Chewing Off Your Own Leg
Paul Zanetti is a Walkley award winning syndicated cartoonist with over 30 years in the media. He blogs at www.zanettisview.com
One of the pillars of our great democracy is freedom of the press.
Press Freedom and its offspring, the public right to know, is part of the fabric that makes our country the envy of oppressed people worldwide. The daily stream of boat arrivals clearly demonstrate that people are ready to forgo their homeland, possessions, money, family and risk everything, their life included, on the open seas for a chance at a better life in Australia. My parents left their homeland to build a future in this great country, as did millions of others.
Yet, the hard fought freedom of expression and the press, which we value and take for granted, has a darkening cloud looming over it.
A year or so ago that dark cloud hovered over my drawing board. I was unexpectedly notified by an editor about a complaint to The Press Council by then Greens leader, Bob Brown, over a couple of cartoons. Brown was not happy with my portrayal of him. I'd lampooned his obsession with 'the hate media'. Anyone who disagreed with Brown was in the firing line. He'd decided to wage a campaign to intimidate, pressure, reprimand, penalise or shut down scrutiny which had held him, a publicly elected politician, to account. I exercised my artistic and satirical licence, as I've done a million times in 30 years cartooning. In this case I depicted Brown in a green shirt with swastikas, referencing a previous national socialist regime that burnt books, records and information in an effort to control and eliminate opinions and thoughts.
Bob Brown was ropable. He decided the best way to deal with me wasn't a protest letter to the newspaper to disagree with me, to explain his position. Nor did he call the editor and ask for a right to reply (which the editor said he would have been given if requested). Brown went in hard asking for a list of all the newspapers that published my cartoons, which I refused. The clear impression I got was that he was out to intimidate the cartoonist or bring pressure to bear on publishers and editors to take whatever course he deemed appropriate to whip the cartoonist into shape. This didn't go down well with me or the editor. It was a clumsy, oafish effort. We defended our right to free speech. The upshot was that Brown's complaint was heard in a phone hearing with the editor, the head of the Press Council, Brown with a full staff of taxpayer funded minders, note-takers and assistants gathered to listen to and record this momentous historical turning point (oops, satirical licence taken again).
At the end of the hearing, the Press Council asked Brown what it was he wanted. In a nutshell, he wanted me to be told to not do it again. Seriously.
Nothing more heard ever again as Brown came off as the school nerd prefect who cried to the teacher because he was made fun of. When the principal asked what would make little Bob stop crying, he sniffled, "I dunno. Just make him stop it." A footnote to this was that nine months or so earlier Brown's staff had contacted me requesting two cartoons showing Brown in a flattering light (sitting in the PM's office chair. He loved that one). These flattering inoffensive cartoons that soothed the ego were described by Brown's staff member as 'awesome works'. See where's this is going? If you agree, you're flattered. If not, you're threatened and intimidated. Preferably, the cartoonist or opinion writer must at all times toe the government line.
Shortly after, another ominous development ensued. A newspaper reporter, Glenn Milne, lost his job, as did Sydney radio broadcaster, Michael Smith, for reporting on a scandal in the PM's past where she was romantically involved with a union crook 17 years ago. They reported Gillard had set up a fraudulent incorporated association for her boyfriend which was used to siphon hundreds of thousands of dollars for his own (and possibly her) benefit. Gillard defends her involvement explaining she was 'young and naive' and 'did nothing wrong'. Apart from that she refers all questions back to those statements refusing to answer detailed or specific questions about her role meaning the stench of doubt and suspicion remain. As of writing she has still not explained, yet a taped and transcribed interview after an internal investigation by her law firm partners confirms she did nothing right or proper, but everything wrong (to say the least). Gillard cannot make a statement to parliament. She knows if she tells the truth she is finished, and if she lies to parliament she is finished. Another fine mess she's got herself into.
The most disturbing part of this affair, apart from questions of disclosure, transparency, truth, accuracy, accountability and integrity that go to the centre of the holder of the highest office in the land, is the way it's been handled by the Prime Minister. It's been extraordinary. Unprecedented. PM Gillard has made demands and threats to the CEO of News Ltd (while 'incandescent with rage') and is suspected in doing the same in the case of the radio station at which Smith worked. Her intervention resulted in journalists losing their job. While addressing the media she uttered direct threats with 'serious questions to answer' in regard to local phone hacking. She and Brown initiated a media review by a sympathetic Raymond Finklestein with the end game understood to be to muzzle the media through intimidation. More recently one of Gillard's fellow Labor MPs called for 'commercially significant' penalties for media outlets which published misleading information. My response is we could start closer to the MP's home by imposing suggested penalties on the most common practitioners of misleading information; politicians. A certain misleading carbon tax promise springs immediately to mind. How about immediate disendorsement from their cushy parliamentary seats, removal of any perks and superannuation entitlements, just for starters? Now, that would be in the public interest. Practise what you preach, you temporary public servants. A case of do what I say and not what I do.
Now, the attention has turned to The Pickering Post, a news, opinion and blog site with which I'm involved. This site has been asking questions and telling a story of the Prime Minister's past that up until then had been dropped by the mainstream media for fear of her retributions. Larry Pickering picked up the ball and ran with it, doing the job, asking questions, talking to informants and publishing vital documents and information. He chose a melodramatic style, that would gain the attention this story required. It worked.
