Recent controversy over the government’s use of information provided to Human Services and Veterans’ Affairs demonstrates there are major holes in Australia’s privacy regime that we need to fix.
Australians are accustomed to providing personal information to federal and state governments. We do it repeatedly throughout our lives. We do so to claim entitlements. We also do so as the basis of public administration – the contemporary “information state”.
In making that state possible we trust we will not be treated as a file number or an incident. We will not be doxed.
A key aspect of that trust, consistent with international rights law since the 1940s, is that our privacy will be protected. We assume officials – and private sector entities they use as their agents – will not be negligent in safeguarding personal information.
We also assume they will not share personal information with other agencies unless there is a substantive need for that sharing – for example, for national security or to prevent harm to an individual. And we expect they will not disclose personal information to the media or directly to the community at large as a way of silencing criticism or resolving disputes.
Australia has a sophisticated body of administrative law and ombudsmen. So, there is no need for public shaming of people who disagree with ministers, officials or databases.
The complicated and inconsistent body of privacy law highlighted by law reform commissions over the past two decades attempts to provide legal protection for personal information. It is overseen by under-resourced watchdogs that – amid threats of termination – are inclined to lick the ministerial hand that feeds them.
The watchdog’s guidelines state that where someone:
… makes adverse comments in the media about the way [a body] has treated them … it may be reasonable to expect that the entity may respond publicly to these comments in a way that reveals personal information specifically relevant to the issues that the individual has raised.
Put simply, if you complain publicly about a Commonwealth agency that holds personal information relating to you, that agency can lawfully give the information to the media or publish it directly. It can do so to correct what the minister deems to be “misinformation”.
There is no requirement that your complaint be malicious, fraudulent, vexatious or otherwise wrong. Disclosure is at the minister’s discretion, not subject to independent review. You have no legal remedies unless it could be proved that the official was malicious or corrupt.
We have seen such a disclosure. The Department of Human Services gave personal information to a journalist for publication about a person who disagreed with action by Centrelink to recover an alleged overpayment of an entitlement.
There has been much discussion in the media and the national parliament about the vigour with which the government is seeking to recover overpayments. Worryingly, it remains uncertain whether many of the alleged overpayments actually exist.
Ongoing changes to entitlements policy, the hollowing out of key agencies by the annual “efficiency dividend” (that is, ongoing cuts to budgets) and problematical design and management of very large information technology projects mean overpayments might not have occurred.
Public disclosure of someone’s personal information thus looks very much like bullying, if not a deliberate effort to chill legitimate criticism and discussion of publicly funded programs.
Understandably, veterans are unhappy. Legal practitioners and academics wonder about the scope for public shaming through release of department information that might not be correct.
The national Privacy Commissioner has been complacent. Labor’s veterans’ affairs spokeswoman, Amanda Rishworth, has belatedly expressed concern. The minister has simply referred to the establishment of an independent review by the Australian Government Solicitor and his department. It is difficult to understand why privacy wasn’t properly considered before the bill went into parliament.
There are too many loopholes in Australia’s privacy regime. Government agencies also need to toughen up in the face of criticism – legitimate or otherwise – and not respond by bullying people through publication of personal information.
One Nation thought it could smell sweet electoral success for much of the Western Australian state election campaign.
The party had reason to be confident about its prospects, despite the recent debacle concerning Rod Culleton, the former One Nation and later independent senator found ineligible to stand for parliament.
The party’s founder, Pauline Hanson, had resumed the leadership mantle and had emerged as a high-profile deal-maker in the Senate. Hanson used her profile to support her “down-to-earth, upfront and honest grassroots” candidates by making frequent visits to the state during the campaign.
Polls had the party as resurgent and on track to win up to 13% of the primary vote.
On the strength of its strong performance in the polls, both major parties were reported to have been jostling for One Nation’s preferences. It was the Liberals that sealed the deal in the end. Liberal leader Colin Barnett was unapologetic, even if “uncomfortable”, about the decision.
This deal was significant for One Nation.
The preference pact had the potential to enhance the electoral prospects of One Nation candidates contesting upper house regions.
The deal was also important because it signalled that One Nation was no longer a political pariah. Former Liberal prime minister John Howard defended the preference deal with One Nation on the grounds that “everyone changes in 16 years”. And high-profile Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos argued One Nation are “a lot more sophisticated”.
But the party’s supposed new-found sophistication was rarely on show during the campaign.
Hanson applauded Russian President Vladimir Putin for his patriotism and strong-man persona, but paradoxically likened a policy that made eligibility for certain forms of family payments and childcare benefits contingent on parents vaccinating their children as akin to living in a dictatorship.
“Bloody lefties” within the education system were denounced as the cause of social problems that were afflicting regional towns. Muslims were accused of having “no respect” for Australia, and making preparations to eventually overthrow Australian governments.
