Recently, Australia’s newspapers took the unprecedented collective action of publishing their front pages entirely redacted. This, they say, is a united call for greater media freedom following a sustained attack on the rights of journalists to hold governments to account and report the truth to the Australian public.
Are the nation’s newspapers really taking such a principled stance, or is just the last gasp of hypocrisy from a dying legacy media?
Well, truth be told, it’s both.
The media are had at it, spruiking their moral righteousness. “When you see every media organisation lining up together,” the Australian declared loftily. “We need to see some action.” Unfortunately, we do see the media lining up together far too often today on everything from climate change to Trump Derangement Syndrome. It might be possible for readers to take media protestations a touch more seriously if they were willing to practice what they preach.
Indeed, hundreds of readers across different mastheads lined up to kick home the same point in the newspapers’ comments sections. “Maybe if the media didn’t have agendas and told the truth this wouldn’t happen.” “Every day the freedom of the public to hear unbiased news reporting is skewered.” “Maybe they actually printed a truthful article for a change.”
While the media are right to protest governments hiding the truth from the public, the truth is that the media haven’t been doing such a bang-up job of telling the truth, either.
For three years, the legacy media have bombarded us with a non-stop storm of blatantly false anti-Trump conspiracy narratives, from “Russiagate”, the Steele Dossier, and Charlottesville, to the ludicrous “Gorilla Channel” hoax. Here in Australia, certain media outlets have engaged in a sustained pursuit of war hero Ben Roberts-Smith. The media’s anti-military bias also showed through in the ABC’s willful credulity and unseemly rush to publish unverified, extraordinary accusations of torture and maltreatment of illegal boat arrivals by Royal Australian Naval personnel.
As the almost wall-to-wall cynicism on their comments pages attests, the hypocrisy of the legacy media is astonishing.
But – they’re also right. Just because the legacy media have consistently sold the Australian public short on the lofty principles they pretend to uphold, those principles are still correct.
The hypocrisy of the legacy media doesn’t justify the increasing restriction of public information. To an extent, the media are correct that governments of all stripes have progressively sought to smother public scrutiny of their actions. “National security” is the standard excuse, and often that’s not unreasonable. But public interest and national security occasionally conflict. For instance, the government’s secret plan for an Obama-style domestic spying initiative might be a national security issue, but it’s also very much in the public interest for Australians to know about it.
The legacy media argue that journalists should be trusted to make principled judgements on publishing leaked national security material. Once upon a time, that was indeed how the system worked. Beginning in the Cold War, governments would issue “D-notices”, which were essentially asking media nicely not to publish certain sensitive information. Editors generally respected the system.
But, why would any government today trust journalists’ discretion, given their increasingly blatant bias?
For instance, border security operations depend heavily on denying information to people-smugglers who keep a sharp eye on the Australian media, the better to market their services to prospective client. Given that the bulk of the legacy media are nakedly partisan open-borders advocates, no government should trust them with such sensitive information.
As one commenter to The Australian noted, “Government accountability is a must, the problem with this argument from journalists is that in recent years their incredible bias has really undermined trust”. Australian journalist Chris Kenny likewise wrote that, “To win the argument, or at least garner support, journalists need to be seen to be fighting for the public…[who] need to know journalists will shine a light wherever it is needed. Too often that is not the case”.
In the end, though, the one iron rule I apply to politics is that, whenever you’re tempted to defend giving some power to a government you like, consider that same power being wielded by the party you despise the most. Because, one day, someone you despise will be in government, with all the power you’ve chosen to let them have.
So, yes, the legacy media are lying, sanctimonious hypocrites. They’re also right about press freedom.