Political journalists in Australia can be as professional, fair or biased as anywhere else. However, the increasing allegation that political journalists can be or actually are activists is far more serious.
This is meant to be an early, direct, Australian Perspectives study of the Australian media (and journalists). It looks at a particular article by a journalist who we will come back to more than once over future months. He has a history as well as a future and this post will introduce him and highlight how political journalism works here, highlighting the question of “what is media activism?”
Peter Hartcher whose article is mentioned here, is an interesting case. A senior journalist in Australian political coverage, he is the Political Editor and International Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and has been so for some years. In his writings on national politics in Australia his articles give him a journalistic track record. This is one of his most recent – and targeted.
A headline isn’t the responsibility of the journalist and often has nothing to do with the bulk of the article or even of its thrust. Not this time, though. It is precisely on point. In the (opinion) article How conservatives stole the Liberal Party, published on 2 February, 2019 in the Sydney Morning Herald, a number of themes and issues were thrown up and they related directly to political narratives which are either peripheral or seriously contested.
The first and second paragraphs lays out his theme quite clearly:-
“(Cory Bernardi) quit the party two years ago to start his own, Australian Conservatives. And he waited for all the other disgruntled right-wing Liberals to join him.
“He’s still waiting….the defections and departures are all occurring at the other end of the Liberal Party spectrum, among the moderates. The conservatives feel no urge to leave. They’ve made themselves pretty comfortable.”
This idea that the Australan federal Liberal Party has recently become dominated by a conservative wing is hard to justify. Very hard.
The Liberal party has been wracked by political infighting for years, and in NSW in particular it has been very vicious, but there is no question that the left, self-called “moderates” are in charge and moving to clean up everywhere. They send signals that they are in the “mopping up” stages set to get rid of all conservative opposition. This was the plot against Tony Abbott led in person by an MP member of his party’s left wing faction.
For Hartcher to even hint at conservative domination while having knowedge of that NSW suituation seems to stretch credibility. Some could even say its is a political narrative intended by politicians to give a particular impression which is at variance to the facts. That’s where experienced journalists come in isn’t it? Not here. The opposite is stressed by Hartcher. The very fact that a conservative PM, Tony Abbott, was overthrown by a majority of the parliamentary party, in what everyone has said was a move against the conservatives, makes it hard to see as leaving much room for conservatives to “dominate”. Especially when that conservative was replaced by a strongly left wing PM in Turnbull.
Admittedly the “Moderate” (ie leftist) Malcolm Turnbull did lose the prime ministership too, but this wasn’t any clear-cut triumph of opposing conservative forces. Far from it. Because Turnbull had decided to call an election in July 2016 and lost many seats to just scrape in with a one-seat majority, he was always on a knife edge. With some conservative MPs threatening to vote against an environmental policy of his, Turnbull was beholden to them for a majority, but rather than carry on with their support, he called a leadership spill in August 2018 and found that a sizeable minority voted for someone else.
The conservative opponent, Peter Dutton, couldn’t even muster the 50% of the names to get an open leadership vote against Turnbull and by the end of the Turnbull dramatics, some of his own supporters were signing their names just to get a vote! With Dutton obviously not hugely popular and devoid of an obvious majority in his favour, Turnbull could have fought and won. But that wasn’t Turnbull. He didn’t stand and the leadership was won by Scott Morrison, the candidate supported by the very left-moderates Hartcher claims are now not in control of the Liberal party.
Hartcher knew this, knew all of this. Yet he not only pushes that line about “conservatives in control”, he doubles down on it later.
“most importantly for the conservatives, they managed to defeat the foremost moderate, Bishop…The conservatives are quietly thrilled that they so managed to intimidate the left that the moderates didn’t even try to support one of their own for the prime ministership. It was a pre-emptive surrender in favour of the compromise candidate.”
This is one of the worst….er… ”mistakes” in the whole article. It is written months after the leadership change, nothing hidden there. Hartcher knows that the same left/moderates got together in an encrypted WhatsApp list to discuss politics away from prying eyes. Julie Bishop (the Hartcher favourite and suspected leaker) was a candidate and nobody knows the truth about why they did it, but her own faction (yes, the so-called “moderates” again) decided that Morrison was the better candidate. That is logical. After all, Bishop in West Australia – a lightly-populated state – had only a certain number of MPs to vote for the leader, compared to NSW where not only were there many times more MPs to influence, it was a State where the left/Moderate friends were in virtually total control. And far from just being a “compromise” candidate, Morrison was a creature of the Party machine and, with his handful of MPs loyal to him, was an active force in gathering numbers against Tony Abbott and allowing Turnbull to overthrow him.
Yet Hartcher claims the conservatives “managed to intimidate the left that the moderates didn’t even try to support one of their own”. This is laughable.
Hartcher knew that there was a WhatsApp list, a social media group which uses the favoured encryption for messages, where the left members of the list were screen-capped openly talking about voting against Bishop. This was to be in order to head off a possibility that Dutton could get enough votes to win by having Bishop votes cut into a Morrison vote count enough to make Morrison go 3rd against Bishop & Dutton. Supposedly a new vote would lead to Dutton winning. What is obvious but unsaid by them at the time (or by Hartcher) was that it relied on acceptance that Bishop was so unpopular within the party that Dutton would attract votes to keep her out. It is all so highly convoluted that it is approaching the ridiculous, but in any case, the key point is that the left did any intimidation that was to be had, it was by the left “moderates” not conservatives! Hartcher knew this, yet still printed that pap about intimidation.
The article has a lot more in this vein of being anti-conservative. He inflates the supposed “independent conservatives” (people going against the government conservatives in selected seats for the next election) being against the Morrison government, when nearly everyone feels they are either Turnbull stooges or Getup plants. Getup, a hard left, part overseas-funded group has long made it known to be out for these conservatives and only awaiting some candidates.
Singling Hartcher out in this way is not meant to be anything other than demonstrative of what we can (and often do) see in political reporting here and elsewhere. There are other journalists who publish conservative-tinged articles in what might be seen as similar fashion. What I have tried to show is that by being informed, readers can inform themselves as to the dangers of taking these “opinions” as true unless and until they have been weighed up in the light of other evidence available to those readers.