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Truth, politics and the Fourth Estate

Most political leaders talk about truth. Not all are as confident—or as frank—in their view about truth as Joseph Stalin. These are Stalin’s words: ‘We ourselves will be able to determine what is true and what is not.’

We have known for over half a century what kind of truth Stalin determined for his people, and how catastrophic were the consequences. Stalin died in his bed, but was responsible for the violent deaths of tens of millions of people, many of them his compatriots. Truth finally delivered its summons upon Stalin’s regime. But the people of the former Soviet Union are still paying the price—social, psychological, spiritual and economic—of having been forced to live with and through lies. Lies are a contagion. Systematic lying corrupts the body politic. It also taints ordinary people. Ask anyone of German descent, or any South African, black or white, about the legacy of lies in their private lives.

We know what happens to societies that are founded on lies, dishonesty, evasions and  ‘weasel’ rhetoric: innocent people suffer. Institutions, designed to protect us, crumble; the law is made a mockery; education, in schools and universities, is co-opted. We see examples of that in some of the madrasas that serve as training grounds for militant Islamic fundamentalism. We see it in Western academies, even in our own universities, where direct political pressure or indirect financial squeezing serves to undermine institutional independence and integrity.

We can’t say we don’t know. We can all read. We can watch and listen. Many of us have the internet at our fingertips. We are witnesses, not passive bystanders. Many of us have personally seen the creep of corruption in our own lifetimes: in Richard Nixon’s Watergate America, for example. We have seen corruption in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, Cambodia, Chile, in Greece and Argentina under the generals. We have seen it too in Australia, under our mendacious immigration and detention regimes, devised by Labor and developed by the Coalition.

None of this is ancient history. All of it is documented. And, all along, we have been alerted by inveterate truth tellers, like the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, or by whistleblowers or investigators, like the Washington Post journalists Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein, or the New Yorker magazine’s Seymour Hersh. Or here at home by Andrew Wilkie, or, most recently, the modest intelligence analyst and weapons inspector Rod Barton, interviewed on the ABC’s Four Corners. We have been warned, time and again, what happens when we choose, as individuals or as nations, to value power or wealth above honesty, above truth: as nations we become corrupt; as individuals we become complicit.

Here is one inveterate truth teller, George Orwell, from his 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like … the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aim of political parties. Thus, political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants are driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions … are sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population, or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial or sent to die … in camps: this is called elimination of undesirable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Orwell wrote that essay just after the end of World War II. But note how much of it could have been written now, with only minimal word change: ‘border control’ for ‘rectification of frontiers’, ‘illegal enemy combatants’ for ‘undesirable elements’. For ‘camps’, well, Baxter and Woomera spring to the lips of a South Australian like me. Or we can simply say Guantánamo, or Abu Ghraib, or the interrogation cells of Syria, Jordan, Morocco or Egypt.

As George Orwell understood, it is easier to talk about dishonesty, lies, spin and propaganda when we are analysing the mode of operation of the ‘enemy’, the ‘other’, the moral foe. I began with Stalin. But remember how we once characterised Stalin. He was a Western ally, just as Saddam Hussein once was. He was ‘Uncle Joe’. It’s easy to condemn with hindsight; much harder to turn the critical gaze inwards and deal with dishonesty, lies, spin and propaganda when they come not from the ‘other’ but from our own ‘side’. At an individual level, telling the honest truth is hard, and often requires more courage than we can muster. At a political level avoiding telling the truth has become a minor art form. In Western democracies our politicians now call it ‘plausible deniability’.

If you have been listening to the Senate hearings in Canberra you will have heard plausible deniability in operation when Senator Hill was questioned as to what he knew about Australians being involved in ‘interviewing’ or ‘interrogating’ terrorism suspects. And we will see more of plausible deniability as the Rod Barton story and his ongoing revelations play out.

We saw plausible deniability most blatantly during the 2001 election campaign with ‘children overboard’.

Queensland academic and public service expert Patrick Weller puts it neatly, and dispassionately, in his useful book Don’t Tell the Prime Minister:

The prime minister has the largest office in history and it is dedicated to providing him with information. In his initial comment to the media, he used the caveat: ‘If these reports are true’. He later said he would ask for checks to be made. If they were, he insists he was never told the outcome. The advisers never told him and he never pressed them …

Accountability is at the heart of Weller’s concerns.  ‘Perhaps we need a change of attitude,’ he concludes, one closer to that of the man from whom Howard got his middle name: Winston Churchill. Certainly he was always partisan, blithely opportunistic, and often cynical. But he was prepared to take responsibility. When told of the loss of Singapore and the weakness of its defences, he is said to have commented: ‘I did not know, I was not told, I should have asked.’ That’s accountability. It accepts that public servants should check and tell. It accepts that ministers should ask. I’d like to see that.