The party struggled to contain its candidates. Two were disendorsed and two more resigned during the campaign. Four days before polling day, two former high-ranking party officials who were sacked from the party went public with their decision to take legal action against Hanson for age discrimination.
And three days before the election, there were concerns the party’s how-to-vote cards were not legally compliant.
In a final blow to an already chaotic campaign, Hanson declared the preference deal it had struck with the Liberals had likely done the party “damage”.
What cost the preference deal?
Certainly the result reveals that One Nation failed to perform as strongly as the early opinion polls had predicted. With 67.25% of the lower house vote counted, One Nation attracted only 4.74% of primary votes.
What then does this all mean? Was the preference deal a mistake for One Nation? Can a so-called anti-establishment party enter into a preference deal with an establishment party and survive to tell the story? The prevailing opinion is “no”.
However, let’s consider the claims that have been levelled about the preference deal. The main claim is the preference deal was the primary cause of One Nation’s electoral woes.
There is definitely polling data which shows many voters were opposed to the deal. What is less clear is if this opposition translated into action at the ballot box. If, for example, we calculate (or average) One Nation’s primary vote according to the actual number of lower house seats it contested, then its primary vote is around 8.26%.
While this figure is well short of the early double-digit polling results tipped for One Nation, it suggests that its support did hold up (and this is in spite of an electoral campaign that was chaotic and ill-disciplined).
The second general claim is the idea that a preference deal for either party under any circumstances is tantamount to electoral suicide.
Again, this argument might be something of a stretch. What appeared to actually blight this agreement was the particular electoral and political dynamics that surrounded it, and not the mere fact of a deal being negotiated between the two parties.
The Liberals struck a preference deal that favoured One Nation over its historical alliance partner, the Nationals. While the Liberals might have been justified by its decision, it ultimately proved very difficult to square with the conservative base more generally. The preference deal made a desperate party appear even more desperate.
One Nation agreed to a preference deal with the Liberals even though it proposed the partial privatisation of the electricity utility, a policy One Nation rejected. The planned privatisation of the utility was deeply unpopular, opposed by as many as 61% of voters.
In spite of its protestations to the contrary, One Nation had hitched its wagon to one of the most controversial policy issues of the entire campaign.
It could be argued that under different conditions, this preference deal need not have generated as much collateral damage as this one seems to have caused.
Any damage arising from this preference deal to One Nation is likely to prove fleeting. The party is on track to win two seats in the Legislative Council, most likely with the assistance of Liberal preferences.
In the end, the real danger for One Nation lies not with who it chooses to enter into preference deals with, but how it manages it internal affairs, and the conduct of its elected members – especially its leader.
For the national narrative, perhaps the most notable story out of the Western Australian election revolves around Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Turnbull.
Despite the backlash from WA Liberal voters over the now-infamous preference deal the party did with her, Turnbull on Sunday wouldn’t rule out the Liberals playing footsie on preferences federally, deflecting questions by saying it was a matter for the party organisation.
Turnbull surely must be uncomfortable with his line. This would seem to be yet another area where he is not being true to his personal values. It must add to the confusion of voters wondering about the “real Malcolm”.
Hanson has come out of the WA election with her very ragged petticoats on display.
One Nation did much worse than it was polling early in the campaign. Expectations were high. On Saturday night Hanson was lamenting the preference deal, while trying to wriggle out of blame for the likely impact of her irresponsible comments on vaccination.
This was a polarising election – people were about changing the government, not just registering a protest.
While Hanson’s WA vote was very low in aggregate, in the three non-metropolitan regions for the upper house One Nation polled (on the count so far) between 9% and 14%.
In the Legislative Assembly seats with One Nation candidates, it polled about 8%; in the lower house seats it contested outside Perth it polled 9.6%.
ABC election analyst Antony Green says the preference deal delivered nothing to the Liberals, but has brought One Nation an upper house seat in the south-west region and potentially a second seat, in the mining and pastoral region.
Regardless of her poor performance, Hanson continues to present a challenge for the conservative parties.
The WA result cut her down to size, and the campaign shows how such a party is likely eventually to blow itself up (as it did before). But that could take a while, and in the meantime the damage Hanson can do in the coming Queensland election and – depending on what happens there – the federal election means the debate over how to handle her will continue to rend the conservatives.
It took some time for John Howard to muscle up against Hanson two decades ago. Now we see Turnbull remaining equivocal – denouncing some of her stands but courting her as the leader of a Senate bloc and keeping options open on preferences.
Any preference deal in Queensland or federally would be quite different from the WA one. It would not disadvantage the Nationals. There is a combined party in Queensland and a coalition nationally (as distinct from the “alliance” that operated in WA).
