xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Is it news or is it opinion?

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Is it news or is it opinion?

And now, here is the News.

(Cue for laughter and applause.)

We live in a democracy where elections are held every three or four years to pass judgements on federal and state political parties and to vote them in or out of office as the majority decides.

This is a vastly superior method for changing the government in comparison with countries where citizens never get to vote for the candidate or party of their choice, or if they do, the voting system is rigged to maintain the status quo. Robert Mugabe, the recently re-elected President of Zimbabwe, is an expert at conducting these sorts of elections.

In many countries there are no elections or the electoral system is so corrupted that a change of government can only be achieved by force of arms, death and bloodshed.

In contrast, democracies enable the ordinary people to elect or reject their leaders by peaceful means. Democracies are not perfect however. It was Winston Churchill who observed that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all of the others.

Indeed there are some democracies that are not really what they appear to be. From 1918 until 1989 the Communist Party ruled Russia and a lot of satellite countries with its communist form of democracy. Every Russian citizen got the chance to vote by secret ballot, but they could only vote for a communist candidate nominated by the communist party. Not surprisingly, The Communist Party won every election until 1989 when Russia ran out of money and the people finally rose up and Communism crumbled. This illustrates one of the essentials of a democracy, that rulers may only rule with the permission of the ruled.

This essential of democracy may have been breached in the United States' Federal election of 2000, when Republican George W. Bush opposed Democrat Al Gore. There are many people who say that Gore actually outscored Bush in the voting but the US Supreme Court discounted some vital votes from Florida (where George Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush, was Governor) and declared Bush the winner.

It is interesting to ponder what would have happened, or not have happened, if Gore had become President in 2000. Quite possibly there would have been no war in Iraq and issues relating to global warming may have been addressed more vigorously. 
 Of course we cannot really speculate on 9/11 and the Twin Towers or even the Global Financial Crisis brought on by the collapse of Lehmann Brothers and other major banks. Political events cast shadows backwards and it is not very productive to pursue the “What ifs” of history.

I am reminded of my days studying Politics at the University of Western Australia with the outspoken and passionate democrat, Professor Paddy O’Brien, who was a legend in my eyes because in his youth he had played football in the VFL for St Kilda.

In one tutorial in 1970, Paddy challenged us with a “What if”. He asked us to provide a conclusion to his “What if, in November 1963, it had been Nikita Kruschev who had been assassinated and not John Kennedy?”

While the rest of us scratched our heads, one bright lad responded, “Well, I know for sure what would not have happened. If Kruschev had been assassinated there is no way that Aristotle Onassiss would have spurned Maria Callas and married Mrs Kruschev.”

Now that I have your attention, let us focus on the 2013 Australian federal election. Blest as we are in Australia, with its very fair, sensible and strictly non violent way of electing the people who will govern from time to time, it is surprising that so many people are complaining about having to vote and about being bombarded with election material in the press and on radio and TV.

I believe this is due to two major factors. Firstly, the fact that since the 2010 election no party has had a clear majority in its own right. This has led to three years of constant calls for a new election. Secondly, the trivial and slanted way in which the news is presented. Hard news facts have been replaced by reporters’ opinions about those facts. It has been going on incessantly  for three years and people are sick and tired of it.

When the Australian electorate voted in 2010, it produced a hung parliament, whereby no political party had a majority on the floor of the House of Representatives. This state of affairs had occurred in Australia before. In the early years of the Federation, three political parties, The Free Traders, The Protectionists and the Labor Party, held roughly the same number of seats. None of them could gain an absolute majority, which meant that a government could only be formed if one party gained the support of one of the other two parties.

This led to a certain amount of instability and is the reason why Australia had 9 Prime Ministers between 1901 and 1915. Indeed, throughout the history of Federation, there have been many occasions when no party had a majority and so parties combined with one another to form government. The Liberal Party, which used to be called the United Australia Party, has enjoyed many years in government because it formed coalition governments with the Country Party, which is now called the National Party.

So, the result of the 2010 election, which did not produce a clear winner, was not a unique situation for Australia. What was unique was that the Labor Party gained the support of the Greens and several independents to hold  a majority over the combined numbers of the Liberal and National Party coalition. It was the first time that the Labor Party had formally sought the assistance of others in order to form a government. Mr Abbott’s view is that it is alright for the Liberals and National Party to combine to form government but illegititmate for Labor to bargain with others to do so.

It took nearly three weeks of negotiations between all the political players before the Governor General, assured by Labor Leader, Julia Gillard, that she held the confidence of the House of Representatives, appointed Ms Gillard as Prime Minister and asked her to form a government. Liberal leader, Tony Abbott, had also tried to gain support from the Independents but not enough of them supported him.

From the very first day of the new parliament, the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, called for a new election. This is contrary to the Westminster tradition which holds that a government may govern for as long as it hold a majority in the House. This majority  Labor clearly had, but Mr Abbott, on almost every day for the next three years, continually called for a new election. I believe that  this ceaseless electioneering by the leader of the Opposition has helped to turn ordinary voters off the electoral process.

The second major turn off for ordinary voter has been the trivial nature of the political coverage by the media. Rupert Murdoch’s media outlets, which control almost 70% of the Australian media, have taken a very strong stance in favour of Tony Abbott. That is fine and it is Mr Murdoch’s democratic right to have an opinion. But it is not his right to frame the news to his own opinion.

