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The media and us

Lately when reading a newspaper I have to momentarily put it down, pick up a music magazine and flip through for something that will spark my interest such as a story on the forthcoming reissue of The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street album which I’m sure will be a good one. At these moments I let my guard down, but when I go back to the newspaper, nagging suspicions often return.

And for those of us who fit the mould of an everyday media consumer, it shouldn’t come as any surprise when picking up that newspaper, switching on the TV or jumping on the net, that we are often left shaking our collective head in wonder at what some in the political arena think of meaningful participative democracy, particularly when faced with powerful interest groups. One recent example is the unified chorus of protest from voices in the mining sector and the Federal Opposition frontbench at the announcement of an increased mining tax. Whatever the outcome, I am sure that come election day, many voters will be standing in the booth with pencil wavering above the voting form which is an increasingly likely scenario these days.

The mainstream media has a significant role to play in all this by ensuring that as many people as possible in a free society are properly informed about what happens in the world, and also subjecting current events to the kind of rigorous analysis freed from bias and agenda setting. For those interested in how it all plays out, it is worth checking out a book published in 2005 by Black Inc titled Do Not Disturb: Is The Media Failing Australia? This publication, edited by Robert Manne, explores political, social and cultural issues that are interwoven into a broader discussion about media freedom and conformity with considerable thoroughness.

Contributing to the debate are blink and you missed it news stories, like the one that caught my eye in the Canberra Times last month. At first glance, it comes across as a rather lighthearted overview of political slip-ups that can embarrass one or other of the major parties, but is actually more revealing than that.

Titled ‘Embarrassing Election Gaffes that Take the Cake’, the AAP story trots out the usual suspects in recent Australian political history that we all like to have a bit of a chuckle about, such as Pauline Hanson and Mark Latham, when some kind of controversy has erupted. Also included is the former Labor MP Peter Knott who, it seems, caused some grief for Paul Keating in 1993 over the GST when he brought the Prime Minister to a bakery to discuss the tax during that year’s Federal election campaign.

This backfired when the bakery owner proclaimed support for the tax much to the dismay of both Knott and the PM, with Knott described in the article as ‘Paul Keating’s candidate from hell’. But it turns out things were to get worse. The MP ran for election in the NSW seat of Gilmore in 2001 and during the election campaign suggested that US foreign policy might in some ways have explained the September 11 terrorist attacks that took place on US soil.

In this regard, the story notes, ‘Mr Knott had not lost his touch’. When those comments were made, there was a bit of fuss in the press with Labor leader Kim Beazley calling on Knott to apologise, and the subsequent swing against the Labor party in Gilmore at the 2001 Federal election suggested an unfortunate sense of timing.

But like most things in life there is more to the story, which leads to further thoughts on how international relations play out in the modern world, and one could start with a closer examination of US foreign policy from the time of the 1991 Gulf War. It turns out that some rather odd things have taken place.

Take for example Hans Von Sponeck’s 2006 book, A Different Kind of War, which explores in great detail the devastating meltdown that took place across Iraqi society when sanctions were introduced in the wake of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. As a former UN Humanitarian Coordinator to Iraq, Von Sponeck was well placed to detail the suffering experienced by a civilian population that peaked in intensity in the mid 1990s. It turns out that the harsh enforcement of the sanctions didn’t help anybody when accompanied by a profusion of anti-Western sentiment that spread across the Middle East.

Then there is the 2002 US National Security Strategy, a freely available document that outlines a path of military action based on vague notions about pre-emptive warfare and free-market utopian vision. The authors adopted a dismissive approach to multilateral dialogue between nations, which set the scene for the invasion of Iraq the following year, and revealed an alarming direction in US foreign policy.

One long lasting consequence emerges in a very recent newspaper story on 11 May with the headline: Dozens Killed in Wave of Iraq blasts. The AFP story informs the reader that 52 people were killed in a twin car bomb attack, which was ‘the worst violence to hit Iraq in more than a fortnight’. The report was relatively brief, and after turning the page I became momentarily distracted by another story that listed the 10 most beautiful women in the world.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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