It would be a matter of putting One Nation ahead of Labor.
The debate ahead involves not just how the Liberals see their electoral advantage, but a question of principle: given what Hanson represents, shouldn’t the major parties form a united front to try to squeeze her out of existence – which means placing her last or, for the Liberals and Nationals, at least behind Labor?
The Nationals are clear-eyed about Hanson because she is such a direct threat to them. But they are divided on the best approach to the danger she represents, and are likely to be pragmatic about preferences.
It is notable that the Nationals vote in WA held up relatively well (though the fate of their leader Brendon Grylls is uncertain). The same happened at last year’s federal election; the Nationals are often closer to feeling on the ground than the Liberals.
Turnbull is right that the thumping WA loss is overwhelmingly about the local scene. If the federal government was doing well, the main impact of the result would be having to deal with another state ALP government. But when you are in deep trouble, it’s another matter.
The WA defeat will add to the jitters on the backbench; it is an object lesson in how fierce the voters can be when they turn against a government. You can be sure also that Turnbull’s enemies within his own ranks will find ways to turn this latest Liberal bad news against him.
Meanwhile Bill Shorten is seeking – without the slightest evidence – to segue from the state result to the federal battlefield by claiming that a reaction to Turnbull’s “absolute refusal to stop the cuts to penalty rates” was one factor.
Morale is vital in politics, and just as the federal Liberals will be discombobulated by the WA result, so federal Labor will be encouraged. In Labor there is confidence the tide is moving its way. Strategists believe Queensland can be held at the state election.
For Shorten the message from WA is that a steady leader, albeit without charisma but with a united team and an acceptable message, can win when the electorate has become disenchanted with the government.
Circumstances are different federally from WA, where the economy and the electorate are suffering from the post-mining boom shocks. But what’s common is a struggling government, a budget in the red, and a leader who has become unpopular.
Going for Turnbull is that he has time – two years – before the voters get a chance to declare “time’s up”. The question for him is how to best use that time.
Labor has won the 2017 Western Australian election in a landslide, sweeping aside the long-running Barnett government and installing Labor’s Mark McGowan as the state’s 30th premier.
The ABC is predicting Labor will win 40 seats, doubling its current number of seats held and providing it with a clear majority.
The Liberals look to have held only 14 of their 30 seats, while the Nationals appear to have held five of their seven lower house seats. Several seats technically remain in doubt.
Labor’s victory is Perth-based. Thirty-five of the 40 predicted seats it won are based in the metropolitan area. Within the three non-metropolitan regions, Labor has held Kimberley and Albany, and likely picked up only three seats – Bunbury, Collie-Preston, Murray-Wellington. All, except Kimberley, are in the state’s south-west.
State-wide, the One Nation vote in the Legislative Assembly is only 4.7%. It looks like One Nation could win two seats in the Legislative Council, one in Mining and Pastoral and the other in the south-west. This is below the results expected prior to Pauline Hanson’s disastrous trip to WA.
A drover’s dog type of election?
This was an election where the vote was driven by dislike of the sitting government, rather than attraction to the opposition.
It’s rare for a party to gain a third term in WA, and the Barnett government has been trailing in the polls for some time. In particular, as the face of his government, Premier Colin Barnett is deeply unpopular across the state.
The election day ReachTEL poll of 2,573 voters, published in The West Australian, had Labor on a two-party-preferred vote of 54% to 46%. Of those planning to vote Labor, 27.2% said their main reason was that “It’s time for a change of government”, and 16.3% said “I don’t like Colin Barnett”.
Mark McGowan: WA’s new premier
McGowan will become premier after surviving a somewhat bizarre challenge on his leadership last March by former federal Labor minster Stephen Smith.
In the strained economic circumstances in which WA finds itself, it is difficult to run a campaign full of expensive promises. The most high-profile of Labor’s policies was its declaration that it would not sell Western Power, which the government hoped to use to reduce state debt by around A$8 billion.
The Metronet rail network plan gained a place in the public imagination during the 2013 campaign. The basics of the plan survived Labor’s defeat at the last state election as it remained popular within the electorate, providing a clear alternative plan to the changing positions of the Barnett government.
Labor cleverly claimed it would fund Metronet by cancelling the Perth Freight Link, which includes the deeply unpopular Roe 8 extension, and diverting the federal funding from that project to Metronet.
Colin Barnett’s defeat is a tale of a tin ear
The key issues in this election have tended to be economic in nature. WA’s unemployment rates, high state debt, high cost of living, and predicted budget deficits, have not instilled confidence in voters.
The outgoing premier’s last appeal to voters was “please don’t vote for a return to Dullsville” that ended with the old argument that the unions would be in control under Labor.
