The great Telecard coverup

It had to be dragged out of them, but officials from the Department of Finance today made some big admissions on the Reith Telecard affair under pressure from the Senate estimates committee.

Try as they might to dodge, waffle and prevaricate, the masters of cross-examination, Labor Senators John Faulkner and Robert Ray, shed a little bit more light on the great coverup.

The scandal broke in the Canberra Times on Tuesday October 10, nearly a year after Finance discovered the $50,000 fraud. The very next day, the Prime Minister announced that DPP Damian Bugg had decided to prosecute no-one over the fraud. He also said he had asked the Solicitor-General, David Bennett QC, to advise whether Reith was liable for the $50,000.

This reference to Bennett was made much of by Howard as proof of his good faith. Remember both he and Reith, when the story broke, said there was no obligation for Reith to pay.

Well guess what? Way back in May, Finance wrote to Reith saying it would issue him a debit notice for the full amount, based on legal advice that he WAS liable. That advice was given by a legal officer in the department. (Finance today refused to release that advice.)

Reith said no. Instead, he sent Finance a cheque for $950 a week later, which he claimed was the cost of calls made by his son Paul, to whom he unlawfully gave the card details to make private calls. On October nine, the day before the story broke, Finance again wrote to Reith demanding he pay up as legally required.

This means that both Reith and Howard defied the government’s then only legal advice when they claimed he was not liable. For example Reith said, “I don’t believe I can be held responsible for the payment of moneys which I had nothing to do with.” On what basis, Mr Reith? Did you take your own legal advice, by any chance?

On the basis of evidence to date from the Senate estimates committee, Howard sought the advice of the Solicitor-General’s in an effort to let Reith off. I asked the Attorney-General, Daryl Williams QC, if the Finance department’s legal advice had been included in the brief to the Solicitor-General (all the material Bennett relied on in coming to his conclusion was expunged from the legal opinion Williams released publicly.)

Williams’ spokeswoman replied: “Details of the material provided to the Solicitor-General for his consideration will not be made public for legal reasons.” What legal reasons, I asked. “The AFP is investigating.” But Bennett’s advice had nothing to do with criminal lability, I protested. The cover-up goes on, and on, and on.

It gets better. Finance was most unhappy with David Bennett’s advice exonerating Reith and son, which has also been criticised by several other lawyers.

So the department’s special committee on the Reith Telecard met and decided to get its own advice, from not one but three sources. It asked the Australian Government Solicitor, Phillips Fox and Blake Dawson Waldron to advise on liability. Department head Peter Boxall: “Following publication of the Solicitor-General’s opinion, the department was still in the position that it had moneys outstanding and we sought legal advice (on) the liability of Mr Reith… We thought that Mr Reith may have a personal liability.”

Why three advices? Department official Roger Fisher: “The issue was very, very sensitive and it was one where clearly there were views in the public domain and we thought it would be sensible to ensure we were not relying on a sole source of advice.”

It’s nice to know it wasn’t just the public who were incredulous that noone was liable for a $50,000 fraud on the taxpayer triggered by an unlawful disclosure of Telecard details by a minister.

We don’t yet know what these three advices said, or even if the department dumped them once Reith finally agreed to pay to save his political skin. Ray and Faulkner will resume questioning on the matter when the estimates committee resumes on Tuesday.

You’ll recall that Peter Reith said over and over again in radio interviews that when he met two Finance officials in April to discuss the Telecard bills he asked them, “If you’d got a bill for a million dollars, would you have paid it?” He said they replied “Yes, we would have paid it.”

“Well would you have told me? ”

“No we would not have,” Reith alleged they replied.

The two Finance men at the meeting, John Gavin and Daryl Wight, were at the witness table today. Ray asked them if Reith’s claim was true.

The special minister of State responsible for MPs entitlements, Senator Chris Ellison, gagged them. “The department doesn’t divulge discussions it has with members and Senators.”

Not surprisingly, Ray exploded. It was Reith who divulged, and if his account was true, it “would throw enormous discredit on the department.”

“So they can be verballed at will?” he asked Ellison.

Senator Ellison did not reply.

Have a good weekend. Reith won’t. Another round of Senate estimates questions next week and the week after a new AFP brief to the DPP on possible criminal charges means Reith is still not home free.

A Bugg in the farce of the Reith Telecard affair


Mr Bugg during a senate legal and constitutional legislation committee. Photo: JACKY GHOSSEIN

Every year Senators get to quiz bureaucrats and statutory officers on their performance and the success or otherwise of government policies. It’s called “Senate Estimates”, is designed to ensure that public money is well spent and is one of many reasons why the Senate is the last hope for Parliament, representing the people, to get answers not spin doctored by the executive (the Prime Minister and his ministers). Freedom FROM information is the executive’s motto but in Senate estimates, evidence is under oath, so those under the gun have to be more careful than politicians are with the truth.

Today, the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional committee got its chance to put the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, Damian Bugg QC, to the test on his handling of the Reith Telecard affair.


I’ve written about the behaviour of Mr Bugg extensively in the diary (see The Small Matter of Prosecution and Telecard Shenanigans) and his performance today only confirmed widespread concern that he has neglected his duty to preserve public confidence in the integrity of the administration of justice.


The Reith Telecard scandal burst into the public sphere just last month. His decision not to prosecute anyone for anything is the most controversial he has made as DPP. He must have realised he would be asked questions on the matter by Labor Senators. (Government Senators rarely if ever ask questions on behalf of the people and instead sit there to protect witnesses from having to reveal things the Government doesn’t want revealed. It’s called betrayal of the people.)

Yet his evidence was vague – I’d call it arrogantly so – and, as is usual for Mr Bugg, raised more questions that it answered.

When was he first contacted regarding the Reith matter? He couldn’t recall, except that it was “some time before” the story broke in The Canberra Times on October 10.


On what date did the federal police give him the brief of evidence for consideration? He didn’t know, except that the DPP had prepared a draft response to the brief in the week ending October 6.


On what date did he first brief the Attorney-General, Mr Williams QC, on his decision not to charge anyone with anything? “At a time approximating the finalisation of our response”, which he thought was October 9.


How was the Attorney-General briefed? “Certainly there was a briefing,” Bugg replied. Labor Senator Jim McKiernan could not comprehend how Mr Bugg’s memory could be so poor on such a thing. Pressed, Bugg said he thought the form of the briefing was “a combination of oral and written”.


Was it a personal briefing? “There were documents made available.” Pressed again, he said he did not brief the Attorney-General in person as he was away from Canberra that week.


Did DPP officers personally brief Williams? “I need to formally consider that and respond to it.”


So, Mr Bugg chose to take on notice the most basic information about his handling of the Reith matter. Inspires confidence, doesn’t it?


McKiernan moved on to Bugg’s now notorious press release the day after the Government announced he would prosecute no-one for anything, in which in a few terse paragraphs he “explained” his decision not to prosecute Reith and son, but said nothing on why he wouldn’t prosecute Miss X, Mr Y or anyone else.


Why did he make the statement? “There was obviously quite a lot of public interest in the matter”. He therefore “considered it appropriate … to publish brief reasons”. He did tell a staffer of Mr Williams that he proposed to issue the statement (interesting that – all these briefings and discussions with an Attorney-General who’s refused to comment on anything regarding the DPP and Reith on the grounds that he’s independent, that he reports to the AFP and that the AFP reports to Justice Minister Amanda Vanstone). Bugg, surprise, surprise, didn’t know if anyone else in his office had had discussions with the Attorney-General or his office on the matter.


So why didn’t Bugg release a full statement of reasons? “There are good reasons for not going into every aspect of the consideration of the matter by my office, particularly when there is a decision not to prosecute.” He didn’t mention what they were.


Then, the climax. “The precise reasons for not prosecuting have been published … That is the simple explanation for it. I don’t believe that there’s any more detail needed to explain those reasons.”


He’s got to be kidding. Senior lawyers around the country, including former DPPs, have raised serious concerns on Mr Bugg’s “emergency” exemption to fraud on the Commonwealth and he has still given NO reasons why he won’t prosecute Miss X or Mr Y.


Did he have any intention to provide more expansive reasons? No.


What about when the AFP resubmitted the brief with the results of its reopened investigation? “If I consider it necessary to make a statement in the public interest, I will.”


Bugg is backing down here. Last month, in an oral statement given by his media minder to the media, he said, in relation to his decision after the result of the new investigation, that he would go public. “Any decision made by the DPP which can be published will be announced in due course,” he said then.


The public got something from Bugg though – his birthday was on October 11, the day after the Reith story broke. Happy Birthday, Mr Bugg.


In this frustrating scandal the only path to truth is through the Freedom of Information Act and that’s proving a real cash cow for the Government. Use money to stop public disclosure. It’s $30 per application, then the departments start sending you bills for searching and the rest. My colleague Mark Robinson was told by the finance department that its charges for processing his request for the correspondence between Reith and the department on the matter and the department’s report into the Telecard’s misuse would cost $92,550.


After Bugg’s “evidence”, I submitted two new Freedom of Information applications asking Williams and Bugg for all documents concerning the DPP’s oral and written briefings to the Attorney-General.


Here’s an update on the progress of my FOI applications to date:


1. I asked the Attorney-General’s department for the legal advice the Prime Minister said he received from the Attorney-General before he sent the matter to police.

“There are no documents held by this department that come within the scope of your request,” the department replied. I’ve now FOI’d Williams, the Prime Minister and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet for that advice and all material relating to it.


2. I asked the Attorney-General’s department and the Attorney-General for all material concerning the two legal advices given to the Prime Minister by Solicitor-General David Bennett QC on the civil liability of Reith and son or anyone else for the Telecard bill. The department requires $170 to conduct a search and make a decision. Williams has not yet replied.


3. I asked the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet for the same material – it’s a bit cheaper, charging $110 to get started.


4. I asked Vanstone for the report she received form the AFP detailing the investigation and why no-one would be prosecuted. Vanstone flicked it to the AFP, which refused the application on the basis that the document was exempt because access “would prejudice an investigation of a breach of the law and the enforcement of a law” and “would prejudice the fair trial of a person and the impartial adjudication of a particular case”. That’s interesting – it implies that had the investigation not been reopened (after Miss X blew the whistle on the quality of the investigation), the document would have bene released. I’ll put in another FOI when the case is closed, assuming of course, that Bugg still won’t prosecute anyone.


5. I asked the AFP for its investigation brief to the DPP and his report to the AFP refusing to prosecute. Access was refused on the same grounds and the extra one that “information contained in the document is of such a nature that it would be privileged from production in legal proceedings on the grounds of legal professional privilege”.

This last reason covers the DPP’s report. Legal professional privilege belongs to the client, not the lawyer, so the client can waive it. Who is the client? If it’s the AFP or Vanstone, why won’t they waive it? If it’s the people, I think you can assume they’d like to know.


6. I asked the DPP for his report to the AFP giving his reasons not to prosecute anyone. He has not replied.


For your interest, this is how bad it gets with FOI under this government. My colleague Andrew Clennell tried to get details of the tender to build a nuclear power station at Lucas Heights. Here’s his story, published in the Herald on October 25:




By Andrew Clennell, in Canberra


The Government’s nuclear agency is charging $7,000 to release as few as two pages about its secret deal with the Argentine company INVAP under the Freedom of Information Act.


Greenpeace and the Herald have each been sent bills of about $7,000 with offers to release only 22 and two pages respectively of more than 1,000 available from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, the agency responsible for the Lucas Heights reactor and its proposed replacement.


The Herald in August asked for “documents relating to the criteria on which the successful tenderer for the replacement research reactor was chosen and any documents or correspondence between the Minister, Senator Minchin, and ANSTO, on the criteria”. It was told this month that the request involved 1,350 pages, and 1,348 would not be available.


To have the FOI processed would cost $7,099.78.


The bill says “exempted pages” which the Herald will not be allowed to see involved 224 hours and 40 minutes of labour for the department, and cost $4,493.33.


Examining “relevant pages for decision making”, at five minutes per page, cost $2,250.


Greenpeace had asked ANSTO for “documents relating to the tender process for the construction of a replacement research reactor and the contract arising therefrom”.


The organisation was asked for $6,809.25 and told that 1,300 pages were involved. ANSTO said two pages could be released “with deletions”, and a further 20 that were not exempt.


A reader in law at the Australian National University who has specialised in FOI, Mr Peter Bayne, said yesterday that amendments to the Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act by the former Labor government had led to a new billing system which allowed for decision-making charges, and put the act at odds with State FOI laws.


“At the time the ALP amended the charges regime, it was widely perceived this was an attempt to discourage applications,” he said.


“It’s unfortunate the Commonwealth act does contain a regime for imposing charges which allows agencies to charge for the time they need to make up their mind as to whether [the material is] exempt.


“Most FOI laws in Australia do not allow agencies to do that.


“The reason is the ability to do that is an opportunity to run up very high charges [which are] very difficult to review before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.


“In other words it (the Federal charge) places the applicant in an impossible position. They end up with a very big bill and no real way of challenging the decision to impose [the charge].”


Last night, the FOI co-ordinator for ANSTO, Mr Steven McIntosh, said that even though it already knew it was prepared to give the Herald only two pages, it had asked for $7,099.78 because it was using a standard government “per page” charge.


He said the contract Greenpeace had requested was “commercial-in-confidence” and could not be released. “Even though we make one decision about the contract, we have to count 1,800 pages for the purpose of making the charge.”



Now to replies to our One Nation contributor Rob Herron (Webdiary, November 21).





This is a fascinating experience – the “Education of Pauline”. Hanson is smart, obstinate, and a sturdy learner. I find I am doing an 180 degree spin about her – from an appalled fascination to an admiring interest in the way she is cleaning out the stables and determinedly using what remains of her figurehead status to regain control of the political entity she initiated. She appears to be more confident and clearer in utterance and it is clear that there is still a deep-running admiration for her courage – guts. The disintegration of One Nation, as you and your contributors all acknowledge, has left an exploitable political vacuum which Howard is positioning the Government to partly fill – my gut feeling however is that a passionate redhead, aflame and more confident, more politically educated, better advised and less exploited by those closest to her, can still take enough ground for a new importance in our political scheme of things. Despite all this, I still have an aversion to One Nation as it was – but I am willing to consider the nature of her future political maturity if it in fact eventuates. – Hugh Bingham, Toowoomba.





I’m proud of the way Australia has opened its doors to refugees (and not quite so proud about what goes on in places like Port Headland). I don’t see this as an issue about my lifestyle so much as an issue of human decency. If I were forced to leave Australia because of race, religion or politics I would hope there was somewhere I could turn.


I’m aware of One Nation’s argument that much of Australia’s crime, corruption and ethnic tension has been imported. I know that some One Nation members (perhaps not Rob Herron) don’t object to multi-racialism so much as multi-culturalism. They feel that social cohesion and national solidarity are undermined by inter-cultural differences in moral values and suspect that people who maintain different cultures can never really live peacefully together.


I see some of these views emerging in the debate about private school funding. Some Australians are afraid about what will happen if children are educated from infancy in small Islamic or Christian fundamentalist schools. Personally I suspect that there are more important differences over morality between conservatives like Rob and ‘small l’ liberals like myself than there are between different ethnic groups living in Australia.


It may be, as Rob suggests, that being a victim of war, torture or persecution makes it hard for some refugees to adjust to life in Australia. I know it can translate into problems like unemployment and a need to rely on social security but I’m not convinced that it translates into higher rates of criminal offending. Maybe Rob has some information I haven’t seen.


I was unsettled by Rob’s views on Aboriginal issues. I believe that part of maintaining our pride as Australians is taking responsibility for our past. I know that some One Nation supporters see complaints about past injustice as an attempt to manipulate non-Indigenous Australians into parting with money and privilege — that Indigenous Australians are like spoiled children who need someone to stand up to them and make them to stand on their own two feet. I understand this view but I don’t share it. Unresolved injustice is a terrible source of anger, it damages self esteem and fuels conflict. I think what happened in the past was unjust. I want us to deal with it.


Rob suspects that Indigenous disadvantage stems in part from genetic inferiority. If people suspect this and it affects the way they vote or the policies they would support I believe they have a responsibility to look at the evidence carefully. If you they don’t I’m suspicious that they’re just copping out — using a convenient excuse to avoid the hard choices that follow.


There’s a lot of evidence that people need to believe that hard work and talent pay off, to believe that that people tend to get what they deserve. In order to sustain the belief people sometimes distort their interpretations of what they see around them.

For example, the idea that a woman who is beaten by her husband was ‘asking for it’ or that somebody got cancer because they didn’t exercise or eat properly (it helps us feel we’re in control of our lives). It’s so common that psychologists have given it a name ‘just world belief.’


I know that people are sometimes responsible for their own problems but I also know how tempting it can be to attribute responsibility where it doesn’t belong. This isn’t an argument that Rob’s wrong, it’s just a reason to be careful about ‘facts’ which seem so obviously right we don’t bother to look for evidence. In the US journalist Stephen Glass pitched his stories so perfectly at his readers’ liberal prejudices (eg about conservative anti-drug programs, Alan Greenspan and young Republicans) that for years nobody realised he was making them up. I still find myself wishing Glass was telling the truth about the DARE anti-drug program.


Like Rob I was impressed at the level of personal abuse that Pauline Hanson was able to endure. I didn’t laugh when I saw the “If you’re watching this it means I’ve been murdered” video. It reminded me of what happened to ‘redneck’ American politicians like George Wallace and Huey Long.


We might all live in the same country, but there’s a gulf between the way I see the world and the way Rob does. We see the same things but interpret them differently. I appreciated Rob’s honesty. I’m impressed at the way you encourage a conversation about this rather than a debate.




I disagreed with all Rob Herron’s views but I am interested in his use of the term “lefties”. It’s obviously what Ian Kershaw (historian) called a fashionable boo word. Kershaw was talking about the use of the term “fascist” and the sloppy way it was used, as a term of abuse intended to provoke a shock horror reaction, but with nothing to do with the reality of fascism in its various shapes and movements.


I think “lefties” is used here (in current Oz political climate) in that way – as a gross generalisation which lumps all small l liberals, ex-commos (current comms?), Labor party members, socialists, Dems and Green supporters etc etc all together. Politicians and journalists (some) use it in that way too. Why, I wonder…because it’s a sort of code word or a boo word or laziness or what?


Where will these “lefties” will go at the next election…and will there come a time when both the Libs and Labor will court “lefties” as assiduously as they now court the Hansonite constituency??? I’m pretty sure that the non-homogenous lefties are going to find it hard voting Labor (even with the assistance of Bob “Bathrobe” Hawke!!!) (MARGO: Hear, hear!!) and they won’t be going to the Democrats- I disagree with you on that. They’re too keen to be seen as a big player, so too many sellouts on a range of things many of which offend different groups)




“As a white urban middle class, middle aged, self supporting male with his own business I don’t have a group lobbying for my needs,” says Rob Herron. Well, mate, that’s because you dont need one. You’re part of the majority, or what John Howard refers to as middle Australia.


Mercifully, you’re not a majority at all and our culture is far more diverse and vibrant than your dominant place in it would seem to suggest. You are the norm against whom every deviant women, the poor, the young, the non-English speaking, the disabled, the black, the farm-dwelling are measured. To think that you want someone out there pleading your special needs is extraordinary. The rest of us have to excuse ourselves for not being white, not being male, not owning our own business, and humbly request a bit of government policy, or even just a bit of rhetoric, that would acknowledge that we too have claims and needs as important and legitimate as your own.


Our society and economy are entirely geared to meet the needs of your demographic, largely at the expense of anyone outside it. Women are constantly having to explain themselves to employers when they want to have a baby or spend some time with their kids. Requirements for flexibility in the office are considered by many in the business community as the inconvenient pleas of special interests, as though there’s something weird and unusual about being a woman or a mother. As though its an outrage to expect that we alien creatures could expect to be accommodated in a uniformly pin-striped and neck-tied universe.


If it was men who had to have the babies, do you think maternity leave and childcare policy might be a bit different?


Aboriginal people face the same challenges, only more extreme. Their requests that they be able to practice customary law in order to punish those errant members of their communities rather than being forced to send their young men to far off prisons to die of loneliness is seen as an unreasonable request to be treated differently. But they are different, and they were here first, and they probably know best what will heal their own communities and fix problems of alcoholism and delinquency among the young.


On the subject of Aborigines, Herron is indeed eloquent. After admitting hes barely ever met one, he declares “they are a primitive race of people who are having a great deal of difficulty coping with modern civilization. To pretend this difficulty is simply cultural and not in part genetic only adds to their feelings of inadequacy.”


So what if Aboriginal people were found to be genetically disinclined to mimic white customs? (It’s an absurd proposition, but we’ll entertain it for the sake of argument.) If he could pinpoint a genetic reason for Aboriginal difference would that exonerate white society for stealing their land, killing them and destroying their families, their languages and their culture? And what inadequacy? I know plenty of Aboriginal people who are proud of their Aboriginality, and don’t feel that they have to adopt white values and white customs in order to feel good about who they are.


Why should Aboriginal people “cope with modern civilisation” (whatever that means) if it requires them to abandon their identity?


As for Herron’s resentment of the “deleterious effect” wreaked upon his lifestyle by migrants, he might think about the deleterious effects of his migration upon this country’s original inhabitants. It may be too late for us to pack up and leave it to the indigenous people, but we certainly have no justification for whingeing when foreigners show up with odd customs that make us feel uncomfortable.


“Whether I want to socialise with people depends on their personality not their race,” is just code for “I don’t mind if you look different, as long as you share my world view.” Sorry, but that’s just not how race works, Rob.


The tragic fact is, though, that while he would probably express himself differently, our own Prime Minister basically shares Mr Herron’s fundamental philosophical perspective.


John Howard really should be sent back to university to do an arts degree. Things have happened in social and political theory since he was a student, and he’s well and truly out of the loop. He can’t see that his entire political philosophy, like Herrons, is built on a fantasy that posits someone who looks just like him and his mates as the norm, while everyone else is part of some special interest group that is probably associated with the mysterious chardonnay-sipping elite that he keeps referring to (and if there’s a workable definition of elite then John Howard, as Prime Minister and resident of some lush real estate on Sydney Harbour, must certainly be included).


The fact is there is no middle Australia whose ideas and feelings are neutral while everyone else’s constitute an ideology. People like Rob Herron and many in the Government have to learn that they are a minority who must be prepared to move out of their comfort zone and really look at someone black, or someone disabled, or a single mother with three kids under four. They have to learn that these people are different from them, and that they themselves are different from those people, and we all have equal value. A really democratic and inclusive philosophy must insist that nobody in our culture occupies a central position from whom all others merely differ. A truly cohesive and modern society recognises that difference is not just a peculiarity to be ironed out, or an inadequacy that must be compensated for. Difference is positive and must be accommodated and celebrated.


John Howard and Mr Herron and all those like them must abandon any idea that we will live in a more cohesive society by dreaming of the 50s and hoping everyone just assimilates to the point where we all either resemble Mr Cleaver, or are at least happy to shut up and make his dinner, or mow his lawns, or type his letters.




Just wanted to quickly discuss some of Rob Herron’s comments regarding Aborigines. He states that Pauline Hanson argues they are given benefits far beyond what is good for them, I would like to ask him just what does he believe that they are entitled to? He has obviously studied their case very carefully and in great depth. What research has he done to back up this point or is he just another one of Hanson’s sheep who believes in her every word without question? Has he given no thought to the fact that they have had their land, culture, parents and children ripped away from them in the past? He tries to tell us that he doesn’t care about race yet with one broad stroke he calls all Aborigines primitive, where is the logic in that? You either believe that all people are equal or not.


It disgusts me to think that there are still people out there who think that some races are genetically inferior, what must we do to get it into everyone’s head that we are all equal. Let Rob deny that we took their land from them and that our ancestors had no objections to doing it in any way possible.




One interesting thing about the mud-slinging match between the so-called urban elities/the mainstream media and Hansonites/the bush over the last few years has been that although Australia may have appeared to become ‘two nations’ as Wooldridge put it in your quote, and has became an easy cliche for the ‘chattering classes’ to posit (and that assumed everyone was either a farmer or a comfy middle-class urbanite, there being no other people in this country). I belong to just one sub-culture/generation that didn’t at all relate or particularly sympathise with either camp.


I am thirty, a postgraduate student/casual university tutor and part time musician, strongly urban in my cultural make-up, and although on the issue of race I would side with the baby-boomer elites, I actually in many ways ended up increasingly resenting them and their approach to Hanson, sharing some anger and reluctantly recognising some possible common grounds with her followers.


I got so sick of reading yet another media column condemning her racism, and with the same kick, quickly abusing the bush’s economic concerns too as “populism” (how did a derivation of the term ‘popular become derogatory – this, if any further proof was needed, proves the non-reflexive elitism and support of the status quo the media engenders).


Did you notice how coverage of her followers’ economic concerns was usually reduced to arrogant laughter at the idea that we ought to ‘print more money’? To hone in on the most bizarre of O.N.’s suggestions worked a treat to invalidate the actual concerns that gave rise to them – the serious economic disenfranchisement that not only the bush, but Everyone except a very small amount of the population feels in the face of free market globalisation’s open-door policy to big business, and Western governments’ shrinking-violet personae in the face of this.


For every piece of privatisation and free market acquiescence, governments lessen their importance, and in so doing make the society they serve all the less democratic as elections become increasingly symbolic prom night popularity contests.The less power governments have in a society and an economy, the less power people have to actually change anything.


Why was is that Howard, Beazley and the mainstream media all came together to condemn her stand on race (although Howard’s words were late and weak – he more than anyone is to blame for the genie coming out of the bottle, due to his appalling lack of responsibility and lack of understanding of the obligations of a prime minister within this rhetoric of ‘free speech’ that somehow applied to her more than him), yet didn’t discuss at all the motivations behind it and the economic issues?


I was appalled by Hanson herself and also increasingly disturbed by the lack of representation my views were getting anywhere at all! I, and most of my friends/aquaintances are students ultimately employed by the government in some way, artists or low income earners (the richest person I know is a journalist). Despite our in-the-main middle class backgrounds we are generally earning a very modest wage. We find both parties extradorinary conservative on social issues, including Labor under Keating, and also find both parties unbearably bipartisan on economic issues.


Ultimately, despite my almost pathological hatred for bigotry of any kind – and racism is right up there with homophobia with me – I have increasisngly over the years felt that there was an appalling lack of engagement with what Hanson was saying. Sure, I shared the disagreement that the media superficially offered on her racial stuff – but what of the not very much discussed statistic from 1998 that only 10 percent of her supporters followed her party due to the race issue, and that they were really attracted to her because of her lone voice of rebellion against big business, privatisation etc?


OK, I would find it impossible myself to go with a party, no matter how much I agreed with some of their policies, if their social policies were totally at odds with mine, especially if they involved clear racial bias. However, this statistic means that not only the parties on the left like the Greens and the (?) Democrats have much to gain on some issues by getting together with the far right to bring about some kind of serious opposition to free market rheotic in this country – this would be hard such as would be the mutual hatred on the really evocative issues – and there really is something to be said for starting with issues where we agree, and at least trying to force some changes on them.


Perhaps more crucially, it should mean that Labor has some work to do re engaging rural voters. fear, however, that they have taken the dubious end of the stick on this one, the end where they’ll do the least damage to their standing with the markets. Labor only seems to be appealing to the bush by going to the right on social policy. Why is it that people always assume the only way to make the bush happy is to actually shift towards their point of view (as we percieve it in the city at least) re ‘redneck’ conservatism? What about saying to them – as I believe Labor should – “We will not support you on some issues, like race and other social issues, but we will listen to you on economic issues where many urban voters share your concerns?


And really, would you prefer to have nice in-theory agreement as to whether there is too much Asian immigration or have guaranteed non-privatisation of Telstra and higher taxes on big business to get more public money for various programs some of which would be directly target at rural areas?


What I and many of my demographic can’t accept is that economic imperitives – the percieved inevitability and actual rightness of an increasingly free-market – always end up being reinforced by all the players – the mainstream media, the two major parties etc. It does not makes sense to me – at least in theory – that the National Party should automatically reside with the Liberals – as “agrarian socialists’ they agree with the Libs on social policy and Labor on economic policy .


Of course the answer is that Labor is in agreement with the Liberals on nearly all economic policies now. But where does that leave voters who would like a party to reflect more than some select social policy differences?


Basically Margo, while initially confused by it – and for a while a little disturbed as it seemed to be sending mixed messages at times – I think your take on Hanson is at this point interesting essentially because it seems to be pushing buttons that don’t really flatter Hanson or the so-called elites. Your analysis suggests everyone fucked it up big time. The Hansonites were factually wrong in some ways, but so were the urban jeerers – and they didn’t have factual innacuray as an excuse either.


Hanson’s followers have a host of reasons and excuses for their positions. The media, elites – and especially John Howard – are really the guilty parties as they can claim no excuses at all (besides being blissfully ignorant of the real effects of

downsizing, privatisation and other blind idealogical free market imperatives). They are educated to the hilt, well-off, and run the show as regards positioning the goalposts for the debate.


Despite my differences with them, I can relate to the Hansonites on this. While I can claim to be extensively educated, I certainly have none of the other two advantages, being technically below the poverty line and having no cultural representation at all in national political debates. Like them, I am angry at the extent to which this total hegemony of debate results not only in vested interests always winning the day, but almost no debate at all about anything that Hansonism really brought out from under the rock of repressed resentment.


All we really heard was an almost deafening slagging of ‘political correctness’. The abuse of the term by journalists and politicians became shorthand for letting all kinds of vitiolic, anti-progressive regression out of the closet (it was like people thought, “If Hanson can do it with blacks, I’ll get on my soap box and bag the lesbian conspiracy”, ie. reducing educated people to the level of unfactual, lowest-common denomitar standards of debate and rational argument).


Isn’t political correctness ultimately something the hegemonic parties all agree on, hence effertively banning debate? The biggest PC cause has to be the unquestioned free market agenda, because in the mainstream media it is almost totally supported, with tiny little allowances for some groovy urban feel-good social policy on the side (the ‘Keating arrangement’).


We can now question ATSIC, immigration, the UN, gay rights and heroin trials with the media’s blessing – but not dwindling business tax that has gone from the 40 something % in the 70s to single digits today.


To agree that racism is bad is really a pathetic form of self-congradulatory wank that went absolutely nowhere towards opening any real debate about what all of this means, and what the real causes of such built up resentment are. It’s at times like this that our ‘two nations’ are not the bush and the chattering classes at all, but those that have the powers of controlling the discourse and those that don’t and get no representation at all.


Far from resenting Hanson and her followers we should view the apparent break-up of One Nation’s appeal with interest, and harness what it is that most of the rural, suburban and even inner city voters actually agree on. I believe such an investigation would uncover interesting alliances. If these very differently conceived ‘two nations’ could actually enter into a discourse that didn’t – for once – go through the bland and homogenising mouths of the Centre (read: media and the two major marties), I can see how the S11 protesters and the Hansonites, Bon Brown and John Laws, and other unlikely left/right alliances may emerge and in very specific ways temporarily flower.


To attack the drab, middle of the road adherenceto Friedmanesque/Thatcherite ideaological rhetoric that peels back governmental responsibility for the people in the name of kneeling before the Market – to attack this twenty-year failed experiment from BOTH SIDES – wouldn’t that be something, eh?

Flushed with hatred – how the minority view can bite

Today I got a roll of toilet paper in a box. At least it was unused, unlike a similar package received by a colleague during the Wik debate.

I thought it was one of those vituperative, ugly personal hate contributions I sometimes get which make me feel ill all day. Such diabolical communications reached a crescendo during the Wik/One Nation debate in 1997/98.


But when I read the accompanying letter, it was a missive from the left, an entity called “Flush Productions”. “Val” was marketing toilet paper wrapped in a picture of John Howard with the caption “Wipe the smile off his face”.

“Despite the ongoing knockbacks, including the unwillingness of anyone in Australia to manufacture it, the appropriateness of wiping your bum with John Howard pushed me along. People are loving it, including Liberal voters. It seems to reaffirm their views and empower them,” Val wrote.


I must be a Queensland puritan, I suppose, but the “present” struck me as just as unfunny as the far-right hate mail I get. Still, it exemplifies the level of hate on both sides of a bitter political divide in Australia these days. It’s funny that this sits side by side with distaste on all sides with our two major parties.


In this column, an emerging theme is the conviction that Australia is, in effect, a one party State, serving not its public but party political self-interest and the ideology favoured by interest of people and groups with the real power who direct it.


Several right wing commentators have noted with disdain (fear?) that left of centre opinion – after seeking to bury Pauline Hanson alive – is reassessing her effects since her demise.

I, for one, now believe that Hanson’s scream from the margins had several positive benefits, including forcing the powerful to acknowledge the suffering of the losers from globalisation and trying to assist them join the party.

Perhaps most importantly, it showed all dissatisfied Australian voters that voting for minor parties – left or right – could pack a huge punch at the establishment parties and their policies.


Now, both parties are chasing the disaffected One Nation vote with conservative social policy. But this too will destabilise traditional support for Labor and Liberal from social progressives, and force them to consider the Democrats or the Greens, particularly in the Senate. In the ruck, perhaps fresh more open conversations between traditional enemies will ensue.


Today, a contributor wrote a piece responding to my essay on the effects of Hansonism (Webdiary, Hansonism Then and Now). He is a One Nation supporter, and the first of many Hansonites who’ve written to me not to hurl abuse. So, first, ROB HERRON, ON supporter, then LINDY EDWARDS on the demise of democracy in the United States, JEFF RICHARDS on how country people are turning to Labor, and LINDA BACCAUL-PETRIE on how direct action might be better than wiping one’s bottom on John Howard’s toilet paper. Four people, four topics, four perspectives. Spot the common themes.




I write to you because I just read your article on Hansonism-Then and Now and from reading it I can tell that although you are in many ways misguided, you are obviously thoughtful and sincere.


I am, no doubt, what you would consider a Hansonite. However, I am urban and about as middle class as you could get, as are, not surprisingly, most of my acquaintances. I’ll tell you if you have a minute why I and many of my friends feel the way we do.


First off, we liked her as a person for her courage, her sincerity and her straightforwardness. Clearly she was unsophisticated politically and not very educated, but when she spoke it was with the intention of revealing rather then concealing what was on her mind.


She stood for small government and individual freedom. She stood against policy being determined by the loudest minority lobby group. As some of these groups were ethnic based she was quickly labelled racist.


As a white urban middle class, middle aged, self supporting male with his own business I don’t have a group lobbying for my needs. I felt just as disenfranchised by lobby group politics as do rural folk who felt abandoned by the National Party, which they saw as just a lackey to the Liberals . I believe the Nationals response to the gun legislation was particularly disappointing to country people.


I believe Pauline largely appeals to people who feel they have been ignored by lobby group major party politics. The lefties had the Greens and the Democrats, the rest of us had Pauline.


