John Keane interviews Senator Bob Brown, leader of the Australian Greens
Professor John Keane is in conversation with Senator Bob Brown, leader of the Australian Greens. This conversation is not meant to be a traditional political interview. It is a discussion between a leading academic and a senior elected representative about developments in Australian, and international, public life. It touches on a wide range of themes including:
Who holds power in media and how they exercise it
The role of the Fourth Estate, in particular the Murdoch press (Bob Brown: “I will take them on”)
- How the ABC “feeds straight off” The Australian and News Ltd stories
- How democracy is undermined by those who can buy influence, such as Gina Rinehart
- How lobbyists lay siege to politicians who attend the Press Gallery’s Mid Winter Ball
- Why debate on climate change is so poor
- Holding the balance of power in the Senate
There are three short videos included in this text.
Keane: Bob, for my sins I’m not a politician or a journalist.
Brown: That means you’re further up the social approval scale then.
Keane: I may rank a fraction higher than real estate agents, but following your recent steamy encounter with the press gallery I wanted to talk to you frankly, not about the dollar price of carbon or Cate Blanchett, but about the media landscape in which politics is operating today in Australia.
I thought the most interesting thing about your encounter was the way it began with koalas and ended up exposing some basic rules of the media game. And at the end of this press conference, I remember that you said, defiantly, there’ll be more of it, get used to it.
What on earth were you up to? Surely your attack was pre-planned?
Brown: No it wasn’t pre-planned at all. I’d been to the Koala Inquiry, which I set up. In 1927, two million were shot in Queensland alone. The total population in Australia now is less than 100,000 and they are headed downhill at a great rate.
Anyway, we’d just had some frustrating evidence before the inquiry but I came down to a pre-planned press conference. I got my statement out about koalas, and it was straight into all the other issues of the day, which you expect.
[On] the day that we announced we had gone into an arrangement to form government with Gillard, not Abbott, when we had a press conference. The Australian had three journalists spread around, who were just hammering us. Not in a way which was aimed to get information but in a way which was accusatory in its nature even though there were questions attached and that’s been the case ever since.
On the day before [the agreement] we had a front-page editorial dressed up as a news story from Denis Shanahan saying there should be a new election. Then a few days later we had an editorial that the Greens should be “destroyed”. And then we had Rupert himself in Australia saying “the bloody Greens”.
They just picked a bad day. I have been giving them a fair riposte at various press conferences since then. I have had three of them come to me and say: “Why are you being hard on me or us, why do you ask us questions?”
And I say because this is a free and open democracy and I must say that when I question them about why they work for The Australian, on each occasion, they’ve said to me: “Because it pays more money.”
These are things along the road but when it came to that particular press conference, I said to them don’t be so tetchy, but maybe I was being a bit tetchy. There are issues like carbon and koalas and so on that are important.
I must say there’s three or four of them [journalists] each time, they signal and talk with each other, they come with a planned strategy and if they can get a phrase out of you that they think is suitable for critique the next day, they actually nod at each other, it is like they have got something in the bag.
I see all this happening and on that day it just developed as it did. Let me just say though, there was zero plan, it just happened.
News Ltd and the role of the Fourth Estate
Keane: What was interesting was the way you raised principles like their lack of balance, their habit of substituting well-researched views with opinion and the fact that you complained openly about the immaturity of our media compared with other parts of the world. These are pretty fundamental objections.
You must now know that you were biting the very hand that feeds you?
Brown: I do. And I have a real problem John and that is that I’m not here to fear being bitten. I’m here to try and do what I think is the right thing. In other words, to look at what is going on with our society and to try and foster the good and try and hold back to reform the bad.
Keane: It was said in reply that you were just playing the old political game, that it was all a ploy for maximising the media visibility of the Greens, a minority party.
Brown: Yes well, rationalisation is a rampant illness in this place and not just in the press gallery. There were a few other items. You will have seen the piece on how the Murdoch executives flew over to see Rupert in Carmel Valley just a few weeks ago and I’d heard about that.
