Media virus spreads

Itching for a beat-up! 

In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That ian improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralizing. Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing,the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominatedby Journalism.

                         Oscar Wilde, "The Soul of Man Under Socialism"

It was Intellectual Herpes! Like the contagious virus it is, it started with Kerry O’Brien on the 7.30 Report and spread instantly throughout the main-stream-media, infecting the weakest and least informed members of our nation’s Fourth Estate. Even the country’s most respected journalists caught it. And they were all scratching like mad as they dashed for a headline. 

The headlines varied but all inferred that Tony Abbott was a liar. The Sydney Morning Herald ran “Tony Abbott Admits to Lying”; The Age managed to say, in a piece by Phillip Coorey, “…Abbot urges people to treat with caution anything he says…”, while the Daily Telegraph’s ploy was “Don’t believe everything I say –Tony Abbott”. But without doubt the corker was Bernard Keane’s piece on Crikey.com; “Tony Abbott struggles with the truth”. Keane went on to say, “All politicians lie, but prime ministers are held to a different standard.” Really! If Keane was talking about Kevin Rudd, exactly what standard is that? But back to the Herpes plague. 

What Tony Abbott actually said, in answer to Kerry O’Brien’s question about his February promise, not to increase taxes or create new ones, and his March announcement for a levy on large companies to fund paid maternity leave, was: 

Well, again Kerry, I know politicians are gonna be judged on everything they say, but sometimes, in the heat of discussion, you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark, which is one of the reasons why statements that need to be taken absolutely asgospel truth is those carefully scripted remarks. 

Of course what Abbott announced in March wasn’t a new tax at all but a temporary levy on large corporations, to fund the paid parental leave until the budget was back in surplus, or annual revenue could support the scheme. 

What Abbott said about political comment, made off-the-cuff, is fairly obvious, other than to new arrivals from the planet Pluto. Where Abbott failed was in not spotting the bait and trap O’Brien was setting for him. The opposition leader fell for the crazy notion that O’Brien was genuinely interest in what Abbott had to say, rather than creating tomorrow’s headline. 

What was not obvious, from any of the media coverage, was the tactic used by Kerry O’Brien to entrap Tony Abbott and how that entrapment cleverly proceeded. A reading of the transcript of the interview is really the only way this becomes clear. O’Brien pounded Abbott on the question of his honesty, trustfulness and integrity, relentlessly, and all on the notion that the parental leave levy plan was a tax. 

If Kerry O’Brien hammered Kevin Rudd on Rudd’s honesty, trustfulness and integrity, the 7.30 Report would have to run for 3 hours. Hypocrisy is really handled magnificently by the ABC current affairs people — they know all about it — they are masters of the art. O’Brien sees himself as a self-appointed judge, cross-examining people in an ill-manned, inquisitorial -style technique. The only thing missing is a wig… that is, a judges wig. 

It was all beginning to look like George Washington and the cherry tree moment. Tony Abbott was being accused of making a political blunder by — wait for it — telling the truth! And it was all the fault of that awful Catholic upbringing… and his lack of guile when dealing with O’Brien. 

Some clarity was brought to the Herpes outbreak in Wednesday’s (19th May) Australian by Professor Mirko Bagaric of Deakin University. In an article headlined “Honesty is not always the best policy position” he stated in his opening sentence: 

The biggest liars are those who claim never to lie and hence we should be embracing the honesty of Tony Abbott for admitting the occasional fib. Those people to be most suspicious about are the ones who push the sanctimonious nonsense that lying is always immoral. 

Ah! A vaccine for Intellectual Herpes is at hand? Professor Bagaric went on to say that lying is permissible in three circumstances. He said: 

First it is OK to lie to protect unjust attacks on higher order interests, such as right to life, liberty and physical integrity. Thus you needn’t think twice about pointing an aggressor in search of his intended victim in the wrongdirection. 

The second exception to the general prohibition against lying is where it is necessary to achieve social goods that cannot be secured (at all or at least not very effectively) through transparent means. Thus covert law enforcement practices and investigative journalism are sound practices. 

Finally, you get to tell the occasional white lie. They’re OK where the topic of the lie cannot readily be avoided and is done to spare a person’s feelings. Thus, when your partner asks you “Does my bum look too big in this new dress” or “Is my new haircut nice? You get to say no and yes respectively. 

White lies are also permissible where they act as social lubricants, obviating the need to engage in drawn-out character evaluations. Better to say you can’t make it to dinner because you’re busy rather than because you find the person revolting. 

The good professor went on to say,

Abbott’s lies arguably fall into the second category. He is occasionally expedient with the truth on no-core issues to attract his audience. Is it justifiable? Yes, if it is a means to improve the greater community good by removing an incompetent government.

Compare the above paragraph with what David Penberthy wrote in the Weekend Australian this week, under the headline “Impressions of a self-confessed misleader on air”. Penberthy hailed Kerry O’Brien’s interview and made out a case for Tony Abbott’s frankness as a character flaw. He went on to say “His colleagues describe a man who, in his instincts, can present as the tactically unfortunate combination of half journalist and half seminarian.” Which half of this assessment is a problem, Penberthy didn’t elaborate upon. 

It is interesting to ponder on a comment made about John Adams, the great patriot of the American revolution and War of Independence. Of Adams, James Grant wrote of the man in his 2005 book: 

Adams held truth in as high regard as any man, but he also had extensive experience in shading it. In the roleof Whig propagandist, and in the more familiar role of attorney, he had presented the evidence that supported his chosen cause, passing lightly over the evidence that didn’t. 

Those in the Fourth Estate, itching for a headline, should think twice before jumping into traps set by His Worship Judge Kerry O’Brien. The ‘judicial’ wig should fool no one. When it comes to character, truthfulness, spin and honesty, the wrong person was on trial. Try The Lodge. 

Scratch, scratch!

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