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Richardson: Jay's jetsetting mission puts media ethics in the spotlight

Opinion

The Premier’s whistlestop trip to Paris has raised big questions about media ethics. But not for the reason you might think, says Tom Richardson.

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As South Australia – if not the wider nation – was this week celebrating confirmation of a local build for the $50 billion Future Submarines, the bereaved of Liverpool were, finally, belatedly, getting some semblance of closure for the loss of their loved ones in the Hillsborough soccer tragedy.

At last, official acknowledgement of one of the most contemptible cover-ups of police negligence in modern history, after years of denials, blame-shifting and, most outrageously, co-ordinated victim-blaming.

The latter had been typified by Tory apologists, most notably members of the Thatcher Government, The Sun newspaper (which was, in any case, a de facto member of the Thatcher Government) and latter-day high-flyer Boris Johnson who, as editor of the Spectator, authorised an editorial that painted the Merseyside city as a dwindling charity case that modernity had left in its wake.

“Liverpool is a handsome city with a tribal sense of community,” the Spectator mused.

“A combination of economic misfortune – its docks were, fundamentally, on the wrong side of England when Britain entered what is now the European Union – and an excessive predilection for welfarism have created a peculiar, and deeply unattractive, psyche among many Liverpudlians. They see themselves whenever possible as victims, and resent their victim status; yet at the same time they wallow in it. Part of this flawed psychological state is that they cannot accept that they might have made any contribution to their misfortunes, but seek rather to blame someone else for it, thereby deepening their sense of shared tribal grievance against the rest of society.”

The reflection, linked to the community’s determined quest for justice, is sickening. But even removed from that context, it’s no wonder the targets of its bile were so incensed.

It made them sound like Adelaideans.

South Australia is, in many ways, the Liverpool of the antipodes. Similarly blighted by economic malaise, geographical misfortune and, most pertinently, a sneering disdain from the power elite.

And it’s arguable that all this has conspired to forge a collective psyche of isolationism and dependence.

This has been typified by the hype surrounding both the lead-up and the reaction to this week’s submarines decision.

The sticking point, it seems, was not merely the event of the trip itself, but the fact the media were invited along, with the Government offering to cover their costs.

SA has, through opportunistic politicking combined with lagging employment, allowed itself to believe – once again – that its only salvation lies in convincing the Commonwealth to throw us a proverbial bone.

And, amid the triumphalism and ‘SA Great’ parochialism, there was also just the thinnest bat’s squeak of cloying indebtedness, that that much-maligned Competitive Evaluation Process had bestowed on us the dignity of recognising our maritime prowess.

In reality, what the CEP reveals is a complete breakdown in the machinations of governance, given it is widely understood that an agreement for an offshore build with Japan was all but signed off 18 months ago.

If there was rigour, as well as political expediency, in the CEP, it betrays a lack thereof in the process to that point.

Those that portray this outcome as the delivery of a long-held pre-election pledge mistake the fact that the pledge had already been broken and the policy underpinning it scrapped. It was broken the minute the Federal Government failed to guarantee a South Australian build. The fact that it has now returned to that position should not absolve it of the years of prevarication in between.

It does, moreover, suggest that no party should be making definitive pre-election promises that involve the expenditure of billion and billions of dollars of public money without first undertaking a rigorous assessment of the merits of that spend.

Yes, this week’s outcome is a boon for SA.

It’s also, perversely, a boon for both the Federal Coalition Government and the State Labor one.

Yet the debate has all along been almost exclusively about where we should spend this money, and very little about why it should be spent.

As former Howard Government advisor Terry Barnes pointed out on ABC’s The Drum this week, the subs program only warranted a few paragraphs in the long-awaited 180-odd page Defence White Paper, which enthused that it was “an essential part of Australia’s naval capability, providing a strategic advantage in terms of surveillance and protection of our maritime approaches”.

The stated rationale for doubling the size of the fleet from the existing six – which, again, was the subject of both a pre-election promise and a concerted rearguard campaign – was to “recognise that Australia will face a more challenging maritime environment in the decades ahead”.

“By 2035, around half of the world’s submarines will be operating in the Indo-Pacific region where Australia’s interests are most engaged… we need the capacity to defend and further our interests from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans and from the areas to our north to the Southern Ocean,” the White Paper explains.

“Submarines are a powerful instrument for deterring conflict and a potent weapon should conflict occur.”

Which, as far as detailed exposition, is about on par with the state Libs’ 2036 manifesto.

The French Shortfin Barracuda submarine, designed by DCNS.

The French Shortfin Barracuda submarine, designed by DCNS.

Bear in mind, too, that former ASC managing director Hans Ohff told a recent Submarine Institute of Australia forum in Adelaide that the mooted $50 billion dollar price tag was almost certainly a media fishing tale, as it was about double what the Government needed to part with.

But let’s just assume that we’re all on the same page about the necessity for this $50 billion (billion, mind you!) spend.

The announcement has – quite coincidentally, of course! – changed the landscape ahead of a mooted July election.

