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‘A very bad precedent’: Australia’s media treatment under global spotlight

The probe was launched after widespread outrage over raids on the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC. Smethurst had published a story about proposal to increase surveillance on Australians, while the ABC had published allegations of war crimes by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.

Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick argues the raids did not occur in isolation. “The [government’s] instincts are always in favour of secrecy, censorship and suppression of info,” he says.

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The increasing number of laws passed under the guise of national security, as well as the prosecution of whistleblowers and a growing distrust of the media through “fake news” have placed unprecedented pressure on the media in Australia and around the world.

Of the 18 countries invited to a press freedom summit organised by the German Foreign Office in Berlin in September – including Cameroon, Kazakhstan and Bolivia – only Australia could be described as a mature media market.

“We are all jealous of you,” said the Romanian editor of Newsweek, Sabin Orcan. “You are the only one who has never had a dictator!”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison joked about an authoritarian turn at the mid-winter ball last week. “It’s great to have all the Canberra political journalists in the room tonight because it’s much easier to get your metadata that way,” he said.

The European wing of Reporters Without Borders, an international advocacy group for press freedom, is not laughing. It has lobbied against similar metadata laws in Germany.

Julia Legner from the German branch of Reporters Without Borders.

Julia Legner from the German branch of Reporters Without Borders.Credit:Eryk Bagshaw 

“It sends the wrong example because it basically legitimises this behaviour anywhere in the world,” says its German policy advisor Julia Legner. “If it is done in a country where press freedom and opinion and journalistic work is still considerably protected then that will serve as a horrible example to other countries.

“We have a global responsibility.”

Khuhro, who hosts the second-most popular news program in a country of 200 million people, says the raids “put things in perspective”.

“Sometimes we have a rosier picture of the kind of freedoms that media in the West enjoys. I think it may give journalists in Australia a greater appreciation of the kind of restrictions and pressures that media in the rest of the world does operate under.”

Morrison – who has so far avoided flirting with a “fake news” narrative – went there this week after spending a week with US President Donald Trump. He suggested the media was driving a “prejudiced” view of his government’s efforts to counter climate change and spreading a “completely false” criticism to Australia’s neighbours.

“They get their information now, where do they get their information from? Who knows?,” he said in New York. “Maybe they read it … But from what’s come out in the media and other things like this, how they get their information … All I am saying is when I’ve spoken to them, they’ve been surprised to learn about the facts about what Australia has been doing.”

It is a pattern Mauricio Rands Barros knows well. A Brazilian MP for more than a decade, he sees it in his former colleague, current President Jair Bolsonaro, and Trump.

Bolsonaro copied the Trump playbook to paint the media as part of the establishment and sweep himself into office. “The root of the phenomenon is to manipulate very simple ideas. Populists are very skillful in manipulating public discontent,” he says. “It is much easier to get people’s prejudice about institutions than to conceive of a constructive or proactive platform.”

Doubt is fertile ground when trust in the media has already plummeted.

A survey of 33,000 people in 27 countries by global public relations firm Edelman presented at the Communication Congress in Berlin found distrust in the media has risen six points in Australia over the past year, the third-largest gain in any market.

The gap between the informed public – people who regularly consume news – and the general population has also never been larger: A 13-point difference in trust, the second-highest in the developed world.

At the same time, overall distrust in media, business, and institutions in Australia surged to the second-highest level in the 27 countries, just behind the US. Only Hong Kong, a city embroiled in weekly protests against the government, had a greater surge.

Germany gives a glimpse of what the future might hold. There, media distrust remains five points higher than in Australia and is likely to be a key factor preventing the government from forming another coalition when Chancellor Angela Merkel steps down in 2021.

Fuelled in part by rallies populated by placards bearing the Nazi-era term “lugenpresse” or “lying press”, far-right groups have set their targets on increasing the number of seats they hold in Germany’s parliament.

Martin Renner, the co-founder of Germany’s leading far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), credits casting the media as the enemy as one of the reasons for its success.

Co-founder and MP of the far-right Alternative for Germany, Martin Renner, in Germany's parliament.

Co-founder and MP of the far-right Alternative for Germany, Martin Renner, in Germany’s parliament. Credit:Eryk Bagshaw 

“[Voters] who see difficulties of this leftist media ideology going in one direction, they are open to our position and they vote for us,” Renner tells The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in the German Parliament. “I myself as a politician and also as a private person never use this term ‘lugenpresse’,” says the MP, who holds the AfD’s media portfolio. “I prefer the term education press.”

Ernst Elitz, the ombudsman of Germany’s biggest-selling tabloid Bild, says those who vote for the AfD feel as though policymakers are not seeing their policy problems and they are not being reflected in the media. “They feel supported by a political party that says the media is lying,” he says.

The issue has become such a force in German politics that the country’s largest private broadcaster, RTL, now has a 75-person unit dedicated to fake news. Part of the unit’s goal is to dispel criticism, mostly from the far-right, that it is failing to broadcast false claims about the actions of immigrants in Germany. “They will call us ‘lugenpresse’ for a terror attack or a viral cat video,” says the team’s leader Andreas Greuel. “We have to check it.”

Steffen Klusmann, editor-in-chief of news magazine <i>Der Spiegel</i>, presents at a media conference in Berlin. The Nazi-era term for "lying press" is displayed behind him.

Steffen Klusmann, editor-in-chief of news magazine Der Spiegel, presents at a media conference in Berlin. The Nazi-era term for “lying press” is displayed behind him. Credit:Eryk Bagshaw 

Australia has so far largely avoided a torrent of actual fake news infiltrating social networks. But the direct threat remains to the perception of the media.

In February, A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, asked Trump to stop labelling the media as the “enemy of the people” and proliferating allegations of “fake news”.

“The effects are being felt all over the world, including by folks who are literally putting their lives on the line to report the truth,” he said.

The reporter travelled to Berlin as a guest of the German Foreign Office.

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