INVESTIGATIVE journalism in Tasmania is in a better state than it has been for some time …

I am humbled to be in the presence of stalwart sceptics and commentators such as the venerable Crawford, the stoicly inquisitive Airlie, the naughtily sceptical Margaretta, and the good doctor Herr, he of great psephological wisdom.

As appreciative of them as I am, a couple of others currently stand out as exemplifying the craft …

I am a huge fan of Sunday Tasmanian senior journalist Simon Bevilacqua: his quiet, inquiring mind has for years probed the darker recesses of Tasmanian public life with an admirable tenaciousness and consistency. He keeps producing ground-breaking stories about subjects as diverse as the health of Tasmanian road workers to questionable financial practices at the Hydro, or new angles on the state’s most divisive issue … forestry.

And now we have Mercury Chief Reporter Sue Neales, whose journalism has flowered into a beautiful thing as this decorated journalist has got to grips with Tasmania’s unique public sphere.

You know you are having an effect in Tasmanian public life when you are abused.

I heard a story about Sue this week and her experience at the State Labor Conference last Saturday. This is a second-hand anecdote, but it rings true to me:

A delegate is said to have told her: “I’m surprised you showed your face here after what you wrote”. Her crime in the eyes of this apparatchik was that she dared speculate that Harry Quick would stand as an independent.

It was to me both a revelatory and typical reaction. For the public sphere in Tasmania has been debauched by its politicians, particularly the Labor Party.

Whistleblowing

There is an unstated assumption that you have to play by the ruling party’s rules or you don’t play; as one senior pollie told a recalcitrant a few years ago: “Toe the line or you don’t work in Tasmania”.

The difficulty experienced by whisteblowers over many years in attempting to bring to light their concerns is another example of the poverty of Tasmania’s public sphere.

This is a deeply divided island with a sociological profile now which is — I reckon — similar to early 19th century Tasmania. There are still Masters, Overseers and Servants. And Tasmanian media can be criticised for too often playing the role of Overseer … keeping it all nice for the Masters.

The Masters do not take kindly to questioning and oppositional views, let alone whistleblowing.

Not for these the fierce debate which refines an issue and in which the philosophical underpinning to an issue is properly exposed and examined.

No Way. Difficult buggers, the whistleblowers or the journos questioning and writing outside the tent are dealt with in very specific ways.

Let’s call it the Four-Step Response.

Response Number One: Deny the issue oxygen. The issue doesn’t exist, ignore it.

Response Number Two: It’s not going away, so threaten it. Toe the line or you don’t work in Tasmania. Issue a veiled legal threat; verbal initially, then written. (Tasmanian Times’ first experience as a fledgling website was perfectly ridiculous … an absurd email from Premier Jim Bacon’s minder Ken Jefferies threatening legal action (Kenny became a spinner after being senior ABC parliamentary reporter). The alleged crime: Reprinting a translation of an article on — you guessed it — forestry, from the great French morning daily newspaper, Le Figaro. Kenny was insistent it be taken down forthwith because of its defamation of the Premier; “Jim would be happy” if this was done; This was accompanied by a further threat that I would be dealt with by a government lawyer, one Simon Cooper, who I later discovered happened to be overseas at the time. I asked what Kenny was planning to do with Le Figaro. He replied that that was a tad more difficult.

Kenny was thanked for his request, which was then politely refused.

I’m still waiting for the writ. (Read all about it: Legal Threat, Here we stand

Response Number Three: Still around … still not doing as you are told … invite the Dissenting One to a private briefing which involves releasing selected private information which locks the Dissenter into confidentiality.

Response Number Four: Ostracise. Send the Dissenting One to the gulag, withdrew all contracts and contacts.

General Response: Allow free rein to the Rumour Mill. She/He is: Eccentric, uncooperative, unwell, lost the plot, drinking too much, using drugs, gone all religious, relationship/marriage is in trouble etc, etc, etc. Over a long, sometimes chaotic career filled with a myriad sordid pecadilloes and little enhanced reputation (which as Richard Flanagan once elegantly put it, is, anyway, a soul-crushing notion of how we ought live, of who we might be), I do confess to most of these sins, except for a marriage in trouble.

All of this is orchestrated by the biggest Spin Machine in Tasmania’s history: populated by an army of former senior Tasmanian journalists, from an ex-Examiner Editor to leader and feature writers either embedded in departments or a part of the State Pravda, the Government Media Unit. They have “gone to the Dark Side” as it is referred to for a variety of reasons, from money to power, to deep dissaffection and dissatisfaction with Tasmanian media management. Or even a quieter or more satisfying life.

