda to be headed by Professor Flannery, no doubt to root out any heresy against the received doctrine of anthropogenic global warming.

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd would like to control – no doubt meticulously – what appears on our television broadcasts to the world. This is the opposite of the BBC style of public broadcaster; it would rank us with those tin pot dictatorships Mr. Rudd is courting to secure a Security Council seat. We could expect a surplus of footage of our Foreign Minister.
 
And now we are to have to have a multicultural propaganda office which will no doubt be used to counter any suggestion that the government has lost control of our borders.

In the meantime Paul Cleary revealed in The Australian (15/1) that there has been an overwhelming trend for ministers to appoint spin doctors to policy positions, rather than those who have any depth of knowledge and understanding about the particular portfolio. He says it’s even more alarming – and he is right – that the identity of the 319 taxpayer funded ministerial staffers is no longer available. 

All this constitutes a formidable Ministry of Propaganda. The taxpayer is paying for this, and most of the media is ignoring its cumulative effect.