Time to stop campaigning

“Relations between the government and the press have deteriorated, they are deteriorating, and they may deteriorate even more.”   Addressing the House of Lords, the war hero and former editor Lord Jacobson ( pictured) added:  “And on no account – on no account – must they be allowed to improve.”

How times change. 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, or 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 for appointment is merit.

And it only seems to work one way. I do not recall the same euphoria over Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. Was it that they were considered 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 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 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 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. Why this is so is not clear, but I suspect the disappearance of the moguls, journalism no longer being treated as a trade learned on the job, and the emergence of by-lines have something to do with it.

The effect of this on the public 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’

But 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.

But arguing from the myth that the Founding Fathers introduced the Bill of Rights during the War of Independence, the President could be seen as moving from the very principles established at the foundation of the US in closing Guantanamo Bay. This would also add moral weight to his curious decision to suspend the prosecution of all detainees, including those on the most serious terrorist charges. 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. And if he is not so aware, his lawyers would soon inform him of this.

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, contrasted 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. Had Governor Palin said anything like that we would not have heard the end of it.

The Rudd government


This 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 an excessive 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 almost daily press and television stories of people who have been disadvantaged?

Rather than leaving the work to enclaves in talk back and the exceptional journalist or editor, when will the media stop campaigning for governing politicians who have well and truly won their elections? In each country the media got their favoured son into office. Can they now go back and start doing their duty?

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