Given the economic uncertainty, it was a strange plea. Many voters are more concerned with being able to pay their mortgage than take advantage of the improvements to city.
Barnett’s fundamental problem is that while his government has transformed Perth over the last eight years, voters are more concerned with their own economic circumstances, and the benefits of large infrastructure projects have not resonated.
It’s a hard sell to convince people that while the significant economic downturn over the last four years is due to circumstances the government can’t control, the government can nonetheless be trusted to turn the state’s fortunes around.
Brendan Grylls distinguishes the Nationals from the Liberals
Outside of Perth, Brendan Grylls appears to have saved the Nationals from oblivion.
Grylls is responsible, through the Royalties for Regions program, for differentiating the Nationals from the Liberals. While the swing against the Liberals is projected to be around 16%, the swing against the Nationals is projected to be less than 1%.
The fact the Nationals have held their ground is impressive on two fronts. The first was the threat One Nation posed outside the metro area.
The other is that the WA Chamber of Minerals and Energy spent around $2 million campaigning against Grylls’ proposal of raising the 25 cent per tonne production rental fee on iron ore to $5, which would deliver an estimated $7.2 billion over the next four years.
Grylls is the member for Pilbara, having moved from the seat of Central Wheatbelt in the 2013 election. The tax policy was high risk, particularly for Grylls himself given that much of WA’s mining happens in his seat.
While the plan seems to have worked in the agricultural parts of the state, the count will continue in the mining seats of Pilbara and Kalgoorlie, which are too close to call.
What the eastern states can learn from the result
In terms of the WA election having federal implications for the Turnbull government, this really was an election determined by local issues.
During the campaign Bill Shorten visited three times, while Malcolm Turnbull made only one fleeting visit, where he failed to deliver a plan to get WA a “fair” share of the GST.
While it is generally not opportune for a national governing party to lose at state level, only internal mischief-makers would try to blame the loss on Turnbull’s leadership.
The most significant issues that will resonate across the country will be the outcome of the preference deal with One Nation, and the ability of the Nationals to differentiate themselves so convincingly from the Liberals.
With 67% of enrolled voters counted in yesterday’s Western Australian election, the ABC’s election computer was giving Labor 36 of the 59 lower house seats, to 11 Liberals and 5 Nationals. Of the seven doubtful seats, I expect the Liberals to overtake narrow current Labor leads in two seats on late counting. If that happens, Labor will win 38 seats to 21 for the Liberals and Nationals, a reversal of the 2013 result (38 Liberal/Nationals, 21 Labor).
Primary vote shares were 42.8% for Labor (up 9.7 points since the 2013 election), 31.4% for the Liberals (down a massive 15.7 points), 5.4% for the Nationals (down 0.7), 8.5% for the Greens (up 0.1), a disappointing 4.7% for One Nation and 7.2% for all Others (up 1.9). As post-election day votes are processed, I expect Labor’s share to drop slightly, and the Liberals and Greens to slightly improve.
No statewide two party result has been provided by the Electoral Commission, and this will not be known until after all other results are finalised.
At the time of One Nation’s last peak from 1998-2001, they won 9.6% at the 2001 WA election. After polling in the 12-13% range early in the campaign, One Nation’s vote slumped to 7-9% in the final polls. Polls may have overestimated One Nation as they were only standing in 35 of 59 lower house seats.
There were two reasons for One Nation’s loss of support late in the campaign. First, the preference deal with the Liberals damaged their brand: it is hard to be an anti-establishment party if you deal with an established major party. Second, One Nation’s policies received more exposure in the closing days, causing some One Nation supporters who disagreed with the party’s far right agenda to desert.
The preference deal with One Nation also had dire consequences for the Liberals. While the Liberals were behind prior to the deal, it did not appear that Labor would win a landslide before the deal was announced. The fallout from this deal will mean that the Coalition parties and One Nation, in other states and federally, will be more reluctant to trade preferences.
Barnett was deeply unpopular, WA’s economy was weak, and the unpopular Federal government was a drag. These factors made a Labor win probable, but the deal with One Nation probably exacerbated the Liberals’ losses.
This will be Labor’s first true landslide in any state or federally since 2006, when Labor had landslide wins in Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania. By “landslide”, I mean not just defeating the opposition, but thrashing them in both seat and vote terms. That Labor won a big victory in the most conservative state at Federal level will make it even sweeter for them.
Polling appears to have underestimated the Greens and Labor’s primary votes a little, and overestimated One Nation. Galaxy and Newspoll had the Liberals and Nationals about right, but ReachTEL overestimated their vote.
Fluoride Free could win a seat in WA upper house
While 67% of enrolled voters for the lower house have been tallied, only 47% has been counted in the upper house. The WA upper house is severely malapportioned, and still uses the group voting ticket system that was abolished in the Senate.
