India’s leading investigative journalist Madhu Trehan takes on Bob Carr in an Australian Press Council discussion on what’s ‘announceable’ in the news
Madhu Trehan, a well-known Indian investigative journalist and founder of news magazine India Today, news video magazine Newstrack and now an online media critique platform, Newslaundry.com, was in Sydney recently for the Australian Press Council’s 40th anniversary conference. The theme of the conference this year was ‘Press freedom in a challenging environment’ and assembled was an impressive cohort of journalists from all over the world.
For a special public event, held in partnership with Sydney Ideas of the University of Sydney, Madhu Trehan, along with Anna Nemtsova (award-winning Russian journalist and correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast), Tom Dusevic (writer and editor), and Bob Carr (ex-Premier of NSW), debated the topic ‘What’s the Announceable? Governing in a 24-hour news cycle.’ The event was hosted by prominent journalist and commentator David Marr.
What is the ‘announceable’ was the question on everybody’s mind. The word was new to overseas journalists Madhu and Anna, and most of the audience, so David Marr began by clarifying the meaning. The word which first made it to the Macquarie Dictionary in 2011, is defined as ‘an item made public by a government, usually in a media release, as good publicity for the government or as a distraction from bad publicity.’ As news channels have expanded from newspapers and radio to TV and the internet and runs 24/7, the need to satiate the ravenous appetite of the media has grown exponentially. Politicians, taking advantage of this, feed them with a stream of announceables.
Bob Carr, a former journalist himself, started the discussion looking back at his term as Premier of NSW when he had difficulty getting the media to report on important policy issues. He gave the example of the time when an important announcement about developing Western Sydney was not reported, but instead the press grabbed on a casual comment he made on how unhealthy it was to have sausage rolls for breakfast, to attack his patriotism.
Carr used his opportunity to speak ad nauseum about his government’s achievements, rueing that the press had no interest in teasing out complex policy issues, concentrating on the trivial. His long monologue was at first listened to patiently by the four journalists on stage, but soon, as they got the chance to speak themselves, launched into a verbal war on stage.
Tom Dusevic countered Carr’s whinging by declaring, “The announceable is over. There is no sizzle in that sausage!” He called Carr ‘the Gordon Ramsay of saucy and new ingredients’ and ‘the Master Chef of fast-food politics’ during his 10 years as Premier.
How far apart the lives of reporters in countries such as Australia stand in contrast to India and Russia, was evident when Madhu Trehan and Anna Nemtsova presented their journalistic experiences. The 2015 Courage in Journalism awardee, Nemtsova regularly reports on Russia and former Soviet states, covering stories such as the Crimean crisis, the Ukrainian revolution and the Chechnya conflict. Nemtsova said that there are no ‘announceables’ in such authoritarian regimes. The press is fed news in bits and pieces by the establishment.
“Every week Putin holds press briefings for editors of major newspapers and news is literally distributed to them,” she said.
Madhu Trehan, who interestingly started her career with a community newspaper called India Abroad in New York, has been in the profession for 48 years. Now running the Media Watch-like Newslaundry, she calls her role “disruptive” and says they “wash everyone and destroy everyone”, a weak translation of the Indian phrase “sabki dhulayee kar denge”. India is one of the world’s biggest consumers of news with over 70,000 newspapers and over 700 TV stations.
Referring to Carr’s monologue, she announced, to the amusement of the audience and his chagrin, “I feel so much at home. We too have politicians who claim we don’t report what they want and they talk on and on!”
Trehan remarked that in India when a politician relays an ‘announceable’, even an illiterate villager scoffs. “For example, announcements about the cleaning of the River Ganga have been made since 1972 but it is as dirty as ever. The press should focus on what is actually delivered and what is not delivered. Announcements are meaningless.” Addressing Carr directly, she said, “We are not your PR agency.”
This amusing banter between journalists and politicians livened up the proceedings. One couldn’t help but feel sorry for Bob Carr, the lone politician amidst four sharp journalists. He made a feeble attempt to regain ground by saying that his government had made great inroads in the cleaning of the Parramatta River. “We did not claim it; it was done,” said Carr, a trifle proudly, only to be brought down to earth by David Marr who turned to Madhu Trehan and said, “I must explain. The comparison of the Parramatta River to the Ganges is extravagant. A disgraceful comparison really, as this is a small river in comparison that rises in the Blue Mountains!” To which Trehan replied tongue-in-cheek, “You were taking advantage of me being from another country. This is true exploitation. I am sure if I was an Australian journalist I could bring out a list of things you had announced but did not deliver.” “Like a whole network of railways,” added Marr promptly. The friendly wit and quick retorts were accompanied by loud laughter from the audience.
Anna Nemtsova’s lone voice brought the discussion back to the reality of her world where “only one guy decides what is news”, referring to Putin.
When asked by an audience member about what press freedom means to them, Anna replied that in Russia, where journos are being murdered or abducted on the frontline, it means a lot. “I have lost friends on the job,” she said sadly.
Madhu Trehan observed that India is a country of contradictions. Just as women are revered and oppressed at the same time, so too the press can be harassed but at the same time enjoys much freedom and is powerful enough to influence judiciary and government.
The panel sadly concluded that the reality is that there is a huge trust deficit among people with regard to politicians and both the press and the politicians are to blame.
There was no denying the corrosive aspect of annouceables and spin.