Murdoch’s Brisbane masthead The Courier Mail has clearly
displayed bias and inconsistency in its hysterical coverage of the
Senate Inquiry into the Newman Government, writes Alex McKean and Stephen Keim SC.
THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF A SENATE INQUIRY into certain aspects of the
Newman Government in Queensland has been greeted with howls of derision
from Brisbane’s daily print newspaper, the Courier-Mail.
There was little evidence of balance in the coverage of the issue on 2
October 2014, when the paper contained a two-page spread condemning the
Inquiry (nor again in today’s issue).
Liberal Senator Eric Abetz was reported as sounding the dire warning that the Inquiry, an instrument of Clive Palmer’s retribution, would cost Queensland 70,000 jobs.
Dennis Atkins said that the Inquiry would render Parliament a crime scene.
Another story, authored by Steven Scott, Sarah Vogler and Renee
Viellaris, stated that the ‘taxpayer-funded’ Inquiry would double as a ‘PUP pre-election spruik’.
Yet another article,
by Greg Stoltz, drew a connection between the Inquiry and outlaw
bikies, who were said to be thanking Clive Palmer for taking up their
fight against the Newman Government. Mr Stoltz said that both Clive
Palmer and Senator Glenn Lazarus had emerged as ‘heroes of the violent
motorcycle gangs that police have spent years battling to bring under
The big guns have been brought to bear, with Andrew Bolt contributing a lengthy piece in which he described the Inquiry as a ‘witch-hunt’. Bolt said the Inquiry was a ‘posse’ which had been created to ‘dig for dirt’ on the Newman Government.
Readers were exhorted to ‘be in no doubt that this is personal’ and were directed to ‘look at the grubbiness’. Bolt derided the Labor Party for ‘sinking to Palmer’s level’ by backing the Inquiry before signing off with the phrase: ‘grubby, grubby, grubby’.
The editorial ran many of the same lines, accusing the Palmer United Party of cynically playing Labor and the Greens to set up the Inquiry.
The Inquiry, itself, was described as
‘… one of the most outrageous abuses of power and process seen in the history of the Senate.’
The editor’s language became even more intemperate when he described the Inquiry as a
‘… voodoo mix of conspiracies and prejudices about the Newman government.’
Readers of the Courier Mail might be forgiven for missing, amongst the hyperbole, the facts
that the Inquiry is targeted at investigating the disposition of moneys
flowing from the Commonwealth toward Queensland in the days after the
Newman Government came to power; the propriety of the Commonwealth’s
devolving powers to issue environmental approvals to the Queensland
State government; the separation of powers and judicial independence in
Queensland; and the extent to which Queensland government policies and
practices are consistent with international human rights obligations.
These terms of reference raise, among other things, issues of
possible misappropriation of Commonwealth funds, originating from the
taxpayer, by a State government. The focus of the inquiry appears to be
whether those funds were applied to party political purposes here in
These are important issues involving possible high-level government corruption and misuse of taxpayer funds.
The prospect of the Newman Government being released From federal
restraints on approval of development on environmental grounds is
disturbing and, seemingly, an appropriate area for inquiry by a body
truly independent of that government.
There has been a series of revelations
of political donations to the Newman Government or individuals,
therein, principally, by proponents of development and mining proposals
being closely followed or preceded by favourable legislation or
administrative actions which have benefitted those donors.
The premier, Campbell Newman, is strongly supportive of developers
and miners, seemingly, over many other public policy considerations.
Premier Newman has declared, on a number of occasions, that Queensland is ‘open for business’.
In very recent times, legislation was rushed through the Parliament under cover of darkness to remove, effectively, the public’s right to object to huge mining developments.
It is informative to compare the response of the Courier Mail
to this decision by the Senate to establish an Inquiry to its editorial
reaction to the announcement of other recent inquiries which may have
been thought by some to have political, as well as public policy,
For example, on 9 February, this year, the newspaper’s headline blared
‘Royal Commission into Trade Unions is Overdue’.
This opinion piece was attributed to unidentified ‘staff writers’. It
is tempting to speculate that none of the ‘staff writers’ wished their
by-line to be used to identify them as endorsing the establishment of an
inquiry that clearly had a strongly partisan purpose.
The ‘staff writers’ began with a series of unsupported assertions, an example of which was:
‘It is no secret that unions… are a haven for crooks and swindlers.’
The writers then heaped praise upon Prime Minister Tony Abbott for
having the courage to look into the shadowy world of trade unions. The
writers compared PM Abbott, favourably, with Premier Newman, who was
also cast in a favourable light.
The staff writers drew favourable connections between PM Abbott’s
campaign against the criminal trade unionists and Premier Newman’s
legislative campaign against motorcycle gangs in Queensland. It is
worthy of note that the manner in which Mr. Newman’s government has
legislated, purportedly, against “bikies” has also been controversial, including among experts on law enforcement.
The staff writers ended their by laying down the gauntlet to the Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, to
‘… play a prominent role in stamping out the cancer of corruption.’
Similarly, on 7 October 2013, the same or different ‘staff writers’ welcomed the announcement of the Home Insulation Program, or ‘pink batts’ Inquiry
by the then newly elected Abbott Government. Many observers felt that
the decision to establish this Inquiry into a subject that had been
investigated by a Parliamentary Committee, an administrative inquiry,
the CSIRO, coroners from New South Wales and Queensland, and the
auditor-general was politically motivated.
Political motivation was not a word in the vocabulary of Courier-Mail staff writers on that occasion.
The opinion piece ran under the headline:
‘Next insulation inquiry merits the whole truth’.
The piece concluded by expressing the satisfaction of the authors that the terms of reference drawn up by the Abbott cabinet,
‘… included the ability to call former Labor ministers, including
Mr Rudd and Mr Garrett, to testify as to what they really knew.’
It is the case that political institutions can establish inquiries
with mixed motives. Very few decisions of politicians do not involve
some calculation of political advantage as well as public benefit.
It is a legitimate concern, however, when the political calculus appears to dominate the considerations of the public good.
It is important that journalists and news organisations monitor and
report both the public benefit and political advantage aspects of
politicians’ actions so that the public is informed about these matters.
The public and, especially, the journalists’ readers are entitled to
accept a degree of balance, consistency and impartiality in the way this
task is carried out.
The recent history of the Courier-Mail in reporting the
establishment of public inquiries shows that that news organisation, and
its journalists (who, presumably, have little choice in the matter),
have fallen well below these basic journalistic standards.
You can follow Stephen Keim on Twitter @StephenKeim1.
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