Using the group voting tickets, the ABC is currently predicting Labor to win 15 of 36 upper house seats (up 4 since 2013), the Liberals 9 (down 8), the Nationals 4 (down 1), the Greens 3 (up 1), Shooters 2 (up 1) and One Nation, Liberal Democrats and Fluoride Free are currently predicted to win one seat each.
The ABC currently gives one seat to Daylight Saving, but Kevin Bonham spotted an error. The Daylight Saving candidate in Mining and Pastoral region is actually the Shooters candidate.
With the upper house count well behind the lower house count, these results may change. However, currently Fluoride Free is winning a seat in East Metro region on just 0.35%. A quota is 1/7 of the vote, or 14.3%.
The West Australian election will be held today. Polls close at 6pm local time (9pm Melbourne time). All three polls taken in the last week give Labor a 54-46 lead, which would represent an 11 point swing to Labor since the 2013 election. If this polling is accurate, Labor leads the combined Liberal/National total on primary votes. Here is the WA final poll table.
The last Newspoll was taken in late January. Primary votes in this Newspoll were Labor 41% (up 3), Liberals 32% (up 2), Nationals 5% (steady) One Nation 8% (down 5) and Greens 7% (down 2). 34% (up 2) were satisfied with Premier Colin Barnett’s performance, and 57% (steady) were dissatisfied, for a net approval of -23. Opposition leader Mark McGowan had a net approval of +5, down 7 points. 54% thought Labor would win, with 27% backing the Liberals.
The last ReachTEL was taken for Fairfax on 27 February. After excluding 3.5% undecided, this ReachTEL has primary votes of Labor 41.8% (up 6.6), Liberals 33.9% (down 0.7), Nationals 6.0% (down 0.8), One Nation 6.8% (down 1.7) and Greens 6.5% (down 4.2). 61% thought the Liberals should not have entered a preference deal with One Nation, with only 22% in favour.
The only Galaxy poll since the last election was published last Sunday. It had primary votes of Labor 40%, Liberals 31%, Nationals 5%, One Nation 9% and Greens 8%.
On better Premier, McGowan led Barnett 45-37 in Newspoll, 56.5-43.5 in ReachTEL and 46-33 in Galaxy.
Much of Labor’s strong primary vote is coming at the expense of the Greens. Greens preferences help Labor in two party terms, so Labor will not do as well from preferences with a low Green primary.
It appears that the preference deal between the Liberals and One Nation has damaged both parties. From a peak of 12-13%, One Nation’s vote has slumped to 7-9%. The Liberals started the campaign behind, and this deal was an attempt to win One Nation lower house preferences. It is now likely that the Liberals will lose by a greater margin than if they had avoided this deal.
There may be shy One Nation voters, but neither ReachTEL nor Newspoll use live phone interviews. ReachTEL is a robopollster, while Newspoll uses robopolling and online panel methods.
Tasmanian EMRS poll: Liberals slump to 35%
A Tasmanian EMRS poll, conducted 1-4 March from a sample of 1000, has the Liberals on 35% (down 5 since November), Labor on 29% (up 1), the Greens on 19% (up 1), Independents on 10% (down 1) and One Nation on 6%.
Kevin Bonham says that EMRS skews to the Greens and Independents and against Labor. He interprets this poll as having primaries of 37% Liberal, 33% Labor, 16% Greens and 6% One Nation. Under Tasmania’s Hare Clark system, this poll would result in a hung Parliament with the Greens holding the balance of power; Bonham thinks 11 Liberals, 10 Labor, 4 Greens the most likely result.
No approval ratings are provided, but Premier Will Hodgman has a massive 52-20 lead over Labor’s Bryan Green as better Premier. Although better Premier is skewed in favour of the incumbent, the lead should not be this huge on a poll that would result in a Labor/Greens parliamentary majority. It is likely that Green’s lack of popularity is driving this disparity.
With Zelig-like serendipity I was in Stockholm when #lastnightinsweden went viral. While echoing the melancholic majesty of a classic ABBA song title, the hashtag #lastnightinsweden actually referred to yet another Donald Trump dump of alleged “fake news” on an increasingly exhausted world.
We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden? Who would believe this? Sweden! They took in large numbers, they’re having problems like they never thought possible.
Trump, it appeared to most observers, was alleging that an act of Islamist terrorism had just occurred in that far-off Nordic land – one that was illustrative of the existential threat faced by the American people and from which only he and his immigration clampdown could save them.
It hadn’t, of course. No atrocity had occurred in Sweden that weekend, Islamist or otherwise. It’s true, there was a minor riot the evening after Trump’s speech in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby when two cars were burnt out and a policeman was yelled at by a man who was possibly Muslim, but it’s more likely that Trump’s remarks caused that ruckus than that he was reacting to it. Even Trump’s most-dedicated admirers don’t believe he can foretell the future.