On that day somebody had handed me an Australian, because I’m not in the habit of buying it, but I did read it because it had quite a few stories in it which related to what we’re doing. And every story, as I said at that press conference, was negative. [And] not just negative about the Greens, it was a complete whinge because it didn’t foster the big end of town as we servants of the big end of town – I’m being facetious – here [parliament] ought to have fostered it.
The Financial Review by and large keeps its polemic and opinion in its editorial column and I think for a paper that sells to and represents business, it tries hard to get some balance in there.
With The Australian, it goes in for no such [balance], it just relaxes and lets it all run from the front.
Keane: How about seeing your frank conversation with the press gallery in another way, as a reminder that they’re journalists and not politicians, and that some of them should give up their unfortunate habit of supposing that they have the power to make and unmake governments? Surely that’s not the purpose of journalism?
Brown: It ought not be, it ought to be for the people to make and break governments and it is for the Fourth Estate to be informing them. I was very impressed with Ralph Nader when he came to Tasmania in 1980 when we were struggling and in very adverse days over the Franklin River.
He reminded me, and I think it goes back to Jefferson, of the very simple dictum: that information is the currency of democracy. So that information is gold and it is very important that the public has a right to be informed. But what they are getting it now is opined. They are getting an opinion coming from a multi-billionaire who cashed in his Australian citizenship because Australia didn’t serve accumulation of money well enough.
Now I’m very happy to meet Rupert. If I was Prime Minister and I went to Washington, as every Prime Minister has done in my living memory, I would then not go and see Rupert. You have to work out whether you’re going to see the President or Rupert first or last.
If I was faced with that dilemma – he can come and see me any time. The folk here who came and saw me from the press gallery, from The Australian, have said “Chris Mitchell would like to see you” and on every occasion I’ve said “I’ll give you my phone number, here it is”.
If there was some, and I’m being very frank about this, view in Sydney that I should come on my knees through the snow – not that they have much snow there but you know what I mean – to meet Chris Mitchell I’m afraid I’m too grown up for that.
Keane: Can we talk a bit more about “media wars”? That is Rupert Murdoch’s phrase; he clearly likes a good media war and ever since he helped make John Gorton prime minister with a dirty headline he’s become skilled at fighting such wars, this time against the Greens.
I quote to you his speech in Sydney in October 2010 when he said that your party poses a ‘threat to prosperity and scarce resources’. He minced no words when addressing his audience of Australian opinion leaders: “Whatever you do, don’t let the bloody Greens mess it up.”
Wasn’t this in effect a declaration of war from the Murdoch press, and how do you intend to handle it after July 1, when your role in government becomes really serious business?
Brown: Just as I am. I will take them on as we go down the line. If they want to be political then I don’t have a reverse gear on that, if they want good reportage I will do as best as I can to inform them as well as anybody else.
But we have had to be increasingly careful because they have crossed the line into this sort of reporting. That’s a front page. It’s the head of the International Panel on Climate Change who was here a fortnight ago – “Summer of Disaster: Not Climate Change”.
There is nothing in that story that covers that quote.
Keane: I read it. It was rather short on logic, or what my profession likes to call a non sequitur.
Brown: Nor did he ever say it, but it was used to have a go at me in the middle. Dick Smith said on TV [this week] that he didn’t want do the Cate Blanchett thing because the Murdoch press lies. Well, that’s right Dick.
Keane: This may be betraying your inner party secrets, but can’t you think up with inventive new tactics for dealing with wilful mis-representations of this kind? For instance, there’s Senator Stephen Conroy’s tactic of publicly releasing transcripts of each and every contact he has with the Murdoch media, which in effect prevents scoops based on calculated half-truths? Can you think of similar tactics? How do you intend to do combat in the war of words?
Brown: Firstly, by being truthful to the Murdoch press, even though you don’t get it in return because people are reading the stuff and they want to know about the Greens. But I think it is very important that when people do pick up the paper and read about us, they do so with the full knowledge of Rupert Murdoch’s view of the Greens. That’s the first thing, because people can make judgements if they’re given the basic material as well as what would otherwise be other hidden factors play.
