Something very troubling is happening in our community when it comes to the local media’s scrutiny of those in power.
Since returning to Warrnambool in January, I have watched with growing disbelief at the apparent reticence of our once-proud local newspaper, The Standard, to go in hard and ask the tough questions of our leaders.
This is what journalists do. This is the role of the so-called ‘Fourth Estate’ – to be the watchdog of the powerful and give voice to the powerless.
It is an essential part of our democracy and ensures that we retain an open, transparent and accountable government – on all levels.
This past week, we saw national scrutiny of MPs’ spending, sparked by revelations that Prime Minister Abbott had claimed allowances for trips to weddings, triathlons and cycling events.
Was our local federal MP Dan Tehan asked by our paper to detail the $873,992.35 that he spent from 2010-12? No, instead this figure was not even mentioned, but rather the paper’s story (10/10) reassured us that he had claimed $321,000 in ‘legitimate government entitlements’. End of story.
There is no suggestion that Mr Tehan used his allowance improperly, but nor is it improper for a journalist to forensically examine this spending. This is exactly what independent journalist Margot Kingston did when she broke the story about Tony Abbott claiming more than $9000 in taxpayer funds to promote his book.
It is only by drilling down into the detail that all the facts can come to light.
Earlier this year, Warrnambool Mayor Michael Neoh visited China as part of a Sister City relationship with Changchun. Shortly after his return, The Standard ran a story (29/6) about Mr Neoh visiting his ancestral home in China and catching up with relatives.
Was this part of the official tour for which ratepayers paid $3500 for both Mr Neoh and Council CEO Bruce Anson?
Did Mr Neoh pay for this portion of the trip himself? Again, there is no suggestion of impropriety by Mr Neoh, but we don’t know the answer to these questions because, it appears, they weren’t asked.*
And when others do ask the prickly, difficult questions, the response is sometimes extraordinary.
Last month, Cr Peter Sycopoulis and several council colleagues questioned whether Mayor Neoh and Mr Anson needed to attend a Sister City function in Japan – expected to cost ratepayers $4000 – given they had just been to China.
For this, the councillors were chastised by the newspaper as being ‘party poopers’ (11/11). What?
And let’s not forget the infamous ‘Wilma Wright’ letters to the editor. These were published by The Standard for four years – four years – without anybody apparently checking the identity of the author, who was revealed as Mr Anson’s son and who at one point used the cover of his pseudonym to openly attack several councillors, including Cr Sycopoulis, in the lead up to a council election.
(Mr Anson, it must be noted, was cleared of any involvement in his son’s activities).
The names in this column – Mr Tehan, Mayor Neoh, Mr Anson – are irrelevant: it is the public, important positions that they hold that makes them open to scrutiny and a higher standard of accountability.
This is the hard work of journalism.
It is much harder, more time consuming and nerve-wrecking than writing story after story about courts and crime (ie. the powerless) where all of the leg work has been done, yet it is critical if we are to have faith in our media as the watchdog it is intended to be.
If it fails in this task, it is nothing less than our democracy which suffers.
* The Warrnambool City Council has since confirmed to Bluestone that Mayor Neoh did fund this portion of his travel.
- I began my journalism career as a cadet at The Standard in 1989.
- I was an open supporter of ALP candidate Michael Barling during the last federal election because I thought he was the best option for Wannon. It was the first time I voted Labor in many years: I normally vote Green.
- I know Cr Sycopoulis through his family: his older sisters and I went to school together.