The forthright Judy Tierney

One Jason Lovell recently wrote a very informative little piece about this massive machine which numbers some 70-plus overt spinners or department embedded communicators … in response to a debate about the quality of Tasmanian media following a thorough evisceration of Tasmanian media by author Richard Flanagan: Hope of our tomorrow; observations largely endorsed by that legend of Tasmanian media Judy Tierney.

In her typically wonderfully forthright way Jude told Ms Poss on Crikey that too many journos accept liberal doses of bullshit from government minders and they, she says, have forgotten whatever journalistic ethics they once had.

Said Jude: “While I do truly believe we have a handful of probing and determined journalists on the job, sadly too many so called scribes get put off by bullying and self-important government minders.

“I can’t remember voting for these gatekeepers who seem to think they can influence outcomes on behalf of their ministers.

“Minders seem to forget they are merely the conduit between the media and the parliamentarians who employ them.

“Journalists need to be more forceful in their dealings with minders, the numbers of which have burgeoned over the last 8 years.” (Flanagan: media seethes).

That’s what Jude thinks of the spin machine.

Here’s what Mr Lovell, with some significant knowledge, reckons: “The Tasmanian Governments Spin Unit does a lot more than just hire former journalists to spin its message to the current crop of journos.

“More than spinning the message, the Spin Unit tries its damndest to control the actual medium, by feeding some journalists and punishing others, rewarding some media outlets and continually complaining about others. Eventually, if they can’t corral a journalist who is continually critical, they pull out all stops to hire them.

“A good example of this attempt to control the medium is the Premier’s Chief of Staff. It is my understanding that he is close to being listed as a vexatious complainant by a number of media outlets, particularly the ABC which has very formal complaint channels, due to the enormous number of complaints made about journalists’ work. No other person or organisation in Tasmania has come anywhere near this number of complaints, not by a factor of about 10.

“Other unknown Spin Unit behaviour includes:

“• Constant whining by minders about the journalists failing to appreciate the access they get to Ministers;

“• calling journalists the C word behind their backs when they use this access to Ministers to ask questions, instead of just reporting the spinners line of the day;

“• spying on the journalists before and especially after press conferences held in the media units conference room, via the video camera and microphones that are permanently set up in that room; and,

“Then there are the techniques that the pollies use to intimidate the journalists and put them off:

“• journalists being physically manhandled until they are standing exactly where the politician wants them to stand;

“• calling entire press conferences under false pretences in order to berate the journalists for not acting like the ALPs personal messengers;

“• ignoring hard questions and subsequentlty refusing to acknowledge the journalist prepared to ask those questions, effectively freezing them out;

“• calling out individual journalists at press conferences and interrogating them in front of their peers (this practice is often combined with the refusal to acknowledge the journalist (discussed above) but only after the public interrogation has taken place);

“• the politician saying Pardon to a hard question and then interrupting and talking over the journalist when s/he attempts to repeat that question (which the politician obviously heard just fine the first time around);

and my personal favourite:

“• politicians rolling out various members of their own family, including very young children, for political gain and then criticising the media for “bringing my family into it” when they query conflict of interest allegations. This one is particularly egregious. I mean, just because the Premier says something does not make it automatically true. In fact, I would suggest it often means the opposite.

“Im not writing about all this to criticise the media they are up against millions of dollars annually in the form of the Spin Unit and the minders, so it is to be expected that they will often find themselves manoeuvered into uncomfortable positions by those with more time, money and brainpower at their disposal. This is what millions of dollars buys a Government the ability to create and manipulate image.”

He concludes: “More than anything else, I hope the journalists get a feel for the utter contempt they are held in by those who work for the Spin Unit, as well as their political masters. Make no mistake, that friendly little chit-chat at the start of every press conference is evidence of nothing but the minders desire to have you swallow their line of the day.

“They may have held your job once upon a time, but in private and especially in front of their Ministers, they hate you with a passion.” (Flanagan: The truth about spin)

A tough job

So the journos’ job can be a tough one … and they also often have to battle media management which is conservative and subjective, populated by largely 40s-50s male managment, obsessed with superficiality and celebrity, is sometimes too interested in being a marketing platform than a defender of the Fourth Estate, starved of money to match the higher salaries of the spinners, and too often plays the Overseer in the Masters, Overseers and Servants scenario.

There’s no better example of this than The Examiner, fearless defender of the right to bear Gunns.

Even the Merc describes itself as editorially pro-development which immediately philosophically subjectivises the newspaper towards particular viewspoints as its default position.

And sometimes I think the ABC balances itself out of existence — balance is appeasement … fairness is truth. I’ll criticise its decision to sit on the Jim Bacon cancer story ’til the day I cark it (Jim Bacon and the Media debate) … which judging by the hangover I’m still carrying from Thursday lunch may not be too far off.

A contribution to the Investigative Journalism Panel, the Writers’ Festival, Saturday, August 12.