Thu, 23 Sep 2021

Australia's journalists under attack from within the country

(Op-ed) Leigh Sales
15 Sep 2021, 16:34 GMT+10

To be a political journalist, you have always needed to be able to resist bullying aimed at making you second-guess your work.

As a young reporter in the 1990s covering my first state election campaign, I received a furious call at home on a Friday night from a Labor premier, berating me for my story on the 7pm ABC News.

He was the first politician to tear shreds off me, but since then the list has expanded to include a prime minister, cabinet ministers, shadow ministers and innumerable political staffers.

This kind of thing may be news to people who work outside the media or politics, and while it certainly does not meet the modern standard of a "safe workplace", it has been considered normal in political journalism. We can dish it, we should be able to take it, goes the mantra.

Sometimes MPs ring or text with a legitimate grievance about an inaccuracy or something they believe was unfair, in which case, a good journalist listens, takes it on the chin, and makes amends. Sometimes they are erupting because something is going badly for them and they want to take it out on somebody, or they are desperate to stop a story that is turning into a runaway train.

In my personal experience, most of the time such exchanges end on cordial terms, with the professional relationship intact.

Only once have I ever made a complaint. A few years ago, a Liberal minister blasted me for an inaccuracy in an interview (I immediately publicly corrected it and apologised to him) but he continued to harass and belittle me about it via text on an almost daily basis. The final straw for me was when I was feeding my toddler early on a Sunday morning and his latest text landed. I forwarded it to the prime minister's chief of staff.

The bullying immediately stopped and the minister involved apologised. We are on good terms, as I am with the former Labor politician mentioned earlier.

I share these anecdotes partly to show that neither I nor any journalist who has covered politics for more than five minutes is thin-skinned. It is also to highlight that bullying has always been a feature of political journalism. Frequently, the goal is to intimidate a journalist into pulling their punches or toning down their reporting.

The essential and only response has always been to maintain one's independence and grit, be committed to accuracy and fairness, and refuse to be influenced by the pressure.

Bullying is different on social media

Something has changed recently which is making political bullying far more insidious and increasingly challenging to bear.

It is that the bullying and harassment now comes, not in an occasional phone call from a real person, but at a furious pace on social media from politicians' acolytes, lackeys, fans and proxies, mostly - but not always - operating anonymously. It is non-stop, personal, often vile, frequently unhinged and regularly based on fabrications. It has the effect of an angry phone call from a politician magnified thousands of times over.

Rowland and Millar sitting at desk in studio looking at camera.

News Breakfast hosts Michael Rowland and Lisa Millar.

Last week, my ABC colleague, News Breakfast co-anchor Lisa Millar, de-activated her Twitter account after voluminous daily bullying, including trolling about her late father. Channel Ten journalist and former Q+A host Hamish MacDonald has publicly said that one of the reasons he left the ABC was the intolerable barrage of social media abuse directed at him. Insiders host David Speers is the target of vicious attacks before and after almost every program.

Anyone who can stomach wading into mentions of @leighsales will find that virtually hourly, I am abused for doing my job, with a stream of tweets goading me to quit, demanding the ABC sack me, telling me I'm useless, stupid, biased and incompetent. Annabel Crabb and Patricia Karvelas are targeted in a similar manner.

There is a bizarre and nasty campaign against Canberra reporter Jane Norman that ignites almost every time she appears on television, built on a fabrication that she had an affair with a Liberal minister.

All the women face sexual insults and there is a corresponding pattern of racism for reporters of colour. My colleague Stan Grant (who is not even on Twitter) is regularly derided for his imagined Liberal sympathies, and a search of his name on the platform yields the most offensive slurs.

Even the respected Fran Kelly, host of Radio National Breakfast, is attacked as a mouthpiece for the Liberal Party, something laughable for anybody old enough to recall that as the chief political interviewer on ABC Radio's AM program, Fran's supposed left-wing bias made her public enemy number one for the Howard government and its media barrackers. What an incredible political conversion Fran has apparently had!