Probably the most talked about part of Pauline’s policy has been her opposition to multiculturalism. I couldn’t agree more. I resent the influence of the ethnic lobby groups and I resent the deleterious effects on my lifestyle that has come about as a result of mass migration from certain countries over the last 20 years.

I rather liked life in Australia in the 50’s and 60’s before the influx of migrants, especially from the Middle East and Vietnam. Sure the food was boring but there was far more trust and harmony in the community.


However, like many affluent countries we were in need of people prepared to do the shit work and had to import them.

I have friends of many nationalities, a wife who is Chinese and my only employee is Filipino. I don’t care where someone comes from or who they worship, how they dress or what they eat as long as they come here to obey the law and work for a living and contribute to the community as they can.

Whether I want to socialise with people depends on their personality not their race.


However I do greatly resent the predictable increase in crime and social security fraud which some of these migrant groups have generated and the laws which have been set in place to counteract this which have removed freedoms I used to have.


As far back as Roman times the decivilising effects of being at war was understood. I believe the Hawke-Keating government also knew this but chose to bring these migrants here anyway in the belief they would provide a pool of Labor voters with scant regard for the welfare of the nation as a whole. I think my views on this are typical of most supporters of One Nation I know.


Many workers may resent this migration from an employment point of view and looking at the big picture I see their point, but personally now they are here if they get the job because they work harder or for less then good luck to them.


Pauline was also very much in the spotlight in relation to the Aborigines, whom she argues are being given benefits beyond what is good for them. Again I feel she is right. Being an urbanite I have had very little experience with them, however my impression is that they are a primitive race of people who are having a great deal of difficulty coping with modern civilization. To pretend this difficulty is simply cultural and not in part genetic only adds to their feelings of inadequacy.


They are obviously in need of special consideration, but to make them as welfare dependant as we have done is too add to their woes. So too is the current climate of having them feel that the secret of success in life is to work on increasing white guilt for past injustices real or imagined in the hope of a windfall.


The flagrant dishonesty in many of the claims where there is a mentality of the end justifying any means is also less than endearing.This is what I would call a real “cargo cult” mentality. Clearly many have started to believe their own publicity, and as a result are destined to be bitter and twisted for the rest of their lives regardless of what concessions they win.


How much special consideration they are entitled too and how best they can be helped is open to debate by people far more knowledgeable than myself, but I do know why One Nation has a much support by people who you might call rednecks but I would not.


Her opposition to International treaties signed often, if not in secrecy then very much on the quiet, and then used to justify governmental action without popular approval, also has popular support for the sheer absence of democratic process.


And then there is the strange alliance with the Greens over globalisation. The Greens, I assume, hate it because they distrust all business, particularly big business, (and it doesn’t get any bigger than the multinationals) and over concerns about how they treat the environment.


One Nation supporters who are pro small business see globalisation from a different perspective. While it may be of benefit to third world countries who get the factories they would not otherwise have, its benefits to Australia are more doubtful. Sure we have cheaper consumer goods in the short term, but we have also lost many small businesses which couldn’t compete against dumping . We have a currency worth less than half what it was and a huge overseas debt.


To many globalisation seems to be little more than an opportunity for huge multinationals, mostly American, to bully their way to higher profits. The US hedge funds run our dollar up and down mostly down for their profit. They hold down the price of one of our major exports, gold, again for their own profit. Then we have our primary producers trying to compete on world markets with subsidised products from Europe and the US.


The big question is why lefties like yourself are so impressed with it. In answer to your pondering, many ordinary, sedentary middle class folks wished for once they had the energy vigour or time to join the rent -a-crowd protesters who were out on the streets.


You were quite right in your criticism of the lack of response by the opposition and the press to Howard’s Fascist (you liked that, didn’t you) Army Mobilization legislation. It was appalling that such significant and dangerous Act like that was just ignored by the press.


Now I don’t expect you to agree with most of what I have said or to share my beliefs, but I feel confident that such views are the basis for much of the support for One Nation. I think also that the decision by the major parties and most of the press to defend the status quo by ridiculing Pauline herself from some assumed moral high ground rather than attempt to debate the issues swung a lot of Australians who realised she wasn’t getting a fair go into her camp.


Add to that the screaming psychos who turned up to protest at her public appearances and a universal distrust of politicians and journalists who were her obvious enemies and there you have it. Were it not for the immoral but clever use of the preferential voting system by the major parties she would be a significant presence at both state and federal level.


The falling away of support is not a signal of any change in attitudes but rather a response to the disintegration of the party. Pauline seems for some reason to be able to make bitter enemies too easily, and David Oldfield for all his political adroitness is such an obvious shithead that there seems little chance of the phoenix rising.


As you so rightly surmised, the dragon is just sleeping.




Could it be that the American election represents the inevitable evolution of democracy?


No sooner have human beings come up with a system for doing things we start trying to muck it up. The moment well meaning folk have designed a system and enshrined it in law, the players in the system set to work finding ways to make it work to their advantage.


They break the system down into its constituent parts and work out how to exploit each part to best effect. They end up engaging all sorts of practices that are not in keeping with the spirit of the system, but they are legal and within the rules. (For the most common examples just ask the tax office.)


The US election might reflect a high point of this process in democracy. What began as an endeavour to ensure that the diverse views of the community were reflected in our Parliaments has become a race to secure 50%+1 of the vote. It has become the art of targeting the median voter. It is about positioning yourself so that 50% of the population find you marginally less offensive than the other party.


Through a process of systematic polling and careful analysis the political strategists derive package of almost identical policies targetted at exactly the same voters (tweaked slightly to make sure they remain slightly less offensive than the other side to the otherwise ignored 50% of their constituency.)


The consequence is that two party democracies end up with two parties representing the same 5 per cent of the population, and the rest of the community is left voting for the party they dislike least. Those in power become almost indistinguishable, and the bulk of the community is left feeling alienated, disgruntled and unrepresented.


The US election may reflect the high point of the science of political strategy and the low point of democracy. Two party democracy may have evolved to the point of its own demise.




I read years ago that Hitler was of the view that the United States was a fundamentally brittle political system that would break apart if Germany and Japan were able to inflict major defeats upon it before US industry was able to totally mobilise for war. It was false hope, thankfully.


Yet the 2000 election has shown how brittle are the threads that bind America together. A powerful federal state is unable to override counties who can still write their own ballot papers. There are many contradictory forces that are being mobilised. Blacks, Latinos, Jews have gone to bat for Gore; White Americans from that huge middle and southern belt have gone for Bush.


I read in the latest edition of Village Voice an article by Donna Ladd on ‘The Right to Bear Arms’ lobby and how they see Gore as attempting a ‘non-violent coup’. I think that there must be some concern among ruling elites that the most powerful state on earth is having a constitutional crises that could escalate into a civil crisis. Given that both Gore and Bush are essentially creatures of big money, you would have thought one of them would have been ordered to pull his head in a bit sooner than this. Perhaps ruling elites are themselves divided?


As for Australia, surely the great change will be when the National Party, Australia’s largest political organisation, will see the stupidity of continuing their Coalition with the Liberals. Why they continue to stay in a government that is screwing their constituencies to the wall is probably a testament to the excessive qualities of loyalty that exist among farmers. Rural people have much more in common with labour than the liberals. I don’t have much confidence in the ALP, but at least one could do deals to stop the wholesale retreat from non-urban regions. The Nationals should marketwise their parliamentarians and offer their votes for sale to those parties who will develop the best regional planning models and throw the largest amount of money at rural constituencies (and promising a New Commonwealth Bank and the return of Telstra’s communications infrastructure (not content) to state ownership).




Apropos of your Web Diary about journalistic integrity, the following was sent today to the Courier Mail yet I understand that most papers won’t print letters or articles that have appeared in other publications?


Isn’t this in itself yet another crazy type of news-room-policy-censorship which prevents good messages getting out to ‘the people’? (I’m not saying my particular letter is necessarily so great – just making the point!)


I say ‘the people’ because in my opinion a large part of news room journalism policy is that because of dominance of profit driven publications and market-forces strategies, interest in informing ‘the people’ has become secondary, and instead skewed and emasculated into interest only in ‘our readership’, a clearly defined demographic which in itself marginalises potential readers not interested in the genre of the publications ‘spin’ and becomes just another form of exclusionist censorship.


My letter about the social conscience of Australian Telstra Share Holders follows.



A lot has been debated about a philosophy of economic rationalism and questions raised about the growing distance between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ and the social conscience of the human beings who run multi-national organisations, which also depend on profits from the ebb and flow of the stock market.


World wide globalisation, downsizing and the mind boggling mega-mergers of late that have created the largest companies ever seen on our planet, at the cost of enormous job losses, ought be of real concern to us all.


The size of these corporate giants and our feelings of distance from the stage on which most of this is played out quite rightly makes us feel powerless and that all this is beyond our sphere of influence.


However in Australia, like the European successful trial of several companies such as Volvo which issued shares to its workers to encourage active interest in their jobs and the future of ‘their’ company, the Federal government has unwittingly turned a potential for real control and a relevant say in how the farm is run over to the ‘mums and dads’ of Australia, with the issue of shares in Telstra.


Now, when it’s the jobs of their fellow Australians on the line and the standard of services and service delivery to their Ozzie neighbours and the future of where the profits of our own home grown giant will go, to be considered, I wonder if these thousands of Ozzie small share holders can rise to the occasion, above the pangs of the hip pocket nerve, and perform any better than the multi-national moguls have done in the same situations?


Or will they too just roll over, give a yawn and join in the profits-first revolution?

52 Ideas for a healthier Australian news media

Recently Ms Margo Kingston, the best journalist in this country, kindly allowed me some space on her Canberra Inside Out website, where I made some observations about the media. I realised, with deepening shame as I watched the debate unfold, that I was guilty of the very thing of which I’d accused the Press – hypocritically criticising others without offering any constructive, practical suggestions.

So what follows are my fifty two ideas to help foster a more robust Australian News Media. Some of them are tongue-in-cheek, some are manifestly naive and impractical, some are probably deeply baffling, some are possibly offensively patronising. Many, however, are deadly serious. And absolutely all of them are offered in a spirit of genuine high regard for what the Free Press means to a Democracy.

I am not a journalist. I have only a vague theoretical understanding of the pressures, practical realities and professional conflicts you face on a daily basis. I don’t envy any of you one bit.

We blamed you for hounding Diana to death even as we lined up to buy the Commemorative Car Crash snapshots in the next days tabloids. We casually demand that you present us with soap-opera simple explanations of even the most complex stories in thirty seconds of satellite time, or a thousand-odd words. Most of us would rather watch Friends than you. We generally underpay you, invariably overwork you, and still dismiss you as lazy, cynical, arrogant and invasive, anyway. Yet we all know that without you we’d be stuffed.

Right now, News Reportage is at something of a cross-roads. Your potential to do your jobs – to uncover the truth on our behalf – is under threat. From the Free (sic) Market, from reality TV programs, from the convergence of news and info-tainment, from public cynicism, and from questioning of even the notion of truth itself. As Ms Kingston has stated, it’s time for a massive, pro-active and strategically aggressive shift of the Meeja Paradigm. I invite all journalists to share these ideas (however nutty), to argue like buggery about them over a beer; praps have a chuckle at my naivety and then re-open the Poison Kitchen for business.

1. Cease all reference to ‘Journalists’ and ‘Journalism’. Start calling yourselves ‘Reporters’ again. Anyone can call themselves a ‘Journalist’ these days, apparently. Even Sam Newman. And ‘Reportage’ is a trade, not a profession. Prostitution and politics are professions.

2. Put a sign on your word processor that says something along these lines: I am the proxy eyes, ears, nose, and touch of ‘The People’ who (being busy) can’t go out and discover what’s going on for themselves.

3. Remind yourself daily, however, that you are NOT the ‘People’s Voice.’ We have other proxies for that job. If they’re doing it badly, we vote them out.

4. Identify a Reporter colleague who you dislike, and who dislikes you. Then, prior to investigating or reporting on any contentious public issue, ask them for a pithy summary of what they assess as your personal biases on that issue.

5. Pick a specific, non-Meeja person in your personal life whom you respect enormously. Then Report all facts to us as you would (in private) to them.

6. Do not spend more than a few hours a week reading/watching/listening to the Reports of other Reporters. Instead, read history, watch the world, and listen to your own in-built bullshit detector. If you haven’t got one, get one.

7. If one, two, ten, or a hundred of us tell you something, then it means no more (or less) than that one, two, ten or a hundred of us have told you something. What matters is less what people say, and more what people DO.

8. There is no such thing as ‘after hours’ or ‘off duty’ for a Reporter. See 44.

9. Interview questions should be interrogative, not speculative, ending unambiguously with a question mark. Mary Kostakidas is the benchmark, here. Never put words in people’s mouths. Ask a question, and then shut up and listen. An interview is NOT a conversation.

10. Thus questions should be presented in one (perhaps two) sentences only. Long pre-ambles are distracting, wasteful, and suggestive of the dreaded ‘Meeja hidden agenda’.

11. Don’t ‘fill in’ long silences that greet a question. An awkward silence says a lot.

12. All interviewees should be referred to by title and surname. This includes sports people, ‘good blokes’ (especially the ‘Geez-mate-just-call-me-Bob’ type – some of the biggest pricks in Public Life hide behind a matey Australian egalitarian exterior), and even fellow Reporters (otherwise ‘The Meeja’ starts to look like a ‘chummy’ private club to us).

13. In fact, can you cut down on the interviews of fellow Reporters a bit? If there’s no-one else around to interview, don’t do an interview. The more pointless interviews you do, the more pointless all interviews become.

14. Tone, speed and selection of language should be formal and polite. Don’t equate aggressive style with aggressive Reporting. Bad manners simply allow subjects to become indignant, and avoid your questions. Rightly so. It’s what WE would do, too.

15. Never use the Passive Voice. Lead-ins like: ‘It has been said…’, and ‘It could be interpreted as…’, ‘As I’ve been led to understand’ damage a Reporter’s credibility, and should be left strictly to blatherers sniffing around the parish pump for a bit of goss.

16. Don’t play insider games with information. Nothing patronises us more than a Reporter and a public figure playing the wink-and-nod game, yet refusing to enlighten us fully. It’s like being sent to bed while the grown-ups talk late into the night. The ‘my Throat is Deeper than yours’ thing cuts us out of the loop, belittling us.

17. And just by the way – I think it’s time Bob Woodward owned up that this bloody Deep Throat bastard never even existed. The notion of the all-knowing ‘shadowy inside informer’ has caught on, hurting your Trade immensely. It’s kids stuff, best left to Mulder and Scully.

18. If we DO grow ignorant, simplistic, cynical or apathetic about politics, tell yourselves that it is YOUR fault, NOT that of the politicians. Most politicians don’t make these assumptions about us. If they did, they’d have become politics pundits, not Reps.

19. You CANNOT be friends with, married to, lovers of, or regular socialisers among those public figures about whom you Report. It’s a matter not merely of being disinterested, but also being seen (by us) to be so. So if you’re having a fling with a PM (!!!), you can’t report on Canberra politics. I know this is a toughie, but it just has to be non-negotiable.

20. De-personalise TV/Radio Reporter’s Reports. Instead of crossing live to ‘Joe Bloggs in East Timor’, cross live to ‘Our Reporter in East Timor’ and then make NO reference to the Reporter’s name during the interview. (Tricky, but think about the subtle shift in our attention this would induce.)

21. De-personalise Press Reporters’ Reports. No Reporter with less than five years’ experience (say) should get a by-line, and none with less than ten a photo above their by-line. Make these something to earn. I think you overstate the weight that recognised by-lines carry with the public, anyway. To those outside The Game, its more likely to be anonymity which enhances credibility. It subtly elevates a Reporter above all that celebrity crap and keeps the story centre-stage. (We think: hey, this dude is not trying to big-note themselves at all, so this MUST be true). ‘Celebrity Reporter’ is an oxymoron (usually a moron, too.) Your colleagues will know – or soon find out – who broke the hot exclusive.

22. De-personalise the language of Reporting. Editors – ban your Reporters from using the first person personal pronoun (unless directly quoting), along with any self-referential phrases, eg. Say: ‘The Minister said…’, NOT: ‘I asked the Minister, who told me…’ But no passive voice. Not easy, but that’s why not just anyone can be a good Reporter. It’s a trade, and trades are supposed to be hard to master. (Were all media-savvy now; we can all stand in front of a camera and babble convincingly. Slickness is meaningless, now.)

23. Eradicate value-added verbs from your Reporting vocabulary. As far as a Reporter should be concerned, people don’t ‘hint at’, ‘canvas’, ‘rant’, ‘attack’, ‘whine about’, ‘signal’, ‘flag’, ‘back-pedal’, ‘dismiss’ or ‘sneer at’ – they just SAY things.

24. Similarly, lose interpretive abstract nouns. We will form our own opinions of the ‘feeling’, the ‘general impression’, the ‘speculation’, the ‘mood’, the ‘likelihood’, the ‘motivation’ and the ‘prevailing current’. We can only do so if you have told us WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHO, HOW, and (perhaps) WHY. And we only want to know how you ‘feel’ if it’s truly profound. No offence intended, but we can get tossed-off empathy bullshit from Oprah.

25. Get a bit aggro about protecting your News Reporting turf. Establish a clearer delineation between columnists and Reporters. Columnists are essentially professional shit-stirrers (like those kids who start the class-room stoush and then sit back to watch the fun.) News Reporters should be the quiet nerd in the back row who just watches. And takes notes.