Most of us would like to see that, if we are honest. But time passes. We forget, new elections are held and success carries with it a euphoria that can make victory seem synonymous with virtue.

We are now at a historical juncture where the victors of recent elections, in both Australia and the United States, are riding high on success. With success has come increased power. In Australia that means fewer curbs on, and less scrutiny of, government after 30 June, when the Coalition assumes control in the Senate. (Watch for a debate on Australia’s compulsory voting.) In the US electoral success means more power centralised in the Bush administration, with implications for the composition of the US Supreme Court. It also means increased assertion of the executive power of the president and further erosion of United Nations’ and Geneva Convention rules and norms as they come under question, are denigrated or simply bypassed in the prosecution of the ‘war on terror’.

So, who keeps watch? How robust a role will the profession we dignify with the title of ‘Fourth Estate’ play in keeping governments, and us citizens, honest in this brave new future?

The media are not an undifferentiated lump. It is important to distinguish between media, between television, radio and print, broadsheet and tabloid, between journalists and proprietors and between serious journalism and celebrity reporting. When you are in the habit of seeking out the best, it becomes easier to spot the worst, and to remember what journalism can do. But honest journalism is up against powerful forces. I want also to look briefly at the cultivation of mistrust, that is, the deliberate denigration of serious journalism and journalists for political and commercial ends.

First, let me say up front that it has been possible to read and hear better journalism in the past decade than at any time since the Vietnam War. The quality of reporting—from correspondents in war zones, from investigative reporters on location or in archives, the Russian archives in particular, from many foreign and domestic correspondents, has been outstanding. Think, for example, of the New Yorker’s veteran reporter Seymour Hersh, who broke the story of Abu Ghraib. Or Fairfax correspondent Paul McGeough, who has kept us informed about what is happening on the ground, not just from official briefings, in Baghdad. Another stellar example: when Yasser Arafat was dying, the London Independent journalist Robert Fisk gave to the ABC one of the best first-hand accounts of the man you could ever wish to hear. Fisk was appropriately critical, but having interviewed Arafat, having watched him over many years, in action, working crowds, he could also explain why the man had held sway for so long. While so much of the media was devoted to reflex deifying or reflex vilifying, Fisk helped us to understand. Not sympathise. Understand. You can’t successfully change what you don’t understand.

The English Guardian columnist Martin Woollacott recently gave a lecture at La Trobe University entitled ‘The journalist as moralist’. It sounds like an oxymoron. But Woollacott’s case was persuasive, and a reminder of what good journalism is about and how many fine journalists are still at work, journalists whose professional stance is moral without being politically partisan. Moral outrage often is the spur to great journalism. We’ve seen that in Rwanda, in Bosnia, Iraq, Cambodia. But journalism is a craft as well as a vocation, and the craft, the experience, the professional concern for detailed accuracy, is what tempers outrage into information, righteousness into revelation.

Clearly, not all journalists are Robert Fisk or Martin Woollacott or Paul McGeough. Some are venal, lazy or simply inadequate to their task. Others are cowed or constrained or suborned by the corporations for which they work. Some are straightforwardly corrupt. In the US, journalists are employed, not by some ratbag right- or left-wing pressure group, but by the White House itself, to give stories the required slant.

In Australia we have our homegrown practitioners of cash for comment. And we have them endorsed and used, by politicians of both stripes, from the rank of prime minister down.

We have reached a stage when reporting the truth, as honestly as possible, can be interpreted as an unpatriotic act. A climate of fear and resentment has been generated and exploited for political ends and for media marketing purposes. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News is the highest-rating news program in America. Is it any wonder that more than 50 per cent of Americans believed, before the last election, that Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11 attacks?

Dark times. But let me conclude in hope:

It is ten years and ten months since South Africa voted in free elections. Ten years and ten months since the world saw the fall of a regime, apartheid, which enshrined racial discrimination,
sanctioned torture and murder, and co-opted the law, judiciary and the police force to keep it in power.

Individuals, like Nelson Mandela, and, extraordinarily, his white friend and one-time foe, F.W. de Klerk, were brave enough to speak honestly and to require honesty about their country and its history. No one could have expected such a dramatic and fundamental turnabout. From high politics to private individual lives in South Africa, truth again became a byword. Honesty became possible.

No one pretends that South Africa has solved its problems, but then no one expected that it might be brave enough to take the chance, or to offer the legacy of honesty to South Africa’s children. We all have children, of our blood or in our care, and children offer us a similar chance of renewal. We can teach them to be brave enough to take the chance, to risk honesty in their daily lives, and we can provide the example by doing so ourselves. We can demand honesty and truth of ourselves first, and then of our leaders, our politicians, imams, bishops, rabbis, teachers and journalists. That is my Lenten resolution, and one I’d commend to everyone.

Morag Fraser is the former editor of Eureka Street.



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