Cringeworthy Media Down Under

The Russians are coming! So says the Australian mainstream media.

To be honest, I don’t know what the Murdoch press is saying as my equilibrium depends on my not reading it. The other major media chain, Nine Entertainment, is in full neo-Cold War mode.

Nine Entertainment, as its name implies, has been best known for televising sport. In 2018 it took over Fairfax Media. A family media dynasty was established when John Fairfax bought the Sydney Herald in 1841. When Nine bought Fairfax it acquired the sole ‘serious’ papers of Australia’s largest cities, the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and the Melbourne Age, the national Australian Financial Review and the national capital’s Canberra Times. This was some haul with respect to the potential to influence public and policy-making opinion.

Fairfax’ finest hour was when it published the hard-hitting weekly National Times, from 1971 to 1986, that period mostly under the benign chairmanship of patrician James Fairfax. Chaos then ensued, then corporatisation. The loss of classified advertising revenue and the slow take-up of digital media by the then CEO with no media nous led to long term cost-cutting and significant retrenchment of seasoned journalists. The distinct character of the Age was abolished. A proud but reduced staff saw the cynical selloff in 2018 by the then CEO and complicit Board.

The Fairfax/Nine masthead is ‘Independent. Always.’. A loyal old-timer claims that this latter-day label was devised as a marketing ploy. These days it’s a joke, yet with no embarrassment shown by editorial and management.

Fairfax/Nine still has good and committed journalists. But its World coverage? A shocker. Straight down the line Atlanticist bilge. Fairfax/Nine retains correspondents in Washington DC and London and they faithfully toe ‘the correct line’.

The DC correspondent, Matthew Knott, lived through the Trump Presidency, implicitly decried it, but didn’t look behind it or see the continuities. Once Trump goes, we’ll be back to truth and beauty. Knott readily bought into the Russiagate myth. Knott reminisces in December 2021 upon returning to Australia. Nice guy but … Remarkably, comments on the latter article indicate that some readers valued his reportage.

These correspondents seem universally jejune, read nothing out of the square, seemingly no history whatsoever. In the tough days of the (first) Cold War, establishment-linked journalists (aka the Australian Denis Warner) knew what role they played, whereas their successors are babes in the woods.

The recent London-based journalists (Nick Miller, Bevan Shields, Latika Bourke) have been perennially abject. Thus we have them toeing the line on Putin’s ‘bullying’ (5.9.14), Russian interference in the West’s appropriate dismantling of Syria (16.4.18), Russiagate (17.7.18), the Browder/Magnitsky steam train (23.3.18, 1.12.18), the downing of MH17 (20.10.14, 3.6.15, 24.5.18, 8.3.20, 10.3.20, 11.3.20, 1.9.20, 10.9.21), the Skripal novichok ‘poisonings’ (8.3.18, 16.4.18, 10.10.18, 3.9.20, 5.2.21), the Navalny circus (3.9.20, 28.1.21, 5.2.21), and Russia’s ‘imminent invasion’ of Ukraine (29.1.22).

Their reporting of British politics itself has been lamentable (Corbyn was a bogey). They misrepresent key details on the Julian Assange affair (20.11.19, 23.9.20), have ignored the long background, not least Sweden’s political complicity and Britain’s profound judicial complicity, and have generally remained indifferent to his torture and to the monumental significance of the Assange trial to journalistic integrity.

However, Fairfax/Nine’s DC and London correspondents are padding for the main game. The main dish for its readers is the reprinting of articles from American and English mainstream media – the New York Times, the Washington Post, The UK Telegraph, Reuters, Bloomberg, AP, etc., etc. Unadulterated propaganda. Independent Always indeed.

I speculate on the mentality of the relevant editors behind this slavish reproduction of slop. Are they under instruction from senior editorial and management? Do they actually believe this stuff they reproduce? Do they think that these sources are models of probity? Were they born yesterday? Is it easier and cheaper than doing one’s own research?

A peak of the steady drip was on 27 January 2022 when no less than four articles appeared on the problem that Russia and its evil leader Putin poses for ‘freedom-loving’ peoples.

Thus we get Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, UK Telegraph, on German appeasement of Russia. Andrew Kramer (no SMH link), New York Times, on just what dastardly means Russia will deploy in its imminent invasion. Jeff Mason and Humeyra Pamuk, Reuters, on the further brutal sanctions envisioned by the ringmaster Biden if Russia pulls any naughty business. And Jeremy Warner, UK Telegraph, on how Putin’s destabilisation of Ukraine could lead to global chaos in the markets!

I made an online comment to the latter article noting that if ‘the markets’ were so responsive to fake news then why pay any attention to them? The comment didn’t appear, exposing how sensitive they are to reflections on their own stupidity. Can’t they take a joke?