26. Likewise, reclaim concise, precise English as YOUR PROPERTY. When English is hijacked by agenda-setters, only Reporters lose. We will try to get away with any slippery wording we can (collateral damage, rationalised jobs, spin). You should all be pedantic old farts about unambiguity in words, because no-one else is going to stop them from becoming completely malleable (or, put another way – completely meaningless.) If this happens, you’ll be the very first ones out of a job.

27. So to start with, look up ‘great’, ‘tragedy’, ‘perfect’, ‘genius’, ‘ironic’, ‘fantastic’, ‘superlative’ and ‘hopefully’ in the dictionary. And if this outrageously patronising suggestion pisses you off, then…good. Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah.

28. Stick a Little Aussie Battler/Fair Go/The People’s jar on the News Room fridge. One dollar has to go in per (non-quote) usage by a Reporter. Ironic or not.

29. Academic Communications Theory not-with-standing, there IS such a thing as truth, and it’s a Reporter’s job to find it/help define it. Let our philosophers subvert the dominant paradigm. Jesus, if there’s no truth, that leaves us all free to go out and rape, pillage and plunder to our hearts content. Ask a Bosnian if there’s no truth, and they’ll deck you.

30. To Report a nasty view is not to advertise or validate it. TRUST US. We don’t need to be protected from hateful ideas. We’re not as easy to manipulate as you seem to fear, and paradoxically, propaganda only becomes possible precisely WHEN Reporters get involved in a subjective dialogue with a story. Just Report the nasty view, and we will respond with lots of nice ones. Report these too, and said nasty view will be mightily smote a-sunder by the Power of Public Human Righteousness. Then we can all be morally smug together.

31. And remember that the Reporter who basks in the glory of any morally good outcome of their Reporting is inviting us to blame them for the morally bad outcomes of their Reporting. And we will. Far safer to keep out of the ‘credit’ game altogether.)

32. Editors and subs – don’t waste time and space with pointless (ie superficial) corrections in an effort to convince us of your commitment to accuracy. Simply getting the essential facts right will do this far more effectively.

33. For edited television interviews – place a clock in shot next to the interviewee, so that we can SEE how the editing has been applied. We know that editing is a pragmatic necessity, but also that it can be exploited to twist an interview. If you are transparent about the process it can only ease our suspicions about hidden ‘Meeja Agendas’.

34. Similarly, banish all cut-away shots to TV interviewers filmed separately after the interview. This is subtly unfair – Reporters invariably appear calm, cool, collected and commanding as they ask questions and nod seriously at answers. We rarely see Reporters lost for words, floundering, dozing off, picking noses, blushing, stammering, appearing thick, etc – and so we’re starting to suspect that the edit is designed solely to make the Reporter look superior. Surely even Kerry has a shocker now and then?

35. Inform us (somehow) of the total footage shot/time spent/warning given etc for a story. It takes craftsmanship to set up and conduct a two hour interview, then whittle it down to a thousand words, all in one day. How about a few more docos on how you guys work?

36. Banish the autocue. Newsreaders will appear human and real again, and thus so might the news that they are reading (from a good old sheet of A4 in their hands.)

37. Do more live interviews. An edited interview is more Show Biz than Reportage.

38. Overall, remember that we (think we) know the tricks of your trade, now. We de-construct your craft instinctively, reluctant to take you at face value even when we should. So the more you can render the way you present news manifestly transparent, the better.

39. Don’t dissipate your idealistic energy moaning about Mr Packer and Mr Murdoch in the pub. And stop expecting governments to rectify the shortcomings – if that’s what you think they are – of narrow Meeja ownership. If you don’t like what those blokes are doing, get together and do something about it. They’re businessmen, after all, not social workers.

40. Newspapers – run a weekly column on the Opinion Page in which a subscriber gets to assess your Reportage of the major running story of the preceding week.

41. TV – run a weekly ‘Press Meets Public’ show – three Joe Publics grill a nominated Reporter about ‘the Meeja’, using clips, cuttings and the major story of the week. Cheap, easy, entertaining, educational – like a ‘People’s Media Watch’. Reporters could fight their corner, too; point out some harsh home truths about our own moronic media consumption habits.

42. Ethics. Your Trade Association should establish an internet site on which ten senior Australian Reporters lodge unambiguous personal opinions on specific ethical cases as they arise. (Call it the ‘Council of Grand Ethical Poobahs’, or something.) Reporters could then check the site during high-profile debates (such as the Current Affair hostage one), and draw guidance (or not) from the judgements presented. These should only be as brief as ‘I think that such-and-such Trade behaviour from such-and-such Reporter was ethically unacceptable/acceptable’. Not a jot more no deconstruction, no lengthy dissection, no dissembling. Leave the empathy stuff for pub discussions. The judgements would carry ABSOLUTELY NO weight beyond simple peer group pressure. Passwords would be issued with Association membership, and the site would NOT be for public consumption. Finally, ‘Ethical Poobah-hood’ wouldn’t be optional, but obligatory. Every Reporter with over twenty years’ experience (say) would be required to eventually serve a one year ‘Ethical Tour of Duty’ on the ‘Poobah Council’ site. It would be an obligation of Association membership. Look, we all know that Reporters are individualistic and competitive, but ultimately it comes down to which is more important to you all: your individuality or your Trade’s long-term, collective credibility. And we don’t make distinctions between Reporters – we blame ALL of you for any INDIVIDUAL ethical cock-up. (Grossly unfair, but true.) Reporters are the only people who can influence other Reporters’ ethics. Not only is external regulation undesirable, it can simply never work. It’s up to you, and you know it. An internet site will remind a young Reporter, working out in the sticks for a prick of a proprietor and faced with an awful ethical dilemma, who the good guys are. They’ll be able to draw strength from the fact that the O’Briens, the Oakes, the Grattans and McKews to whom they are aspiring are on their side.

43. Each new Reporter should be partnered with another (more senior) Reporter at his/her outlet. Editorial bollockings resulting from serious errors made by either of the pair would be delivered to both Reporters. (This might already happen. If it does, TELL US.)

44. There can be no such thing as ‘off-the-record’ now. The person who will only speak ‘off-the-record’ is subtly snaring you in a self-censorship web, and the whole notion is now hopelessly blurred. The only option left is to make everything ‘on-the-record’. If the fair dinkum News Reporters stuck together on this, it could work.

45. Likewise, the ‘unattributed source’ is now dead. ‘A senior figure inside the government…’ is now no more plausible than ‘John, 29, a friend of mine…’

46. Remember that in the average Australian’s vocabulary, ‘taking a leak’ means producing a trickle of luke-warm wee. (And even if we do make a BIG SPLASH!, it usually dries up quickly.) If you run leaked documents, you become some agenda-setter’s puppet. And puppets invariably find there’s a string attached to their writing arm, sooner or later.

47. A tenured Reporter should be banned from writing a book about a story/subject/region he/she has covered, for at least two years. The prospect of a book encourages Reporters to hoard real-time information they should be passing on to us.

48. The commodification of ‘news’ is the single greatest threat to the future of serious News Reportage. Thus: ALL COPYRIGHTING AND ON-SELLING OF NEWS MATERIAL AND PRODUCT MUST BE ERADICATED IMMEDIATELY. Obviously impossible, but let me put it this way – if my legs get bitten off by a crocodile tomorrow and some Yank tourist happens to video it, and Channel Nine then buys his footage and syndicates it around the world, I GUARANTEE I will stump all the way to the UN High Court in order to get my share of the proceeds. (And where do you think public sympathy will lie – with Stumpy the Little Aussie Battler or the billionaire Mr P and his TV journalists?) It’s abundantly clear already – the public is not going to allow commercial News Services to make money from ‘their’ experiences (‘news’) for much longer, unless you stop buying and selling ‘news’ (somehow!?) yourselves. Better make a strategic decision on this soon, otherwise the whole system is bound to grind to a halt in court. We all know Harry M. Miller’s mobile number now, after all.

49. To all Camera Crews, go on strike until your producers agree to ban Dramatic Re-constructions. These are LYING VISUAL FICTIONS which merely dilute the power of genuine footage. Shit-a-brick, it’s in your interests to protect what’s left of the sanctity of the visual image, isn’t it? Why risk a bullet up the arse in Bosnia obtaining REAL footage if we might dismiss it as staged anyway? And computer-generated re-creations are now scarily good, too. You dudes and dudettes are doing yourselves out of a bloody job!

50. If there’s a court order to blank out someone’s face, then do it PROPERLY. It makes us LIVID if we can ID someone who we know we’re not supposed to ID. (We all put ourselves in the poor bugger’s shoes.) Don’t alienate us for trivial reasons.

51. Finally, I will donate all my body parts to the editor who leads with the following story, one fine, slow news day: ‘NEWS SHOCK!!! FUCK-ALL HAPPENED TODAY!!!’

Above all else, get back some genuine confidence, some swagger, some real belief in the power and centrality of your Trade. Some vocational arrogance – not the dismissive ‘go-to-buggery-then-you-apathetic-swine’ type which seems to be slowly poisoning your relationship with us. Don’t be scared to call US bloody apathetic morons, either, because that’s what we are becoming.

No-one is talking to us honestly and bluntly not the pollies, the pollsters, the Free (sic) Marketeers, not the celebrities or the spin doctors or the academics. Theyre all too chickenshit to tell us a few harsh home truths about ourselves. So it looks like it’s going to have to be you guys. (Lets face it, it’s not as if you’ve got a lot of popularity to lose.)

But everyone else is sucking relentlessly up to Public Opinion, and we are sitting out here on our freckles, getting fatter, dumber, smugger, more ignorant and more complacent. We are being patronised into oblivion. WAKE US UP!!!!!

Now is the time to re-define where and how the News Reporter is going to fit in, in an Informationally-Overloaded and Technologically-saturated Age. My own personal opinion is that – in this bizarre info-tainment environment of flies-on-walls and staged ‘real-life’ set-ups – a weird sort of ‘Inverse Communications Theory’ will soon apply. Maybe a bad poet would summarise it like this:

* The slicker the surface, the shallower the waters,

* Today’s Info Gush is a meaningless dribble,

* They who look dumb are the smartest Reporters,

* The future belongs to James Dibble.

These are my ideas, anyway. You might agree, disagree, be utterly bemused or think Im a complete tosser. All I ask is that you don’t dismiss me as arrogant. I’m not being arrogant, it just sounds that way. Nobody makes unambiguous statements any more. Everyone modifies and softens and qualifies what they say in public these days, because everyone is scared shitless about being lit up by the media like a pinball machine – ridiculed, torn apart, taken down. So reasonable people all say Some people would argue that, and One approach is that, and Its a difficult issue, but perhaps. It makes public debate POINTLESS. Meanwhile, the world’s nasty types the greedy, the vicious, the self-serving, the nutters go on their merry way, as murderously unambiguous as ever.

And while we’ve all comfortably embraced ironic detachment, there never has been and never will be anything remotely ironic or detached about a bullet up the clacker, or an arm hacked off by a machete.

So this is where I stand. Just a few thoughts. Penned – as is probably obvious to those in the Trade – in precious, blissful ignorance of the harsher Reportage Trade realities. But then, the Reporter Trade realities are only as harsh as you Reporters allow them to become, aren’t they? Nothing – after all – has to be a fait accompli. You all have Free Will.

Thank you again for your time. I urge you all to think about Greg Shackletons last report from Balibo at least once every day of your increasingly-complex working lives. My heart swells with pride at being a Human Being every time I watch it. As a Reporter, where do you stand in relation to it?

This article was first published in ‘Journalism: The debate continues’, webdiary17Nov2000

So what are YOU prepared to do about journalism?

Having absorbed your comments on the state of journalism, I’m turning the tables. What are YOU prepared to do to maintain quality, independent journalism?

I’ve included at the end of this entry two fascinating news stories of today on the topic – a story by the Herald‘s online editor Tom Burton about the Australian Financial Review’s attempt to charge for its online service and a searing broadside against 60 Minutes by its longest serving (now sacked) reporter Jeff McMullen.

The central question facing print journalism (remember print journalism through its journalistic resources still sets the news agenda for a parasitic TV news) is how to merge its hard copy and online elements of the paper. Web content is free, more immediate and because of the lack of space constraints, much more in-depth, allowing readers to pick and choose how far they want to explore a story. It is also more interactive, giving readers power in determining coverage.

But the online site of The Sydney Morning Herald and other papers is almost wholly reliant on the resources and profits of the hard-copy product. Surely people will gradually move to the online product, killing the profits which allow it to exist. I have some ideas on how to cross pollinate the hard copy and online versions but will save those for another day. The question is: are you, the engaged reader, prepared to pay for the quality news and analysis you expect?

I first started thinking about this when speculation began that the new ABC management would dismember Radio National. RN provides product available nowhere else on Australian TV, radio and increasingly, broadsheet newspapers. It is a minority taste and, while cheap (largely because radio journos are so committed they work for a song), does require intensive resources.

So would the listeners, if their service disintegrated, be prepared to pay for a subscriber-based alternative? It would involve buying an AM spot on the dial and, perhaps, leasing capability from the ABC online to create an online archive and internet radio. Say the current budget of RN is $5 million plus $5 million worth of general ABC resources used for free. So you’d need 100,000 subscribers to pay $100 a year each to need no advertising. As, in effect, “the owners” of a privatised RN, subscribers would have power to shape content, through feedback, criticisms, content provision and so on.

Would any of you be in it? In other words, do you value the ideals of quality journalism to such an extent that you’d put your money in your pocket for it?

Take online. Subscribers to the paper are, in effect, subsiding Australians round the country and the world who use the website for free. Would any of you in that position pay to see the Herald online? We have credibility, reputation, and journalistic resources to sell. Would you buy? Or if the basics remained free and specialised pages within it required subscription, would you do so? For example, how much would you pay, if anything, to access this web page? It’s cost is basically my salary plus the technical and back-up resources of the paper. Say no advertising was allowed on my page. The annual budget would be, say $450,000, allowing for a reasonable return on capital. Say about 5,000 people visited this site, about the same number as bought my book,. Would you be willing to pay $90 a year to subscribe? A big advantage, again, is that subscribers would “own” the site in a very direct way, and thus have enormous power to help shape its content. Subscribers would have confidence that the space is independent, because it would not be in the papers interests to compromise the site. I could even envisage a “contract” with subscribers, including guaranteed access to critique the site, and a transparent accountability system.

My guess is that the answer to these questions would be no. So what value does the public place on independent quality journalism?

This goes to Jeff McMullen’s outburst. He complains bitterly that 60 Minutes is a corrupted, substandard current affairs product. He admits that his attempt to work on improving quality from the inside has failed.

When it began, 60 Minutes had a strong investigative element, which resulted in the program, through reporters like Ray Martin, breaking important stories like Chelmsford. Investigative reporting is costly, and dangerous, because powerful interests can sue and otherwise pressure management. Now 60 Minutes is unashamedly based on interviews with celebrities hawking product and lightweight, cheque-book journalism which disobey basics on disclosure to its viewers.

As Media Watch pointed out recently, 60 Minutes defied public statements by its news and current affairs head honcho Peter Meakin, that Nine would not pay alleged criminals for interviews, by paying the former South African cricket captain Cronje for an exclusive interview. He is an alleged criminal. When money changes hands, it is often accompanied by unstated agreement on the interviewers approach? We know nothing of any of this, except that the interview was soft.

60 Minutes has compromised its edge, substituting strong, original, ethical work with celebrity reporters who earn celebrity pay for derivative, safe, cheap work.

I know nothing of McMullen except his work, first on ABC and then on 60 Minutes. His work strikes me as hard-nosed and professional. Like the outcry over Jana Wendt when she took a stand for good journalism, it is easy to say McMullen sold his soul for 16 years for big money and should not now complain. I strongly disagree. To me, Jana’s stand (I disclose I am a friend of Ms Wendt) showed exceptional courage for the very reason that commercial TV had made her a rich star. She had more to lose and she duly lost it. I see McMullen’s outburst as yet another indicator that senior journalists believe their profession is crumbling, and are prepared to take a public position on that sad state of affairs. His comments tally nicely with those of Eric Beecher in the Andrew Olle lecture (see yesterday’s Web posting to this page).

I do know the 60 Minutes executive producer John Westacott who sacked McMullen, having worked for him a decade ago when he was executive producer at A Current Affair (I was Jana’s political researcher for just under a year). As a result, I never found Frontline funny. It was just reality TV.

What struck me most about A Current Affair was its similarity with politics at its most base. Pollies want votes, TV wants viewers and ethics are to burn, if they are considered, let alone comprehended. Like some politicians, Westacott and co had a contemptuous attitude to viewers, seeing them objects whose red buttons needed to be pushed as often as possible.

The worst thing I saw was a story about a bloke who said he was forced to eat petfood because of a federal government decision to increase the price of prescription drugs (no matter that the policy had not yet come into effect). When I saw the raw tape I commented that such a poor bloke seemed to have a lot of clothes in his cupboard (this was cut). The camera, as you can imagine, drooled at the sight of this bloke eating LUV dog food. When the promotions for the story began appearing, a colleague on the show received a call form a doctor friend, who advised that this man was not poor but a little disturbed. My colleague immediately informed Westacott, who closed down and pressed on.

When the story appeared, our phones were blocked with outraged viewers. Didn’t we know that LUV was an expensive dogfood and that cans of backed beans were often cheaper? The audience blew Westacott’s cover. His response: to run the next night a story on how to cook nutritious food on the cheap.

The example that concerned me directly was an interview with then Industry Minister, John Button, which a producer cut in such a way that he appeared to answer a question Jana asked when in fact he was answering a different question. I was mortified and apologised profusely to Button’s adviser. The most depressing thing was that she wasn’t surprised or even that upset. The politicians expected no more.