I haven’t got any gameplan. It’s just that I know after that press conference I came back here and my staff came hither and thither saying “Bob, that was woah!” I haven’t slept so well in a long time.
The herd instinct in the political media
Keane: During that encounter what was striking for me was that your main antagonist was a Fairfax radio reporter, Michael Pachi – “You just come out here every day and you just bag out the Murdoch press or any media that you don’t like and you call them the hate press”.
It is interesting that the charge was led not by News Ltd journalists. You touched raw nerves in the wider press gallery, as became clear in what was said widely throughout the mainstream media following the conversation. They criticised your petulance, they spoke about your glass jaw…
Brown: I could have written this list.
Keane: … they accused you of speaking as a political neophyte …
Brown: Now that does hurt!
Keane: … on behalf of a tiny minority and even that you’re un-Australian. Then the Herald Sun said “Stop this man ruining the nation”. Isn’t this all a warning? Didn’t this reveal to you something about the culture of the gallery and isn’t it a warning of troubles to come?
Brown: It’s a refreshing opportunity for the gallery to wonder about allowing a herd instinct to take over. I think they are intelligent, discriminating people and in the heat of that press conference, I wasn’t discriminating between where [Michael Pachi] was from.
When you look at the pictures, he’s got a thing with 2UE written all over it but is about this far from my face. I wasn’t watching that. If he wanted to take up the baton for the Murdoch press and run with it, I was quite willing to engage him.
Keane: You spoke about his defensiveness and I wondered whether you could tell me something more about that? What is it about this breed of journalist and the herd instinct you spoke of? How do you interpret their defensiveness, what lies beneath it?
Brown: I think that you are drawing me out to analyse things that were coming out of the computer on the spot. So it is always inadequate. What I was giving is a whole human response to this collection of people at the given time.
Keane: For instance, doesn’t their defensiveness tell you something about their sense of collective anxiety, their fears about the rise of web-based news platforms like The Conversation, Crikey, New Matilda? Don’t they feel under siege?
Brown: If they feel under siege I’ve got a bit of sympathy for them. We’re the smallest of the three major political players and it might be that they are picking on the smallest, therefore least able to defend itself, entity. Maybe the lion is going for the zebra calf. I don’t know.
Whatever it is, they are picking the wrong man.
Keane: Does the defensiveness perhaps stem from the fact that some mainstream journalists think of themselves as populists, as the voice of the true Australia, of the majority of Australians?
Brown: That young gentleman [Michael Pachi] did just that, he resorted to talking about [that]. I don’t mind someone saying during the course of an interview “but aren’t you wrong about such and such?” But when it crosses over into accusation that you are wrong because you are not with the majority of the people, well, for goodness sake.
I’m not a Minister or the Prime Minister of this country because I courted the majority viewpoint. Every time I get a bit worried about having made some second rate choices in life I go back and read about the Suffragettes or William Wilberforce, people who were “wrong” in their own time and think, ah well.
Sometimes what is judged wrong at the time…
Keane: … turns out to be right?
Brown: There is a very great danger in thinking you’re right about anything. In fact I see too much of that around this place. You have to go where your heart is. I’m with the Green party which has got a charter, a policy base, and an integrity about how we see the world.
It doesn’t make it very difficult for me or my colleagues. [Look at] our stand on asylum seekers, or until recently Afghanistan, there’s this crossover, if you go for same sex marriage, euthanasia, Afghanistan, saving Tasmania’s forests, a whole range of issues, 80% of people agree with what we’re doing.
Shouldn’t therefore the Murdoch press or 2UE be onside with that? The guy from 2UE, I have been quite pleasant with him and vice-versa at subsequent interviews.
