Deep Within a Journalistic Silo

On 4 August, Sky News broadcast an interview between compere Adam Giles and former leader of the United Patriots Front, Blair Cottrell. Giles asked Cottrell whether he saw ‘a correlation between the way Australia is going and where it should go in regards to some of the arguments Donald Trump is putting out there’ about Islam and immigration. During the interview, Sky News tweeted ‘@blaircottrell89; A lot of Western countries lack the national pride that is necessary to galvanise the minds of the masses and to protect the people of this country against foreign ideologies’. Cottrell has a fondness for Hitler and argues for an end to non-white immigration. At the end of the interview, Giles wished Cottrell well.

The response to the broadcast was immediate: universal condemnation. Journalists from all media outlets including Sky News itself, politicians of all persuasions and sponsors of Sky News each condemned the decision to interview and provide a platform for Cottrell’s brand of white supremacy. Sky News apologized for the interview, stating that Cottrell’s ‘views do not reflect ours’. One exception was libertarian, Caleb Bond, who argued that Cottrell’s views should be aired in order that they could be challenged and discredited.

One month later, the ABC’s Four Corners broadcast an interview between journalist Sarah Ferguson and Steve Bannon. Bannon was asked about his forthcoming film, his prediction for the US mid-term elections and his assessment of the Times Up movement. In the course of the interview Ferguson declared that there was ‘no evidence that’ Bannon was a racist. She challenged him on the effect of Trump’s economic policies on blue collar workers. After the interview, Ferguson posed with Bannon for a photograph which subsequently did the rounds on social media.

Unlike Cottrell, Bannon is articulate, intelligent, and doesn’t overtly threaten violence. He condemns neo-Nazis and other extremists notwithstanding a long record of inciting and exploiting them. Cottrell has a criminal record. Criminal charges of assault against Bannon were dropped. It is undeniable that Bannon, who is now seeking to export his extreme right politics into Europe and elsewhere, is far more dangerous. Since the interview, Bannon has told his fans to wear the charge of ‘racist’ as a badge of distinction.

The response to the Bannon interview was very different, exposing an ideological divide, with fault lines sharply delineated by race and class.

The critics charged that Four Corners gave Bannon a platform to spread his hateful politics, was not held to account and was wrongly cleared of the charge of racism. Commerical lawyer Nyadol Nyuon argued that when white supremacists are given a platform to broadcast their views, members of racial and religious minorities invariably pay a price. Their rights to live free of vilification are infringed. The critics also condemned Ferguson for posing for a photo with Bannon because it conveyed a powerful message: that Bannon was respectable. In many ways, the criticisms directed at Four Corners echoed those directed at Sky News a month earlier.

As Guardian journalist and expert on the alt-right, Jason Wilson, later wrote, Bannon was not questioned about his conduct, including his support for a ban on Muslim immigration to the US and his extensive history of egging on white supremacists and fomenting racism through Breitbart, the venomous website that he managed for years. On Four Corners, Bannon was able to comfortably opine, joust and dissemble.

In response to the criticism, some of Australia’s most experienced and prominent journalists entered the fray. A clearly incensed Sarah Ferguson took to Twitter, rhetorically asking ‘What was wrong with this photo?’ and answering ‘NOTHING!’ ABC journalist Leigh Sales argued that Bannon was ‘publicly questioned and held to account’. She joined with others in charging that the critics existed in a ‘silo’, unwilling to examine alternative viewpoints. David Marr deplored attempts to silence Bannon or to stop the ABC interviewing him. ‘I mean, he’s not Blair Cotterell,’ he observed.

The debate about Four Corners erupted just as news broke that the prestigious New Yorker magazine had withdrawn its invitation to Bannon to be interviewed at its Festival of Ideas. That decision engendered a debate that closely mirrored the controversy about Four Corners. Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy disapproved of the New Yorker’s decision, arguing that ‘Journalism is about resisting a retreat to enclaves…and debating ideas, in a civil and rational fashion.’