So it’s little wonder that everyone – from Turnbull to Christopher Pyne to Sean Edwards to Jay Weatherill to Nick Xenophon – has stepped up for their due recognition.

In Weatherill’s case, he has literally stepped up, onto a plane bound for France, where the design contract has been awarded to maritime giant DCNS.

A while back, many in politics and the media made much of the fact that Weatherill was spending public money to campaign for the subs to be built in SA.

Predictably, it’s largely the same voices now berating his current Parisian sojourn, dubbing it a “vanity project” – which it undoubtedly is, to a degree – and pointing out that there are as yet no contracts signed and that, if and when they are, the State Government will not be a signatory.

And yet, it is unarguable that the State Government played a role in heaping political pressure on the Feds to re-examine the case for an offshore build – pressure that became intolerable in the face of an SA wipeout once the Xenophon Team surfaced from the political ocean like a Shortfin Barracuda.

The sticking point, it seems, was not merely the event of the trip itself, but the fact the media were invited along, with the Government offering to cover their costs.

InDaily was among the invitees, with the offer extended via email late in the day on Tuesday for a Wednesday departure – with the caveat that tickets must be purchased by the individual outlet and reimbursed later, and that there were “only a few seats left”. It was, moreover, emphasised that there were no guarantees about the extent of media access to the DCNS operation.

The media, an industry broadly in decline, has always had a fairweather moral compass in my experience.

Like many other outlets, we gave this due consideration, even – in a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later kinda way – purchasing the final available ticket on the outbound flight. It is certainly arguable that this was a rare opportunity to give our readers some semblance of access to an organisation to which our country had just committed billions of dollars, on the proviso that full disclosure would be made about the auspices under which we would travel.

However, we ultimately determined that the arguments against proceeding outweighed those for, particularly given some other outlets had already either determined not to attend or had seemingly missed the boat. We certainly could not mount an ethical argument for being made a special case. So we declined, and cancelled.

I recount this in full because disclosure is crucial to this debate.

The Government’s offer was highly unconventional, and it’s still not clear which media outlets have taken it up. Certainly Channel 7 have made much of the fact they spurned the entreaty and the ABC has declined, while Channel 9 made it clear they would pay their own way – an admirable stance, but not a luxury available to every media organisation.

It would be foolish to assume, of course, that any reporter on the Paris rendezvous would be writing their scripts or stories any differently depending on who was paying their bills. As with so much in politics and media, this was a question of perception, and propriety.

But, in slightly bizarre fashion, the media sideshow has essentially usurped the broader implications of the trip – which will ultimately be judged on whether extra employment opportunities can be facilitated through a front-footed approach.

The media, an industry broadly in decline, has always had a fairweather moral compass in my experience. Practices that were roundly condemned a decade ago – camera pooling, single-man crews, receiving audio recordings of press conferences without attending – are now commonplace, and mostly necessary.

Weatherill’s actions this week have inadvertently, albeit subtly, shifted the delineation point once more.

My ultimate decision was predicated on the fact that giving readers an insight into the machinations of both the media outing and anything the mission actually achieved would not be justified by asking readers to effectively pay for the privilege.

I do not, however, make any judgements on any media that chose to accept.

Not so Channel 7, which has launched a vociferous attack on the whole enterprise.

It’s telling, though, that the proponents of this attack have resorted to, if not untruths, certainly half-truths, to make their point.

One of the network’s reporters, when questioned on radio about who was going on the tour, immediately volunteered InDaily as a participant. Which was odd, because I had told him the previous evening that, after due consideration, we would not be taking part.

Subsequently, a rubbish report on the current affairs show Today Tonight gave a highly editorialised account of the arrangements – “at your expense” – although it appeared to be stretched thin for talent. I turned down a request to appear on camera and pan the Government and its media contingent, and in the end the story relied on a local economist to mount the ethical case against.

It also dwelt for some time on the fact InDaily had been invited. It did not, however, confirm that we had not accepted – again, despite my having explained this at length to the reporter in various informal conversations throughout the day.

(The reporter in question was once an editor of a previous incarnation of InDaily, the Independent Weekly.)

Don’t get me wrong – it’s great to see Channel 7 taking the high moral ground. Presumably this means they’ll no longer be paying interviewees for exclusivity.

Furthermore, Channel 7’s new news boss Graham Archer now tells us that he’ll be taking a dim view of any corporate hospitality for his staff at taxpayer’s expense – so we’ll be keeping a close eye on the Government suite at the Clipsal in years to come to ensure this is maintained.

But the collective media meltdown this episode has engendered is, again, redolent of an Adelaide that can’t shake its insular mindset. There are big questions to be debated here – about media ethics and the relationship with Government – that have been largely lost in a cacophony of smear and innuendo.

And big questions to be asked about the true nature of the subs contract.

These are largely being asked by those on the eastern and western seaboard who care less about Adelaide’s place in the world than why we need to spend $50 billion of public money to safeguard a submarine fleet that could arguably be procured for half that amount.

Tom Richardson is a senior journalist at InDaily. His political column is published on Fridays.

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