Open your eyes

Like I did the day before, I spent most of yesterday following the EFC vs ASADA court case, mostly via Twitter. You might think that an unsatisfactory medium for something like this, but in fact the opposite was true. I had followed a few well placed tweeters sitting in the courtroom and posting updates every minute or so. Between the lot of them a compelling picture was put put together. It was dynamite stuff, which obviously helped. It was better than OJ.

What emerged yesterday in the cross-examination of the former head of ASADA was a story of incompetence, political interference, ignorance (“I don’t know”; “I don’t recall”), possible negligence, and compromise of process that surprised even me. I went in believing that the whole thing was a rort, but came away amazed at the ineptitude of ASADA, and soured by the brassy manipulation by AFL and politicians alike. I was there virtually, I followed every line of transcript. For those reading today’s newspapers little of that is reported – which is why I’m prompted to write today.

It struck me at some stage last night that the media treatment of this saga is in some significant aspects a microcosm of how much of our news, and particularly politics, are reported today. Basically it’s a disgrace.

There are three main points I wish to make, and as I do so reflect on how they apply on a broader scale.

  1. A number of high profile journalists have become associated closely with this investigation, and one in fact received a Walkley award as a result. In significant ways they have become a part of the saga, as the recipients of leaked information designed to influence public opinion, and by attaching themselves to a particular point of view and outcome. More than reporters they have become personalities. As their profile has grown they’ve become more closely associated to the agenda they’ve attached themselves, and have become more vitriolic (and subjective) as that agenda has been threatened. It’s become personal because their standing now is directly related to the conduct and outcome of this investigation – if it fails, they fail. They’re no longer impartial, if ever they were, and not the objective and incisive reporters of the facts as they should be, they have become virtual cheerleaders: PR and not journalism. To a large degree this extends to the organisation they work within – Fairfax Media for example, have virtually staked themselves to the notion that Essendon is guilty and James Hird evil. They’ll report anything in support of that, and disregard anything that is not. This is not news they pursue, but sales on the back of sensationalism.
  2. In this case at least the AFL (but read whoever you wish for that entity) has leverage over most of the journalists reporting on this investigation. The subtle leverage comes in the form of information. The spigot would open for those willing to parley their spin, and closed for those desiring to report more independently. For some this is a bit like a junkie getting a good or not so good supply from his dealer. Some were hooked, as I wrote about before, receiving the ‘good stuff’ – in fact quite doctored – and unable to say no to it for the reasons I explained in my previous point. Ambition, ego, all of that, was exploited by the AFL to get their message across. This is the same everywhere – tell the story I want you to say or else I won’t give any more information to you. The more brutal form of leverage – or manipulation – comes in the form of AFL accreditation. That’s the pass that allows a football reporter access to the players, the coaches, etc, the people he needs to speak to to do his job effectively. Word on the street is that some journo’s were threatened with having their accreditation withdrawn if they wrote columns critical of the AFL line. One prominent Melbourne football writer has called in ‘sick’ the last few days while this case has been ongoing – and has confirmed that he’s sick on instruction, otherwise risk getting your pass revoked.
  3. Once upon a time Australian journalism had a proud tradition of independence and critical analysis. Throughout this whole saga there are only a few journalists who could claim to have lived up to that tradition. There are so many unasked questions, so many byways that have not been explored, it’s remarkable. The public reads what it is fed, but is fed only the scraps. The news itself has been manipulated and pre-digested by those who have a vested interest in it, and their cronies in the media. What the public see is but the tip of the iceberg, the tip they want you to see. More energetic and scrupulous journalists might point out the 70% of the story still hidden. Why, for example, have no media outlets seized upon the revelation that ASADA were in contact with the AFL in 2011 regarding drug use – i.e. before Essendon? I.e. another club, or clubs? Because the AFL don’t want that news and as consumers of news we’ve become lazy – it spoils the narrative. A good old-fashioned journalist might have followed up on the mysterious doctors at North Melbourne, who mysteriously disappeared when this story broke. Or what about the many links and innuendo connecting this to organised crime? (And just now, the revelation that a player from another club was interviewed last year).

We are complicit in this. We get the news we demand, and all we demand of the news today is a diversion, something to chat about around the water cooler. There will be many reading this thinking I’m just an Essendon stooge telling it like I want it to be. In fact what I want is the truth. I suspect the truth is benign, and even if it is not I’d rather have it exposed. I don’t believe in obfuscation, and as a supporter of the club I don’t want to be deceived.

I would ask those of you convinced of the guilt of Essendon and James Hird to ask yourself why you believe that? It’s a question I ask a lot. What are they guilty of? What have they been proved to have done improperly? Most people bluster an answer which is incorrect 99% of the time. Essendon is guilty of the optics, which is all the news is about today. The tribal nature of Melbourne football doesn’t help either – many want a rival, and often hated, club, to be guilty. It suits them. James Hird gives them the shits because he’s too golden. There’s a big dollop of Schadenfreude in this – delighting in someone elses discomfort. And hell, this is too sexy a story to be explained away with facts.

Let me tell you the real story is a lot sexier than what you’ve been told it is.

Remember, I’m positing this as the basic model of how so much of our news is reported today – patronage, interference, threats, corruption, ambition, ego, and optics. We deserve better than this, but must demand it. In the meantime the old question is more apt than ever – you don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers do you? You shouldn’t. Ask for yourself, don’t accept what you’ve been told.

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