So why do A Current Affair and 60 Minutes rate so well? Westie is right, not me, if you accept that people power reigns. Do people want good journalism or is it, as Eric Beecher says, now a charity case? If we journalists cleaned up our act, would our audience improve?



SMH 14/11/2000


All eyes will be on Fairfax when next month it seeks to buck the industry trend and begins to charge for access to its Australian Financial Review Web site.

The move to charge for the bulk of the site will be keenly watched to see if the AFR site can make a success of what few have been able to do on the Web, build a business by charging for content.

Jupiter Research claims that in the US only six of the top 100 trafficked sites charge for content, “with several major sites abandoning the model, largely due to consumer reluctance, the prohibitive expense of customer acquisition and the viability of alternative business models”.

High profile sites such as online magazine Slate, The New York Times, Money Central and, more recently, the finance site The Street, have been forced to open up their sites as they struggled to make their content-subscription business work.

It galls many traditional publishers that the Web would seem to place no value on their content. But what these sites have had to learn the hard way is that with so much of the Internet free and consumers already paying for their ISP access there is fierce user resistance to paying for content. The US data suggests that, at best, one in four Web users will ever pay for content – mostly adult site users.

The lesson has been that this forces up the cost of acquiring customers by a factor of four to 10 times that of a free media site and makes the value proposition (ie, profitability) difficult to sustain.

The Wall Street Journal’s site is probably the best known of the subscription sites but, while it now has over 340,000 paying subscribers, it has left the field open to other sites, most notably London’s Financial Times.

The FT site has about six times the customer base of The Wall Street Journal and is undoubtedly the leading world financial portal, a position it owes much to the fact that the WSJ has steadfastly stuck to its subscription model.

In Australia the media companies have already lost out to the banks and the online brokers in the lucrative online finance sector. But to the extent the US experience is replicated, will fight to keep its current traffic levels, thereby further opening the market for other players.

Part of the assessment of how big an impact the change will have will depend on how much of the site remains free and how much is locked away as so-called premium content.

The difficulty is that much of the premium content which is to be offered is already available free on other finance sites.

Many finance sites have bought in services such as stock prices, charting, portfolio management and real time indices as lures to complement their transactional activities.

The new media finance sites also carry relatively comprehensive and updating news services, most often serviced by UK-based Reuters, which has aggressively moved into the space the local traditional media companies have been reluctant to compete in.

The local online subscription price has not been set yet but for offshore users it’s a healthy $140 for three months. This is high compared with the WSJ, which charges $US59 (about $113) for a year’s access.

Print subscribers get access to the premium areas for free, which suggests the motivation for the subscription policy is only in part a Web business objectives and something of an attempt to protect the print franchise.

Defending a print monopoly might make sense if there were evidence the Web was siphoning circulation away but as yet there is little evidence of print circulation being cannibalised by the Web. It is certainly true the traditional media outlets are having to adjust to yet another player on the block but the research suggests there is actually relatively small cross-over between the Web audience and the print audience.

The risk for Fairfax (publisher of this product) is that it gives the lucrative financial services online market away while defending a market position, which is not actually under threat, with a business model which so far has struggled to be viable.

It also has wider implications for Fairfax’s ambitions to expand into the financial services market place. Fairfax’s online arm, f2, has announced a financial services joint venture with Macquarie Bank. While the obvious strategy would be to drive strong traffic from site through to the financial services joint venture site, this becomes problematic if the AFR’s site traffic follows the US pattern and falls significantly.

One thing is for sure: if Fairfax can succeed where others have not and make its subscription strategy work then there will be many other media companies coming to Australia to find out how they did it.

Tom Burton is editor of and holds options and shares in Fairfax.


SMH 14/11/2000


The longest-serving reporter on 60 Minutes, Jeff McMullen, yesterday blamed his continual complaints about the show’s cheque-book journalism and tabloidism for the decision to sack him after 16 years.

McMullen, 52, blasted the program’s executives, saying the program had lost its way and surrendered “to sensationalism and overblown hype”.

He denied the announcement had come as a shock, saying it had followed “five or six” years of intense internal criticism of the program’s management style.

“I came in the glory years … and for the first decade had unquestionable respect and support of the public,” he said.

“My belief is that the drift of 60 Minutes is self-inflicted damage, my belief was to change quietly and vigorously and not to cut and run, so I’ve stayed and fought and never given in to things I’ve believed are unethical.”

McMullen said he had seen George Negus, Jana Wendt and Jennifer Byrne leave the program for more serious projects.

“At the time of their decisions I’d reason [with them] and argue ‘what makes you think you can create serious journalism elsewhere, you should stay and fight,'” he said.

He said the Nine Network and 60 Minutes was “generally becoming so addicted to seeing ratings – seeing ratings as the only measure of success or quality – and lost sight that it is credibility, truth and honour of the program that drive viewers to it in the beginning”.

McMullen’s departure follows that of 32-year-old Ellen Fanning, who quit 60 Minutes last month, 18 months after joining.

The program’s executive producer, Mr John Westacott, said the decision not to renew McMullen’s contract was his alone, and had nothing to do with ratings. He said the resignation of Fanning, which he “regretted”, had given him “food for thought”.

“It did make me think about the line-up,” he said, adding he thought it was “time to freshen up the look of the program”.

“When 60 Minutes first started our reporters were in their 30s, and they’ve grown with us but [we’ve] also collected new ones along the way.”

He described McMullen as a “consumate all-rounder”..

McMullen scoffed at suggestions he had got the chop because of his age.

“John Westacott, the executive producer, is in his 50s, and seems to be terrified of his advancing age … [this has] nothing to do with the age and lustre of the line-up. It’s more to deal with the rancour and mean-spiritedness of other people to which I objected.

“They do not want to accept the program is adrift, they’ve lost touch with the fundamentals of television journalism and they don’t want anyone to question it.

” I’ve questioned the cheque-book journalism, the tabloidism and quite frankly they’re tired of my objections.”

McMullen also accused the management of treating its staff with malice, referring to the sackings of cameraman Phil Donoghue and a sound editor, describing them as “absolutely shameful decisions”.

From the lips of a likely leader of the free world …

Since the President of the United States is a symbolic figure embodying a vast and complicated nation, how bad is it that Bush could win the White House but lose the popular vote?

The split identity of the USA could be great for democracy by creating openings in deadlocked debate on core issues like gun control, environmental protection and health care.

The controversies over the Florida vote brings down to earth the “spiritual” pomposity of the rhetoric surrounding “the president”, and the intensity of focus on the Florida recount could also trigger a long-needed clean-up of campaign financing and procedures. and old boys’ networks.

It is clear that America, while confident, doesn’t quite know which direction to take with all its wealth.

In some ways, that indecision makes me sigh with relief, because it indicates the cultural and economic debates thrown up by the absolute certainties of globalisation are no where near over.

If Bush wins and the economy falters, how about Hillary for president next time round? I’m bored being depressed about the state of the world: it’s much more fun to imagine a silver lining.


A reader submits the following wisdom from the lips of the likely new leader of the world, George W. Bush:

“If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure.”


“Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.”


“I have made good judgments in the past. I have made good judgments in the future.”


“The future will be better tomorrow.”

“When I have been asked who caused the riots and the killing in LA, my answer has been direct and simple: Who is to blame for the riots? The rioters are to blame. Who is to blame for the killings? The killers are to blame.”


“We have a firm commitment to NATO, we are a part of NATO. We have a firm commitment to Europe. We are a part of Europe.”

“It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.”

“Welcome to Mrs. Bush, and my fellow astronauts.”


“Mars is essentially in the same orbit…Mars is somewhat the same distance from the Sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe.”

“The Holocaust was an obscene period in our nation’s history. I mean in this century’s history. But we all lived in this century. I didn’t live in this century.”

“I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy – but that could change.”

“I am not part of the problem. I am a Republican”


“A low voter turnout is an indication of fewer people going to the polls.”

“Illegitimacy is something we should talk about in terms of not having it.”

“For NASA, space is still a high priority.”


“Quite frankly, teachers are the only profession that teach our children.”


“We’re all capable of mistakes, but I do not care to enlighten you on the mistakes we may or may not have made.”

“[It’s] time for the human race to enter the solar system.”

“Public speaking is very easy.”


The Journalism debate has moved on to consider Hansonism, and what it might mean for our future.

Hanson was in court today trying to appoint a liquidator to the corporate arm of One Nation. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, Mr Oldfield.

Can she pull it off, run her own grass roots outfit, and convince voters to again fall for her charms?


ROBERT LAWTON takes issue with my claim in “Hansonism: Then and Now” (Webdiary Nov 9) that:


“Howard does not choose intelligent, engaged debate. He does not respect the citizens he is appealing to, he exploits them. He chooses social populism, and refuses to argue his case on the merits to equally informed citizens. He has rejected rational debate and opted out of conversation with the informed, which in my view is the most dangerous game any political leader can play.”


After all the argument and “intelligent, engaged debate” on your website, do you really see things in such stark terms?


The Liberals and Nats don’t choose “intelligent, engaged debate” because such a thing has never existed in Australian politics. Certainly Labor never indulged in such things over thirteen years before 1996.

Reading Neal Blewett’s Cabinet Diary, watching the Keating Government fudge and fabricate in order to cling to power, it is impossible to see any desire to do anything with the electorate except to manipulate it.

I suspect people who start out in politics loving the voters end up holding them in contempt.


Surely you can see that the anti-intellectual strain in this country reduces “debate” to silly barracking for one party line or the other. Within the party rooms, things may be different. You have access to these places, we don’t, and you can’t report what goes on because your sources will disappear.


Howard chooses social populism. What did Hawke choose? To be the most conservative ALP leader since Billy Hughes.

The hot issues of the intellectual Left were all buried by the Hawke government. Refugees, land rights, a republican constitution, even thoroughgoing tax reform: policy in all these areas moved to the Right or stalled. Meanwhile tariffs fell in all industries and privatisation rolled on.


What did Keating choose? To seize various opportunities and turn them into playthings for the liberal press, while in truth policy development halted so desperate measures might be taken to keep Labor in power.

Keating fell into Mabo and chose to shunt the issue into the courts, instead of working on a treaty at once. He declared pastoral leases negated native title, when the law was all the other way; leaving a massive mess for Howard to work on.

(MARGO: This is incorrect. Keating left the question of native title on pastoral leases open, to the chagrin of farmers. He did so because the question was undecided by the High Court, and if he had extinguished native title on pastoral leases and the Court had found it had existed – as it later did in Wik – the Commonwealth would have been liable to pay billions in compensation for appropriating Aboriginal property rights. This is because the Constitution mandates that the Commonwealth pay landowners just compensation when it takes over their property. After Wik, Howard also refused to abolish native title on pastoral leases, for the same reason.)


The Queen arrived for a tour, and suddenly a (non elected) president was the go. He was suitably deferential to Suharto, which clearly pleased the old man, and thenceforth we were Asians. (Suharto must have considered this last conclusion queer indeed.)


“The informed” in this country are a very small group, once you take out the cheer squads. People actually prepared to listen to each other are a tiny minority. This is caused by insularity, lack of real intellectual curiosity and education methods which emphasise deep and narrow technical learning above a wider involvement with culture and science.


As for the country (always “the bush”, why?), it will be placated for a while, until some other group looms larger in government consciousness.

I fear that consumerism is so prevalent now that people would not be interested to read the problems of an interest group not their own: your plans of shifting to Bourke might not mean much to most Herald readers and could simply mean your copy was buried or not even run.

Similarly, the more facts that there are in a story the less likely editors are to print it. Thus moving reporters to the coalface may mean less is heard on their topics, not more.


My answer to all this: get people travelling as soon as possible. Export Australians, let’s see them streaming out of the place. Open people’s minds to what the rest of the world thinks. Make Australia a virtual country. Let’s have some of those people enter party politics and the media. Then we might be able to start thinking about debate.


MARGO: My point about refusing to debate rationally was directed to Howard’s performance in human rights debates.

At least Labor in government, while seeking to limit human rights at times – most famously in its attempt to ban political advertising – was prepared to argue its case on the merits.

It produced its legal legal advice that the law may not breach international obligations to protect free speech, and countered contrary legal views with legal argument.

In contrast, Howard simply walks all over the human rights discourse. During the Wik debate, the government asserted over and over that the bill was not racially discriminatory, yet would give no reason why its view was at odds with just about every senior lawyer in the country.

It did take legal advice, but refused to publish it. A leak to the Herald showed that its very own advice warned that we were in breach of our international treaty commitments not to enact racially discriminatory laws.

When the United Nations racial discrimination committee examined the matter, the government did not lodge any legal advice.

Then, contemptibly, when the committee backed the view of its own lawyer and most others that the Wik bill was racially discriminatory, it claimed the committee was biased, out of touch etc.

The government learnt its lesson by the time the mandatory sentencing debate exploded. This time it did not even ask for legal advice, because it knew the answer was crystal clear – Australia was in breach of several international human rights instruments, in particular the covenant on civil and political rights.

Again, it did not present legal advice backing its assertion of no breach, and again, contemptibly, feigned surprise and threatened revenge when the United Nation’s racial discrimination and civil and politicial rights committees found it in breach.




Thanks for your piece on Hanson and the media. I’d love to see more reporting which shows how the people who voted One Nation see the world.


Watching an Australian election campaign is as frustrating as listening to one side of an interesting conversation. The candidates are polling and focus grouping like mad and they’re using what they find to sweet talk the soft vote in the marginals. I hear what the politicians say, but I can’t hear the voice of the voters who matter most.


I found the whole Hanson saga disturbing in ways I’m still not sure I understand. Most people I know never bothered to read a whole speech or to look at the One Nation web site — they acted as if Hansonism was a disease, something you might catch if you read or listened to it first hand. But many of them talked as if they knew everything they needed to know – you know, the same way racists know everything they need to know about blacks or Asians.


When I took a look I was fascinated. Not because I agreed with it (I didn’t) but at how it was filled with what many Australians think of as common sense. It was the kind of ‘common sense’ which the policy community don’t want to see on the agenda, issues like protection for Australian industry or the idea that immigration costs jobs and undermines social cohesion.


I started to think about what might be going on. According to data from the Middle Australia Project respondents who were angry or unhappy with what was happening to middle Australia were most angry with:


1. politicians and government;

2. the economic system;

3. big business and;

4. the media (the media out-ranked ‘dole bludgers’ by a reasonable



Had Hanson tapped into this? These people saw themselves as working hard, trying to do the right thing and getting screwed. But not only were they getting screwed but politicians kept on doing the things which caused the problem — privatising, reducing tariffs, refusing to stand up to big-business (especially banks), letting jobs go off shore and cutting back on services. And the media seemed to encourage them. This must have been incredibly frustrating for people. They saw their world falling apart and a conspiracy of silence over what they saw as the obvious solutions.


A lot of this seems like standard stuff for the old fashioned left and I wondered: Why hasn’t a leftish candidate had the same kind of luck tapping into this resentment? I could think of two answers and both had to do with racism:


1. The media wouldn’t bother reporting a candidate who talked economic issues. Hanson wasn’t news until she said something racist. Then she got thrown out of the party, That was news and suddenly everyone knows who she is. Then she’s elected and says some more racist things, more news. For broadsheets the threat of political racism makes a great atrocity

story. It does what child sexual abuse stories do for the tabloids. The educated elites of both left and right are appalled by racism — it’s not only morally offensive but bad for business in the region.


2. Hanson supporters’ racism and cultural conservatism makes them enemies with people who might sympathise with their economic complaints. There are other very active groups which oppose globalisation, big corporate interests, government cut backs and business as usual politics but these groups are also, more than anything else, anti-racist. American philosopher Richard Rorty writes about the ‘cultural left’, those who are more concerned with oppression based on ascription

(gender, race, sexuality) than economic oppression of those not labelled as minorities. The One Nation people see this as favouritism and say so. The fact that many on the left have surrendered on economic issues to the economic rationalists makes them doubly sensitive on the cultural issues. It’s not that they don’t want to do something about rising inequality or the downwardly mobile lower-middle it’s just that they don’t know what the answer is — racism, rain forests and homophobia are easier more comfortable issues.


So maybe it’s racism which keeps the markets free. As long as the economic issues get packaged with the cultural ones the elites of the cultural left and the economically liberal right will stand together against the populists. And as long as that happens the market has nothing to fear from government.


MARGO: What would happen if the Hansonites stopped being racist?



DAVID DAVIS, our correspondent in Switzerland.


I think I am going to buy your book, Wooldridge’s book and the Canadian guy’s book. I am sure I can find them all on-line somewhere and have them sent to me in Switzerland. I want to think some more about all of this. Set to “simmer” and wait.


I think one of the main reasons for my “wow” reaction is because rather than merely commenting on the problem so many of us see with the media, you are coming up with some exciting and entirely viable suggestions. You are really making a real effort to understand what is going on. More of an effort than sipping on a chardonnay in a Qantas lounge somewhere musing about the problems of the distant “regions”.


I wonder if the Herald would have the guts and the resource commitment to do some of the things you suggest? Flying visits to the regions are not good enough. Nothing can be an adequate substitute for having someone on the ground.


Your idea re Bourke sounded wonderful. What a pity it was sabotaged. What you really need are some people who are lower profile and who can dig into these places.


I recently discovered that Swiss farmers receive around 80% of their incomes in the form of government subsidies. The more I travel and the more I read, the more I wonder which other developed country exposes its farmers and regions to the market rigour that Australia does. I have been to many “regions” in continental Europe which are awash with money because of the high levels of subsidies. In many cases the regions are wealthier than the cities!


The more I think about it, the more I think that some of the gripes of the regional Australians are entirely legitimate. The only reason we are all listening at last is because of the vote. Their vote is as powerful as ours.


