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When journalists self-censor

The media should report the news whomever it inconveniences

Artillery Row

If you happened to check out the Twitter account of Sky News Australia last week, you might have come across a “hot mic” recording that I, for one, found very troubling.

They seemed to regret the way they’d handled the story

A group of senior reporters from the ABC, Australia’s version of the BBC, had been captured on tape chatting just before a press conference. They were discussing the origins of Covid and the latest evidence coming out of various Congressional committees in Washington DC that the long disparaged “lab leak” theory may have something in it after all. They seemed to regret the way they’d handled the story before, but what really annoyed them was that a rival at Sky News — a reporter called Sharri Markson, whom they variously described as a “pit bull” and “unhinged” — may have been right all along.

I know all about the rivalry between the ABC and Australian media outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch such as Sky News. For several years I worked at the ABC in a senior editorial role, and I regularly received a good kicking from Team Murdoch.

My first public spat was with a writer from Murdoch’s Australian who appeared to think that I was part of some wet, pinko, metropolitan, elitist conspiracy to … well, you can imagine. Gerard Henderson is his name — a long-term scourge of the ABC and all its works. We traded emails for several days about a documentary biography of 1970s Labour titan and former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, which we’d just put to air. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice to say the nits Gerard had chosen to pick did not strike me as overly important. I wanted to defend the filmmakers responsible for what was a beautifully made and impeccably fair and balanced series (which, if anything, had bent over backwards to find fault with Whitlam). I reckon I gave as good as I got in those emails, but Gerard obviously thought they exposed the biases he was determined to uproot. He put the whole exchange up on his blog.

At this point my boss, Managing Director Mark Scott, memorably called me up to say, “Phil, can you please stop heckling the man holding the microphone!”

So, yes. I can very easily understand why ABC journalists have negative feelings about the stories and personnel at papers and TV stations that attack them so regularly, but that in no way excuses what I heard on that hot mic recording. It’s clear that these very influential men were having serious second thoughts about the Covid lab leak theory and regretted dismissing the story in the past. A major reason they didn’t give it a fair chance beforehand was that Sharri Markson was pushing it — thus making it, in their words, “ideological … a bit Trumpy”.

Tribalism is increasingly common in newsrooms all over the world

Some of the most influential reporters at a nation’s most important (and publically funded) broadcaster, facing probably the biggest story of their careers, had put on ideological blinkers and not done their jobs.

I now run a podcast about journalism with my old mate Andrew Lownie. He’s been in the news — and the pages of The Critic — quite a lot recently because his long campaign to extract documents about Lord Louis Mountbatten has led to his becoming the subject of official “monitoring”. Recently, we interviewed veteran reporter (and an ex Panorama colleague of mine) Michael Crick about that and about other ways that “the powers that be” try to put obstacles in front of reporters and historians in pursuit of uncomfortable truths.

Somewhat to my surprise, the conversation went in a different direction — perhaps partly because of the Aussie hot mic. Like me, Michael thinks that the tribalism that seems to have occurred down under is increasingly common in newsrooms and editorial committees all over the world. He spoke about his own battles with C4 News where his bosses, so he claims, were more interested in stories bashing Tory MPs than ones bashing Labour ones. Then there’s the Hunter Biden laptop fiasco, a story that was effectively suppressed during the last Presidential election campaign by pretty much all the world’s major media and social media outlets because — at least according to the people who run Twitter today — they didn’t want to give Trump an inch. Regardless of whether you think the story important, or believe that it in any way damages Joe Biden, it’s clear now that what was initially reported in the New York Post was largely true.

I remember talking to film makers — and, yes, even a few colleagues — when I was at the ABC. It was obvious that they regarded us as being some kind of oppositional force to Murdoch media, the antidote to whatever stories and causes were being pushed there. I recall very similar conversations at the BBC as well. I never bought it. Indeed, I think it’s a very dangerous mindset for anyone working at a national broadcaster to slip into.

In both continents our job was and is to inform, entertain and, yes, sometimes challenge everyone in the country — not just the ones we might enjoy having dinner parties with. That includes the millions who like The Australian or The Daily Mail, watch Sky News Australia or GB News, and vote for right wing political parties. That’s why I commissioned a series on conservative Prime Minister Robert Menzies to match the one on Whitlam. It’s also why I coaxed Andrew Bolt onto the ABC, and he’s probably the sternest critic of them all. The documentary in which he debates indigenous rights and constitutional change with Labour MP Linda Burney (now the country’s Minister for Indigenous Affairs) was genuinely enlightening, fair and prescient (there’s a referendum coming up there on just this topic).

Come on, fellow hacks: let’s continue to “kick against the pricks” when it comes to the shadowy establishment forces that Andrew is battling. Let’s not become the pricks ourselves.

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