The hashtag #lastnightinsweden became a global media story – a paradigm case of fake news, as it has come to be called, first by Trump and his advisers and then by the rest of us, ad nauseam.
Since his election in November fake news has become a powerful, ubiquitous meme, replicating and evolving with every iteration of the news cycle until one can’t open a newspaper or download an edition of Breitbart without being greeted by the words “fake” and “news” in some combination or other.
Barack Obama wiretapped the Trump campaign? Fake news!
The Australian accused senator Nick Xenophon of planning to increase taxes? Fake news!
Mike Flynn, Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner and who knows how many other Trump advisers are in cahoots with the Russians? Fake news!
Everyone is familiar with the term by now, indeed over-familiar. Far too many people use it when they shouldn’t, and a lot of people are confused as to what it means. When a word or phrase can be applied to anything, it means nothing.
Brian, they ask me: as a professor of journalism, what is fake news, exactly? So, let me offer a brief user’s guide both to what fake news is, and what it is not.
First, though, let’s remind ourselves that fake news isn’t news. By which I mean not that it isn’t news, which it is at present (stick with me here); but that it isn’t new. On the contrary, fabrication, fakery and falsehood have been part of journalism since the first journalists put quill to parchment.
Award-winning journalists such as Janet Cooke have been exposed as cheats. Her Pulitzer Prize was snatched back La La Land-style when it turned out that her heart-rending story of an eight-year-old heroin addict, little “Jimmy” from the ‘hood, was entirely invented.
In the late 1990s Stephen Glass of the New Republic was found to have fabricated dozens of major feature articles for one of the US’ most-prestigious journalistic publications – also known, at least until Trump took over, as in-flight reading for Air Force One.
In 2002 Jayson Blair of the New York Times became a major news story for plagiarising other journalists’ content, and then making up some more lies all on his own.
In 1997, a Channel 4 documentary production team were caught out faking a story about male prostitutes in Glasgow, and the company was fined. Around the same time Channel 4 also broadcast a fake documentary about Colombian cocaine smugglers.
A few years later the venerable UK Guardian printed a front-page story about Chinese police brutality that turned out to be entirely made up.
So, the idea that journalism is sometimes fabricated, and news sometimes faked, is hardly controversial. Even the term isn’t original.
Jon Stewart’s Daily Show was often referred to as part of the fake news genre which emerged in the 1990s – in his and Stephen Colbert’s case it meant savagely sarcastic commentaries on, and satirical parodies and pastiches of, “real” news as produced by the US networks.
They, and more recent comedians such as John Oliver, had and have great fun with the absurdities and pretensions of Fox News in particular, although they are deeply serious in their underlying purpose: to blow the whistle on bullshit of the type that Fox pours out daily.
They and publications such as the UK’s Private Eye, The Onion and Daily Currant have succeeded by providing a form of “fake” news that is obviously untrue and functions as commentary on the mainstream news media, but is just close enough to the real thing in style and form to be genuinely funny as satire.
These “fakers” are not journalists, as Oliver stressed in an interview with the Sunday Times this week, although they can be at least as influential as the most po-faced of pundits.
So, fake news is not in itself news. What is particular about our era, however, is that the term has become a widely used political tool, to denounce journalistic content with which one disagrees on the one hand, and to attack free and independent media on the other.
Because of its use by Trump and his supporters, the concept has become a core political issue, now impacting on the freedom of the media in the US and elsewhere. Questions around the veracity and authenticity of journalism have become central to concerns about the health of journalism and the Fourth Estate more broadly.
These debates are not merely academic, but essential to the evolution (and perhaps survival) of liberal-democratic societies in the 21st century.
The capacity of the digitised, globalised, networked media space to disseminate news and information of all kinds, including unsubstantiated rumour, malicious gossip and content which is fake or in some other way problematic, has coincided with a particular political moment where journalistic objectivity and professionalism are under challenge from state and non-state political actors as never before.
Some call it a “crisis” of objective journalism – and it is. But I hate crisis narratives so I won’t.
Remember that the critique of objectivity goes back to Einstein, and was then reinforced by postmodernism and cultural relativism. The left, exemplified by the likes of Noam Chomsky, never believed in objectivity anyway, while the right didn’t care about the truth of anything as long as it made money. Fox News is a Murdoch company, and Murdoch claims to believe in objective journalism.
What is new, though, is the politicisation of this struggle over truth.
Globally, Vladimir Putin has since 2010 or so deliberately cultivated disinformation, propaganda and myth as part of his hybrid warfare campaign against liberal democracy and unmanly things like gay rights and Pussy Riot.
