Why journalism has run off the rails

Daniel Ellsberg

Every single reporter should be an investigative journalist. No exceptions and no excuses. It’s the tool of the trade.

When they sign up to become journalists, that is what ninety-nine per cent of them want to do. The other 1% are sons and daughters of the proprietor and people on the make who were too dumb to get into university.

Becoming a successful investigative journalist requires training and practice. So does recruiting and managing whistleblowers. Currently, that kind of training or mentorship is not offered by mainstream media companies.

Proprietors and “safe” editors hate investigative journalism and whistleblowing and they do their very best to actively discourage them. At some companies, both are virtually banned.

Yet the most memorable stories ever printed in newspapers or broadcast on TV and radio were produced by investigative journalists, acting alone or in a team. And some of the world’s greatest “scoops” and the brightest moments in journalism have come from whistleblowers such as Daniel Ellsberg (The Pentagon Papers), Seymour Hersh (My Lai massacre cover-up), “Deep Throat” (Watergate), Dr Bill McBride (the thalidomide drug scandal) and Julian Assange (Wikileaks) to name but a few.

The chief excuse for not allowing reporters to engage in investigative journalism is budgetary. They say that “it costs too much”. This is a lie.

Privately-owned media companies depend on their business associates – advertisers, banks, local, state and federal authorities – to make a substantial profit. So the very last thing they want to do is to expose the corruption and/or incompetence of their own business community. Hey, golf days and trips on the yacht would become so embarrassing!

Today’s proprietors want to fill the pages of their newspapers and their news bulletins with “good stories” and not investigations into the murky world of private business. They hate the word “censorship” but that’s what it is and a bit of editorial control (let’s not call it censorship!) makes everyone happy, doesn’t it?

Yes, except for consumers and the general public who are being ripped off, overcharged and told lies by slick advertising.

In this environment, journos become cynics and abandon the “search for truth” and nailing the corrupt and the guilty. Nowadays the dictum in many newsrooms is, “If it bleeds, it leads”, which turns reporters into ambulance-chasers and death loiterers at hospital emergency units.

Today’s media companies spend many millions of dollars on senior executive salaries, bonuses, expenses, blowhard commentators, dividends for greedy shareholders and directors, wildly expensive promotions and advertisements for their own products and unaffordable giveaways.

But just a small portion of that gluttonous spending could cover the cost of years of investigative journalism which would raise circulation and ratings. Consumers want media with a spine!

The old definition of news still rings true today: “News is something that someone powerful does not want published; all else is public relations.”

Meltdown at Fairfax

 Speaking of modern media, amazing hi-jinks continue at Fairfax Media, my old stamping ground.

Imre Salusinszky with former Premier Mike Baird

The newly-appointed senior editorial writer at the Sydney Morning Herald is Imre Salusinszky, a noted right-wing ideologue from the Abbott/Howard/Quadrant school of politics and economics.

The Budapest-born reactionary departed Fairfax’s Australian Financial Review about 15 years ago with a sizeable package in superannuation.

He then turned up at Rupert Murdoch’s Australian where he was given the out-of-office position of NSW political correspondent at State Parliament in Macquarie Street.

His press gallery career is memorable for the gushing coverage he showered on dumped Premier Morris Iemma and two of his most controversial Cabinet ministers, Joe Tripodi and Eric Roozendaal, both of whom made appearances before ICAC.

Joe Tripodi called before ICAC

The political romance between Salusinszky, a far right Tory, and Tripodi, the Labor faction boss and Roozendaal, the former NSW ALP general secretary, was a major talking point at the time.

When he quit The Oz – with yet another redundancy package – Salusinszky became media director to Liberal Premier Barry O’Farrell. When a very expensive bottle of claret ended O’Farrell’s premiership and Mike Baird replaced him, Salusinszky’s apparent political partisanship annoyed journalists who felt, rightly or wrongly, that “exclusives” were being handed to Murdoch journalists and not them.

When Gladys Berejiklian became Premer she replaced Saluszinsky who departed Governor Macquarie Tower with yet another severance package.

Recently it was announced internally that he is back at Fairfax (“Independent. Always”) writing editorials for editor Lisa Davies.

Another case of mobility

But Salusinszky is not the only recent recruit of interest. Mark Coultan, an accomplished SMH reporter and foreign correspondent, was widely believed to be a certainty to become the Herald’s editor at some stage in his career.

However, when his ambition appeared to be blocked at the level of deputy editor, Coulton left Fairfax to join Murdoch’s Australian as NSW political editor (when Salusinszky departed).

With two redundancy packages under his arm – Fairfax and News Ltd – Coulton then became communications director to Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

Sadly, that has ended too. With three redundancy payouts to his credit – Fairfax, News Ltd and the Premier’s Department – Coulton has returned to Fairfax as news editor of the AFR.

What kind of management does Fairfax have? It gets rid of staffers, gives them a golden handshake and then, years later, when it discovers that it needs them they are rehired. Amazing. Words fail me …

Power to the people

And how about SMH reporter Julie Power? She has a special interest in celebratory stories direct from the senior executive suite at the NSW Art Gallery.