I was also fascinated by your take on the “two Australias”. I think you are lucky that you were brought up in regional Australia because you cannot dismiss it out of hand. These are your roots and you dont forget them. I think Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra can become very insular. Of course they are the power centres of the nation but who does the maths? If you assume these cities have a combined population of around eight million, that leaves TEN million or more living ELSEWHERE. The MAJORITY of Australians live outside of the power bases.


Who thinks about Elsewhere? Why is Elsewhere marginalised so much? The reality is Elsewhere is as mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore!

I criticised you originally as being an elite. Living in Switzerland I suppose it is a bit rich for me to claim legitimately to be an average every day Aussie much more in touch than you. Like you though, I came from the “dreaded regions” and at least I believe that gives me some perspective on reality. In a country that has historically idolised the bush, it is such a tragedy to see the reality. More need to see it and understand it.




Wow, that was quite a synopsis.


The pressures which gave rise to One Nation are by no means unique to Australia. Here in Canada our version of One Nation, the Canadian Alliance, has augmented its original platform by the adoption of less extreme policies, acquired besuited and soft-spoken leaders and now sits in the federal house of commons as official opposition. It even has a remote chance of winning the upcoming federal election. As with One Nation, the Alliance’s underpinning is prior, chronic disenfranchisement.

As to the rest of your thesis, for the sake of brevity I confine myself arbitrarily to the following points:


(1) Michael Wooldridge’s quoted excerpt re the elite/community divide is cogent and evenhanded, but draws no conclusion. John Ralston Saul’s (he’s the partner of Canada’s Governor-General!) draws the conclusion that the elite must behave better, but misses the obvious point: sometimes (and in my experience, not infrequently) the self-tutored, unpedigreed, inelegantly oratorical, low-job-status country “bumpkin” possesses a keener raw intelligence than her “elite” debating opponent, speaks from first hand very personal experience of the issue under contention, and actually has made the correct assessment.


(2) You say, “What on earth do we think we’re doing thinking we’ve covered a campaign if we follow around the leaders and try to find a gaffe in their manipulative image making?” The premise seems long ago to have been made that:

(a) the public only wants to hear from “experts”,

(b) we are content to be mindlessly “led” by those we appoint as our parliamentary delegates,

(c) we regard the two-second sound bite gaffe as sufficient dialogue on matters of consequence and

(d) this is as it should be because we’re all too dimwitted to think for ourselves anyway.


That is, the “elite” should humour us, but on no account are we to be taken seriously. Or more bluntly, democracy is a terribly flawed system only saved from disaster by preventing the uncouth citizen from independently deciding how best to cast his franchise.


But, there’s hope: three cheers for Nicholas Rothwell and plaudits to the Australian for printing his reports. Your prescription for having reporters temporarily reside in marginal electorates during elections is august and would have the added benefit of showcasing the local candidates AND FORCING THEM TO DIRECTLY ADDRESS THE ISSUES RATHER THAN JUST REGURGITATING THEIR HANDED DOWN PARTY PLATFORMS.


(3) Margo, you are talking revolution! Reporters actually boning up on the practicalities of their specialties? Journos as a class living “for extended periods away from their middle class lives”.? (If you pull this off, do you think you might get the pollies to follow suit?) In both cases, the intimate exposure gained would provide a fistful of relevant quotes ready at hand together with an ability to provide fast, in-depth, insightful commentary on breaking stories. Most everybody wins, but

maybe that’s the problem – less opportunity for some to obfuscate and steer.


(4) Your two examples of recent insufficient media interest/objectivity – ie the defence force emergency callout bill and the WEF protests – are apt. In each case, the papers printed an assortment of readers’ letters on either side of the issue. Missing – as usual – was any at-length opinion piece from a “non-notable”. It was as if only those mysteriously anointed as having “expertise” were entitled to be heard. In other words, the validity of a viewpoint seemed to hinge on the author’s

pedigree rather than on the cogency if his argument. To me, this is the fundamental flaw which must be ovecome: recognition is required that the ordinary punter sometimes knows what he is talking about!





First – wow. Your reflection on the role of the media in Australian society (as triggered by the popularity of Pauline Hanson) was excellent. I am glad I had the time to read through all of it, middle-class luxury as this itself is.


Your article also helped me to synthesize a few disjointed thoughts of mine about the US elections and in particular the whole Gore vs. Nader sideshow and what it means for 2 party democracies as seen here and – differently – in the USA. A lot of American media coverage has focussed on the so-called “siphoning” of Gore votes to Nader (especially in the light of the closeness of the election), and the critique of this by Democratic party supporters as counterproductive.


As a registered voter in the USA who aligns most closely with Nader’s political philosophy, the idea that “a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush”, as some argued, made me think very hard about how to vote, even though I am registered in a safe Democratic state. I have conflicting thoughts on this matter.


First, the idealist in me agrees wholeheartedly with Nader when he says that it’s Gore’s own fault if he loses left-wing votes to Nader because he is a corporate puppet, and that if you vote for the lesser of two evils you shouldn’t be surprised to get evil.


Second, a vote for Nader is a protest vote that registers: Gore knows that he risks votes by moving to the right, that he can’t just take the left for granted just because Bush is even more conservative. (To some extent the preferential system of voting in Australia allows Labor to do exactly that with Green and Democrat voters.) If Gore does lose after all is said and done, after the name calling I expect Democratic Party officials will think long and hard about the 3% vote for Nader and how to get it back.


Having said that, I am very conscious of the fact that a very large number of people voted for the Coalition in 1996 on the basis that they didn’t really think the two parties were all that different, and it was (in their opinion) time to get rid of Keating and “Union rule”. How wrong were they?


Massive budget cuts, slashing services, repealing native title rights, the non-apology, health care policy … the list goes on. Some things they have done the same people may well agree with, but 1996-1999 showed that the two parties were indeed quite different, even if both were fundamentally global capitalists sitting broadly in the centre of the Australian political landscape. From my viewpoint, the difference between Labour and Coalition is between bad and downright offensive.


A Gore Administration will be similarly different, and as the most powerful politician in the world this affects everyone. Military (you can’t call it defence with the USA) and trade policy will very directly affect the whole world, even if tax cuts to American millionaires probably won’t, and the two candidates have quite different ideas on both fronts, neither of which are really dependent on Congress.


Of course, in the USA I did not have the option of preferential voting – perhaps the greatest impediment to a multi-party democracy in their very flawed electoral system. I also had the option of simply not voting, but that cannot be seriously considered a protest any more, when Bush lauds the “exceptional” turnout of approximately 52% of registered voters (themselves only about 75% of the population).


In the end I was beaten by the particularly difficult procedures for absentee voting and cast no vote. But I still wonder which was the best vote to cast – the principled, or the pragmatic?




Let me draw one or two recent stories together with a present story and an old story. Reith, welfare, double-dipping, ethics, journalism, holiday pay and One Nation; along with THAT interview on Wednesday night on ABC TVs The 7.30 Report. The one when the despicable Senator Jocelyn Newman insulted all of our intelligence when avoiding answering questions put by Kerry OBrien, preferring instead to litter strange ethnic red herrings, quite at odds with her governments harsh immigration policies.


It has been widely reported this week that average Australians are somewhat jumpy about job security to the extent that they are avoiding taking holidays. They do this to derive a misplaced feeling of semi-security from the knowledge that x weeks of holiday pay, plus 17.5% loading, might tide them over a period of unemployment if they are unfortunate enough to be dismissed.


Here is why the no holidays/saving up scheme does not work. Such money, put aside for emergency, must necessarily be liquid (probably a savings account) and is therefore deducted from ones entitlement to Social Security benefits. If the amount saved for the emergency was, say, $6000; the Howard Government would pocket about $2000 of it in benefits withheld. The more you save, the more government takes when you really need it.


But here’s the rub. That $2000 the Howard Government takes out of the $6000 you saved for emergency is also taxable. Therefore, you have been, or will be, taxed on it – even though you did not actually get it, the ATO did. It is a clear case of double-dipping the poor. Senator Newman, on perks unmonitored, with two mobile phones and petrol supplied free for work, sees no ethical problem.


The Howard Government extended Peter Reith the ultimate Social Security benefit; he was considered innocent until proven guilty. Centrelink clients are regarded as guilty until proven innocent, a flagrant breach of our judicial system. In some cases, they are fined greater amounts of money than all they own in the world, and without trial. This hypocrisy threatens the unity of this nation and, in recent political history, gave rise to One Nation.


Ethical journalists who spend more time with the rulers and less with the ruled (not such a power trip, I know,) might be better to locate these stories and cover them; rather than remain the pathetic fawning mob with microphones and cameras they have become, seeking verbal and visual crumbs from the rich, powerful, private school kids. Labor is a tragic, disgraceful, accessory to the moral vacuum.


The ethical matters are clear here. Senator Newman is long overdue for a journalistic blowtorch. Apply it please.

Journos v pollies: the tirade goes on …

Cheryl Kernot loves Jack Robertson’s missives against journos and has asked for his email address. Journalist Chris Wallace wishes to advise Jack that her income from journalism is zero. Complaints against the pollies-v-journos poll go on, with this from PIERRE DU PARTE of Woorigee in NSW: “How about a bit more scope for the sensible skeptic, like “None of the above” or “Don’t trust any of the buggers” or “I only trust Margo” options?” JAMES COLLINS of Chatswood disputes my convenient theory that pollies beat journos by voting for themselves. “You’ve got to be kidding yourself. I’d rate the majority of politicians as more decent and honest than the average Australian. Journalists would be only just higher than bankers. At heart I’d say politicians and journalists are equally dishonest but politicians are more accountable now than they’ve ever been, due to the media exposure they get and this keeps them more honest than they’d otherwise be. Journalists are manipulative, two-faced liars who do their best to tailor news to their personal or organisational agendas, your colleagues at News Limited being the worst of the bunch. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d rate politicians to be honest 7 out of 10 times and journalists 3 out of 10.”


Despite my attempt to draw the line under this anti-journos debate, you don’t want to stop. So here we go again, starting with a couple of rare pro-journo contributions (for balance).




I have been trying to work out why I don’t agree with Jack (Webdiary November 3). He raises some valid points and I certainly believe journalists should disclose potential conflicts of interest – and hand the story over to someone else if necessary. And sometimes the need for the journos to find the “right angle” obliterates the issue. But his solution raises too many problems.


It is important for journos to help hold politicians to account because they have the time and resources to be able to do it properly and if they don’t ask questions because of personal factors – who will ask? Jack’s proposition effectively ties your hands and you will end up merely regurgitating MPs’ press releases and leave their spin unquestioned.


Already there is a sense that politicians and journos know the true story – what is going on behind the scenes and who the real hypocrites are – but if you follow Jack even when there is a legitimate chance to expose a pollie – it can’t be done, just because we don’t vote for journalists! The end result is an even cosier group and the rest of us are left knowing that we are being sold a pup. Where would it leave us – police couldn’t book anyone if they ever take a pen home from work, a judge can’t listen to divorce cases and voters certainly can’t hold a government to account if we have made a bad financial decision or paid a bill late. Then how could we judge a health system if we haven’t come up with something better.


The role of moralisers-on-our-behalf has been played by Government Ministers – and I don’t like it. It is especially hard to take when they are so hypocritical. I think it is important to remember that politicians (and journalists) are only human – but that doesn’t mean that we should turn a blind eye to their behaviour. In fact I get more worried when stories are not reported.

I think the real issue is the sensationalism that attaches to stories – all mock horror and little genuine information. The 2-second grab is a big problem – unimportant incidents and major matters all get much the same treatment – the “spin” is all important. I think the public has to take some responsibility too – we let them get away with it – watch the crappy current affairs programs etc If we want to be treated better we need to be prepared to take the time to understand the issues – including what a Westminster system of government means and the role of ministerial responsibility in it.


The Reith story exposes the Government’s hypocrisy on a number of grounds. Most people can understand the story, the amount of money involved (a billion dollars is a little bit a too unreal) and most can relate it to their own lives. Refugees (or the politically correct illegal queue jumpers are outside most Australians experience and so they are happy to swallow the government’s line. I would like journos to find a way of getting Australians to understand their plight – the strategy of the government seems to be to dehumanise them and isolate them.


If you follow Jack’s argument – that you should be careful in your criticism of politicians because they all mean well and have a terrible lifestyle – where does that leave us with the people they try to demonise in an attempt to win popular support for their policies. I would think that most union officials have also taken on their role not for the glory and wonderful lifestyle, and they want people they know and respect to keep their jobs and a reasonable rate of pay. Should Reith be encouraged to continually bag all unionists?


The Trish Crossin incident is interesting especially now that the coalition has gone soft. I think Trish Crossin was wrong not to follow the right procedures in regards to letting people drive her car but she isn’t a minister in a Westminster system of government – I am not sure what the appropriate punishment should be. I think a LOT of people have little idea of why Reith’s position in the Telecard affair is important. (An aside — if TC gave notified someone orally that the person could drive her car, who was that person and why didn’t they follow up the written permission? Or was she sent the appropriate form and failed to return it?) Anyway, it seems unlikely that the written authority would have changed what actually happened, but Reith’s act of giving his son the card did in fact set off the chain of events.


We want politicians to be accountable but just standing up for election every 3 years is hardly sufficient. We want important issues to be reported responsibly but more sensationalist stuff gets higher ratings. We complain about politicians and their spin yet Beazley is called a “windbag”. We want a socially responsible government with good economic credentials yet complain if the political parties get too similar – or even if the Labor party takes on some economic rationalist clothing. It is interesting that we can hold so many contradictory opinions.


PS: I hope Mike Seccombe gets the FOI on the parking space – after all the flak that Keating got I can’t believe what Howard has got away with – I thought he had to live in Sydney because his son was doing the HSC – he’ll be through uni soon – and Abbott calls people job snobs if they resist up-rooting their families for a low-paid job. I must admit that I thought that some journos wanted a change of government after 13 years of Labor because it would make their work more interesting. [For Secco’s efforts, see Webdiary November 5].


REG BARLOW, freelance journalist.


It was very refreshing to see you publish your net monthly salary (more than most journos would be game to do I suspect).


Having said that, I suspect that many people wouldn’t truly appreciate the reality of what pressure there is journalists to produce accurate and concise copy. As one the very few freelancers about these days it continually amazes me the amount of people who are willing to line up and criticise those who would try and get to the bottom of a good story.


They don’t realise the amount of research and probing that’s needed to get a story into the three media spectrums (radio, television and print). While Jack has some valid points I would challenge him to try and make a living as a dedicated freelancer who needs the cards to fall his way to make a respectable living.


JOHN MINER, who used to work for Paul Keating.


There is something missing from this debate: the audience.


How well do we equip ourselves to judge? For example, you had to point out to one correspondent that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation won more votes than the Australian Democrats. This correspondent is entitled to judge but how well has he equipped himself to do so?


That is also, of course, the problem with democracy. The polling booth which receives the greatest number of votes at every Federal election is in London. Some of those voters are in the region short-term, but others have been absent from Australia for long periods: how sure are we that they know what’s going on in Australia? Yet they have the right to vote.


And that’s a simple example, chosen only to enable me to say without giving too much offence that the right to vote or the capacity to read a newspaper does not guarantee that every person has the same ability to form an informed and intelligent judgment.


What we have are media and political systems that are imperfect because the essential part of each is not the journalist or the politician, but the public.


The variation within the public in the quality and quantity of information received, in the ability to process it, in the biases, prejudices, enthusiasm, interest, logic and emotion of the public, is endless. It varies with age, region (going back a bit, the Democrats are bigger in some parts of Australia, like Adelaide, than is One Nation), socio-economic circumstances, education and probably a whole lot of other factors.


The basic assumption of our political system is that every citizen is entitled to have a say in choosing the government under which he or she must live. It is almost a corollary that the intelligent have no greater right to input in forming a government than the less intelligent, which is an admirably democratic view since they all have to live under the one system. Less justifiable is the assumption that the informed have no greater right to a say than the ignorant, the diligent no greater right than the uninterested.


The second-line assumption is that, in a compulsory ballot, the biases one way and another will cancel each other out. There’s no logic that can prove this, and the complexity of the issues make it impossible to prove from analysing a vote, but statistically it is probable. In other words, she’ll be right, mate. At least as far as the ballot.


Media critics can cast their vote on newspapers every day, radio stations every hour and the internet every second. Those that succeed in establishing trust will survive.


The sum of my argument, I suppose, is that it’s only part of the picture to look at the transmitters of a message: without a receiver, there is no message. Determining the value of any message is a power entirely dependent on the interpretation of the receiver.


I suppose I should confess that I have worked as a transmitter of messages for two metro dailies and, later, for the leaders of three governments. Now I’ve graduated to the position of power instead of influence, a member of the public, a receiver of messages. What a motley crew we are – much more so, I say from my experience, than journalists and politicians. However they range from the model of rectitude to the reprobate, from the intellectual to the ignorant, we vary more. Which is why they will never satisfy us all.




Margo I apologise to you & Greg Abbott for being offended by remarks about homosexuals. (Webdiary November 6) Everyone I know is aware of where I stand on homosexuality. But lets face it, the majority of politicians like to use gays as whipping boys (pardon the expression) to their own advantage so they can muster votes from the conservative voters that exist out there.


But I still think we should be aware of their sexuality because there have been politicians who have been “gay bashers” & in private been involved in homosexual affairs. So it’s those kind of pollies that we should hunt down & expose as well.




Having spent the past year away from Australia I have the benefit of perspective, which is a function of distance but also the welcome respite from that most Australian of afflictions – “new positivism”.


