Perhaps I am laying it on with a trowel, but that was the way I saw it: journalism as a kind of shimmering thing on high, elevated by precious principles forged in liberal democratic nations over the centuries, and throwing out light in dozens of directions at once – the sum of which really does make the world a better place.
I state no more than the bleeding obvious, however, in saying that all too often in the modern era, it is not that kind of substantial journalism that prospers. A much surer bet is the kind that brings the “click go the fears, tears and cheers, boys, click, click, click” – as that which is most certain to rise is the simplistic, the non-nuanced, the easily digestible. And all too often that which attracts the most clicks of all is no more than fact-free visceral howls aimed squarely and unfairly at those who seek change.
For if I have criticisms of contemporary media, and I have a few, it is the tendency to gravitate to the simplistic, the negative and the mean-spirited over and above the complex, positive, generous and more nuanced.
Right now, on a bad day, it can feel like we really are a nation divided and all too often unnecessarily because our leaders in both fields go for the drama of division, the sugar-hit of populism, the force-feeding of our bleak angels, rather than seasoned and reasoned analysis.
There is, however, one major media organisation – particularly noteworthy for this occasion – renowned for steering clear of mere populism, and never known to go for the quick fix in simply finding someone to blame and whipping up the mob.
I refer, of course, to the ABC.
I don’t know what our political or media world will look like five or 10 years from now, neither do you. But if we have a well-funded ABC, I am confident our democracy will be strong.
We need the federal government and the people to get behind that core notion that the stronger the national broadcaster, the more informed the population is, the stronger is our democracy and the stronger our national fabric.
We need the government, particularly, to embrace the notion that this principle stands, even when the ABC and other news organisations are doing stories it doesn’t like, that the enduring shimmering thing that lights the way across the grand avenues, the dirty boulevards and the dusty track winding back, is ultimately more important to the nation’s overall health and vitality than the momentary comfort of the government of the day. I don’t just refer to the need for the government to properly fund the ABC …
I mean that a good start would be not raiding the offices of the ABC and the homes of fine journalists, while threatening to imprison them.
And yes, if the law is the law, and the AFP raids on the offices of the ABC and the very home of the fine News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst had nothing to do with the government, change the law!
How did we get to this point, where The New York Times calls Australia “the world’s most secretive democracy”?
And it had good reason. Had the United States had such laws 50 years ago, the greatest journalistic triumph of our times, Watergate, could have been crushed. The homes of Woodward and Bernstein could have been raided, as could the offices of The Washington Post, Time and The New York Times, while the whistleblower to beat them all, Deep Throat, would have in all likelihood died in prison.
Our politicians – rightly – frequently laud the RSL motto that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”.
Might I submit that for politicians on both sides of the chamber, if that famous motto is to count for something beyond a glib phrase on Anzac Day, it must also apply to their vigilance to preserve the people’s liberty, by leaving the cloistered safety of their political bunkers, breaking cover, and speaking up against legislation like this.
I repeat: we are in difficult times, facing serious issues.
The more that strong journalism across the board is supported and defended by the government, embraced by the population and passionately pursued by its practitioners the stronger our nation will be.
It has been the greatest honour of my life to deliver this lecture tonight. I salute the memory of Andrew Olle, I will feel humbled to the end of my days by the privilege of working in the realms of Australian journalism – for I truly love that shimmering thing – and I thank you all.
This is an edited extract of the 2019 Andrew Olle Media lecture.
Peter FitzSimons is a journalist and columnist with The Sydney Morning Herald.