Last week she exclusively reported that besieged director, Dr Michael Brand, was due to receive an extension on his contract when it ends in June.

The article caused uproar. Phones started ringing in the office of Arts Minister Don Harwin, the Board of Trustees president David Gonski and at the office of Planning Minister Anthony Roberts. Arts journalists were on the phone too demanding to know: “What’s going on? Is Dr Brand going or staying?”

We still don’t know. But we do know that Jacquie Riddell, the gallery’s high-paid marketing organiser, has left her job at little more than a moment’s notice. Following her earlier career at SBS and Barangaroo Authority, Ms Riddell will be a game-changer wherever she ends up.

Candy Sutton

Meanwhile, SMH columnist Clementine Ford is dishing out crude, hurtful and damaging material on my friend and former Sun-Herald colleague Candace Sutton.

Candy bravely decided to “out” Tim Ferguson of the Doug Anthony All Stars for his brutal remarks to Candy in a letter in the early 1990s. One of the choicest was a sign-off: “love and breast cancer”. Charming.

However, Ms Ford, a feminist activist, and a claque of Timmy supporters have decided to condemn Candy’s action. Fair enough, they can take what side they like, but what is served by abusing Candy on “social media”? I’m 100% with Candy on this one.

Once more, The Post

Streep and Hanks in ‘The Post’

The Hollywood confection, The Post, cost a mere $US50 million to make but it has already grossed almost three times that amount – a cool $US136.8 million – at the box office.

And that is after a worldwide release of just six weeks. Before it goes to DVD, the movie is forecast to make more than half a billion dollars.

Ironically, the film’s co-producer at the time of its production was 20th Century Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch who has done more to trash journalism in the US, the UK and Australia than any proprietor in history, including the Northcliffes, Rothermeres, Beaverbrooks and Hearsts.

Washington Post is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos who is the world’s richest person with a wealth of $US105 billion.

Actor Tom Hanks, who currently serves in the role of “Mr Average American” (inherited from James Stewart, Spencer Tracey, Gregory Peck and Harrison Ford) has pinned his hopes on US journalists as the saviours of his country. In an act of selfless solidarity Hanks has donated a coffee machine to the press room at the White House to show support for a press corps branded by the crazed President Donald Trump as “enemies of the American people” when in fact they are merely stupid, lazy and incompetent.

The Post has taken on a life of its own as well as a mythology of its own. Ms Patty Fawkner, a leading god-pusher for the Good Samaritans in Sydney, reviewed the film saying it was “a political thriller depicting the true story of the Washington Post’s attempt to publish secret classified documents, the Pentagon Papers, regarding US involvement in the Vietnam War.” Really?

Fact 1: The New York Times was the first newspaper to publish Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers on 13 June 1971.

Fact 2: The Washington Post only published the Pentagon Papers the day after when it was forced to follow up the NYT “scoop”.

Fact 3: In 1972 Ellsberg wrote a book giving a detailed account of the heroic history of forcing publication of the Pentagon Papers called Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. Editor Ben Bradlee, played by Hanks, is mentioned once and the newspaper’s owner, Mrs Kate Graham, played by Hollywood Democratic Party darling, Meryl Streep, not at all.

Fact 4: Contrary to Ms Fawkner’s assertion that Ellsberg’s secret research paper covered “US involvement in the war”, the document gave a chapter and verse account of how the Pentagon’s war strategy was a shambles, fatality figures were being invented to bolster public relations for the unpopular war and the US was losing public support in Vietnam and across Asia.

With the release of The Post on the eve of the Oscars and the first year of President Trump, myth-making has become a preoccupation of the increasingly deranged American middle class.

If they think Trump can be stopped, impeached and thrown out of office by movies, TV comedians, kneeling, donating coffee machines, wearing black dresses and shirts, they are sorely mistaken.

Book of the Month

Tom Bower, author

Tom Bower is a London investigative journalist with an incomparable reputation. Over decades he has written acclaimed biographies of some of the greatest charlatans that England is capable of producing. His subjects have included Robert Maxwell, Tiny Rowland, Mohamed Al-Fayed, Conrad and Lady Black, Richard Branson, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Bernie Ecclestone, Simon Cowell and Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon.

According to Bower, his next biography, to be launched in London later this month, is “probably my best”. Called The Rebel Prince: The Power, Passion and Defiance of Prince Charles, it’s an outsider’s account of the life of the future English monarch who will be Australia’s Head of State.

Bower’s life of “Brian” is expected to cause a major stir because the abdication of his mother, Mrs Betty Windsor, 91, is in the wings and a nasty contest for the throne is brewing between “Brian” and his elder son William.

Quote of the Week

I want to make it more difficult for mentally ill people to get guns.

  • US President Donald Trump at White House guns summit












One comment

  1. Loved every bit of this issue. You’re a great writer.
    I thought: “His subjects have included Robert Maxwell, Tiny Rowland, Mohamed Al-Fayed, Conrad and Lady Black, Richard Branson, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Bernie Ecclestone, Simon Cowell and Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon.” was hilarious.

    Thanks again,
    Ted Riethmuller

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