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Quality journalism is about more than just unearthing scandals and injustice

This article by Sarah Gill was published in The Age on 24/5/17
Sarah Gill is a Fairfax Media columnist

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With the demise of ABC presenter Mark Colvin a fortnight ago – a journalist of exceptional intelligence and integrity – it’s difficult not to feel that his death marks the end of something greater. The end of an era, perhaps.
There’s no doubt that the week of Colvin’s passing was a pretty bleak one for Australian journalism. His final days were foreshadowed by a week-long Fairfax strike and the launch of an Australian Senate inquiry into the future of public interest journalism.

Portentous or not, Colvin’s loss coincides with a new crisis point for Australian journalism – a crisis on which the man himself offered a searing assessment almost five years ago. Tragically, Colvin’s 2012 Andrew Olle lecture – a narrative on the travails of news media globally, and a call to arms for journalists everywhere – was also a contemplation of a future in which he was to play only an abbreviated role.
And here we are. Despite Colvin’s hopes and entreaties, we’ve well and truly arrived in what American reporter and foreign correspondent, Russell Baker, called “journalism’s age of melancholy”. Indeed, since the grim pronouncement by Baker, a full decade earlier in 2002, the global collapse of newspapers, triggered by the “existential juggernaut” of digitisation, has continued unabated. Just when we need them the most, our most trusted sources of information – of fact over fake – are on the way out.

If there’s anyone left that still doubts the value of rigorous and independent reporting – the notion of journalism, as Mark Colvin put it, as “worthwhile in itself, rather than a source of shareholder dividends” – they need only ponder, for a moment, those that would prefer it simply went away. Because you can tell quite a bit about the broader benefits of good journalism by taking a look at those who wholeheartedly, even gleefully, relish its decline. And you don’t need to go too far afield, either.
On 25 April this year, Australia’s immigration minister, Peter Dutton, launched a vehement attack on the ABC and Fairfax for suggesting his account of the incident on Manus Island on Good Friday, linking the violence to community concern over the safety of a young boy, was inaccurate. PNG officials and police have disputed Dutton’s version of events, along with a former Australian immigration officer who spoke anonymously to the ABC’s Barrie Cassidy.
The Australian government’s official version of events is that shots were fired into the air by members of the PNG Defence Force, but a report by Wilson Security leaked to the ABC’s Lateline reveals that an M16 assault rifle was discharged “towards the [regional processing centre], staff and facilities”.
We still don’t know everything that transpired or why, but with the scale of the government’s mendacity still unfolding, there was Dutton, hitting the commercial radio airwaves on 11 May – two weeks after demanding an apology from Fairfax and the ABC for positing a version of events that was looking more and more like the truth – greeting the Fairfax stop-work with unrestrained delight, and suggesting that we’d all be better off without Australia’s largest independent news media company.

Now just think about that, for a minute. Because if the job of “newspaper people” is, as Russell Baker puts it, “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”, it’s no surprise that Dutton would prefer they clocked off for good. But to unabashedly say so – and to imply that the search for a deeper understanding of events is undertaken for no greater purpose than the pursuit of an ideological agenda – is dismaying. But there you go – a new age indeed.
Dutton’s pronouncements typically feature so little in the way of verifiable truth it’s no wonder he frequently comes unstuck. But the principles at stake here – the collective efforts of journalists to get to the bottom of what actually happened – aren’t about this particular cabinet minister, or this particular government, or even government alone. As much as Peter Dutton would have us believe it’s all about ideology – in reality, it’s about the only antidote we have to that: credible information, fact.
Without good journalism – without curiosity and tenacity and a willingness to question the official version of events, and to listen not just to the powerful, but to the dispossessed, the forgotten, or the marginalised – what scandal or corruption or institutionalised abuse, which terrible injustices or global health frauds, would go unnoticed and unacknowledged?
But it’s not only that. Quality journalism is about more than just unearthing scandals and tackling injustice; it’s about coming to grips with a bigger reality. Indeed, distinguishing fact from fiction – something that’s getting harder and harder to do in the new social media paradigm – and seeing events through the eyes of those who have experienced them first-hand, is what we must do if we want to understand the world we live in.
And here’s the awful thing: the more you ponder the critical civic role of journalism, the more you frankly dread what our existence would be like without it. And yet, contemplating its future, as our Senate is presently doing, it’s hard not to be reminded of the legendary lost dog to which Colvin fondly and frequently referred – “Three legs, blind in one eye, missing right ear, tail broken, recently castrated … answers to the name of “Lucky”‘.
For Colvin it was self-referential, of course, but as a metaphor it might apply equally well to journalism as a whole. Because Australian journalism has indeed been fortunate – if bearing witness to the human condition is something to be treasured – but despite us regarding it with a measure of affection, even devotion, it’s a depressingly feeble and dilapidated version of its former self. And one more kick in the ribs might well finish it off.

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