Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Peter Beattie | If you can't stand the heat don't blame the media

US President Harry S Truman lived by two rules: "If you don't like the heat, get out of the kitchen" and, "the buck stops here". Both apply to the present bleating about Australian media and suggestions of an inquiry.

More than a week ago I saw passengers at New York's JFK airport glued to CNN's continuous reports of Rupert Murdoch and News International executives giving evidence at British parliamentary committee hearings. The sweat on my brow from the record summer heatwave seemed mild compared to the discomfort being experienced by Murdoch.

One of News Corporation's competitors, the New York Daily News, desperately hoping the scandal would spread to Murdoch's media interests in the US, headlined on the front page with "Humble Pie" and a large photo of the chief executive: a headline motivated by competition, envy and a genuine interest in the story.

Every rational person would agree what happened at London's News of the World is a disgrace and those responsible, including police, should feel the full force of the law. These matters have a long way to go and, as the investigation continues, more revelations will come to light. But criminal matters have to be dealt with in accordance with the law, not politics.

I first visited Britain in 1979 during the British general election when the Labour government of James Callaghan was defeated by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party and, as a young idealist, was stunned by the blatant bias of the British papers.

Australian politicians should carefully examine the rest of the world before getting too sensitive to media criticism and having a media inquiry.

I can understand political opportunism and was guilty of it myself, but the federal government and Greens need to be very careful not to use the illegal activity at the News of the World as an excuse to attack their media critics or the public will turn on them in droves. I always knew the limits of opportunism and the federal government needs to as well.

With increasing good reason, the general public is cynical about politicians and journalists but they also know a free media is absolutely essential for a strong democracy and keeping politicians honest. Media has a responsibility to keep elected officials accountable via an appropriate relationship. There is a thin line between media independence and arrogance but without independence there is no accountability; it is the difference between dictatorship and democracy.

This doesn't mean that I am happy with the political coverage by sections of News Limited. In my humble view Brisbane's The Courier-Mail is unfairly critical of the Bligh government and the Labor Party. Some of its columnists are sloppy and use personal abuse as an excuse for journalism. The paper is too sensitive to criticism and needs some new blood.

I also think ABC radio current affairs in Queensland fails in its public responsibility by not taking a critical look at the performance of newspapers in Queensland.

But does the Queensland media need to be subject to a public inquiry? Of course not. I am obviously biased when it comes to The Courier-Mail's criticism of Bligh, my government and the Labor Party. I once got so angry with The Courier-Mail when I was premier I suggested legislating an internal newspaper ombudsman to enable errors of fact to be corrected.

I finally took a deep breath, cooled down and took Truman's advice. I used regular news conferences to convey the government's message, boring the media gallery silly by my accessibility to the point that I was accused of being a master of spin. Out of frustration the then-Liberal leader called me a media tart, to which I pleaded guilty saying all politicians are tarts; some are more successful than others.

Tony Abbott's skill at the photo opportunity and use of glib catchphrases such as "no tax collection without an election" is one reason he's out-messaging the government on the carbon tax but even he needs to be careful. He is in danger of being accused of being a media tart.

Politicians have to take a long-term view when it comes to media balance. The Courier-Mail had the good judgment to endorse my government's re-election on every occasion and, like the rest of the Queensland media throughout my public life, was fair, even though there were days when I deeply resented its "unfair" criticism. The present standing of state and federal governments in the polls is not due to media bias. Politicians and the media need each other, one to communicate with their employers, the people, the other purportedly to raise our consciousness and make their employers a whole lot of money.

But there is a problem with society that no media inquiry will change. We are our own worst enemies and it has been that way since the beginning of time. Our obsession with the secret lives of the rich and famous has evolved into the reality television phenomenon and when we are sick of that we'll settle for tragic stories about down and outs. The sad reality is that we only have ourselves to blame for the rubbish in the tabloid newspapers and on reality TV. If we stopped reading and watching this nonsense the media outlets would drop them or go out of business.

But what if we were better people and didn't want to know the sordid details of other people's lives? I know; I am dreaming. Undoubtedly the desire for a scoop in the competitive British newspaper market drove journalists to act inappropriately and criminally and they will now feel the full force of the law. But sadly, rumours, conflict and dissent are preferable to policy stories proffering a balanced point of view. We get what we deserve.

"The buck stops here", with us. If we don't like the rubbish being served up, change channels, buy a better newspaper or go online and start your own thought-provoking, intelligent blog.

1 comment:

  1. The media has "moved on" since Beattie was Premier. Andrew Bolt was not syndicated as widely as he is now. Ditto Alan Jones. The phenomenon of radio "shock jocks" was not as prevalent as it is now. No journalist in Beattie's time would dare publicly make a mockery of the sexual genitalia of an elected representative, or mock that person in sexist, ageist language as we see today.


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