Lobbyists, lobbyists and yet more lobbyists
Keane: Could I shift things to a much wider issue? In practically every democracy, and Australia is not an exception, elected politicians and parliaments do their job within a milieu of think tanks, lobbyists – there are 1000 operating in Canberra alone – public relations firms as well as media of one kind or another. They work within what we might call a mediacracy.
All official politics, including that of the Greens, now operates on this terrain, don’t you think? Given its manipulative potential, doesn’t that make politics in Australia difficult, simply because your relationship as an elected representative with the press gallery is complicated by these other players, most of whom are invisible?
Brown: I think that it is terribly worrying and I think it is a huge threat to a democracy that three big mining companies could land in town last year and for the expenditure of $22 million, save themselves $1bn in taxes in the coming ten years…
Keane: How do they do it?
Brown: They do it through access. This parliament is full of people who work hard. I think all parliamentarians work hard. It is a difficulty.
Do we go to the coffee shop? Because it is becoming more and more difficult to go and have a coffee in our own parliamentary coffee shop, outside the public arena, but where all the lobbyists are, without being buttonholed.
If I want to go and have a talk with Marion [Bob Brown’s Director of Media, Marion Rae] the chances are increasing that I’d be better to stay here and get somebody to bring some coffee. It is prodigious, the power of the lobbyists.
We should ban donations as Canada has done. We should not only register lobbyists but we should have a public registers, which are available by computer at the front which says immediately who they’ve seen, what the topic was and any outcome that was arranged.
We are so far from that happening.
Keane: You have in mind a tougher version of the [Canadian] Federal Accountability Act of 2006 which not only forces the registration of lobbyists but tries to get at this revolving door phenomenon, this unhealthy tendency for ex-politicians to go into the PR world and the lobby scene and continue to exercise tremendous power?
Keane: Isn’t it happening here?
Brown: Yes. But I think a lot of politicians don’t recognise that it is happening. Here’s a question. The Midwinter media ball is on again in two weeks. It is a multi-million dollar affair and it gives money to a selection of charities every year.
But there hosting it is a combination of major multinational companies. It’s on the stuff you’re given. I have been offered a couple of free seats at a very high table, and I have said to my staff I haven’t decided if I’m going or not but I will buy the tickets, thank you very much.
I have a concern that even at that level of operation, you and sit at a table at that ball and there are the corporate lobbyists. It’s not the mums and dads, it’s not the little business person I had here [in the office] a while ago, it is the big movers and shakers and this corporation has bought this table with politicians sitting at it.
And I tell you what else, we’ve tried as Greens to go and have a table but they won’t let you. You have to be spread out everywhere. It is off-putting to us. And if I don’t go, there will be a story about how Senator Brown is running frightened; I can imagine how they’ll tie it in.
But I would rather go out with my colleagues and have a nice sit around the table. I’m just worried about the way this insidious … this Great Hall here is available for business dinners and they have them. There is one after the budget where the Treasurer usually speaks.
The mining industry has one each year. The logging industry will have one, the coal industry and on it goes. But not the Trunky Creek public school association or the Honey Growers of Tasmania. If they can get here, it is a huge job for them to get into this place, to get the passes necessary to get into this arena, let alone to in some way set up meetings with politicians. I’m seriously worried that the idea of democracy, which is one vote, one value and based on adequate access to information is not only not being realised, but is going backwards.
Keane: Given the careerist nature of going into politics nowadays, do you think some politicians entering parliament are thinking “Well, parliament is a good way to set yourself up to make a lot of money later in your career once you’re doing real work”?
Brown: I think that is unusual if that happens. I think most people are attracted by the glamour and the power.
Keane: So it’s more a matter that at the end of an elected term of office they become aware of all these options for making money and continuing to exercise tremendous influence?
Brown: Can you imagine if I now went out after this “This is Bob Brown Eco Lobby Corporation. You have a trouble, get me, I’ll tell you who to see to get round this environmental problem.” I could make a mozza. That should be stopped. It is going to be endless. If we come here, I don’t think we should be able to be Governor General and I don’t think we should be able to lobby our colleagues as a consequence of being here.
