2 Jun. 2007

Oz Media Not Quiet Dead Yet (Despite Howard's Best Efforts)

First Alan Ramsey provides the inside story about the "lying rodent" affair, while arguing that there is a mole inside Howard's government. Then David Marr reminds the Canberra press pack what real journalism is all about:
Since 1996, Howard has cowed his critics, muffled the press, intimidated the ABC, gagged scientists, silenced non-government organisations, neutered Canberra's mandarins, curtailed parliamentary scrutiny, censored the arts, banned books, criminalised protest and prosecuted whistleblowers.

This is not as Howard advertised himself on arrival. Then he spoke proudly of his party's tradition of defending individual liberty and the rule of law. He still does. He painted his victory as a repudiation of "stultifying political correctness" that left Australians able "to speak a little more freely and a little more openly about what they feel". The ravings of Pauline Hanson he represented as a triumph of free speech over stifling orthodoxy. And after Aboriginal protesters burnt the flag on Australia Day last year, he rejected calls for their prosecution. "Much in all as I despise what they did, I do not believe that it should be a criminal offence," he told Neil Mitchell of 3AW in Melbourne. "I do hold to the old Voltairean principle that I disagree with what he says but I will defend to the death his right to say it, and I see that kind of thing as just an expression, however offensive to the majority of the community, an expression of political opinion."

The Old Voltairean has fallen a bit short. He leads a Government notably uncomfortable with freewheeling debate. Uncomfortable is too kind a description: the dislike is profound. For a decade now, public debate has been bullied and starved as if this were an ordinary function of government. It's important not to exaggerate the result. Suppression is not systematic. There are no gulags for dissidents under Howard. We reserve them for refugees. The occasional victories liberty wins in Canberra are illuminating. There are limits. But Howard's Government has been the most unscrupulous corrupter of public debate in Australia since the Cold War's worst days back in the 1950s.

We haven't been hoodwinked. Each step along the way has been reported - perhaps not as thoroughly and passionately as it should have been, but we're not dealing in dark secrets here. We've known what's going on. If we cared, we didn't care enough to stop it. Boredom, indifference and fear have played a part in this. So does something about ourselves we rarely face: Australians trust authority. Not love, perhaps, but trust. It's bred in the bone. We call ourselves larrikins, but we leave our leaders to get on with it. Even the leaders we mock.

We've watched Howard spin, block, prevaricate, sidestep, confound and just keep talking come what may through any crisis. Words grind out of him unstoppably. He has a genius for ambiguity we've almost come to applaud, and most of the time he keeps himself just this side of deceit. But he also lies without shame. Howard invented the breakable, or non-core, promise - the first was to maintain ABC funding - five years before those children weren't thrown overboard. The truth is we've known he was a liar from the start.

Howard can admit error, but it is extremely rare. Apologies are almost unknown. More than any law, any failure of the Opposition or individual act of bastardry over the past decade, what's done most to gag democracy in this country is the sense that debating John Howard is futile.

One response has been to turn away and wait for him to disappear in the belief that Australia will once again be what we remember it was: free, open, principled, fearless, fair, etc. It wasn't. Most of what troubles us now about the state of public discourse began under Labor. Many of us complaining now did not complain loudly enough back then as Paul Keating bullied the press, the public service and the Parliament. But Howard has come to dominate the country in ways Keating never could. To the task of projecting his voice across Australia, he brought all the ruthless professionalism that marks his Government. Perhaps the man has now exhausted his welcome, but even when the Howard years are long gone, we will be left confronting the damage done and the difficult question of how we let this happen.
Marr goes on to challenge long-standing Australian assumptions - perpetuated every day in the media - about who we are as a nation.
We've never fought to be free... We aren't the larrikins of our imagination. Australians are an orderly people. We grumble about authority instead of challenging it.
He argues that we Australians now need a bill of rights to enshrine the liberties we once took for granted. And he discuss three particular institutions of liberty which Howard has relentlessly assaulted, inflicting lasting damage. Namely: parliament, the courts and the press.
On paper, no country's prime minister could be more devoted to press freedom. Howard declares he's an "uncompromising supporter" of the cause and opposed to "any kind of censorship". He says he believes that "if you have a strong, free, on occasion rambunctious �c press which is willing to have a go and is not in any way intimidated by the political process, then you are far more likely to have a strong, robust, virile democracy than with a bill of rights".

Yet under Howard the press has found itself misled, intimidated and starved of information. On coming to power, Howard set about making sure the tactics he had used so brilliantly to claw down his rivals would not be turned against his Government. There would be minimal tolerance for dissent within the party, the Government and the bureaucracy. The great leaker would stop the leaks. Senior bureaucrats who survived the purge of the first weeks were instructed to report all calls by journalists to the Prime Minister's press office. Stories were doled out as rewards. More than ever under Howard, the press would win access through favourable coverage. The new communications minister, Richard Alston, was soon lashing the ABC over budgets and bias. Journalists were locked out of stories - particularly those involving the military and refugees - in ways Americans would find inconceivable.
Read the full extract from Marr's latest esssay here.