As the story unfolded it gained the attention of the media and political circles. Some mainstream media (MSM) began to run with it again, starting first with Alan Jones, five days after The Pickering Post published: GILLARD: The Story She Tried To Kill', with Jones reading on air from Pickering's piece word-for-word. Andrew Bolt then referred to it, other media followed. Emails, messages and phone calls flowed in. It became an 18 hour a day, seven day a week job for Pickering to carefully sift though and corroborate all the information. Pickering would tell me he had so much stuff he didn't know where to start, "This is even bigger than I imagined. So many people involved from unionists to current Labor figures." (the event, the cover ups, the betrayals and the alliances). He decided to write and publish in a deliberately calculated, unfolding melodramatic style that Pickering knew would intrigue, seduce, shock and create a stir. His intention was to get this story noticed. It sure did that. He knew he was on firm legal ground and has since issued challenges to the PM to answer the questions or to issue him with a defamation writ. Some weeks later, she's done neither. Instead she's allowed this story to continue, as Pickering releases more chapters to the awaiting interested public. The Pickering Post website became so overloaded it crashed (now back up).
Members of the 'establishment' mainstream media club were caught out, embarrassed and humiliated. They'd missed out on, or were afraid to touch, one of the biggest stories in Australian political history. What to do? Some, such as Hedley Thomas and Matthew Franklin of The Australian decided to grab the ball and run, too, with questions to answer. Editor, Rick Feneley, of Fairfax's Sun Herald appointed reporter Natalie O'Brien to start asking questions and publish. Paul Kelly, respected political stalwart from the Australian took Gillard head-on, live on TV, in a battle of dogged questions and Prime Ministerial obfuscations.
Others such as Peter van Onselen decided to defend the PM, attack Pickering on air, making a preliminary uninformed judgement call to absolve the PM, in an effort to placate her to appear on his little watched pay TV show. Fawning like a lovestruck teenager, he gushed on air, "I believe you, Prime Minister". She eyed him up and down, snapping back contemptuously about his 'grand naivety'. It wasn't one of the proudest moments in TV journalism, with van Onselen showing political and media students what not to do when faced with a unique opportunity to get facts on one of the biggest political story I can remember. Others decided to make Pickering the story, betraying their own journalistic responsibilities, scurrying to excuse their own public failures ('there's nothing in this' they ignorantly informed a curious public, without actually having the facts), excusing and exposing their own ineptness, cowardice, tent circling, backside-covering, rank-closing and cloud gazing. Look everywhere but at the elephant in the room.
Mark 'no mates' Latham, publicly defended Gillard without question and for personal interest. A political freak show in his day and a cartoonists dream who lost the unlosable election to John Howard, Latham became infamous for his explosive temper, breaking a taxi driver's arm over a cab fare dispute, smashing a newspaper photographer's camera, attempting to veer his car into a TV news cameraman and intimidating an elderly lady at a children's swimming pool. Protect Gillard at any cost, even if that cost is exposed in his own transparent bias, while revisiting his admitted hatred for Kevin Rudd. There's a growing Rudd bloc within the ALP and Latham will say whatever it takes to keep his former rival from The Lodge. He sees Kevin Rudd shadows everywhere. To this end, he has attacked this story of Gillard's past as a right wing conspiracy. Far from it, I can attest this is all coming from ALP sources.
There's not been one conservative piece of input into this. The likes of Nicola Roxon and Tanya Plibersek desperately turn their misguided pot shots at Tony Abbott for something he knows nothing about, except what he reads, and with which he has no connection. I occasionally read Latham as a reminder why he was not fit to be the PM - the AFR embittered village idiot who is published not for his insightful wisdom but for his outlandish view of the world.
Others of less note have decided to shoot the messenger, without any basis, simply exposing their own bias in protecting a publicly elected politician when it's surely their duty to readers, viewers and listeners to act in the public interest. They're failing the public by acting in their own interest and the political interest. The ever expanding Prime Ministerial spin doctors will be soon put out of work by the compliant (su)press. The media should not be the PR arm of the government.
In another era Pickering showed what one man could do with a brush and bottle of ink. Today it's a keyboard and a phone line. We're watching people power at work as the public reclaims the agenda, demanding accountability and answers. Paradigms are shifting. Institutions are under threat. Traditional old media is being usurped by social media. The government responds by standing on the beach holding up a stop sign to the incoming social media tsunami. Cosy political deals and alliances are shaking as the internet demands accountability and transparency. Reputations are at stake.
Pickering sits at his phone and keyboard and creates earthquakes. He did it with his cartoons in the 1970s and today doing it with a monitor. Different medium, same brilliant mind at work. He's an unbeatable poker player when he has a good hand and we're watching a fascinating poker game here.
Pickering has so embarrassed the majority of the mainstream media some have chosen to attack and discredit him, but they cannot ignore him. Pickering will have the last laugh and a lot of so-called journalists reputation will need a good looking at. Remember the names of those who failed in their job(s).
The mainstream media majority is turning on itself and chewing off its own leg as it remains caught in a trap of its own making. The government so wishes this would all just go away. Caucus was in a tizz last night deciding the best way to handle this affair. As of writing Caucus has urged the Prime Minister to 'go harder' with media reforms and regulations. The PM vowed to proceed with media reforms by the end of the year. Shutting down press freedom and social media will sign the death warrant of the Labor Party for a generation, while making a public hero of Pickering. It will be intriguing to see if the PM makes another disastrous judgement call.
We've got a front row seat to history being made right now.