The Lang Hancock dictum
Keane: The Press Council is a self-regulatory body and it seems to me to be pretty tame in the way it uses its powers. What ought to be done about the Press Council? You’ve had a few encounters with it.
Brown: Including the big but useless win in the 2001 campaign with the Herald Sun.
Keane: Is its composition the problem? Is the self-regulation formula right but that its composition is not representative enough of other views, particularly those from the emergent information platforms that are not represented?
Brown: I think all those things. But, quelle horreur, should we set up some independent body by statute that looks after just a simple thing like the search for truth, [indicates The Australian piece] let alone balance? That isn’t the truth but there it is, let alone to get to balance, which becomes a matter of complex opinion.
I value the freedom of the press but I’m really concerned we’re in an age where money translates into power and therefore poverty translates into powerlessness so the big end of town, to use the generic term, has a clout way beyond the ordinary populace.
And as Rupert has indicated very clearly, he is coming to buy the alternative forms of media, not only to have control, but to make money out of it.
I liked a little thing I saw in the paper where Gina Rinehart’s Dad, good old Lang Hancock, said decades ago that if we’re going to get anywhere, we have to buy the media. And Gina is dutifully moving to do [that] just now and what a difference that has made.
Keane: This brings me to the Greens’ media strategy. The inconvenient fact is that in every democracy reform governments – Blair and Clinton for instance – relied from the beginning on cutting edge media tactics.
They fed leaks, exclusives – “you can have this but only if you put it on page one”. When embarrassing stories broke, they put out decoys. They perfected the art of releasing bad news on busy days. Blair’s people called this “throwing out the bodies”. They reverse lobbied – a Clinton innovation – by organising lobbyists to lobby in their defence. And they of course denied and they certainly lied.
Come July 1, when it’s serious business, surely the Greens are going to be forced to engage in a local version of the same kind of unhealthy thing practised by the main parties?
Keane: Blair described it as putting on your pads to go out and bat. He was sure it was necessary.
Brown: Yeah, but look what it’s done for him. There are two things here. Firstly, I couldn’t exist in a world where you’re going for the main chance. We exist because we think we’re here to make a difference and to get good things done as we see them. That’s what the Greens are about.
You then get to the difficulty, and here’s a little bit of what’s going on behind me. I could see The Australian, which is the flagship – the ABC feeds straight off it – and well, it wasn’t The Australian on the weekend, it was the Sunday Telegraph with Cate Blanchett, but the ABC ran Barnaby Joyce nearly all day. They could have rung me and I’d have had an entirely different opinion but they didn’t because it wasn’t anywhere near as interesting as having her taken on by Barnaby, no question about his own credentials.
That’s what happened. We have nevertheless got to be clever in the way in which we use the media. If my staff tell me that I should get on Facebook, I get some other opinions on it, but I go on Facebook with provisos.
If they think I should Tweet, and I did on Saturday night about the aurora I was watching in southern Tasmania, and I feel happy about it, then I do.
Keane: [Your press secretary] Marion doesn’t mind tweeting at the press gallery, for instance during the Chris Uhlmann affair.
Brown: That interview didn’t worry me in the least. He kept jumping in all the time and he sometimes lost my train of thought he was doing it so much, but very interesting how different it was with Andrew Wilkie [on Monday night].
Marion and other members have been defensive and I’ve said I’ll be the Tweeter in chief here down the line because it then has been used to have a go at me and the Greens.
There is a great deal of hypocrisy, there always has been in human history, with the people who maintain power. It is the way News Ltd will say the Greens have no right to be engaging, and if they do, they’re hounds.
The fact that Marion apologised about that before it got into any news organ but they’ve kept using it for a fortnight shows how honourable they are.
We’re all the time thinking about the care that should be taken, it is pre-judging damage I guess.
Keane: In plain English that means sitting on your party just like the main parties do?
Brown: Everybody does. Every family does that. Really, you discuss round the table. I’m not unapproachable about any decision that is made and I’ll consult widely about it. But we have rules.