His people didn’t shoot down MH17, oh no. That was the Ukrainian neo-fascists, or the CIA, or the EU.
He didn’t order the killing of Boris Nemtsov, or Alexander Litvinenko, or Anna Politovskaya, oh no. That was the Islamists (whom he hates just as much as Trump).
The Trump campaign studied the Putin playbook carefully, and has brought it into the Oval Office. Flood the global public sphere, it instructs them, with lies and conspiracy theories for long enough – birther movement, anyone? Pizzagate? – and some sucker, somewhere, will buy it.
Alas for America and the world, Putin was right. Just enough of those useful American idiots bought into the Trump mythology to give us Melania as First Lady, Ivanka as counsellor-in-chief and alt-right white supremacist Steve Bannon as the One-To-Rule-Them-All.
But we are where we are.
Fake news is not journalism you dislike or disagree with, for whatever reason. That’s just journalism, dude, as practised in the democratic world for four centuries and more. Get used to it.
Fake news is not stuff that other people say that you don’t like or agree with. If Pauline Hanson says she thinks Australians would like Vladimir Putin as leader – which she did on ABC’s Insiders the other day – that’s not fake news.
Fake news is not the unintentional misleading of audiences by journalists and news organisations, if they are sincerely applying the conventions of objectivity but producing erroneous content because of human error or organisational dysfunction. Mistakes happen.
And fake news is not the unintentional misleading by media of their audiences, when it is rooted in intentional deception and misleading by dishonest sources. When The Guardian led with that story about Chinese brutality, that wasn’t fake news.
All of the above are part of journalism’s history, and we must be vigilant in calling out errors and sloppiness in the news production process. But they are not fake news as the term is currently being used.
Fake news, in the contemporary context, is simply this: intentional disinformation (invention or falsification of known facts) for political and/or professional purposes, such as the fabrications of Stephen Glass or the activities of paid-for Kremlin trolls trying to prove that Russian troops are not in Ukraine and that Russia didn’t annex Crimea.
Fake news is when Michael Flynn Jr., the son of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn Sr. (he who lied about meeting the Russian ambassador to reassure him that once that uppity Obama was out of the way, sanctions would be lifted), disseminated the Pizzagate story before the US election (the story that leading Democrats were involved in a paedophile ring centred on a Washington burger joint).
Fake news is when organisations like Fox News and Breitbart report these stories as credible, knowing them to be fairytales.
So, what about #lastnightinsweden? Was that fake news, or just Trump being Trump?
I was in Stockholm when the story broke, as I mentioned before, and here is what I learnt from the journalism students I was teaching that week.
Trump, as was made clear by his own “alternative facts” people in the following days, was referring not to an actual thing that happened “last night in Sweden”, but a Fox News item he’d watched “last night”, in which an alleged documentary-maker by the name of Ami Horowitz had described some of the integration challenges faced by the Swedes after they took in nearly 200,000 migrants from the messy and out-of-control war George W Bush started back in 2003.
The young journalism students in my class confirmed that, yes, there were issues around the integration of so many foreigners into such a small and relatively homogeneous country in such a short time. But nothing “last night”, and nothing that one wouldn’t find in every country which had taken in migrants over the decades and centuries (not least the US, with its long history of migration from all over the world).
One student pointed out that Horowitz’s documentary had been condemned by one of the policemen quoted in it. The Swedish cop’s words had been edited out of all context, and this student named Horowitz as a “far-right activist” not to be trusted as an honest reporter of anything to do with Sweden.
On the way to the airport when leaving Stockholm, my Uber driver told me that he was an Iraqi Jew, a refugee from Saddam decades before, who had found a home and a life free from persecution in Sweden. He spoke five languages, he told me with pride, and had children in Australia as well as Sweden (we discussed the weather down under with some longing).
He told me that he, as a Jew, had been subject to anti-Semitic abuse by other taxi drivers, young Muslims in particular, and suggested Trump was quite right in his attitudes to Islamism.
Was #lastnightinsweden fake news or not, then? I’d say not.
What it was was a famously lazy populist latching onto a poorly researched piece of journalism that reflected his worldview (Horowitz’s documentary), which he had come across while watching the “fair and balanced” Fox News – his preferred news source when not reading the National Enquirer.
Fox News was only doing what it always does, as was Trump. Calling #lastnightinsweden fake news elevates it to a level of calculation and conspiracy that probably wasn’t justified (it’s always possible that Bannon or some other nutjob in the inner circle planned it as a diversionary tactic).
In the end, it was just crap journalism, endorsed by a wannabee despot who knows that stirring up ethnic hatred is what his followers respond to best.
As for what to do about fake news? I’ll come back to that. For now, remember the revolutionary power of laughter, and watch the Daily Show for the real news.
