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  • Rex Widerstrom

When the media no longer mediates

hook line and sinker.jpg

Mediate: adjectiveˈmiːdɪət/ involving an intermediate agency.

Two stories, one from Australia and the other from New Zealand, on the same day serve to illustrate the extent to which the media has abandoned its role as an intermediate agency between government and the people.

First a story on the Yahoo New Zealand News site which reads, word for word, like a press release from the Beehive. At least Yahoo are honest about it - the "byline" is "Government / Fuseworks", the latter being news aggregation software.

No journalist was involved in the production of this "news", unless you count the Ministerial Press Secretary who was possibly once a journalist. I say possibly because that's not always the case nowadays - an undergraduate communications degree and a willingness to do what you're told now seem to be enough to land such a role.

So what, you may say, it's only a minor story about a disability award. But one disability activist of my acquaintance has questioned the use of the word "allow" in this sentence: "employers who choose to employ people with disabilities to allow them to earn and contribute to society". A fair point, and one a journalist might have challenged the Minister, Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga, on if they were allowed anywhere near the story. There may well have been other questions that could have been asked to probe the appropriateness of the Ministers' self-congratulatory tone but they too didn't get asked.

The second example, from Western Australia, is worse because journalists have had something to do with writing it, and they've swallowed the government's line (and hook, and sinker).

Briefly, the Barnett government - in severe financial trouble on both sides of the ledger with falling commodities prices bringing in far less royalties revenue than was forecast and grandiose promises to build the millionaires' playground "Elizabeth Quay" and that other millionaires' playground, a new sports stadium - has proposed a flat tax on WA vehicle owners.

And that's precisely what it is. A tax of "under $100 for motor vehicle owners and $100 or more for truck owners". Regardless of where they drive or when they drive.

Desperate for some justification, someone in the Government Media Unit came up with the idea of calling it a "congestion tax". Greater Perth is an absolute mess of unco-ordinated traffic lights on every intersection, ever-changing speed limits with seemingly no rhyme nor reason, and simply inadequate roads that were built with seemingly no idea of just how many vehicles would need to use them. People hate it; it costs business, by some estimates, over $2 billion a year in fuel and person hours. Goodness knows what it costs the health system - I only know that since moving there I've had to quadruple my blood pressure medication.

"So," the thinking clearly went, "if we call it a 'congestion tax' rather than, say, a 'help, we can't do basic math tax', people will carry us shoulder-high through the streets for imposing it".

Except it's no such thing. Take a look at this map of London's congestion charge zone (pdf). The orange section is where you'll pay a fee (currently £11.50 per day), if you enter between 7 am and 6 pm. If you don't, you pay nothing.

It's obvious how this congestion charge works - it imposes a monetary cost on the decision to enter a congested part of London during times of peak congestion, deterring those who don't need to make their journey then and thus leading to fewer vehicles - meaning those who do pay the charge actually receive some tangible and immediate benefit. That's the way congestion charges work in any other city which has imposed them.

Now it's perfectly okay for Colin Barnett's chief spinner Dixie Marshall - who recently referred to a female ABC reporter as a "sanctimonious moll" for daring to question her boss - to try to run a clearly preposterous line like that. That's exactly what she's paid $245,000 a year to do.

What's not okay is for journalists to not only unquestioningly accept that framing, but to use it in their headlines. Even the ABC fell for it, with a story headed "Congestion tax plan..."

If it will not affect congestion, it's not a congestion tax. It's just a tax.

I realise this is just another in many hundreds of thousands of laments on the demise of journalism which nowadays litter the web. And I also know that much of the problem is institutional - shrinking newsroom number and other cost-cutting measures. But it would be nice if those journalists that remain at least pull on the line and put up a fight before being reeled in and landed, flapping ineffectually about, on the politicians' decks.

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