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The threat to democracy with a nobbled ABC

By Patricia Edgar - posted Wednesday, 10 December 2014

If the Government succeeds in degrading the ABC our democracy will be imperiled. 'Learn to use it and not to abuse it', the legendary news reporter, Ed Murrow said of television on the day of the first live US coast to coast link in 1949. With those words sixty-five years ago he captured the dilemma at the heart of news media reporting ever since Murrow's heyday at the US Network CBS.

The quest for profits from newspaper sales and commercial television ratings has systematically eroded news values over decades and divided the journalism profession. Just as the mass media can enlighten us through courageous, well documented investigative reporting, they can condemn us to ignorance with their focus on entertainment masquerading as news. The public's right to know is the banner bandied about by all sides.

Ironically it is cinema, the greatest art form for the masses ever created, that repeatedly sounds the alarm about the ways news reporting can distort information, degrade our democracy and ultimately damage our civility and citizenship.

Films regularly make the point that the Fourth Estate is vital in uncovering the truth and maintaining our democracy. But journalism can be life threatening work, particularly when 'the good guys' prove to have feet of clay. Films that hammer the point have starred Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford (All the President's Men), Warren Beatty (The Parallax View), Mel Gibson (The Year of Living Dangerously), Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington (The Pelican Brief), Al Pacino (The Insider), Russell Crowe (State of Play), Holly Hunter and William Hurt, (Broadcast News), Rachel McAdams and Harrison Ford (Morning Glory).

Two recent films in this genre reinforce the challenges journalists face as professionals in this cut throat industry: Kill the Messenger and Nightcrawler. As well, the third series of the television series Newsroom, screening currently, highlights the struggle journalists engage in to be first with the news in the digital age.

In Kill the Messenger Jeremy Renner plays the journalist, Gary Webb, who wrote a three-part series for a small paper, The San Jose Mercury, exposing the links between the CIA, the Contras - the guerillas they were training to fight the democratically elected Sandinistas in Nicaragua - and the crack explosion in the ghettos of the United States. Webb followed a trail of contacts who alleged the Contras funded their war by selling cocaine for arms with the knowledge of the CIA.

The furore that followed publication led to demands for an inquiry into the CIA and attacks on Webb by the major press, who had missed the story, but then questioned Webb's sources. The CIA has been notorious in manipulating the press and they put pressure on Webb's editor, who had backed his journalist, to deny the story. Then some of Webb's sources 'disappeared'. The San Jose Mercury's management lost courage and ultimately Webb lost his job.

The film stops there but some years later Webb was found with a suicide note by his side and two bullets in his head. He was apparently very determined to end his life. Subsequently the CIA admitted they knew of the 'arms for crack' deal, so it seems Webb had his story pretty well right.

Several filmshave taken a darkly satirical look at the highly competitive world of television news and the depths to which news editors will sink to win at their game. We remember Network released in 1976 when serious doubts were being expressed about the quality of the information we were being fed by television. Network is a scorching parody which demonstrates that without professional restraint in the news room public executions would undoubtedly continue to pull a crowd.

Howard Beale (Peter Finch) the news reader is burnt out: his personal life has fallen apart and his ratings have collapsed. In a moment of crisis he announces on air he plans 'to blow his brains out a week from today.' An ambitious program commissioner who believes TV news is really only show-business convinces the network to leave Beale on air in a format where he can articulate his rage alongside a segment showcasing the activities of a terrorist group, with Sadie the Soothsayer as part of the mix.

The ratings go through the roof. Beale tells his 40 million viewers 'Open the window, stick your head out and say I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore'. The power of the film's message resonated so effectively that almost 40 years later Shaun Micallef can still trade on Beale's madness.

The most recent example of the genre is 'Nightcrawlers', those freelance news videographers who race around cities at night listening to police scanners so they can seek out human disasters, track accidents, shootings, chase ambulances and fire trucks in pursuit of horrific images of human misfortune they can sell to the US nightly cable news programs.

Jake Gyllenhaal is Lou Bloom, a nondescript but asocial, mental defective who finds his vocation peddling sleeze and horror to a cable channel. Nothing fazes him, even extortion and murder. He makes himself indispensible to Nina, an unscrupulous, ambitious, news editor played by Rene Russo. No tale is too lurid for Nina. If it bleeds it leads. And the plausible, smooth-talking Lou stops at nothing to get the images that will shock. In this film Lou Bloom gets no come-uppance; he thrives.

So is this the message in 2014?What was once prophetic in movies like Network and Broadcast News is now commonplace. Nightcrawler paints a gruesome picture, of how low the once noble profession of journalism, espoused by Edward Murrow and showcased in Good Night and Good Luck has sunk. George Clooney's film portrays Murrow's exposure of the persecution perpetrated by Senator Joseph McCarthy in his search for the so-called Reds threatening American democracy. It was brave journalism to take McCarthy on. Murrow stood tall when others cowered but ultimately he too was shown the door by CBS because his ideals for news reporting were incompatible with high ratings and the corporate interests of the masters at CBS.

In today's competitive technological age, when the industry is struggling to find its identity and an audience, is it possible to be a TV news reporter and retain your integrity? In the television series Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame has attempted to depict the complexities for contemporary news journalists bound by ethical investigative processes, but competing with the immediacy of social media where anyone can be first with the news. Professional journalists must be sure of their facts before they print or broadcast for the damage from false reports can be catastrophic. Newsroomdramatizes the vulnerability of journalists to legal challenge as laws protecting their sources are no longer guaranteed. And as Assange and Snowden have demonstrated whistle-blowing is a dangerous practice. These issues are good fodder for fiction but they are also genuine.

And this is where the ABC comes in. A democratic society requires a first class, vigorous Fourth Estate. We need news and current affairs programs that are well resourced with competent experienced and fearless journalists who are confident their organization will back them as they pursue the truth for the public who do have a right to know. A public broadcaster must be independent of Government and commercial interests. The ABC has been established to fulfill this role. It is tricky. The institution is under siege, no doubt about that. But we need the ABC.

Newspapers are shrinking in number and substance, their power declining and many fine journalists have lost their jobs. We can't believe what we see on commercial television when their mission is to entertain, win ratings and make profits. Truth is not their prime value. If we get one shred of insight from commercial news that's a bonus.

If we can't trust the news we get from the mass media and we can't trust our politicians where are we headed as a democracy? We do trust the ABC even though they sometimes make mistakes in judgment. If this government is responsible for diminishing the quality of the ABC's news and current affairs programs then we all lose. The public may just get madder than hell and decide we are not going to take it anymore.