Sure enough, journalists reflexively jumped onto their pulpits to say that Brown was wilting under the merciless pressure of a Fourth Estate merely doing its job in holding him to account. Leaving aside the fact that Brown showed no sign of 'spitting the dummy' over the deliberate misrepresentation of his party, he nevertheless found himself in the classic lose-lose situation of those treated shabbily by the media. You can either sit back and allow them to bag you and distort everything you say to suit their own agenda, or you can call them on it and then have them double their efforts to stitch you up.
This time, Brown called them on it. And didn't they (with the notable exception of Michelle Grattan) take it badly? One Fairfax radio reporter, clinging to the inch-deep attack line of his shockjock overlords, became so indignant at the media being publicly questioned that he sounded like he might break down and cry.
"You just come out here every day and you just bag out the Murdoch press or any media you don't like and you call them the hate press," the reporter whined. With remarkable restraint and equanimity, Brown simply replied: "The Murdoch press comes out every day and bags out the Greens -- why one rule for you and not one for the others?"Indeed. It is hard to see how the Greens might ever expect to receive fair treatment from a media organisation which has declared it wants them destroyed; that they are "ruining Australia" and that the government they are helping to keep in power is illegitimate. As an indication as to why Bob Brown is peeved, take a look at this handful of recent headlines from Murdoch papers:
- Squirming Brown Cornered and Relentlessly Grilled Over Coal - Daily Telegraph, May 19, 2011
- Beware as Green Turns to Red - The Australian, April 19, 2011
- Voters See True Colour of Greens - Daily Telegraph, April 14
- If Gillard Means What She Says, She'll Divorce the Greens - The Australian, April 12
- Greens Pulling the Treasury Strings - Daily Telegraph, April 8
Of course, newspapers are entitled to take an editorial line....on their editorial pages. But they are not entitled (unless they want to give up the fiction that they are 'news' organisations) to start using their news pages to run a political agenda of their own. (Lest this be seen as some kind of "leftist" view, even journalists who work for The Australian will tell you privately that they cringe at the partisanship and distortion of the news agenda at that paper to serve the Murdoch agenda.)
News organisations often talk piously about "holding politicians to account". And it is true, that that is one important role of journalists in democracy. But accountability cannot be selective. You cannot put one political party under the grill and wave through to the keeper another's lies, deceptions, half-truths and dodgy arithmetic. Indeed, anyone who has grown old in journalism knows that this high minded language about accountability increasingly is used to justify confrontational behaviour that is purely about drawing attention to itself. Journalists and media figures too often now see their role purely in terms of the level of "hits" or manufactured outrage their work creates. Think back to the Tony Abbott staredown with Mark Riley or the extremely ill-mannered reception "Ju-liar" Gillard received from Alan Jones (who while not a journalist receives all the privileges of one).
The fact is most journalistic output is entertainment dressed up as 'news'. Long gone are the old Chinese walls that separated the editorial and the commercial agendas of the media organisations which employ journalists. For their part, many journalists deal with this disconnect by sticking their fingers in their ears, screwing up their eyes and screeching every more loudly about the "public's right to know" or their own "sacred trust" as guardians, when the real motivation is the grubby commercial and ideological imperatives of their employers and the advertisers who pay their salaries, a point Lindsay Tanner makes in his book 'Sideshow':
"Much of the media's campaigning on matters of journalistic principle is, in fact, thinly disguised self-interest- the energetic pursuit of more marketable content - dressed up as the public interest."While nominally non-commercial, even the ABC in recent years has become more commercially-oriented in its approach to news and current affairs, particularly on television. The intention appears to be to create a more low-to-middle brow Nine Network-lookalike that focuses on car crashes and crime and, in terms of politics, old fashioned adversarialism for its own sake. Look at the rebadged '7.30', which this year cast aside the crumpled but substantial Kerry O'Brien for the rather more marketable Leigh Sales and her sidekick, political correspondent Chris Uhlmann.
It was the latter who this past week trumpeted his 'interview' with Bob Brown, full of warmed over Murdoch talking points, as an accountability exercise. The whole interview (in which Uhlmann hardly let his subject answer a question) was based on a misrepresentation - that Brown wants the coal industry shut down overnight. Responding to criticism by viewers that he had not let Brown get a word in edgeways amid his hysterical interjections, Uhlmann's response was that the Greens leader needed to "harden up" (a phrase that would have sounded appropriate coming out of the mouth of Tony Abbott, a politician much closer to real power and one whom he incidentally had given an armchair ride to in an interview the week before).
The sad truth is the louder journalists thunder from their bully pulpits about accountability and the public's 'right to know', the less savoury are their real motivations. Scratch a little below the surface and you will find the grandstanding is really about a need to generate hits and ratings or attract eyeballs in an increasingly competitive marketplace. It's about branding themselves as players in the political game. It's about impressing their bosses or their fellow journalists. It almost always has nothing to do with the wider public good. And the most telling evidence of this self-interested pantomime is that journalists themselves cannot bear the slightest scrutiny of their own behaviour without squealing like stuck pigs.
Tim Dunlop, 'On Journalism and Fish Milkshakes' - The Drum
Ben Eltham, 'Bob Brown Versus the Press' - New Matilda