No. 160

POWERFUL PEOPLE DIFFICULT QUESTIONS

STONE the crows! We’d be in strife without Kate McClymont and Judith Sloan.

The Crows admire journalists who ask powerful people difficult questions and keep asking, journalists like Kate McClymont and Hedley Thomas. Without McClymont asking questions and reporting answers, or the absence of them, former NSW MP Edie Obeid would be living a quieter life.[i] Without Hedley Thomas pursuing the Australian Federal Police and then immigration minister Kevin Andrews, in 2007, Dr Mohamed Haneef would have stayed locked up longer for his non-existent connections with the London terror bombers. [ii]

In reporting the news on these and many other stories, McClymont and Thomas, plus the hundreds of hacks who may not be as talented or tenacious, but still share their commitment to the news, defend democracy.

Undoubtedly, the ICAC would have got around to investigating Mr Obeid and his associates. Sooner or later, the courts would have found Dr Haneef had no case to answer – but McClymont and Thomas helped both happen faster. Without their brand of journalism, ministers, mandarins and their mates would have a far easier time in arranging everything.

As McClymont puts it:

The best way to ensure we have genuine freedom of the press is to remember that journalists are the custodians of a great legacy with a responsibility to look behind the spin, the press releases and the deals, so that the public can have faith that we did not look the other way.[iii]

Too right.

But it is not just the doers of dirty deals done dirt cheap who merit observation, so do treasurers and finance ministers, lest they confuse special pleading and rent seeking for the national interest. Great investigative journalists also trawl government statistics for evidence of red-hot arrangements, which are entirely legal, just not in the interests of ordinary taxpayers.

Which is why Professor Judith Sloan, as a representative of the army of analysts in the Australian Financial Review and The Australian, also gets a gurnsey in the gallery of great servants of the public.[iv] Sloan sleuths in budget papers and balance sheets to point out the failings and follies in economic policy and financial plans of both sides of politics. As such, she critiques bigger performances than McClymont, but the good of the Commonwealth demands they, and their peers, keep at it

So what’s to stop them?

Two things. The first is economics – the revolution in publishing means what Jack Fuller calls “standard model” journalism faces a great deal more competition than it used to.[v] Whatever your interests, there is more information about than exists in print or broadcast media, including their online offshoots. So there are fewer of the stories that bring in advertising to subsidise main media’s investigative reporting (six months of McClymont and Thomas’ time does not come cheap) and economic analysis (neither does Professor Sloan’s).

The second is the way journalism is devouring itself, with writers telling us what they feel rather than what they have learned by asking questions and pouring over documents. Here’s a hint for hacks who struggle to understand why people prefer to read about the lives and opinions of friends and family on Facebook.

Readers/viewers/listeners/tweeters/bloggers/facebookers are interested in people they like and know, not journalists who sneer at the tastes of average citizens.

To see what the Crows mean, have a read of Geoffrey Barker (ex AFR) who does not think much of commercial TV news and the people who present it, especially the women. There is something a little creepy about an old bloke banging on about the anatomy of young women reporters but that aside what appals the Crows is his contempt for people not interested in what appeals to him:

Journalism is not a showbiz spinoff to be squeezed between ad breaks. It is not a stand-up routine to be performed by babes pursuing fame. It is a public trust, a responsibility, to report the facts with context and completeness, to speak truth to power, to hold the feet of politicians and officials to the fire of exposure, to discomfort the comfortable, to comfort those who suffer.

True, if pompously put. But the news is also what interests all sorts of people; it is not just a lugubrious license for the world’s Barkers to bore.[vi] And it is not just an excuse for the commentariat to explain to each other how bad Barker is – which we got a lot of last week.[vii]

The challenge for journalism is to fearlessly report and objectively analyse and to do it in ways which readers relate to. In some sorts of writing this, as Fuller suggests, means including yourself in the story, which the Crows had a go at doing in a piece about Crossfit training.[viii]

But it is a touch trickier when you are explaining the duplicities buried in Budget Paper Number Two. And it’s dangerous when you are writing about people with thuggish friends. As McClymont puts it, “No one likes to be threatened or to find out they have been placed under surveillance.”[ix]

Which is why Sloan and McClymont are so good at what they do – they make the standard model work.

And it’s why their work is so important. We can get by just fine without Mr Barker and his critics (and the Crows on crossfit for that matter). But we need to know what happened at the ICAC and what’s in the Budget.

Disclosure: the Crows also write for The Australian

 

ENDNOTES


[i] ABC Radio, PM, “Biggest corruption investigation since Rum Corps,” November 12 2012 @ www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2012/s3631059.htm recovered on May 4

[ii] “Haneef story gets Thomas a gold Walkley,” AAP November 29 2007

[iii] Kate McClymont, “Where angels fear to tread,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 4

[v] Jack Fuller, What is happening to news: the information explosion and the crisis in journalism, (Chicago, 2010)

[vi] Geoffrey Barker, “Switch off the TV babes for some real news,” The Age May 2

[vii] Jamila Rizvi, “Geoffrey Barker has had enough of TV babes. And I’ve had enough of Barker,” Mamamia May 3 @ http://www.mamamia.com.au/news/geoffrey-barker-tv-babes/ recovered on May 4

[viii] Stephen Matchett, “End of my rope,” The Australian, February 15

[ix] McClymont, ibid

'2012