Recently, a cosmetician made national headlines when she tweeted that Mr Abbott was a very nice man and Mr Rudd was not so nice. The lady had been employed to apply make up to both leaders before a televised debate. The opinion of this make up lady was deemed to be so important that the Daily Telegraph ran a front page story about it. It also ran another five stories about it inside the paper, all written by its senior journalists. In addition, it also ran a cartoon about the “incident” and to top it off wrote an editorial on the subject. Of course, in the old days, the Editorial was where the paper expressed its opinions and all of the other pages were filled with fact based, objective reporting of events. Not anymore. Not in the Telegraph. Not in The Australian, or any other Murdoch owned newspaper.

In a subsequent edition of the ABC’s Media Watch, host, Paul Barry, decried this abuse of journalistic privilege and ethics. He was very critical of the Murdoch Press’ shameful treatment of the story. Barry clearly established that the incident which took up so much space in the Telegraph was a major “beat up.” Journalists who were in the room where Mr Rudd was being made up all agreed that he arrived late, said hello to the lady in question and then sat quietly for fifteen minutes while she did her work, then he said, “Thank you” and left. This resulted in a front page story, five inside stories, a cartoon and an editorial. In Perth, the Murdoch owned Sunday Times, made the “make up” saga its front page story.   If it wasn’t so serious it would be funny.

In the second last week of the election campaign, Kevin Rudd was in Western Australia. He made several important announcements while he was in Perth, but the major focus of the print and television journalists was that, while he was standing for some time in front of the large television lights, sweat broke out on his brow.

Wow! Hold the presses. Eager journalists could sniff a Walkley Award, or maybe even a Pullitzer Prize, with this story about a man sweating under a very hot lamp. The TV coverage was equally, trivial. Instead of focussing on Mr Rudd as he spoke, we were given very, very close up shots of actual perspiration on his brow. The inference I suppose is that Mr Abbott never perspires.

Earlier in the year, the then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, attended a senior high school to make an important announcement about the Gonski Report on Education. This announcement was about providing an historic level of funding to schools. It was of huge national significance; one of the greatest programmes ever instituted to improve education services in this country. That night on the TV news we heard very little about the new Gonski  education policies. What we did hear about, and actually saw, was a ham sandwich flying through the air some meters from the Prime Minister. Some TV reports actually carried an interview with the 15 year old sandwich thrower in preference to informing Australia about the Gonski funding programme. Unbelievable.

Over the last three years Murdoch’s media has constantly pounded the theme that the labor government has been inept. The Sunday Times front page story and editorial on September 1st described “the diabolical six years of labor government”.

There are constant references in the media to Labor’s financial mismanagement and the parlous state of Australia’s economy. Meanwhile, other journals of note, such as the United Kingdom’s The Economist, are praising Australia’s financial position and congratulating the Labor government for its many achievements. This is not reported in mainstream Australian media.

The facts are that, despite constant negativity from the opposition and a carping, critical media, Labor has a legislative record to be proud of, much of it achieved by a minority government in a hung parliament. All Australians will benefit from the National Broadband Scheme, National Disability Insurance, massive tax cuts at the lower and middle ranges of the tax scale and the Better Schools Gonski funding to name but a few. 

One of the most criticised projects, the Home Insulaton scheme, has been lambasted in the media as a total failure that cost billions and killed four workers. The facts are that thousands of home are now fully insulated and the CSIRO industrial research organisation has revealed that the number of deaths, while very tragic, was below the average for such a large project and suggested that the scheme, far from being a fiasco, was very successful. It should also be pointed out that the people who died were not killed by the Labor government but by private enterprise shysters who used untrained workers while chasing a quick profit. These greedy bosses should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

The Building Education programme is continually referred to in the media as a fiasco, when in fact it was also an outstanding success that made every school in Australia a building site, thus stimulating the economy during the worst days of the GFC. It provided schools with much needed classrooms, halls, music and art centres. A survey conducted by the Principals Association found that only 3% of its members did not feel completely satisfied with what their school received. In other words, a success rate of 97%. Some fiasco! Schools now have modern, well equipped buildings and children, teachers, principals and parents throughout Australia are very happy about it. But you do not read about it in the Australian media. Instead of being  diabolical, it is a record any government would be proud of.

The problem is that the news has now become an entertainment and Australians have their view of the world distorted by media that fail to present factual accounts of events, but instead slant their accounts of those events to promote a particular political viewpoint. We no longer get the facts. We get someone’s opinions of the facts. We get short grabs of events that are presented not to inform but to entertain. Sadly, the opinions of the facts are almost exclusively those of Rupert Murdoch, who is obviously very worried that the National Broadband scheme will impact on Foxtel.

In recent debate between Labor treasurer, Chris Bowen, and the next possible Liberal Minister for Education,  Christopher Pine, Bowen, after listening to a litany of untruths about the state of the Australian economy was forced to retort, "You are certainly entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts." Unfortunately, the mainstream media are entitled to their own "facts".

A classic example of News as entertainment is Channel 10s, The Project. This is a fast paced, in your face review of current events. It actually has an live studio audience and people applaud various pithy comments and cleverly edited clips that are selected, not so much for their news import, as for their ability to cause a laugh or to show some politician in a ridiculous light. It may be entertaining, but it isn’t very informative and  it continues to develop the view that politics is stupid and politicians are clowns and tricksters.

If the polls are to be believed, it seems certain that Tony Abbott will win the federal election on September 7th.  It will not be so much a win for Tony Abbott and the Liberal/National Party coalition as it will be for Rupert Murdoch’s news media, which has fashioned the public’s political view and that is no laughing matter. In fact it is downright scary.

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