Green power in the balance
Keane: Is it likely that from July 1 you’ll get heavily involved in what Lindsay Tanner calls the compulsive business of making “announceables”? You’ll have to fill holes, you’ll need to be seen to be taking the initiative, to say something. Isn’t that in itself a form of media strategy?
Brown: You mean me personally or the Greens?
Brown: I’m very relaxed about saying something when the time arrives but not filling holes. Gaps look after themselves. It’s an annual phenomenon that amuses me where we go up in the opinion polls at the end of the summer holidays. I think it’s just that people are feeling good, I don’t know.
Keane: Spending some time with the biosphere, perhaps?
Brown: Exactly. There’s something you can’t get a certificate for at any university: common sense. They also say know your enemy. Just know how other people who are working in the system for their ends work, and do the best you can with it.
I think a great thing in politics is not to get too depressed or downtrodden.
Brown: When the good Lord made the planet, she stuffed one thing up good and properly and that is this ladder of power. We need good hearted human beings to look after our affairs, but to get to the top, you’ve got to be treading on the hands and faces of those very same good hearted people. It’s back to front but that is how it is.
So it can be very hard for good-hearted people, humane self-reflective people to survive in this milieu, whereas the egoist and the “I know what’s right” and bang-bang characters continue to do very well. That’s a human dynamic we have to deal with all the time.
Keane: Sincerity is very important for you, you’ve made that very clear. So is political integrity. You came out at a time when it was dangerous to do so. You’ve spent time in prison for your convictions. You’ve been elected three times to the Senate. You have fasted on a mountain for the anti-nuclear cause. You’ve interrupted a speech by President George W Bush. Doesn’t it bother you, now that your very big moment in Australian politics is coming, with very big infrastructure investments and policy changes at stake, that your sincerity and integrity will become corruptible, for instance by fame? Bob Brown the celebrity! The star!
Brown: He hasn’t heard me sing.
Keane: Go on. I imagine you sing like Slim Dusty.
Brown: Good old Slim.
Keane: So what about celebrity status … stardom?
Brown: In a decade or two from now, I’ll be dead. To think that in some way or other, celebrity is going to be the fulfilling thing in life is to head for a crash. I just think doing what you can in an extraordinary circumstance on a planet that is in real trouble is the most fulfilling thing available.
Whether it is worthwhile or not is of itself a deep, deep question to answer. I’ve just spoken to Ingrid Betancourt, a friend of mine from many years ago down in Tasmania; she was chained by her neck to a tree in Colombia for four years as a hostage of the FARC.
She has got a remarkable spirit for all of that, and that’s something I really relate to. It hasn’t touched her.
Keane: What’s the source of the inner strength that shields you from the attractions of celebrity and its money and power and status?
Brown: Maybe it came from my father who was a country policeman, and he wasn’t beguiled at all by bigwigs or celebrities. He had to deal with a lot of the nastiness and banality of human nature, and I think I may have caught it from him.
Maybe it is a search for one’s own security, don’t choose celebrity. You can’t in politics, it is immiscible. Politics has to be about genuine desire to make things better. I don’t mind whether it is a conservative or a radical or a progressive. A good heart is very, very important and celebrity doesn’t come into that.
I’m not answering that very well except to say, I’ve got my feet on the ground and I’m lucky. I spent a while being depressed about the planet when I was in my youth and decided you had two options. One was to be optimistic and the other was to be pessimistic, and the first was much more comfortable than the second.
And also that you only get one spin of the dice, so do the best you can with it. Come July 1 there will be ten of us here. But I’ve been through this back in 1989 in Tasmania when there were five of us holding the balance of power under excruciating economic circumstances.
That was very, very tough going but worth it. This time around it seems to me that I’m coming back into that situation with a great team of people, without exception and I’m quite enthusiastic about it.
As I was discussing with Ingrid, we’ve got two choices on this planet in our progress: one is democracy and the other is guns. I’m a democracy person and if you take democracy, the answer is not at the pulling of a trigger, it is compromise, and it takes consideration and it requires you to make yourself at times as well as taking aim at others.
