The Media and truth

Tuesday 26 February 2002 11:05 AM

When is the truth not the truth? When it makes headlines. So at least it has seemed with some Australian media reporting over the past few decades; and rarely more so than in the current controversy over the Governor-General. A free press has long been prized as a hallmark of any nation’s claim to be free and democratic. Yet we are taught from the cradle that most freedoms are conditional, and one of the first conditions is accountability. Given the reality that the current controversy has so hugely impacted Dr Hollingworth’s image and that of his office, it may well be that a public enquiry is now needed to settle the matter. But I submit that a second and equally public enquiry must also ensue, an enquiry into our media’s exercise of the freedoms they and we take for granted. I have little idea what form such an enquiry could take. But this I know: the power to form, direct and shape the nation’s image of any one of its citizens regardless of rank, is an awesome power for anyone to wield. A truly ‘clever country’ will entrust such a power sparingly, guardedly and with scrupulous accountability. Few among us, even with no past regrets, would slumber peacefully if our own public reputation was in the hands of a media pack. Why then the haste to judge the former Archbishop of Brisbane? It has been pointed out in this debate that the Governor-General is privileged with the highest unelected office in the land. What has not been noted however, is that no one elects the press. If the tax system offends, there’s always the next election. But if we don’t like the headlines, no ballot box will save us. Should public figures be accountable to the populace? Then we must be assured that the communication channels are also above reproach. The Australian people are entitled to and must require, satisfaction that what’s on the page or what comes from the box is “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”; no half-truth, no exaggeration, and independent of sectional interest. Anything less is unworthy of the fairness we espouse. I am neither a journalist nor a lawyer. But if the majority coverage of this deeply distressing matter is anything to go by, and if the published polls accurately portray the resulting mood of the nation, then neither the media nor the general public have learnt the plain lessons of the Lindy Chamberlain saga twenty years ago. If that is so, the implications for us all are frightening if not damning. Potentially they reflect back to us like some sort of grotesque mirror, a face - a personality we prefer not to recognise as ours. They may force us to ask ourselves whether we are really the land of the the fair go, after all. Let the media collectively satisfy us that they are worthy of our trust.