Ben Eltham | Bob Brown vs The Press


Journalists don’t respond well when the boot’s on the other foot. Bob Brown’s gentle goading of the Canberra press gallery evoked some savage reactions, writes Ben Eltham

First published in New Matilda here.

Politicians and the media are often at each other’s throats, but yesterday’s press conferencewith Greens Leader Bob Brown was something else.

It started on a warm and fuzzy note, with Brown speaking about the important work of the Senate inquiry into koala conservation. “The koala is in a massively worrying situation of decline,” warned Senator Brown.

But koalas were not the chief topic of the press gallery’s questions who wanted instead to ask Brown about carbon taxes. Taking a question from The Australian’s Sid Maher about why the Greens didn’t vote for the CPRS in 2009, Brown also took the opportunity to do some editorialising of his own.

“The Australian has a position of opposing such action [against climate change],” Brown said pointedly. “My question to you is: why is that?”

“Well,” Maher replied, “as they said the other day, when you’re on this side, you ask the questions.”

Brown responded by calling the Murdoch press “hate media”.

“I’m just wondering why the hate media — it’s got a negative front page today from top to bottom — I’m just asking you why you can’t be more constructive … I’ve answered your question, your commentary I’ll expect to see again in tomorrow’s paper.”

And so the mild-mannered spray continued.

“The Murdoch media has a great deal of responsibility for debasing that maturity which is informed by scientific opinion gathered from right around the world.

“Some heat needs to go back onto those sections of the media which are trying to drag this process down, and that’s very clear that that’s what’s happening. You look at the front pages of some of the papers today, and the commentary on this process [the multi-party committee on climate change], and it’s not balanced, it is opinionated, it’s not news in terms of having both sides of a story. It’s not what you read in other countries in the world … yes, The Australian.

“We need news in our papers, but we’re getting opinion, far too much, and that needs to be debated and nobody needs to get upset about it.”

Fairfax Radio’s Michael Pachi seemed to take particular umbrage, repeatedly accusing Brown of “bagging out the Murdoch press”. “Why are you so obsessed with this?” he asked the Senator.

“Well that’s an opinion, you see, you’re now asking me a question based on a very loaded opinion. I’m not obsessed with it.”

“You are!” insisted Pachi.

“Thank you,” a smiling Brown replied. “You’re taking it badly.”

The highlight of the exchange came when a clearly amused Brown suggested Pachi might be being defensive.

“I’m not being defensive!” Pachi replied, with a rising inflection that suggested exactly the opposite.

So how has the Murdoch press respond to this gentle goading?

“STOP THIS MAN RUINING THE NATION” thundered the Herald Sun’s editorial today. Lapsing into the second person, the editors at News Limited directed their address directly to Brown: “It is you who is debasing the national debate,” they roared, “not the Herald Sun, which is concerned about Australian families facing soaring power bills and seeing their jobs threatened under a heavy carbon tax and uncertain compensation.”

In The Australian, James Massola covered the press conference with, amazingly, a quote from his own boss. “I believe we have probably done more to give honest scrutiny to the carbon tax than any other newspaper and, of course, we have long supported a market-based mechanism for dealing with climate change,” Massola quoted editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell as saying.

Meanwhile Dennis Shanahan wrote a commentary piece arguing that “Bob Brown is under pressure and he’s showing it.” Really? I thought Senator Brown looked rather composed.

Why is it that the Australian political media takes a bit of mild-mannered criticism so badly? Today’s coverage, and the riveting footage from yesterday’s presser, confirms Brown’s suggestion that the media likes to dish it out, but struggles to stay in good humour when criticism is directed back at them.

Bob Brown’s comments are not the first time the media has reacted uncomfortably to some home-truths. Tim Dunlop had a nice piece in the ABC yesterday in which he pointed out that the media’s reaction to Lindsay Tanner’s well-articulated criticism in his new book Sideshow has been defensive and resentful. Far from using the book as an opportunity to reflect on how news might be better reported and analysed, Dunlop perceptively observes that “the almost universal reaction from journalists to Tanner’s book has been one of defensiveness and blame shifting.”

In many respects, the robust character of the Australian political media has its democratic advantages. Politicians and policy makers must indeed be held to account, and hard questions deserve to be asked. The press corps here has never been backward about coming forward, particularly in comparison with some of our Anglo-Saxon cousins, for whom the level of courtesy shown to political leaders is often much greater than that on show here. You will never hear President Obama being addressed as “Barack” by a journalist or radio host, for instance. And, British tabloids aside, you will rarely hear elected representatives publicly assailed in a press conference in the manner in which Brown was yesterday by Pachi.

But there is a darker side to the culture of entitlement that seems to grip the Australian political mediascape. Indeed, it could be argued that the media in Australian enjoys some special privileges, such as access to power and certain legal protections on its speech, that it is not altogether clear that it deserves.

Journalists might respond that they are only as good as their last story, and that the democratic duty to “speak truth to power” excuses some discourtesy at times. But the disease is much widespread than this. Some commentators and media outlets really do seem to believe they are political players themselves. As Peter Botsman observed here last week, Exhibit A is The Australian, with its sycophantic interviews with its own editors and self-righteous crusades like the self-proclaimed mission to “destroy” the Greens.

The self-righteousness of many journalists is passing strange at the very time that demand for their product is collapsing. Dunlop may be right when he argues of the media that “it is hard to think of an industry more entrapped by what it considers the untouchable verities of its craft, or one that thinks it can so blithely ignore complaints from its customers.”

And let’s look at the content of what Brown said yesterday. In most respects, his criticisms are telling. Much of what is presented to Australian citizens as “news” is, in point of fact, opinion. Newspapers are far from the only offenders. The ABC also routinely skews its stories in subtle ways, as for instance in the way it has pejoratively covered successful government programs like the Building the Education Revolution schools stimulus package — a program which the Auditor-General found to be highly effective with a very low complaint rate. Indeed, it’s worth asking if 7.30’s Chris Uhlmann can be thought of as truly a political “reporter”, when arguably the substance of his nightly bulletins is in effect pure opinion.

In recent history, few have been prepared to publicly attack the Murdoch media — with well-founded fears about a savage reaction. But Bob Brown was already at war with the Murdoch newspapers, and will lose few votes of committed Greens supporters for his stance. Further, he might even pick up some new supporters. I suspect many citizens, tired of the constant arrogance of reporters and the daily distortions of their morning newspapers and nightly news bulletins, may just be cheering Senator Brown on.

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