The media bottom feeders and flat earthers
Keane: Some have said that every political career ends in failure. Can you imagine being the red meat in a media feeding frenzy? Ruined by a media scandal?
Brown: Of course, that is why people don’t get into politics; they see what happens to so many other people.
I spend, not as much as I used to, but a lot of time, thinking “I’m going to put my foot in it”. I’m going to say something I can’t retract.
I get a lot of people coming up on the street these days, once upon a time they’d be saying “you effing so and so” but it is all very positive these days. And a lot of people say “Can I have my picture taken with you?” especially the young people and I always say yes.
And people always tell me that it is going to end up somewhere. I met Chopper Read when I was in Risdon and I didn’t court that relationship even though there is a pecking order in prison. You take risks don’t you? You have to.
Keane: Humility is important to you, isn’t it? If you were to make a serious mistake, if you did find yourself trapped in the first throes of a media scandal, would you back out, humbly? Admit you’re wrong?
Brown: I can’t imagine the circumstances quite frankly, but if I did, it would depend on the circumstances. I have seen some people in that situation and I have written to them and expressed commiseration even though there’s risk in doing that, because if that communication gets out, will people say things? I wouldn’t be here if that was something I hadn’t taken into account.
There was the case of young Sarah [Hanson Young] with her daughter being ordered out of the Senate three years ago, which was quite scandalous, and the savaging she got after that was extraordinarily hurtful and disgraceful. But it was my job to stand up for her and help her get through that.
Now, having done that, she and all of us are a lot better prepared to withstand the next lot. You don’t know where it is going to come from do you? We’re always worried to death about travel allowances. There’s bottom feeders in the media gallery whose whole job is to ask about limousines, travel allowances, meal pay, and I have staff who go home and don’t sleep all night because Eric Abetz wants to know how come you’ve raised money to pay for a court case in Tasmania and on and on it goes.
You have to be able to put up with a certain amount of that and be very quick to go to the assistance of somebody else in the community, and I don’t just mean the Green community, but the body politic, who is down on their luck in that circumstance, I think that is really important.
Keane: This is the stuff of what Nick Davies, the English journalist, calls “flat earth news”.
Brown: I had friend in Tasmania many years ago who applied to the Flat Earth Society in Chicago for membership, and they sent him back an honorary certificate because we in Tasmania proved the Earth is flat because we don’t fall off.
Keane: Nick Davies has this idea that market conditions and top-down management mean that going off diary, doing research, backgrounding, checking things carefully, is becoming a thing of the past. In parts of the Murdoch press, for example, journalists have to churn out four or five stories a day.
And the consequence, says Nick Davies, is that whenever there is a story, including a potential scandal, things get repeated and repeated, sometimes to the point of Chinese whispers. And so you have flat earth news, which is often the stuff of careless lying.
Isn’t this going on in Australia? Isn’t this a key clue to understanding how it is that climate change policy discussion has been so dreadful? Journalists actually don’t look at the reports? They aren’t up to speed? They repeat what others say?
Brown: Jonathan Ledgard, the war correspondent for The Economist, was in Hobart for a sabbatical, and he rang me up and I went and had a cup of coffee with him. This is three years ago now, and he wanted to tell me about Nigel Brennan, the photographer who went with a Canadian journalist and was then shackled to the floor of a place in Somalia and he’s come home.
But he said “Bob! Every morning I pick up The Australian at breakfast here and I read about climate change and I end up banging my head on the table. I cannot believe this. It’s not what is happening in Europe, and it’s not what was happening (at that stage) in Britain.”
There is a certain flat earthedness involved.
I just think it is about power and money. Machiavelli said 600 years ago that if you want to change the world, get ready to be crushed by the people who have got those two things, the power and the money.
It is just playing itself out again. Garnaut just gave a talk at the Press Club where he said there’s this huge resistance to reconfiguring our economy at the moment.