Fran Kelly and Patricia Karvelas

Fran Kelly and Patricia Karvelas.

The topics that guarantee a pile-on

Let's not duck the common thread here - it is overwhelmingly left-leaning Twitter users who are targeting ABC journalists for abuse. Of course, there are right-wing attacks too but the most ferocious campaigns are reserved for any journalist who questions, in even the most anodyne manner, the policies or public statements of Labor politicians, particularly the Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, the Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and the West Australian Premier Mark McGowan.

All the journalists I mentioned above - notably some of the fairest, most experienced and non-partisan reporters in the country - are derided on Twitter as lickspittles for the Liberal Party. The scale of the pile-on is disturbing and it mostly passes without remark by any politician.

Two people look at a laptop screen for a story about online harassment and how to speak up about it when you observe it.

This is an unusual experience for ABC journalists because we are usually targeted in the real world by the right. Coalition cheerleaders such as Andrew Bolt, Chris Kenny and Gerard Henderson, along with leading Liberal politicians, including at times Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Defence Minister Peter Dutton, accuse the ABC of a Labor/Green bias.

In the Australian corner of Twitter, the space is dominated by views that are militantly pro-lockdown, pro-COVID zero, and pro-Labor premiers, and even the tamest of questions in those directions prompts an onslaught. Topics currently guaranteed to trigger a pile-on include data from official sources that highlight the minimal risks to children from COVID; reporting about the unintended costs of lockdowns including Australians stranded overseas and harm to mental health; information about how safe the AstraZeneca vaccine is; and any analysis of whether policies such as hard border closures and the denial of return for residents stuck interstate are proportionate to the risk.

One would imagine that in a democracy, restrictions on citizens' movements and freedoms should be subject to the most rigorous scrutiny. One might also assume all citizens would welcome journalists' questioning of such policies and indeed, view it as not merely desirable but essential. Such extreme measures may well be needed during a pandemic. There could be solid answers to every query about every policy, but the idea that such restrictions should be accepted unquestioningly, even during a crisis, is chilling.

For example: should journalists raise the fact that a fully vaccinated Victorian resident with a negative COVID test who agrees to two weeks in quarantine is currently barred indefinitely from returning to their home if they are in New South Wales unless they are granted a rare exemption? I asked that question last week and was attacked non-stop. According to the mob mentality on Twitter, questioning that decree is unacceptable.

Of course, journalists expect their work to be discussed, probed, and, potentially, criticised. Respectful debate is one thing, but there is a hardcore mob of bullies on Twitter who dress their efforts as a campaign for fair and balanced journalism when, in effect, they want no such thing. As with a politician who rants and raves after a story they do not like, these Twitterati want journalists cowed and afraid to question anything to do with Labor.

Wide shot inside studio control room with multiple TV monitors showing Leigh Sales and Laura Tingle on screen.

The only response to bullies is to refuse to be influenced by the pressure, and get on with the job.

It's not just on COVID

The first time I can recall seeing this happen was in the lead-up to Julia Gillard's removal as PM, when journalists who reported Labor leadership rumblings were attacked en masse under the hashtag #leadershit. It happened again last year when the #istandwithdan movement ruthlessly targeted journalists who questioned the Victorian state government's response to its COVID outbreak. If a reporter is not meant to probe into the circumstances that led to the deaths of hundreds of people, and caused millions more to be in lockdown for months, then I am not sure what the purpose of journalism is.

Caroline Jones smiles, her hands clasped in front of her on a table. On the table are old newspaper clippings.

A woman being hired for a job like the host of Four Corners was so rare in the 70s it was splashed across newspapers.

We have just marked the 20-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, which of course presaged an extraordinary and controversial period in Australian politics. Our defence forces were deployed abroad and many lives were lost in service. At home, sweeping new laws eroded personal freedoms in the name of anti-terrorism.