The highlight of Fairfax/Nine’s sterling contribution to the infowar was an Editorial of 20 January. Some highlights:

  • when Russian-backed separatists shot down a Malaysian Airlines jet over its territory
  • Russian media is inventing stories about atrocities against Ukraine’s large Russian-speaking minority
  • [Putin’s] reluctance to co-operate with an investigation into the crash
  • his illegal annexation of Crimea
  • This is the same man who sends his agents to the West to kill political dissidents with poison nerve gas and radioactive tea.

All these gems and more in 600 words! It may be only a coincidence that the aforementioned Bevan Shields, the ‘exceptionally talented journalist and editor’, has only recently been appointed Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald.

On the home front, Fairfax/Nine’s Eryk Bagshaw and Anthony Galloway work non-stop in condemning China per se, with its presumed evil ambitions through authoritarian means to dominate the Eastern Hemisphere, on its way to global dominance.

Master of Ceremonies on matters international at Fairfax/Nine is longtime hack Peter Hartcher. The much-experienced Hartcher has never been the same after a stint as North American correspondent. Hartcher recently enthused about the satrap Australian government’s preposterous ‘deal’ to build and utilise nuclear-powered submarines (AUKUS) – that will give China its comeuppance, he claims.

More recently, Hartcher was pumping up the British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s hysterical proposition that China and Russia might wage war simultaneously. This aroused Australia’s sometime Prime Minister and master wordsmith Paul Keating, after a previous spat with Hartcher, to label Truss’ claim as ‘nothing short of demented’, that Britain ‘suffers delusions of grandeur and relevance deprivation’ and that Hartcher was ‘the press gallery’s most celebrated beat-up merchant’. Quite.

I have written multiple letters to the SMH letters editors complaining about the preponderance of fake news in its World coverage. None have been published. No letters from anyone have been published on such coverage, and I can’t believe that I’m the only one offended and nonplussed by being treated as an idiot. Attempts to comment critically online on such coverage is also met with comprehensive censorship. They must know what they’re doing.

The ABC, the national broadcaster, is similarly afflicted. Its daily coverage of ‘the imminent Russian invasion’ provides no background whatsoever. Nothing about the decades-long NATO encirclement, nor the US-led February 2014 coup in Ukraine, nor the slaughter of Russophone Ukrainians in the Donbas (especially the burning of the Odessa trade union building in May 2014), Russia’s accommodation of the large numbers of Ukrainians fleeing war, Kiev’s marginalisation of the official status of the Russian language, etc.

As with Fairfax/Nine, there is no mention of the senior German General saying ‘cool your jets’, of the Croatian President saying ‘count us out’, and of Ukraine’s President Zelensky himself demanding essentially ‘for the sake of Ukraine’s economy and society, shut up!’

Indicative is that ABC heavies haven’t confronted that their erstwhile heroine Hillary Clinton might not be heroic and that there might be something more deeply problematic about the US polity than the seeming aberration of Donald Trump.

As with the print media, critical feedback is ignored.

The ABC has suffered long term budget cuts and pressure to ‘conform’ from a succession of reactionary governments (not least under pressure from the Murdoch media and the Institute of Public Affairs, a corporate-funded pressure group) which seems to have been internalised. It’s a mindset of cultural cringe to English language Anglo-America in the face of a curious, ultimately unknowable and potentially malevolent Other.

Israel has always been a litmus test with the Australian media. A peep of criticism of that illustrious apartheid state and the feedback systems are bombarded with outrage by the cheer squad. Occasionally, an editorial in Fairfax/Nine lets through a damning article – as in the recent kerfuffle over the Director of the iconic summer Sydney Festival inviting sponsorship from the Israeli government for an Israeli participant.

However, the local Zionist lobby always gets its right of reply, in the process highlighting that its members are the only contributors who have the privilege of writing complete bullshit. Here are representative print contributions, in response to the Palestine revolt against their ongoing oppression (May 2021), and in response to the boycott of the Sydney Festival (December 2021).

I have never understood how commercial media can put propaganda before profit. Perhaps there’s a captive audience in Australia for Fairfax/Nine print media because the only alternative (save for Western Australia) is the odious Mr Murdoch.

A rare voice of sanity in Australia on international issues is the online site Pearls & Irritations, created by a longtime senior federal public servant. It provides a venue for people to write intelligently on China, in particular, and for ex-ambassadors and senior public servants and others who can’t find a voice in the Australian mainstream print media duopoly or the public broadcaster.

The American-Anglo crazies don’t care about the integrity or sovereignty of Ukraine (think Serbia and Kosovo) or the welfare of Ukrainians. They don’t care whether Europe freezes. They only care for the ultimate dismantling of an independent Russia, a renewed Yeltsinisation of that country and of countries within its current sphere of influence.

Our respectable media is happy to oblige by providing a compromised ‘journalism’ masquerading as intelligence. Why do we continue to tolerate this shit?

Evan Jones is a francophile and retired political economist at University of Sydney. Read other articles by Evan.