There’s a coal industry there, which has got a big glass building just across there. The solar people haven’t. The coal people have lobbyists that are here all the time. They know to go to the media.
If lobbyists would have to tick in here, maybe editorialists and media proprietors should also have to reveal who it is they meet and who they dine with. Maybe they should start signing editorials. Maybe we should have a bit more transparency.
Flat earth? No. I think in a way the new media is making everybody in better communication, certainly globally, and potentially empowered as we have seen in recent revolutions in various places.
Keane: It’s a natural base for Green politics?
Brown: I’ve always thought, and it gets tested at times, that I have a great faith in the fundamental goodness of human beings. I’ve got a bit more confidence at this end of life than I had at the other end, which is a very, very important thing. It occasionally helps me to stand my ground on things.
Flat earth? I’m worried about the traditional media, but I think the new media is a plus for democracy.
Keane: It’s vibrancy, it’s pluralism, it’s willingness to experiment, it’s sense of being an outsider and needing to break in and break open?
Brown: For people who want to, it is welcoming of participation. You just don’t buy the paper and read it, you participate.
Keane: In 1980, the figures are that 32% of Australians read a daily newspaper. In 2010 the figure dropped to 16%. That kind of morning prayer ceremony, where the paper is opened and opinions are formed, that seems to be dying.
Brown: There is nevertheless a much bigger factor in that everybody is getting information, it mightn’t be traditional news but they’re getting information, off their little screen, in much bigger numbers than that 32% of 1980, 90% of people are being exposed in an interplay of news.
In 1980 people were watching the news.
Keane: You know the old saw of Churchill, that a five-minute conversation with the average citizen is the best way to realise why democracy is such a bad idea. You have just the opposite view, don’t you?
Brown: Churchill also said that it is the least, worst option. As I say, it is democracy or guns. And I’m very worried about the latter. I’m an environmentalist and I’m a planetarian, and I see the stresses that we are under on this planet.
There were 2.5 billion here when I arrived in 1944, there’s 7 billion now and there’ll be ten billion shortly. We are in very real trouble.
You asked about my fear of a scandal or whatever. The biggest problem I have is talking to through my mind’s eye to people in 50 or 100 years time, who are going to look back and say you are the Menshiviks of 2011 aren’t you?
Keane: That is a tragic thought. They were outflanked, politically defeated, banned, incarcerated and assassinated.
Brown: Because they didn’t make a strong stand when they could see what was coming, because they couldn’t believe that could happen. Christine [Milne, the Green Senator] and I for example talk about what is coming, and it is very frightening.
I heard Garnaut at his previous presentation talking about future generations effectively wringing their hands in despair at our failure to address what we can see through the best scientific opinion, is coming through down the line.
My problem in talking to media like the other week and talking to George Bush if you like, is not the excesses of a political career but the weakness and failure of it. That’s what really worries me.
Keane: What does weakness mean?
Brown: Failure to act, failure to get to implement the change that was required through, and you can argue the circumstances mitigate against it.
As I get older I get a little crankier, and I think it is probably a good thing that I’m restrained by being an elected member of parliament. I’m a very great non-violent character. I would never resort to violence to change anything.
But I’m forever impressed at how just accepting the big populace is. Nero said give them circuses and bread, and some things don’t change. But it is very scary at how easy it is the populace that is doing well can be mesmerised into doing very little.
However, just let me finish this by saying: I keep saying I’ve never been happier. It is true. I get all the time now, just walking around Salamanca Place, or at Tullamarine, or in the George Street menswear shop at David Jones in Sydney, people keep coming up and saying “It is great you’re there, it is good you did this”.
It is quite transformative and I take it for what it is, but it says to me that there a lot of people out there who want to see more of what we as Greens have to offer.
This is the full transcript of the conversation. Some minor edits have been made to preserve fluency.
Originally published at THE CONVERSATION , June 2, 2011
For further discussion of the interview with Senator Brown, see:
- Sydney Morning Herald