In an excoriating attack on the ‘liberal narcissism’ of those who would indulge Bannon, another Guardian columnist, Nesrine Malik, raged that ‘White supremacy, banning Muslims from entering countries and fascist flirtations are tangible issues for those not cushioned by the comforts of being the correct race, religion or skin colour.’

Malik had a point. Race, religion and skin colour appeared to determine which side of the fence you occupied in this fight.

Non-Anglo surnames were prominent among the critics of Four Corners, including Hamad, Abdel-Magied, Nyuon, Faruqi, Khalik, Awaritefe, Wikramanayake, McQuire, Soutphommasane and in the interests of full disclosure, one Bornstein, J.

On the other side of the divide, it was an entirely different matter. As PhD student Michael Harris tweeted, ‘The Venn diagram of people vigorously defending Four Corners is basically the intersection of “white” and “professional journalist”, and boy, they sure don’t like being questioned.’ Harris was referring to some of Australia’s most experienced journalists including Gay Alcorn, Katharine Murphy, Bernard Keane, Sarah Ferguson, Sally Neighbour, David Marr, Tracey Spicer, Mike Carlton, Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales.

Rick Morton, social affairs writer for The Australian, argues in his recent book One Hundred Years Of Dirt that the ranks of journalists in Australia are replete with those who, ‘typically come from comfortable families in comfortable suburbs. If they haven’t attended a nice independent or private school, they’ve attended a good state school.’ Morton grew up in poverty and writes of the unconscious bias of his colleagues in the newsroom. When he argues that unpaid internships for budding young journalists are not accessible for those without a family safety net behind them, he is told to ‘get over it’. Morton draws on studies in the US and the UK which show that journalism is increasingly the preserve of the middle class.

Do Australian journalists have a diversity problem? Do their ranks reflect the community that they now serve? While the senior journalists in the Canberra press gallery now include many women, it is another matter when it comes to black or brown skin. Minority groups and those from poorer or disadvantaged backgrounds are not well represented. If there is any doubt that silos are as relevant to journalists as anybody else, hark back to Julia Gillard’s celebrated Misogyny Speech, delivered on 9 October 2012. The speech was condemned by almost the entire Canberra press gallery. There were few exceptions.

In the same week that Sarah Ferguson posed with Steve Bannon for a post-interview photograph, the ABC’s chief economics correspondent, Emma Alberici, posted a selfie taken of her with the former Chair of AMP, Catherine Brenner. When questioned about what might be perceived as a conflict of interest, she explained that she was providing ‘support’ to Brenner who had been unfairly scapegoated and that as a ‘professional’, she would not be compromised.

Recently, militant union leader John Setka was acquitted of serious criminal charges. An attempt to criminalise tough collective bargaining, engineered by the Heydon Royal Commission, fell apart once charges were laid and witnesses were discredited in court. Cold comfort to Setka, who was arrested by police in front of his family and pilloried for months in the media. Setka is a burly working class man. It is inconceivable that Alberici or indeed any other senior journalist in Australia would pose for a photo with him to show their support.

Silos matter.

Overwhelmingly Australian journalists are middle class, free speech liberals. They oppose restrictions on speech—even hate speech—in favour of rational argument and the contest of ideas. They despise defamation laws, censorship and oppose stronger media regulation. A liberal ideology is a given but pragmatic self-interest is also at work. Journalists are in the business of selling their words and their stories. They are instinctively hostile to anything that may inhibit their work. They are far less vocal about the myriad of other restrictions on speech that impinge on others.

They support gender equality; albeit they are more vocal about campaigns for more women on corporate boards than trade union campaigns for equal pay. They support marriage equality and are frustrated at inaction on climate change. They are appalled at Australia’s mistreatment of refugees. They see themselves as navigating the difficult terrain between the authoritarian Right and the censorious Left.

Overwhelmingly, they have not experienced racism. Or poverty.

Would having more senior journalists who came from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’, together with a more representative racial and religious cohort make a difference? The answer is to be found in assessing the profession which was once male-dominated with that of today. One of the reasons that we are far more knowledgeable about the structural barriers to gender equality is that female journalists have opened our eyes to it. They have opened our eyes to unconscious bias.

This article originally appeared in Meanjin.