An integral power of the media is that of portrayal: the act of determining how people, events, ideas and organisations are described to the public, and therefore how they are perceived by the public. In this way, the media constructs for us our understanding of the world beyond our personal knowledge and experience.
For those of us who have never met Julia Gillard, our perceptions of her are based almost entirely on what we see, hear and read of her in the media. These perceptions are then reflected in public opinion polling, and the publication of these poll results tends to reinforce the perceptions. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.
So of course it is true to say the media played a part in the demise of Gillard as prime minister. The harder question is: did the media play a part that was ethically wrong?
Some elements of the media, notably commercial radio talkback shock jocks Alan Jones, Ray Hadley and Chris Smith, clearly did. Their depictions of, and remarks about, Gillard were disgustingly offensive. Not only were they sexist, extremist and malicious, but in Jones’s case involved encouragement of the idea that the prime minister should be dumped at sea.
And then, of course, there was the infamous question about the sexual orientation of the prime minister’s partner Tim Mathieson. In the world of commercial radio talkback it was open season.
Portrayals of Gillard by other elements of the mainstream media, especially the newspapers, were generally less grotesque. But they raised important ethical issues just the same.
The most common, and in some ways the most difficult to pin down, concerned the passively neutral way in which they covered the grossly disrespectful public attacks on her.
An egregious example was the coverage of the rally outside Parliament House in 2011. The Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, gave licence to sentiments such as “ditch the witch” and “bitch” by allowing himself to be photographed in front of placards bearing those words.
Of course the media had to cover that: it was news. The ethical challenge, which the media in general failed to meet, was to provide context that might have de-legitimised such crudity. They could easily have done so by obtaining, and giving substantial prominence to, voices of authority on such topics as political discourse and sexism.
Eventually, when the opportunity was handed to the media to call this behaviour for what it was, most outlets blew it completely. It was left to the international media to recognise the significance of the “misogyny speech”, in which Gillard assailed Abbott for his attitude towards her as a woman and his licensing of the crude language on the rally placards.
The Canberra press gallery could not see the context at all. For them it was all about the political entrails entangling Gillard and the then-Speaker, Peter Slipper.
This failure to provide contextual completeness was one of the recurring ethical weaknesses in the media’s coverage of Gillard’s leadership, and was most evident in the way the media reported the relentless undermining of her leadership by Rudd’s backers.
The media stunt by two of Rudd’s supporters a couple of weeks ago in packing up their parliamentary offices because, so it was said, they were in despair at their re-election prospects, was a prime example. Nothing in the coverage suggested the contextual truth: that this was a media stunt by Rudd supporters to further undermine Gillard’s leadership.
The media can say that it is their job to impartially report what people say and do. This is true. But it is a failure of impartiality to suppress relevant available facts – in this case the known nature of this office-packing activity.
Impartiality is not achieved by passive neutrality. It is achieved by giving as full an account as possible, fairly and on the basis of an independent-minded assessment that gives due weight to all the available evidence.
The News Limited newspapers, especially The Australian, long ago gave up any pretence of impartiality in the coverage of national politics. They provided a regular diet of content calculated to turn voters against the former prime minister.
The Fairfax newspapers generally tried harder to be impartial, but there was a remarkable turnaround last week. The Age – as if its own pre-occupation with polls and personality politics had nothing to do with it – came out with a vacuous and hypocritical front page editorial saying that Gillard had to go, otherwise the voters would have no chance of focusing on the issues. Really.
While the mainstream media were thus engaged in their own systemic failings, elements of social media were sordid beyond description, wallowing in pornographic depictions of the prime minister and making slurs of the most degrading kind.
Fortunately the mainstream media kept well away from this material, but it showed how the licensing of vulgarity in public debate can lead to magnified crudity in social media. This, in turn, can create an atmosphere in which even lower standards of public debate are tolerated.
The media’s role in the demise of Julia Gillard as prime minister was complex. Part of it was a consequence of the media just doing its job. But part of it also was the result of ethical failures. These included crude abuse and incitement to hatred on commercial radio talkback, while among other mainstream media the failure of impartiality, failure of contextual accuracy, and the willingness to exploit rather than challenge debased public discourse.