The pandemic has revealed many cracks in our society, not least of all in our media. One reality that can be illuminated from the last 18 months is that the duty of our journalists in holding our governments and its agencies accountable is diminishing.
“A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any modern liberal democracy.” These were the famous words of Nelson Mandela’s 1994 speech in the context of the first democratic elections in South Africa. Mandela emphasised the need for journalists to have sufficient independence from vested interests. They had to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour because it was only a free press that could temper the government’s appetite to amass power at the expense of the citizen.
Such words could not be more relevant today. The pandemic has permitted governments to expand its power in ways once deemed as inconceivable. Professional journalists have a duty to hold government decision-makers accountable, to question clear inconsistencies in their actions and challenge incursions on our civil liberties. There have been serious missteps by our political leaders, stubbornly committed to a futile virus eradication strategy. Their aversion to risk has triggered knee-jerk border closures over a mere single case and denied Australian citizens from their basic rights to return home.
Despite the erosion of our individual freedoms, many journalists succumbed to their worst instincts during the pandemic. They fed on conflict and crisis. They ramped up fear and panic. They inflamed rather than informed. And they often belittled public outrage to government measures, conditioning the public to accept draconian restrictions.
The daily coronavirus press conferences became a spectacle: a public relations stunt rather than a platform for political accountability and transparency. The failure of much of Victoria’s press gallery to effectively prosecute the hotel quarantine disaster last year demonstrates how many journalists have become lackeys to their state Premier.
Gutsy journalists, who carried out critical forensic questioning capabilities were few and far between, like The Australian’s Rachel Baxendale, suffered constant abuse on Twitter — even death threats. Peta Credlin, the former chief of staff to Tony Abbott and a Sky News Commentator, was among the few who adequately took the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, to task over the mismanagement of the hotel quarantine crisis.
Credlin reviewed evidence on the hotel quarantine inquiry and discovered blatant inconsistencies in the evidence given by key figures in government. It was through Credlin’s persistent questioning that serious lapses in judgement by some of Victoria’s most senior public servants came to light. This included the decision to engage private firms to be the frontline security for the hotels in quarantine which led to Victoria’s hotel quarantine becoming so mismanaged.
However, few journalists throughout the debacle were prepared to probe the Victorian government on these issues. And for her ardent efforts in pushing for the truth, Credlin was met with a great deal of vitriol from not just the #IStandWithDan Twitterateri but other journalists who complained Credlin was merely “a commentator”.
Journalists have become consumed by partisan politicking. They have become isolated and out of touch with ordinary Australians. Instead, they are master manipulators of language, spinning everything to a political agenda – much like a media officer or media advisor does in ministerial office. The insularity of a group hugely influential in shaping the political agenda has ramifications for the democratic process.
In an age where media freedom is under real threat in authoritarian dictatorships like Russia, Ukraine, and China, it is pitiful to see the rigour of our media diminishing. We need greater courage and quality from our journalists, not a fatuous obsession with building their brands online and seeking the approval of Twitter’s bullies and brutes. Without it, our society will operate on the illusion of genuine political accountability and transparency, damaging the health of our free and liberal society.
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