As some of your readers have pointed out, journalism is reduced to either the blind support of a faith (the ‘limpics for example) or the red-eyed fury of the Telecard scandal. Has it ever occurred to your readers that Australians are simply being farmed by a coalition of big business and big government which is never going to let you get away with actually debating the real issues in the public domain?


Like Singapore, you will be granted a marginalised role in which you will be permitted to encourage the intellectual elite to let off a bit of steam from time to time. But the real issues will never see the light of day.


Let’s see a mainstream media frenzy on the subject of the fact that we effectively have a single party state in most western “democracies” today, the two party system having been refined by the (concentrated) owners of the media into a single policy platform with competing administrators in the form of a Labor/Liberal coalition.




I’ve not had the chance to read every entry in this debate, but it seems that here, just as in news reporting in general, the “game” of politicians versus journalists has moved the focus away from the actual reasons why both groups are there. Scoring points, establishing and disputing “credibility” and scrapping over the “high moral ground” appears more important than the democratic process and the helpful reporting and analysis of it.


I know this point of view comes straight from the land of theory and principles rather than the muddy trenches in Canberra, but the principles which lie at the bottom of our system can’t be allowed to disappear or nobody will be bothered with it any more. This is already happening. How many people bother engaging themselves in political activity at any level?


The very fact that we are talking about this in an adversarial manner (“versus”) is a bad sign. Nobody says that these groups need to love each other personally, but when was democracy last made healthier by a clash of egos? Ideologies and even concrete issues are more important than who gets the last word.


It is of course important that public representatives be held accountable on a number of levels, and that those who keep them honest are themselves kept honest, but these are side issues to the real business of running a country and making a future for it. They seem to have taken over from the big picture. Have we gone too far down that road to go back?




What really gets my back up are the members of the press who refer to themselves as “journalists”, yet are nothing but commentators. Most people buy a broadsheet to read an unsullied version of the news, yet many, such as yourself, Michelle Grattan, Michael Seccombe and Alan Ramsay seem to take the self-indulgent approach of feeding us your opinions.


We don’t want your opinions. We want the news. Unbiased, uncensored and without embellishment or variance from the whole truth. Leave the narcissism to the News Ltd papers.


MARGO: Your idea that journos can just pick up “the whole truth” and report it is incorrect. “The whole truth” is invariably hidden. The press releases announcing policy change are spun almost out of existence, use statistics selectively, and clothe the decisions in political rhetoric which often bears no relationship to the forces at work which produce them. The role of the journalist is to get behind the facade to get as close as possible to the reality.


On opinion, Alan and Michelle had that most valuable of intangible assets – a long political memory. They have been around for decades, and can compare, contrast, and explain day to day stories, and longer term trends. To me, this is value adding, not self indulgent floss.






I started off in advertising then moved into journalism.


I was with the ABC, then Fairfax. Now I write film music, where my manipulation is recognisable by all.


I long ago realised that advertising is far more honest than journalism. People – especially the writers responsible – know that advertising is bullshit but nobody – especially the journos – acknowledges that journalism is bullshit.


In advertising, one’s chance of individual fame (notoriety) is very very slim. In journalism, one’s chances are quite good. So we see a film review, with a retouched or at least carefully chosen photograph above, that describes an American movie as despicable crap and, in the same edition of the newspaper, a piece by ******* (insert any name here) with a retouched or at least carefully chosen photograph above, gushing about the film and suggesting that it is significant or at least worth seeing. The writer, **** (insert any name here), is fascinated by some callow American youth who he or she’s never met and is happy to devote a whole page to the breathtaking story of the making of this piece of excrement.


Why is this so? Is the Herald saving thousands of dollars by running a hand-out provided by major advertisers instead of paying a real journalist to write the story based on its news value? Is the Herald doing deals in order to get advertising from the people who make these buckets of offal or is it selling what’s left of its soul in order to increase its readership among the people who move their lips when they say “Daily Telegraph“?


I know what motivates a politician and I know that he or she can be restrained by the public/party reaction to his or her behaviour. Journalists with by-lines and snappy photographs have fewer restrictions. On a scale out of 10, I trust politicians about 1 and journalists not at all. The Herald has become nothing more than a marketing tool. I wish there was an alternative. I now read about 10 per cent of the paper and the proportion grows smaller every year.


Have you read the Metropolitan section? Is there ever anything in there that isn’t a billboard for somebody? Sorry to rave but it’s very, very depressing (literally and figuratively) these days.




As usual, your spot is the only one with any action these days. Wonder what your secret ingredient is? Maybe, to paraphrase the theorists, its the diversity of gatekeepers. Online has that tendency, I’ve noticed.


However, all this talk of trust and credibility has stirred my curiosity. You’ve been a journo for a long time and you’ve probably seen more pollies than than your average cracker. I’ve experienced seasoned gallery hacks getting quite hot under the collar when Joe Blow reckons that all pollies are liars, crooks and cheats. Sure, it’s poetic license and a little bit of sweeping generalisation … however, you can’t deny that election promises have deservedly acquired an unsavory reputation of being rotten to the core – or do I mean non-core?


So, for absolutely no steak knives at all, can you answer the $64 question: How do politicians justify their “lies” and broken promises????


The reason I’m asking is that there’s a little issue known as “psychological contract” doing the rounds out there and it would appear that many Australians simply do not expect their elected representatives to deliver. I don’t think I’m the only person who wants to know the answer to this.


MARGO: Oh dear. The really big lie I’ve seen first hand was the metaphorical handshake between Labor in Liberal in 1996 regarding the state of the budget. Keating swore black and blue that the budget was fine and Howard predicated his spending promises on the basis of that assurance. Both sides were lying and political journalists knew they were lying. Yet when we tackled either side we got nowhere. Indeed, Howard and Costello knocked down questions at an election press conference by suggesting that journalist questioners were biased.


I’ve never bothered asking them why they lied because the answer was obvious. Both sides wanted to win.


Another big lie came from Keating, this time in the 1993 election. He claimed the tax cuts were “L.A.W. law” then cancelled some of them once he got elected and raised wholesale sales taxes all over the place. He wanted to win and the Hewson challenge led him to prevaricate to the Australian people. And who can forget Labor’s cast iron promise not to privatise the Commonwealth Bank, before selling it anyway to balance the books.


To their credit, the Liberals have at least partly cleared up this mess by requiring details of the budget position to be announced before the election. This is a good way to ensure an honest level fiscal playing field between the combatants come election time.


This measure was absolutely necessary, because without it, public trust had sunk to such a level that neither side would be believed on spending promises.


Politicians are caught in a bind. They want to promise that they can deliver, yet know that, in an era of globalisation, there is little they can do to meet their promises. The electorate is beginning to understand this lack of power, due to the efforts of both political parties. This partly explains the trend overseas for the leader to bear almost the entire burden of winning office. The person the electorate trusts to do the right thing by Australia, with as little cowtowing to their core backers – big business or trade unions – as possible is the person who will win the prize.


Neither major party is happy to let the people into their confidence on the difficulties Australia faces and the choices we should make. I think more intellectual grunt in communications with the public could work – but this is too dangerous for most politicians to risk, not least because powerful elements of the media would react in a way which would torpedo honesty with the people.


Politicians believe that the vast majority of Australians vote on the hip pocket nerve. their job is to attract the support of the hip pocketers through promises they often cannot deliver, and then to look at the big picture in driving Australia forward and find a way to justify broken promises. This won’t work for much longer, and both parties know it.

MARKUS ZELLNER takes up Andrea’s theme:


ODILLE ESMONDE-MORGAN writes: “What are we trusting politicians to do when we elect them ? Hopefully, to represent the voters of their constituency fairly”‘ (Webdiary November 7).


I have always been puzzled that people expect a politician to be nothing more than a collector and determiner of voter opinion. This seems to me to be the absolute worst way to be a representative. You end up with poll driven sycophantic automata. And I am afraid that I agree with Sir Humphry (on occasions) that public opinion is often fickle, inconsistent and actually injurious to their own interests.


If the poll driven automata model is what people wanted, then get rid of the expensive human infrastructure. Go straight to citizen initiated referenda (or direct voting) on important issues using lower cost infrastructure like telephone or Internet voting. Let the administration handle the minutiae (they do and will anyway).


The way I see the current representative system is that people delegate their decision making to someone else. They have effectively outsourced (some of) their responsibility for being a citizen (to state it in rational economic terms). Their vote should be for the person who does the job most effectively. The question brought into focus by things like the Telecard affair is “do they get value for their money”?


I expect politicians to be honest and straightforward. Honesty should be a given. It’s a pity that we have to list it as a requirement. Straightforward would be nice. I would vote for a politician that admitted to making a mistake, as long as the mistake wasn’t admitted for the purpose of gaining my vote (apologies through crocodile tears).


The standard of debate and the clarity of argument frighten me. I am in severe danger of having to exercise brain cells that have long been dormant. More power to you for having the courage to start something that may be hard to stop.





OK Margo, I’ll take the bait. Most politicians are a bunch of arrogant, egotistical, power hungry control freaks who think that their opinions are far more important than anybody else’s. They earn their living by distorting the truth. The same is true of most journalists. So why is it that journalists are held in even lower regard by the general public than politicians?


At least the politicians are usually prepared to show their colours. We all know what side they are on, and what their motivations are. Like journalists, politicians selectively quote the facts, they only tell one side of the story, and they give unbalanced and biased opinions. The difference is that everybody with an iota of intelligence understands and recognises political diatribe when it comes from politicians. We expect it from them. We set a lower social standard for them, and they can expect some returning fire.


Journalists are the spies and snipers in our midst, shooting at the unarmed and easy targets. Unlike politicians, they are unelected and protected from serious criticism. They falsely pretend to be impartial and independent, or patronisingly portray themselves to be the same as ordinary people. Some of them even attempt to maintain an ethical pretence, as they generously bestow their wisdom and moral guidance to the peasants. Any opposing opinion is emotively classified as some form of hate.


The arrogance of journalists is endless. Remember the outrage when the peasants were so ignorant as to send Paul Keating packing or had the audacity to reject the inevitable republic? Witness the hypocrisy as anti-government demonstrations in Serbia are described as civil disobedience or even people power (as in the Philippines) but similar unrest in Fiji or Israel is described as unruly mobs or terrorism.


The use of the bipartisan euphemism to conceal the development of a totalitarian one party state gives another example of journalistic complicity with their masters. The resultant disenfranchisement of its citizens is disguised by the meaningless elections, where people are offered an alternative but not a choice. Journalists are the wordmongers that amplify the political spin.


I could give many other examples to illustrate journalistic hypocrisy. Compare the treatment given to left wing political dissidents (a.k.a. human rights activists) with that given to right-wing dissidents such as Pauline Hanson or David Irving. Compare the international support given to Kosovars with that given to Palestinians.


Journalists are intellectual prostitutes. Their reluctance to criticise the right-wing economic rationalism and globalisation favoured by their media mogul masters is rewarded by an almost unrestricted right to publicise left wing social agendas. Journalists have the delegated power to pull politicians strings and make them dance, and they think that this provides defacto membership to the elite. Their own strings which lead to Packer & Murdoch are not discussed if you close your eyes you can pretend that they dont really exist.


Of course, accusations of conspiracy theories are already brewing. Sneering jokes about black UN helicopters coming in the middle of the night are taking form. Serious journalists discount all conspiracy theories, unless they are the vast right-wing variety that concocted the story about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Remember that one, or has it already disappeared down the Orwellian memory hole?


Journalists are beginning to wake up to their true position in the social hierarchy, but they still can’t understand the depth and extent of this opinion. Even pedophiles are starting to look good in comparison.


Have a nice day.


MARGO: I assert my independence. I cannot pretend to be impartial – no-one is. But I can disclose the belief system which drives my work to people who read me, and I do. Yes, journalists are part of the society they report on, and general trends in ideas are reflected in our work. Part of our job is to genuinely engage with those trends. If we are coopted by them, as we often are, we must take a step back and rethink. Journalists, like politicians, must take steps to restore our credibility. We must admit we are a part of the system, and partly to blame for the contempt in which the system is held by many Australians.





My long held judgment is that adversarial journalism serves Australia poorly with its superficial attacking of both sides of politics in contradictory ways


We need more intellectual & more useful contributions involving independent evaluation of options and ideas including those possibly not yet espoused by either party – so that ideas are evaluated, instead of adopting the rebuttal/avoidance skills of the politician.


Nevertheless, it is hard to regard journo efforts as worse than the parliamentary mud-slinging broadcast to the public – so childish and so far away from the needs of this country which desperately needs some useful leadership.


I know the “let the market run Australia” argument – but I contrast the results of this (the Australian economy continually in decline) with achievements/ protection/ development in Singapore, Japan, USA, Sth Korea, Malaysia.




The various responses from your readers to Jack Robertson’s contribution seem only to prove his point. Mr Robertson merely pointed out the fact that journalists only report on a very narrow range of topics, and the perspective barely moves by more than a few degrees, and that, yes, journalists are a biased lot. Hadn’t anyone one noticed this before? It’s hardly a recent or new occurrence.


Yet, when someone such as Mr Robertson articulates the reality (his second piece, Webdiary November 6), your readers respond by either objecting or calling him “cheeky” or “misdirected” etc. This in itself tends to prove his over-arching points.


What really disturbs and depresses me is that numerous of your readers have actually congratulated you for publishing Mr Robertson’s views (even though they then go on to disagree). Publishing a well written piece which airs numerous much ignored but obvious truths deserves congratulations??? Only in the world of journalism, where an entirely homogenised view of the world prevails, would someone actually be congratulated for “allowing” Mr Robertson to air his non-radical views, albeit not in hardcopy & to a very narrow audience.




I was driving from Melbourne to Adelaide last night listening to you talking to Philip Adams about how there has to be a paradigm shift in Australian politics and political comment. Radio National must have kept multitudes awake and alive on the country’s roads – an overlooked advantage of a national network.


I’ve thought about this need for a political paradigm shift for years now. My youth was spent in South Africa and in the Catholic church, and I saw the damage any kind of ideology can do. By their very nature an ideology is destructive because it becomes more important, inevitably, than the people it is supposed to benefit.


Even the Afrikaners were being destroyed by apartheid (have you read Country of my Skull by Anjie Krog who seems to be very much a South African Margo Kingston?) It seems to me that unless ideas are open to change they cause things to wither or rot – like a season that lasts too long.


I’ve called what I think is the way to go Pragmatic Humanism – the PH factor – not an ideology but a guiding philosophy, where political decisions are based on reaching a balance about whether they will actually work (the pragmatism) and whether they will cause the most benefit (or in some cases the least harm) to both individuals and the community (the humanism). It seems so simple.I’m sure with work you could even come up with benchmarks whereby any decisions could be judged and reviewed.

Catharsis complete. What next?

I find that when I explode with anger and say my piece, it feels good, then nothing, or even a heightened sense of powerlessness. What has changed? So here’s my attempt to synthesise the complaints about the state of journalism and suggest some first-take ideas in response.


1. Journalism is disconnected and out of touch. We no longer seek to inform readers, and instead are insiders spouting accepted wisdom within the power elite and crushing alternative views and interpretations. Carolyn Hart: “Only in the world of journalism, where an entirely homogenised view of the world prevails, would someone actually be congratulated for “allowing” Mr Robertson to air his non-radical views, albeit not in hard copy and to a very narrow audience.”


2. We are less accountable than the politicians and other public figures we report on, and fail to take responsibility for our part in public disillusionment with our democracy. Jack Robertson: “If you believe the system is rotten, get your own house in order first. This requires media transparency, tough, honest and on going self-criticism. Above all else, turn your bullshit detectors onto yourselves once in a while.” BRENDON: “They do horrible things to people who attract their attention, they are not accountable, they don’t have to be accurate, and they control the medium through which one might seek redress. They have a habit of abandoning their mistakes and moving on to the next issue. At least with the politicians you know where they stand, you can call them to account, you can go and see them and they can’t hide.”


3. A combination of the concentration of media ownership and what Jack Robertson calls “the relentless surrender of control over our lives to the private sector” puts journos in an untenable position. As the public sphere become less important and the power of big business overwhelms it, how can we scrutinise the powerful when we work for them?


4. We chase easy yarns and forget the big stuff, either because its too hard or because our bosses aren’t interested because it hurts their self-interest. Andrew Frazer says our work “simply dissolves into an endless recycling of easy stories, where nothing new is ever reported.” Brendon says we rarely even get the story right.


5. Our adversarial style is outdated and antithetical to our institutional role in our democracy – the people are looking for a future vision, a conversation, not the standard news model of rhetorical conflict and the standard shouting matches over the cultural wars. ANDREW FRAZER: “Criticism of the political system is a vital and important part of democracy. However perhaps sustaining faith in the democracy is also important – surely the media also has a part to play here”.



Right. Is there a solution? Ideas PLEASE! As you know. I’ve been questioning where journalism is and its future since experiencing the disconnect on Pauline’s Hanson’s election trail. My last take on media reform and accountability will be published late November in “Best Australian Essays 2000”, edited by Peter Craven and published by Black Inc. I’ve put it up on Inside Out for anyone who’s interested. My thinking is still developing on this, and its not just navel gazing – I reckon crises of confidence are happening across the professions, among the professionals themselves and their clients. There’s big trends happening here, and big adjustments need to be made.



So here’s some flash in the pan thoughts.


Journalists rely on the public to tell them what’s happening, and to read/listen to/watch their work. So the journalists and the public have a symbiotic relationship too, just as do political journalists and politicians, police reporters and cops, sports journos and players. etc.

