Opinion: Intimidating journalists – a rare glimpse at a common practice

Opinion: Intimidating journalists – a rare glimpse at a common practice
Photo by Caspar Camille Rubin on Unsplash
Sunday 4 February 2024

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

Along with Tony Abbott, Peter Dutton was a conspicuous no-show from episode one of Nemesis, the ABC's latest addition to the occasional series started by Labor in Power (1993).

While it pains me as a pro-disclosure journalist and researcher to say this, Dutton's non-participation was judicious.

Whatever the temptations of record-setting or indeed score-settling, his focus must remain on a possibly successful future rather than on raking over a known and failed past.

His job is to remake his bedraggled party as a credible alternative, while cementing himself as its undisputed leader and next prime minister.

But in a week where his own personal nemesis, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, appeared to land a difficult yet well-executed backflip on stage three tax cuts, the ever-punchy Dutton panicked.

Frustrated the government had just put the Coalition in much the same snooker it had devised for Labor in 2019, Dutton forgot himself.

His smart-alec retort to the very "inside baseball" news the Guardian's political editor Katharine Murphy (@murpharoo) is joining the PM's office as a senior press secretary, bared the Queensland hard man's narky side.

"I am genuinely shocked to see Murpharoo take up a spot to now be officially running lines for Labor," he posted on ex-Twitter.

"The real outrage is David Crowe missed out. What more must he do to prove his credentials to formally be employed by the Labor Party? #givecroweago"

Who was this aimed at persuading, one wonders? His colleagues? The slavish foghorns of subscription television? The Young Libs, perhaps. At least when he joked insensitively with Abbott and Morrison in 2015 about seawater lapping at the doors of Pacific Island nations, he had not clocked the boom microphone above their heads.

Here, though, he wrote it down. Considered it, then pressed send. He probably thought this mock surprise and clever words "to now be officially running lines for Labor" was hilarious because it implied Murphy had been doing it unofficially to date.

Murphy won't be fazed by the slight. Her insightful first-person columns had breathed new life into the wooden genre of 'neutral' gallery commentary thus exposing the vaulting contrivances of male phenotype politics.

Often funny, invariably fearless, she would hardly be one to complain were a barb to come back the other way, especially now she had declared an allegiance.

For her many fans, however, including through pod and broadcasts, her decision to "go dark" as a parliamentary aide must, means federal coverage overall will be that bit flatter, less wry and engaging.

Dutton's attack on Crowe, a former press gallery president and longtime scribe for The Australian, before joining The Age and Sydney Morning Herald (in my old position as chief political correspondent) was of a different order. Which is to say, it was not just churlish but clearly intimidatory.

For a start, Crowe had nothing to do with Murphy's career move being neither a Guardian employee, nor a partisan in the estimation of any reasonable observer.

What Dutton's foray actually revealed - beyond his impatience for power - is the LNP leadership is now so accustomed to having some journalists in its pocket it can no longer differentiate between balance and barracking. Trapped in the binary conclusion that unless you are "running lines" for us, you must be "running lines" for them, it confuses rigour for rancour, interrogation for interpolation, analysis for animus.

Such unsophisticated reasoning has been fashionable in Hungary and numerous other putative democracies in recent years which have succumbed to a populist authoritarianism rendering proper robust journalism as ipso facto disloyalty.

It may be tempting to dismiss Dutton's gibe as merely comical, but it was intended to have a chilling effect - by which I mean a self-editing one. That is, to make Crowe and his colleagues think twice about what stories they run and how they express them, while sounding a warning to others.

For it is in the nature of real-time reporting and analysis that judgements have to be made - and then expressed in the full knowledge they will upset certain key players. It takes nerve but is unavoidable in any journalism worthy of public trust.

Crowe sought to address the frontal rebuke to his professional integrity head-on, using his Nine newspaper column to assure readers Dutton's allegation of bias "will not change my coverage of federal politics. My editors back me".

My editors back me. All journalists of course would hope this is true, although there have been known instances, including some recently, where this backing has been less muscular than expected. Let's not forget journalists, no matter how senior, are employees. Nor that media companies are commercial operations.

This commercial reality leads to a less discussed but even more insidious variant of this white-anting.

It involves political leaders and their proxies complaining privately to editors and proprietors about the perceived leanings of correspondents. The journalist targeted may never be made aware of such discussions, or of any understandings reached as to the tempering of criticism, or the less prominent placement of hostile stories. This is a form of corruption - and a serious one at that.

Inadvertently, Dutton has done us a favour. First, by revealing Trump-like his unfiltered thoughts, and second, by reminding us that among those who covet power, there reside some worryingly undemocratic instincts.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.


Updated:  5 February 2024/Responsible Officer:  RSHA Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications