Thomson threw mud in the wrong direction

In the attempt to change government through the Thompson scandal, his accusers understand it's trial by media that counts. And in this context, Thomson's parliamentary address missed a key point.

The revolting tit-for-tat war breaking out in parliament over the Craig Thomson 'scandal' must be stopped, and Thomson seems sure he knows who can stop it – 'reporters', but quite emphatically not 'commentators'.

No, don't look to commentators – they're the ones who've fanned this crisis from the start, argues Thomson. Gosh we're powerful.

Thomson said: "I am very conscious that in the eyes of many of the public I have already been charged, convicted and sentenced. The public will hold these views because of the quite extraordinary media coverage which has taken place.

"I, like every member of this House, understand and value the importance of an independent and robust news media and the important place that it can play in our democracy.

"However, all of us who have regular dealings with the news media know that the news media can often get it wrong, and sometimes seriously so – particularly as today the media is dominated by self-important commentators, not reporters."

Since the word 'commentator' appears on my business card, perhaps I should explain my wickedness.

Actually, I've written very little on Thomson. The parliament and the Australian Electoral Commission have safeguards, written by sober men and women whose judgement was not clouded by the fog of political war, that offer all necessary recourse in this situation.

Thomson does not have to be an upstanding citizen to sit in parliament – in democracy he has to be 'citizen', meeting the Australian Electoral Commission's requirement for candidacy, parliament's requirement that he has not been convicted of a criminal offence punishable by 12 months or more in prison, and parliament's register of members interests and rules of conduct.

The Coalition has vowed to examine Thomson's address to parliament yesterday for signs, as manager of opposition business Christopher Pyne put it, that the "unbelievability of it suggests that he has misled the parliament". That could see Thomson referred to the parliamentary privileges committee. If they unearth anything clear-cut enough, cross-benchers might be convinced to vote with the Coalition on a motion to suspend Thomson from the house.

And this is all as it should be.

However, this long and sordid story has not been about the application of existing rules and procedures in the House of Representatives. It has, from the start, been an attempt to change government from the floor of the house – based on the widely held belief that this minority government is not 'legitimate'.

The Gillard government is quite legitimate, whether or not Thomson stole from the HSU – just as an Abbott government would have been legitimate had Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor handed the Coalition power, and just as an Abbott government would be legitimate if it included a sitting member against whom charges one day might be laid.

Anthony Albanese is now going after Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly for allegedly failing to disclose family business interests to parliament, and Labor will find plenty of other misdemeanors to prosecute.

But the proper application of parliamentary rules is just a sideshow – Thomson's accusers understand that the media trial is what counts. And it is in that forum that Thomson's comments should be examined.

Later in his speech, Thomson said: "The Australian media is, like its American and British counterparts, obsessed with titillation, hounding individuals, and giving credence to any allegation made against a person who is in the spotlight.

"These are things we all have to guard against, these are things you have responsibility for – and can I say you have not done a very good job [because of] ... the replacement of journalists with commentators ... A person who wants to be a commentator needs to make it clear that they are actually a participant in this process, they are not just a commentator."

Those comments were aimed at a specific Fairfax commentator. However in a wider context Thomson has missed the point.

It is not 'commentators' who are to blame for parliament being turned into a "kangaroo court" so much as the 'reporters' he claims have been displaced.

Commentators openly editorialise on current affairs – and readers follow them or shun then partly based on their own world views. But when you read an article (such as this one) with 'Commentary' flagged at the top of the page, you know what you're getting.

On the Thomson affair, as with so many other opinion-poll-shifting stories – the carbon tax, the mining tax, the NBN and so on – a good slice of the nation's reporters are also subtly editorialising through their selection of stories and facts, and the way their editors present them to the public – particularly the prominence they give them.

For two years Murdoch papers, and even the slightly more carbon-tax-friendly Fairfax papers, have hit readers over the head with stories of a carbon tax cost-of-living blowout that Treasury modelling shows just won't happen. There's little mention of the fact that the tax was designed with productivity enhancing reforms to the tax system. Just 'Airline tickets to rise!' type stories.

Likewise the prominence of stories predicting a collapse in mining under the mining tax, rather than a foregrounding of the stories of the ongoing collapse in the other 90 per cent of the economy.

And again, front page reporting of the NBN – such as the mid-election campaign story in the Murdoch press that "NBN could cost households 'an extra $3000" (A claim I examined here).

What the Thomsons of this world should fear is not 'commentators', but reporters whose work, taken in its entirety, is far from value-free and in its worst forms is just pure editorialising masquerading as 'fact'.

At the risk of promotion of my own kind, then, perhaps we could just re-badge the last few reporters as 'commentators' and be done with it.

We do need more reporters who follow the old traditions of 'balance', and they should be complemented by good commentary to draw the lines between stories and try to fathom what the hell it all means. A clearer line between these two roles is, I think, what Thomson should have been arguing.

Follow @_Rob_Burgess on Twitter.

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