If no-one trusts us enough to spill the beans (or if some are confident we’ll buy any old bullshit line) then we can’t get anywhere near the truth.

And if consumers don’t believe what we write, or find it boring or irrelevant, we’re out of a job.

Perhaps we need to restore the “partnership”, to use a current buzz word.

I’d like a contract between journos and readers. The Herald is still finalising its in-house code of ethics, which will be published in the paper. Readers will know our ideals, and can hold us to account when we don’t reach them. It is undecided how the code will be enforced, but I’d like to see an ombudsman appointed, like the Washington Post, to watch our performance and report our failures with the help of reader feedback.

Our Union, the Alliance, is slowly, painfully, trying to transform itself into a professional association, with an updated code of ethics. This will give us a weapon in attempts by management to compromise ethics in the name of the bottom line or proprietors’ interests. To me, ethical codes within each media group are more powerful tools, because management is also bound, and called to account. The success of attempts to separate our professional/democratic obligations from the owner’s self interest is vital if a concentrated media is to survive as credible.


Journalists must get back on the ground – out of their office on their phones – to reconnect. Reconnection means more raw, interesting and even exciting work. Through us, readers can connect to issues outside their experience. We must also move away from writing identified with power (eg in political journalism, identified with the politicians) and instead become reader identified.

Fairfax and the ABC – hated by both parties because our cultures are to be skeptical of all power – will survive only if their audiences support them. We must earn that support.


There’s no doubt in my mind that readers are sick of the rut in which our cultural wars are stuck. Left and Right shout at each other from opposite sides of the river bank in more and more strident and derogatory terms. Readers want CONVERSATION, and a search for synthesis. One way to achieve this is by letting more readers ideas into the paper. This page is an experiment in interactivity which, as a journo, I’ve found extremely exciting. On the most basic level, readers to this site helped get the debate on the Defence (shoot to kill) Bill into the public domain. I gave several reader emails to colleague Toni O’Loughlin, who started writing the yarn, only to find that the Right, the Left and the Centre were very concerned. The two party cozy deal fell over, Labor scrabbled to redeem itself, and the people got a partial win.

More abstractly, papers need articulate, engaged pieces from readers in their paper.

In the end, despite what the beancounters and the marketeers say, the paper belongs to the readers. If they like us, the shareholders, in the medium to long term, will be well rewarded.


Anyway, let’s move on from the prognosis to the solution – your ideas very, very welcome, also your views on what journalists are for.




1. Radio National’s Late Night Live has begun an audio of my Tuesday “Canberra Babylon” with Phillip Adams. If you’re interested, the link is


2. On direct democracy at work, USA style, MERRILL PYE advises that Colorado said yes to legalising the medical use of dope, while Alaska voted no. Also ballots on same-sex marriage, education and others. The site is



2. If you want to join the ABC’s latest game – NEW TITLES FOR ABC PROGRAMS POST BUDGET CUTS, write to Some ideas so far:

One Anorexic Lady (TV)

Australian Anecdote (TV)

The 7.30 Headline (TV)

Neighborhood Correspondent (TV)

Late Night Repeats (Radio National)

The If Pain Persists See a Doctor Report (Radio National)

One Hour of Power (Triple J)

Merrick Or Rosso (Triple J)

Net 5 (Triple J)

Lukewarm 100 (Triple J)

Reburied (Triple J)

Bicycle with Christopher Lawrence (Classic FM)




To end, here’s two late contributions on the journos-v-pollies debate which are too interesting not to publish.


LINDY EDWARDS, Graduate Program in Public Policy Asia Pacific School of Economics and Management, The Australian National University


Hi Margo, let’s see if I can slip one past the deadline by meshing your earlier call for a new age of essays with the outcry at journos.


I can’t help but wonder if the shift in the public palate from mainstream news to essays is a leap between facts and meaning. Maybe it is a symptom that we are hungering for something different.


Part of the public outcry about journos is the perception that journos spindoctor their stories. Journos weave facts into stories and then endeavour to pass them off as truth. It is not the ‘story making’ that is offensive – because there ain’t no other way to do it – it is the claim to ‘truth’ that is the problem. Readers are conscious they are being fed one perspective, but it is being sold as ‘truth’.


When having my dalliance as an ‘L’ plate journo I had a discussion with a senior journo about writing in the “I think” style. I was informed that it was the height of arrogance and absolute journalistic no-no, afterall who would care what I think? I was told that the reader wants something authoritative. I dutifully changed the style of the piece from opinion to fact. Chagrined at the process, I couldn’t help but wonder how many readers would share my view that ‘I think” was less arrogant and more honest.


I wonder if there has been a generational shift in the way we relate to information. In my view, “I think” was not preaching to the masses from on high. It was a modest endeavour to make a contribution to a public discourse. People could take my attempt to make sense of the facts, or leave it. It was one contribution in the menu of ideas readers could draw on in their attempts to make meaning of the events unfolding.


It is this same shift from wanting “truth” to wanting “resources” for DIY understanding that is driving the move towards essays. The main game is no longer “information”, but ideas for making sense of that information. God knows we don’t want more facts and figures, what we really want is a hand in finding a way to make it all hang together.


Dare one suggest that the newspaper style is old hat, and that a new generation has had to move into a new medium to find the space for what is really a new activity?



FRANK PAGE, Avondale Heights, Victoria.


Found your chat this week with Phillip very interesting and you’ve obviously had a difficult but as it turns out exciting time! Your comments re the paradigm shift required both for the media and pollies and the need for engagement and connection all struck a chord with me. Have just retired (at a very young 54) out of the Myer Grace Bros operation where I spent the last 19 years. They have been going through an incredible journey over the last 4-5 years shifting the paradigm massively and making huge cultural change – trying to remove hierarchy, empower all staff, etc. Much of it has worked and they have done amazing things. Mind you their corporate colleagues at CML think they’re bonkers but the profit results have tended to counter that response. I think the model though is equally applicable to the other institutions like government and the media. I guess the ones who realise first and genuinely make the shift will be the winners.

Take two: Journos v pollies – too close to call

Well, well, hasn’t Jack hit a raw nerve. Contributions to the question of journos’ credibility, or the lack of it are rolling in. So far in the poll, 250 trust journos and 261 pollies. I’m so upset I’m asking colleagues to vote NOW.


To the poll, and CON VAITSAS complains that the question is unfair. “I won’t be voting, as both professions cannot be entirely trusted.” ANN BROWNLOW agrees. “I didn’t vote today because there needed to be another selection – I don’t trust either of them. That would have been my vote.”


OK, but the question is very general, and relative – it’s not asking whether you trust either, but who would you trust more, if you had to. I like the take from TYLER:”The question should be who do you trust? Politicians or media tycoons. What do journalists have to do with it???”


To a couple of compliments, just ’cause the poll results are making me shakey. From NIGEL, “I am well served by your work and I think I will be increasingly relying on your analysis as the ABC is hung out to dry. To me the spirit of the Nation Review is well represented in your writing and comment.” And from GREG ELLEVSEN: “I agree with some – not all – of Jack’s comments. But I feel immeasurably better about the situation knowing that you were prepared to give him a forum to express his views, and address them in a fairly frank fashion.”


Here’s the latest in the debate.





Having come from South Africa I thought I knew the worst type of reporting, but alas I was wrong. When one looks at the amount of space One Nation got to that of the Democrats at the last election, one can only think that One Nation was bigger than the Democrats. Yet the election showed otherwise. (MARGO: I don’t think you’re right there. I think One Nation got more primary votes.)


I remember that when a certain leader of Labor’s Left was in charge of Health in NSW, we would have a daily mouthful of how bad the health system was and how bad he was for moving hospitals away from the inner city (where the journos live) to the west (where the need was greatest). When NSW got a new Minister of Health, all of a sudden the CRIPPLED system no longer merited a line (until this weekend). Or if you believed the media the Olympics were going to be one helluva mess … I could go on but I hope you get the point.


The media reports what it wants to, how it wants to and when it wants to. The truth, significance or importance of the story has nothing to do with it. The criteria is: “If it sells …….print it.” Most readers accept that … please don’t kid yourself that it is otherwise. One gets the media one deserves.




I was a little disturbed by the poll I saw on your site. And while I voted for journos, it was only with grave misgivings. I personally would have much preferred a third option – ‘as bad as each other’. Or quite possibly ‘lawyers’. The fact that journos are private citizens and not paid for by the public pocket pushed them slightly ahead. It seems that every second week another polly is caught in some benefits rort, and there is a big hoohah for about a week and a half. Then the furore dies down, and we have 3 weekdays to discuss:

a] reconciliation

b] republic

c] gst

d] some celebrity.


Then on the weekend we have sports results, fashion tips, and, stop press – a different politician is caught doing something else s/he shouldn’t be. And the cycle runs again. Sometimes I’d like to see the end of these investigations, without the public losing interest or the journo’s turning to new, fresher stories to garner sales.


Unfortunately, we have a pretty closed media system, and I only have the journos there to tell me if not who is the better candidate is, who I like least. I did a ‘political personality’ test on a website – there’s a few floating around due to the upcoming american elections – and apparently I’m a ‘moderate liberal [small L] populist’. [I should vote for Gore]. There doesn’t seem to be any similar tools out there for Australian politics. But then I also like to read, eat out, and look at porn on the internet, so I’m not really any politicians target demographic.


These are my opinions, not who I work for.




(1) Jack Robertson’s original letter (WEBDIARY November 3) was spot on, but misdirected.


(2) Con Vaitsas’ response was cogent – and I agree with him that Jack was perhaps over the top.


(3) David Davis and Justin Whelan also make solid arguments.


(4) Jack Robertson’s subsequent admonition to Margo re “…claim you are here for the benefit of the people…” needs constant restating.


Journalistic integrity/objectivity is a very big issue which requires a regular airing. However, while this forum is almost certainly the only one in the country prepared to indulge readers’ missives on the topic, it is also demonstrably the least (if at all) legitimate target.


So please, may we now let Margo get back to her raw experiment: that of providing us with in-depth coverage of public issues augmented by unvarnished personal opinion. She has bitten off quite enough trying to singlehandedly put the pollies under the microscope. Let’s not drown her with all the misdeeds of the private sector as well.

Public-v-private: The journo’s delusion

I hope the point I was trying to make – the hypocrisy of journalists – was clear. I agree I have no right (nor wish) to know about such private matters as salaries and personal relationships, although a quick flip through the tabloids these days reveals that journalists are apparently the one group of employees in society, private or public, who still have a right to keep that sort of information quiet. Most curious. (MARGO: Stan and Tracey killed that off.)

However, the major point you implicitly raise concerns the delineation between the public and the non-public sphere. You have illuminated a fundamental self-delusion lingering among modern journalists, a professional blind-spot which is mostly responsible for the public’s growing disillusionment with your profession. And it is growing. The latest poll I saw placed journalists beneath even politicians on the credibility scale. If alarm bells aren’t going off, then they should be. (MARGO: My self-delusion must be chronic – my memory of that poll was that even we rated above pollies!)

Any delineation between the nominally public and non-public spheres is now a hair-splitting irrelevancy. Perhaps in strictly philosophical terms, you may have a point. Perhaps in a society in which the Public Polity still dominated most peoples lives, it would be valid to cite Laurie Oakes’ obligation to balance his commitment to the public with his duty to his commercial proprietor. (Incidentally, I was having a cheap crack at neither Mr Oakes nor Mr Packer. Mr Oakes’ professionalism speaks for itself, and Mr Packer is a tough businessman who has at least never pretended to be anything else.)

But herein lies the very real problem that journalists cannot ignore any longer. If, as you claim, you are there on behalf of the People, then your major target for scrutiny MUST now be the private (read commercial) sphere, rather than the public one, because it is the former which affects the lives of The People far more than the latter. Sorry, but this is the natural consequence of the relentless surrender of control over our lives to the Private Sector. (MARGO: Spot on. I sometimes feel I’m reporting the second rate in Canberra these days – that the talent and the ideas have moved on.)

For all the noise over Reith’s phone card, his stupidity/dishonesty only really matters indirectly to the average person. To give you an example: My part-time job got rationalised two weeks ago; I can assure you all that neither Mr Howard nor Mr Beasley had much to do with it happening, nor could they have stopped it (even if they’d wanted to).

Whether you like or not, it is now the Free (sic) Market which most requires scrutiny by the Free Press, not politicians, public servants or Pauline Hansons. Yet while you all zone in on relatively trivial matters like Presidential penises and Fools phone cards, McNikeSoft is cantering all the way to a New Improved World Order. Private issues? Public issues? Is Bill Gates a good bloke? Is Rupert a bastard? Who the hell cares?

What matters is that large Corporations are increasingly powerful, increasingly unaccountable, and most scary – increasingly uncontrollable (because they are hostage only to Market Forces ie nobody really runs them at all.). They are becoming all-consuming, and their activities need to be scrutinised relentlessly by the Press most of all. To date, you’re not doing it.

This is the fundamental problem that a Laurie Oakes, a Paul Kelly and even a Margo Kingston must soon grapple with. (Ms Kingston’s journo-friendly editor has just been replaced with a Bottom Line-friendly one.) The buggers who truly need to be kept honest these days are not the elected officials nor the Public Servants (though them, too), but whichever individuals still retain a modicum of influence within the Free (sic) Market.

And if, as is the case for many journalists, you are in the employ of those same larger Corporations yourselves, then no matter how much any given journalist might impress his or her colleagues with their professional and ethical approach, we the public will increasingly tend to be suspicious of you, your motives, and your independence.

If we distrust you on these basic grounds fairly or unfairly – then it just won’t matter how professional your colleagues know you to be. The fact is, Ms Kingston, it doesn’t matter if you regard Mr Oakes as one of the most ethical journalists around. What matters is what WE think of Mr Oakes, and while I’m sure any reasonable Australian would share your high regard for him, at the back of everyone’s mind is the problematic matter of for whom he works.

Once again, I’m not simply having a cheap crack at Mr Packer. I’m simply pointing out that the dominant paradigm these days is no longer the Public Sphere but the Private/Corporate one, and thus anyone who operates from within it is bound to have their credibility, fairly or not, queried. It’s not enough to be professional and independent. You have to be seen to be professional and independent, too.

I realise that this is the age old paradox that all journos have grappled with. But now, with the Public Sphere growing increasingly irrelevant, it is reaching a critical pitch. Any journalist who fails to see that pretty soon they will have to make some fairly profound professional choices is kidding themselves. Most younger journalists will be familiar with Authorial Deconstruction. I put it to you all that the time has arrived for you to turn your methodological tools upon yourselves. If you truly aspire to being a People’s Reporter, can you really get away with working for any major Corporation with significant interests beyond journalism, any longer?

You’re asking the Public to keep faith with you no matter how many jobs get rationalised or how many Rugby League clubs get axed. Maybe you can keep such regrettable yet inevitable Private consequences of a rampant Free (sic) Market compartmentalised safely away from your own daily Public toil on our behalf. The South Sydney Fan Clubs contempt for News Limited journalists these days (even the good ones) suggests that The People cannot, and/or will not. It’s not Paul Kelly’s fault that Mr Murdoch made a bit of a hash of things there, but ultimately, Paul Kelly’s effectiveness as a People’s Journalist has been damaged, hasn’t it? Certainly among The People who are Rabbitohs fans, anyway. I know that for a fact, because I’m one myself.

So why exactly should I continue to overlook who he chooses to work for? No-one else in our society gets the luxury of that professional benefit-of-the-doubt, after all.

MARGO: Dear Jack. You’re right, right, right. My brother, who’s an anarchist turned taxi driver, used to berate me every Christmas for working within the establishment and not outside it. (He changed his mind when David Oldfield publicly called me an anarchist – he said I must be doing something right.)

Journalists are ordinary people too, with the ordinary pressures of self-interest and feeding the family. But we also have the individual ethical and practical responsibility to uphold the standards and pursue the ideals of our “profession”. This is not just words – if we breach ethics and are caught, we are on the line individually, even when we’ve just done what the bosses told us to. In this way, principles of agency, where the employer is vicariously liable for the sins of an employee, don’t apply to us, just as they don’t with other professionals, like doctors, lawyers and accountants.

But the values of “professionalism” are also under attack by competition policy and the free market. Just another value system the pointy heads don’t value, often because they haven’t even thought about it.

To me, this tension is at the centre of journalism today. I’ve been thinking for the last two years – since the revelation of covering Pauline Hanson’s 1998 election campaign – about how we can separate in the public’s mind the journalist as individual from the corporation we work for.

One small way is through the Press Council’s complaints process. The reader complains, the Press Council, if the complaint has legs, calls the newspaper company and the complainant to a meeting. Invariably, the newspaper is represented by an executive. I’d like the journo to turn up, and speak directly with the complainant. That way, the journo gets across to the complainant and the Council members the context of the story, the compromises made for space reasons, and so on. The journalist thus becomes human, like the complainant. I did this once and at the end, the complainant felt the hearing had been fair and that we’d had a genuine conversation. We shook hands, and I reckon he believed he had power as a reader. (I won by the skin of my teeth.)

An interesting departure from trend for the major proprietors is the Australian’s media section in Thursday’s paper, which has built a solid reputation for fairness through critiquing News Limited as well as other media. I know not how the media section editor has managed it – I do know there have been tensions – but the result is enhanced credibility for the Australian, just as the South Sydney Rugby League club produced the opposite effect.

I’ve written an essay on the topic of media accountability in the context of the Hanson phenomenon, to be published this month in an annual book of Australian essays. I’ll put it on the site upon publication.

This article was first published in ‘Ink v Inc: Of hacks, bean-counters and the bottom line’, webdiary6Nov2000