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Speech in Parliament: the State of Australian Journalism

Deputy Speaker,

The origins of the grievance debate date back to the 13th century formation of the House of Commons, when landowners would send representatives to Westminster to air their grievances.

In the modern Australian context the grievance debate no longer has a procedural significance, but on this occasion I wish to return to our heritage and raise a real point of grievance.

This is an issue on which I have received a torrent of constituent correspondence over recent weeks, and represents a key element of our liberal democracy.

In my life, some of the best people I have encountered, and the very worst, have been from a few professions: politics, journalism and the law.

The relationship between the third and fourth estates – the government and the press – is symbiotic and often stretched.

Journalism runs deep in my family. It is a noble profession that dates back to the early 17th Century.

At its best, journalism is the faithful reporting of the news without bias or prejudice, fear or favour.

At its worst, journalism is the use of a medium to circulate argument that has little basis in fact.

Journalism has been challenged to adapt, particularly in response to a 24 hour news cycle and the ease of communication through the internet and social media. News is now big business.

If the integrity of journalism is to be maintained there will no doubt be times when the business of news will flourish, and other times there will, alas, be slow news days.

The unfortunate reality is that slow news days have led to a relatively recent phenomena where journalism flies closer to an area of entertainment than political reporting.

Entertainment is the world of Hollywood, of great musicians, of pop entertainers – where the opportunity to dream and the escape to fantasy are not impeded by the facts, by reality or by the very serious business of governing a country.

Entertainment now occupies more of our attention in the world of sport, where what happens in the athletes’ private lives is of greater importance than the marvels they perform on the field.

Every nuance of the athletes’ existence is dramatized to make news to sell papers or to drive ratings.

The news is now fully entrenched in this conflict between journalistic integrity and the business of selling papers or chasing ratings to produce higher profits.

Some journalists see themselves as celebrities with notches on their six-shooter of the political lives destroyed or governments brought down.

In my early days as an aspiring politician it was arranged for one of these celebrity journalists to provide the insight as to how the press work.

He gave an example of using information he knew to be false to damage a politician. This was a corruption of his profession, a sell out for a personal or professional benefit. But why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

And so the piece was published and the damage done: resulting in a resignation, a career destroyed. But the journalist had his story and could etch another notch in his gun.

Deputy Speaker, this morning in a wholly unrelated debate, I spoke of government funding increases in the treatment of mental illness. A technique often employed in counselling treatment is known as reflection, where the psychologist listens intently to the patient and then strategically selects specific things the patient has said for the patient to then consider objectively.

If the recent performance of the press in generating drama around leadership speculation was a subject of their reflection, and if they were to apply to themselves the same imperious standards that they feel is their right to apply to our political leaders, how would they judge themselves?

This point is the one that has garnered the most interest from my constituents. The media now appear to play as prominent a role in our democracy as the elected officials, so surely they should be subjected to the same fact checking, to the same scrutiny.

Almost daily we see the media mock elected representatives who may make a small error or mis-speak in a long speech or interview.

I know we must be thick-skinned in this occupation, but I say to the fourth estate – if all you ever do is criticise ideas, what will there be left to print?

It is actually a threat to our nation’s development that conversation on policy is not interesting enough to print any more.

Is that really the kind of nation we wish to live in, who will look after our growth over future generations?

Deputy Speaker, the obligation of a Member of Parliament is to represent their constituents and to act in the national interest.

I am here because of the leadership of our party – who led us from despair to the brink of victory and then in the next election with great certainty to government.

If not for our leader’s untiring fight and absolute commitment we would not have had our first indigenous Member of this House or the youngest ever Member of Parliament.

One indisputable quality of our Prime Minister is that he will fight for the right of every Australian to a fair go. As he so often says – to be your best self.

These two facts, given any amount of reflection, would demand that in return a fair go has been earned.

The most central foundation stone of our character as Australians is the entitlement to a fair go.

Has our Prime Minister been given a fair go?

From the night when he declared Australia under new management and open for business with his aim of providing certainty and stability to make us again a reliable trading partner – a nation of sovereign trust.

His character forbids the making of excuses. He is too noble for that.

Last week this Abbott Government had a good week. We left Canberra feeling positive.

The Prime Minister’s new processes of consultation are already bearing fruit. There was a universal view that, after some unfortunate instability a few weeks earlier, we were back on course.

Even the polls were starting to turn.

And yet, within a few hours of leaving this place, news headlines flash that the leadership spill is back on, and could even occur within a few days. Unnamed sources were quoted.

This kind of activity is not anywhere close to the noble art of journalism. It is a self-serving effort to sell papers, to drive ratings by creating drama.

And the single story then validates a host of others which can repeat the creative activity by using the words, “As reported….”

Deputy Speaker, when we have arrived at a point whereby the so-called reporter can broadcast pure fiction as a way of trying to influence the direction of decision-making, we know we are in trouble.

From my own experience I know there are some members of the media who continue to act with integrity.

But to those who sully their reputation by mere association, to those who act outside the boundaries of a decent civil society, I wish to turn the tables and be a mouthpiece of the community back to you.

Given that chance I would tell you that when the average reader sees a story based on information from unnamed sources, they know that is code for a story that is pure fiction invented by a desperate journalist.

If someone is not willing to attach their name to their comments, then what they have to say is not worth printing.

If a meeting is closed, then do not ask those who attended to provide you a rundown of what was said.

If a document is private and confidential, then do not print it. It is stolen property.

These may seem like pretty basic principles that most school children could understand. Yet our national political conversation has become too dominated by terms like ‘backgrounding’, ‘leak’ and ‘off the record’.

This places shame on all of us in this fine institution, elected to represent our constituents, to do what is best for them and the nation, not to get wrapped up in a game of feeding the hungry beast for more ratings, for more sales, for more entertainment to make celebrities out of journalists.

Deputy Speaker, some may say I am naïve to hope for a better way. Some in the press will likely criticise me for voicing this call.

But as a local representative I can absolutely assure them that this is the wish of their audience.

The noble art is losing its nobility, and as a nation we are all poorer for it.



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