The past four years have not been kind to Western Australia. Coming off a once-in-a-lifetime boom, the bust, which for some reason the state always forgets to anticipate, is cutting deep, and it’s proving a problem for the Barnett-led Coalition government.
It’s worse in some remote parts of the state, where property prices have dropped by up to 75% over the last three years.
For those who have maintained their jobs, many are still in a worse financial position as bonuses and other financial incentives from the boom dry up. Others managing to find employment now have reduced salaries.
The public education system has increased its share of the students in each of the last five years. Part of this rise has been attributed to the downturn in the economy, as people divert money from school fees to the mortgage and other essentials. This in turn adds costs to the state budget.
Who’s responsible for this situation?
During his two terms, Premier Colin Barnett has projected the image of a leader in control. Treasurers have come and gone, and most ministers have minimal presence in the media. Barnett is the face of the government, and he bares the brunt of a scared and angry population, wondering what happened to his 2009 promise of a 20-year boom with growth of 5-7% a year.
During the recent leaders’ debate on February 22, Barnett pointed to his government’s investment in schools and health, with construction of the Fiona Stanley and new Perth Children’s hospitals. The latter has yet to open and is now more than a year behind schedule.
Labor leader Mark McGowan is running an old-fashioned scare campaign claiming prices will rise if the monopoly is sold. Energy prices have long been contentious in Western Australia, with the Barnett government overseeing a 67% price increase for households since 2009, admittedly off an artificially low base. McGowan is arguing the state should not sell off a revenue-generating monopoly to deal with the debt.
The second issue is public transport. The Barnett government has broken promises to deliver improved services to the outer suburbs of Perth, in places such as Ellenbrook.
The government’s key 2013 election transport promise of Max light-rail was abandoned as the state’s economic situation deteriorated.
Labor has resurrected its highly popular Metronet rail plan from the last election. Federal leader Bill Shorten is promising to help fund the plan should Labor return to government at the national level.
The costs of Metronet appear rubbery at the moment, but WA Labor is also planning to divert federal funding from the controversial Roe 8 highway.
While Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has stated the Commonwealth will not allow the diversion of funds, McGowan is pointing to the success of the Victorian Labor government in cancelling the East-West Link and using the funding for other projects.
WA is also seeing an increase in crime, some of which is linked to the so-called ice epidemic. Both parties are promising to be tough on crime. The Liberals are promising mandatory sentencing and Labor is advocating a maximum sentence of life for meth dealers.
During his blink-and-you-miss-it trip west, Turnbull disappointed Liberals with his lack of a plan to provide WA with its fair share of GST. Barnett has been campaigning on this issue for years, and the claimed A$4.7 billion annual shortfall in funds would help with the budget deficit.
Just how big is the swing to Labor?
There are 59 seats in the Legislative Assembly. The Liberals go into the election holding 30 seats and the Nationals seven, for a total of 37. Labor holds 21 seats. There’s one independent, former Liberal minister Rob Johnson.
Polling has been somewhat inconsistent. A ReachTEL poll for The West Australian on February 19 showed a two-party-preferred (TPP) result of 50-50. The two previous polls had Labor at 52-48 on TPP.
On February 23, The West published a private poll of marginal seats funded by advocacy group, The Parenthood, again conducted by ReachTEL. The West noted a surge to Labor, with all six seats polled (Southern River, Perth, Mt Lawley, Wanneroo, Joondalup and Bicton) predicted to fall with an average TPP swing of 15%.
Fairfax commissioned a ReachTEL poll published on March 3, in which Labor had a 52-48 lead on the TPP vote. The swing of 9% suggests Labor could fall one seat short in its bid to gain government.
How important are One Nation Preferences?
From a purely pragmatic viewpoint, Barnett’s preference deal with One Nation is a legitimate gamble. His unpopular government is facing electoral defeat and with One Nation’s fortunes on the rise again in WA, shoring up the two party preferred vote is essential.
There are risks in the deal. The first question put to the premier by the panel at the leaders’ debate focused on how a man with integrity could engage in a “dirty preference deal”. While One Nation may have become more politically savvy, the party’s distasteful views remain and trying to suggest the party reflects mainstream opinion is disingenuous.
Barnett risks losing preferences from Nationals who are outraged at being placed behind One Nation in the Legislative Council, Greens who won’t direct their preferences on principle, and moderate Liberals protesting the deal.
The flow of preferences from One Nation supporters isn’t guaranteed either. Despite Pauline Hanson’s “it’s my party, I am the leader and I make the deals” position, a number of WA One Nation candidates are unhappy. Two were disendorsed — although it is unclear how large a role their position on the preference deal played.
A week out, the bookmakers have Labor at A$1.30 and the Coalition at A$3.40. The betting would suggest that WA is about to have a change of government.