Opinion: Daniel Andrews is a savvy media performer, but that's no substitute for transparency

Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph on Unsplash
Tuesday 14 March 2023

By Colleen Lewis

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

The idea of the media as the fourth estate can be traced back to the early 1800s.

It was first referred to as such by Edmund Burke who was drawing attention to its growing power. Like many concepts, it has evolved over time.

Today, the fourth estate is synonymous with the important role free media play in democratic societies and is considered one of the pillars on which democracy rests.

Accountability institutions, including the free media, distinguish such societies from nation states ruled by dictators, autocrats and the military.

These rulers control the media's message and use it as the propaganda arm of the state.

In contrast and put simply, the role of the fourth estate is to continually question the motives and actions of the powerful and to report on the use and abuse of that power, including when exercised by governments, MPs, political parties and public servants.

Obviously, some working in the media (journalists, presenters, editors, the public broadcaster and media proprietors) fail to adhere to the principles underpinning the fourth estate.

In theory, all are expected to offer a balanced perspective when reporting.

However, some journalists and media outlets clearly favour one side of politics and deliberately refrain from acknowledging legitimate, alternative perspectives.

But Australia's free media has many excellent journalists who diligently and doggedly do the research required to present evidence-based, balanced reporting.

They rightly focus on holding power to account - or at least try to.

Their commitment to the principles underpinning the modern fourth estate is crucial to the health of a functioning democracy but they cannot perform their role effectively if democratically elected governments and MPs respond to journalists questions in a supercilious manner.

Some political leaders dismiss and/or ignore probing questions they have decided will not be answered.

Questions pertaining to accountability issues and related standards in public life, too often elicit a dismissive and at times demeaning response from some senior MPs.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is said to be one of the best media performers in Australian politics today.

But that assessment depends on the lens used to make such a judgement.

When Victoria was nearly leading the world in the number of lockdown days it was enduring during the COVID pandemic, Premier Andrews held approximately 120 consecutive press conferences.

This sounds impressive but when listening carefully to those conferences it becomes evident that the Premier often decided he would only answer the questions he wanted to address.

He would dismiss those relating to accountability issues by saying, I am not focused on that matter.

Little appears to have changed post-COVID. One now hears comments such as - I've answered that question a number of times and do not intend to address it again (or words to that effect).

The Premier is also repeating the COVID mantra of I'm not focused on that.

Toward the end of a recent doorstop at Parliament House, a journalist asked a question that directly addressed standards in public life, more precisely the Premier's comment in Parliament concerning the height of the recently elected Opposition Leader.

Andrews is reported as saying: "we should give him a little box to stand on".

A journalist queried whether it was appropriate parliamentary behaviour for the Premier to be "attacking people for their physical attributes".

His response could be considered as disparaging of the journalist as it was of his parliamentary colleague. It included comments such as: "Well, was I doing that, that's a matter for you to judge ... I'm not here to interpret comments I made".

He went on to say: " In no way would that ever become the number-one issue for me or I think the vast majority of hard-working Victorians - but then again that's only my view and you're not free to interpret what I said, that is to say you are not free to tell me what I meant - that's just not how this works".

It is not the prerogative of any politician, senior or otherwise, to decide what will be the important issues of the day. Members of the fourth estate are entitled to also make that decision.

As the elected representatives of the people, MPs have a primary obligation to the public interest, which prioritises openness, transparency and accountability above party and self-interest.

Dismissing journalists' legitimate questions in a disparaging manner is unacceptable.

It should not be tolerated by the people or the many excellent journalists who adhere to the principles underpinning the role of the fourth estate.

The messaging skills displayed by the Victorian Premier on his targeted online media feeds are impressive. However, it is important to remember that he and his vast number of political and media advisers control their social media messaging, as do all MPs.

Relying on finely controlled, social media messaging to replace the role of the fourth estate is particularly dangerous to democracy. So too is a disdainful attitude that dismisses journalists' legitimate questions.

Some MPs failure to respect the important accountability role played by Australia's many good journalists could result in the weakening of a crucial accountability institution.

This should not be allowed to happen and the free media has a role to play in ensuring that it does not. That role includes journalists abiding by the principles underpinning the fourth estate.

Dr Colleen Lewis is an honorary professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute.


Updated:  21 March 2023/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications