This week we have learned a lot about the way that the political media operates. That’s not to say any of us were surprised to see behind the curtain and find journalists complicit in a union-bashing charade. The surprise is the way these journalists have responded to the one amongst them who had the integrity to do the right thing: Alice Workman from BuzzFeed. The surprise is that they can argue with a straight face that their priority is always to protect their sources, and that this two-dimensional moral code is how they have been doing their jobs for so long, they’ve lost the ability to look at it objectively and ask if it’s really in the public interest. The surprise is that they’re willing to defend themselves speaking un-truths on behalf of power, instead of doing their jobs, the jobs they no doubt expected themselves to do as idealistic 22-year-olds: speaking truth to power. The surprise is the total lack of self-reflection and the hostility towards Workman, when Workman has done them all a favour. Have they ever wondered why they are at the bottom of the trust scale, trusted only slightly more than their political allies; the politicians they receive leaks from?
The natural state of affairs would have unravelled as it usually does, had Workman not had the bravery to smash the racket. Allegedly a media staffer working for the Liberal Minister for Employment (I say allegedly as Minister Cash claims the staffer acted without her knowledge), tipped off journalists to be on the ready when the offices of the Australian Workers Union were raided by the Australian Federal Police on behalf of the Minister’s latest publicly-funded-union-bashing organisation, the Registered Organisations Commission.
The plan was to have plenty of juicy footage of union staff looking nervous, while grave-faced AFP officers carried ‘evidence’ out of the union. And of course the political journalists delivered this in spades, being their usual obedient little selves when it comes to helping with any campaign of union bashing, or Labor bashing, that drops in their lap through their speed-dial tip-off-line.
No doubt the vast majority of news-watching public, as journalists are aware, aren’t across the intricate details, nor willing to do the follow up necessary to see what this raid was actually about. If journalists had chosen to frame the raid not as an allegation towards the union (allegations on the nightly news equate to guilt in the minds of the public), and instead a political witch-hunt against a union who has done nothing wrong, the story would have looked very different. Would the public mind that the union helped fund the establishment of GetUp? In fact, the AWU’s association with GetUp, I believe, works in their favour. GetUp is a grassroots organisation that the public have embraced, and continued to fund through small donations over ten years, counting on them to expose political wrong-doing and to educate the electorate about policies during election campaigns. Ironically, GetUp fills the void left by political journalists who would prefer not to embarrass the hands-that-feed-them-tipoffs. And is it really news to anyone that the union donates to the Labor party? I’ll give you a hint: unions are labour movement organisations, Labor is the political arm of the labour movement, so, um, yeah, that seems fairly legit to me!
But this isn’t the angle the journalists went with. Even when, the next day, an ROC spokesman admitted he might have mistook AWU for a different organisation, as AWU hadn’t refused to hand over documents, which the union said they would happily email through if asked. Even when it was revealed that the ROC apparently acted from an anonymous tipoff about AWU documents being destroyed, even though these documents had already been provided to the other publicly funded union witch hunt Royal Commission. So, the union was actually the victim here – raided because someone at ROC has a bad memory and can’t do their job properly (apparently). The union is left with their reputation in tatters, with most journalists unwilling to correct the record.
The point is, Alice Workman saw this situation is wrong. It’s not a complicated moral argument to explain why some sources should be protected, and others should be exposed as the opportunistic conspirators that they are. Sources who are without power, who are taking on those with more power (such as Ministers in the government), who are at risk of being punished for this bravery, should of course be protected. Whistle-blowers. For instance, staffers in the political system who see something unethical occurring and believe the public have a right to know. Again, ironically, in this case I would call Alice Workman a whistle-blower. Don’t believe me? Here’s a former insider saying the same thing. Workman knows the conventional operations of the Press Gallery, the daily modus operandi, is to use leaks from within the political establishment and to report them in a way that damages the opponents of those groups. By questioning this, by outing where the AFP raid came from, Alice was speaking truth to power. Truth to the powerful editors of the mainstream news media who dictate that unions and Labor should be bashed, workers should be hurt because of it, and that the Minister for Employment can weaponise the news cycle to help her political fortunes, and most of the time, can feel safe in the knowledge she won’t be caught out.
It’s time journalists in the political media asked themselves what their job really is. Is their job to help the powerful political establishment build campaigns of mistruth against their rivals? Or, is it their job to work in the little-guy’s interest, in this case in the interest of the workers the union represents, and to speak truth to power? This is a wakeup call. The members of outlets struggling to convince the public of their value, struggling to make enough money to sustain their operations, would be wise to listen.