Back then, journalists who questioned the extent of these new laws were painted as traitors or terrorist sympathisers. Indeed, Lisa Millar and I - posted to Washington DC at the time - were both the targets of complaints from the then-Liberal communications minister Richard Alston. Many journalists who asked questions or challenged the security legislation, border protection policy or the invasion of Iraq faced accusations of being "soft on terror".

But the role of the journalist is to question, no matter the stripe of the legislator or the justness of the cause in which freedoms are removed. If we can't agree on that as a base principle, then we are all in trouble.

Resilience is one of Lisa Millar's defining personality traits. She has covered profoundly violent and sad events around the world for two decades, including Sandy Hook and the Bataclan massacre, and taken it in her stride. For her to be so bothered by abuse on Twitter that she has de-activated her account should tell you something about the relentless and disgusting nature of the attacks.

They are built around the fact that her late father, Clarrie Millar, was a National Party MP. This apparently makes Lisa an LNP plant inside the ABC. This is not only insulting, and something that could be dismissed by even fleeting familiarity with Lisa's impeccably impartial 30-year body of work, it is sexist to assume a woman's politics are dictated by her father.

The so-called "progressives" levelling this accusation at Lisa were no doubt incensed by the disgusting insults directed at former prime minister Julia Gillard about her late father.

So what do we do about it?

It is a matter for a commercial entity like Twitter to ask itself - and my understanding is that it is - whether the treatment of journalists, in particular female journalists, on its platform is acceptable.

Any good corporate citizen should examine its role in promoting sensible and open debate versus hate speech and misinformation.

When I look at the filth dished up about Stan Grant, one of the smartest, most decent men I know, it is clearly a form of racial vilification. The publication of such words extends beyond morality to legality.

A young woman sits with her head in her hands at her desk.

Journalists who complain about bullying on Twitter are often told: You don't have to be on there, if you don't like the abuse, get off. There are several problems with that. First, there is the principle that no person should be bullied into silence and forced to vacate the public arena.

It is interesting to note that when Lisa Millar seized control and removed herself from Twitter, the effect of it was that the attacks against her escalated, causing her name to trend for days.

Second, Twitter is a helpful tool in the journalist's kit. It is unparalleled for following breaking news, crowd-sourcing talent, and marketing program content. Third, many journalists use Twitter and so it is a way to influence their reporting, and therefore the public conversation, by promoting issues that deserve more attention, emphasising relevant data or highlighting examples of spin or hypocrisy.

Some journalists, like Millar and Hamish MacDonald, are abandoning Twitter, judging that its usefulness is now exceeded by its drawbacks.

At the very least, those journalists who remain on the site should stop reporting Twitter reaction as if it signifies anything remotely representative of the Australian public.

Social media icons on a phone screen. A hand is holding the phone but the person is out of frame.

The ABC's last Australia Talks survey found that only 6 per cent of Australians use Twitter regularly - the same proportion as Reddit. Sixty-seven per cent of Australians say they never use Twitter. It is not a reliable gauge of public sentiment. It is well past time for news websites to stop running lazy stories that begin with "Twitter has reacted angrily to [insert latest moral outrage here]".

When this article is published, I will undoubtedly be accused of smoking the Liberal pipe I apparently love (or, as the less savoury version has it, performing sexual acts on Liberal men. Yes, people do say that). There will be another round of abuse aimed at silencing me or forcing me to change my style of journalism.

I will never be bullied into giving one side of politics a free ride and nor will my ABC colleagues. I encourage all of them, and our friends in other media organisations, to do what first-rate journalists have always done in the face of bullying: Continue to report fairly and accurately what you observe and uncover, and do so without fear or favour.

Leigh Sales is the anchor of the ABC's 7.30 program, and has three Walkley Awards and an Order of Australia for services to broadcast journalism.

Source: ABC News

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