Political journalists pride themselves on being watchdogs who prevent abuse of power. Watchdogs are supposed to bark when they smell something suspicious. So how do you explain the news media sleeping through the exposé of suspicious secret correspondence between powerful friends in the Liberal government and the big banks? Are the watchdogs getting old and no longer have a scent for a story? Or worse, have they been muzzled by the powerful interests they are supposed to be watching?
This story is fascinating because the red-meat delivered to journalists came from an unusual source: – ACTU Secretary Sally McManus. On Tuesday afternoon 5 February 2019, the day after the Banking Royal Commission findings were handed down, the ACTU released letters they discovered through a Freedom of Information request.
These letters revealed a cosy friendship between the Liberal government and the big banks; so cosy the banks had a discussion with the Treasurer about how their possible misconduct would be investigated in a Royal Commission.
Recall on 30 November 2017 Prime Minister Turnbull and Treasurer Morrison announced plans for a Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. The day before, on 29 November, the ACTU found Morrison received a letter marked DRAFT and ‘for discussion’ from then NAB chairman Ken Henry.
This letter laid out for Morrison the bank’s recommendations on the Royal Commission’s terms of reference, the type of person the Commissioner might be, how long the Commission would last, and assurances the banks were well behaved businesses, nothing to see here, move along.
The next morning, the day the Royal Commission was announced, an almost identical letter was sent to Morrison signed by the heads of the big four banks. Low and behold, the Banking Royal Commission was relatively short. McManus pointed out it was a year as compared to two years for the Abbott government’s Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.
Of course there is no proof the Liberal government took advice from the banks in their design of the Banking Royal Commission. But the existence of the letters sent immediately before the Liberal government finally bowed to pressure from the Greens, Labor and their own backbench to hold a Banking Royal Commission, are highly suspicious. ACTU Secretary McManus said the letters were “another piece of evidence that the Morrison Government is protecting the big end of town.”
Social media audiences lapped the story up. In one week the ACTU’s video was viewed 210,000 times on Facebook and 73,000 times on Twitter. All this red meat, and the watchdogs slept through it. Two days after the social media release, the ACTU emailed union members asking them to share the video since they reported ‘Just one media outlet has covered this story – the ABC’. News.com.au and other News Ltd websites published the syndicated AAP video with a short caption, but never allocated a journalist to cover the story.
Where were the masthead watchdogs? Where was The Australian? Where was Fairfax? Or is Fairfax gone now? Where were the shock jocks and A Current Affair? Where was The Guardian? Where were the questions for Morrison about his correspondence with the banks? What could explain the media ignoring the ACTU’s investigation? In a week where journalists were barking for stories about the Banking Royal Commission, how was this story not a relevant contextual piece for how the Banking Royal Commission came to be? Asleep perhaps? Or muzzled by their owners who, as it turns out, also have a snug relationship with the powerful political class they’re supposed to be watching?
What makes this sleeping-dogs situation even stranger is the news media’s usual paranoia about news breaking without their input. Ever since the rise of social media, journalists have feared the threat of the audience finding news straight from the source and therefore bypassing the business model of the news media.
The ACTU’s decision to do their own journalism should be a worrying sign for the news industry. Freedom of Information requests are relatively easy to do. The ACTU showed any citizen journalist can place important information in the public’s hands by publishing it free-of-charge on the internet. Journalists chose to ignore this story, despite it being handed to them on a platter, but the ACTU reached a huge audience regardless.
There are plenty of journalists looking for work having lost their jobs in mainstream news rooms. Perhaps they will find homes in the media teams of political groups and organisations who have learned news stories don’t necessarily need to be mediated by traditional news media outlets; they can go direct.
If the old-school watchdogs are going to ignore red-meat, others will do their work for them. The public need the powerful to be held to account. If traditional journalists refuse to do it, someone else will fill the void.