A TV sports commentator in Australia, Scott McIntyre, was summarily fired on Sunday by his public broadcasting employer, Special Broadcasting Services (SBS), due to a series of tweets he posted about the violence committed historically by the Australian military. McIntyre published his tweets on “Anzac Day,” a national holiday — similar to Memorial Day in the U.S. — which the Australian government hails as “one of Australia’s most important national occasions. It marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War.”
Rather than dutifully waving the flag and singing mindless paeans to The Troops and The Glories of War, McIntyre took the opportunity on Anzac Day to do what a journalist should do: present uncomfortable facts, question orthodoxies, highlight oft-suppressed views:
Almost instantly, these tweets spawned an intense debate about war, the military and history, with many expressing support for his expressed views and large numbers expressing outrage. In other words, McIntyre committed journalism: triggering discussion and examination of political claims rather than mindless recitation, ritualistic affirmation and compelled acceptance.
One outraged voice rose high above all the others: the nation’s communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who quickly and publicly denounced McIntyre in the harshest possible terms:
Turnbull isn’t just any government minister. He runs the ministry that oversees SBS, McIntyre’s employer. The network’s funding comes overwhelmingly from the government in which Turnbull serves: “about 80 per cent of funding for the SBS Corporation is derived from the Australian Government through triennial funding arrangements.” Last year, the government imposed significant budget cuts on SBS, and Minister Turnbull — who was credited with fighting off even bigger cuts — publicly told them they should be grateful the cuts weren’t bigger, warning they likely could be in the future.
If you’re a craven SBS executive, nothing scares you more than having your journalists say something that angers the mighty Minister Turnbull (pictured, right, with Prime Minister Abbott). Within hours of Minister Turnbull’s denunciation of McIntyre, SBS’s top executives — Managing Director Michael Ebeid and Director of Sport Ken Shipp — tweeted a creepy statement announcing that McIntyre had been summarily fired. The media executives proclaimed that “respect for Australian audiences is paramount at SBS,” and condemned McIntyre’s “highly inappropriate and disrespectful comments via his twitter account which have caused his on-air position at SBS to become untenable.” They then took the loyalty oath to the glories of Anzac:
SBS apologises for any offence or harm caused by Mr McIntyre’s comments which in no way reflect the views of the network. SBS supports our Anzacs and has devoted unprecedented resources to coverage of the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings.
“SBS supports our Anzacs” — and apparently bars any questioning or criticism of them. That mentality sounds like it came right from North Korea, which is to be expected when a media outlet is prohibited from saying anything that offends high government officials. Any society in which it’s a firing offense for journalists to criticize the military is a sickly and undemocratic one.
The excuses offered by SBS for McIntyre’s firing are so insulting as to be laughable. Minister Turnball denies that he made the decision even as he admits that, beyond his public denunciation, he “drew [McIntyre’s comments] to the attention of SBS’s managing director Michael Ebeid.” The Minister also issued a statement endorsing McIntyre’s firing, saying that “in his capacity as a reporter employed by SBS he has to comply with and face the consequences of ignoring the SBS social media protocol.” For its part, SBS laughably claims McIntyre wasn’t fired for his views, but, rather, because his “actions have breached the SBS Code of Conduct and social media policy” — as though he would have been fired if he had expressed reverence for, rather than criticism of, Anzac.
Notably, McIntyre’s firing had nothing to do with any claimed factual inaccuracies of anything he said. As The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor noted, historians and even a former prime minister have long questioned the appropriateness of this holiday given the realities of Anzac’s conduct and the war itself. As Australian history professor Philip Dwyer documented, McIntyre’s factual assertions are simply true. Whatever else one might say, the issues raised by McIntyre are the subject of entirely legitimate political debate, and they should be. Making it a firing offense for a journalist to weigh in on one side of that debate but not the other is tyrannical.
Part of this is driven by the dangers of state-funded media, which typically neuters itself at the altar of orthodoxy. In the U.S. the “liberal” NPR is, not coincidentally, the most extreme media outlet for prohibiting any expressions of views that deviate from convention, even firing two journalists for the crime of appearing at an Occupy Wall Street event. Identically, NPR refused (and still refuses) to use the word “torture” for Bush interrogation programs because the U.S. government denied that it was; its ombudsman justified this choice by arguing that “the problem is that the word torture is loaded with political and social implications for several reasons, including the fact that torture is illegal under U.S. law and international treaties the United States has signed.” We can’t have a media outlet doing anything that might have “political and social implications” for high government officials!
The BBC is even worse: its director of news and current affairs, James Harding, actually said that they likely would not have reported on the Snowden archive if they were the ones who got it (which, just by the way, is one big reason they didn’t). Harding’s justification for that extraordinary abdication of journalism — that there was a “deal” between the source and the media organizations to report the story as a “campaign” and the BBC cannot “campaign” — was a complete fabrication; he literally just made up claims about a “deal.”
But his reasoning shows how neutered state-funded media inevitably becomes. Here’s one of the biggest stories in journalism of the last decade, one that sparked a worldwide debate about a huge range of issues, spawned movements for legislative reform, ruptured diplomatic relationships, changed global Internet behavior, and won almost every major journalism award in the West. And the director of news and current affairs of BBC says they likely would not have reported the story, one that — in addition to all those other achievements — happened to have enraged the British government to which the BBC must maintain fealty.
A different aspect of what the Australia firing shows is the scam of establishment journalists in defining “objectivity” to mean: “affirming societal orthodoxies.” Journalists are guilty of “opinionating” and “activism” only when they challenge and deviate from popular opinion, not when they embrace and echo it (that’s called “objectivity”). That’s why John Burns was allowed to report on the Iraq War for The New York Times despite openly advocating for the war (including after it began), while Chris Hedges was fired for having opposed the war. It’s why McIntyre got fired for criticizing Anzac but no journalist would ever get fired for heaping praise on Anzac, even though the two views are equally “biased.” That’s because, as practiced, “journalistic objectivity” is compelled obeisance to the pieties of the powerful dressed up as something noble.
But what is at the heart of McIntyre’s firing is the real religion of the supposedly “secular West”: mandated worship not just of its military but of its wars. The central dogma of this religion is tribal superiority: Our Side is more civilized, more peaceful, superior to Their Side.
McIntyre was fired because he committed blasphemy against that religion. It was redolent of how NBC News immediately organized a panel to trash its own host, Chris Hayes, after Hayes grievously sinned against this religion simply by pondering, on Memorial Day, whether all American soldiers are “heroes” (a controversy that died only after he offered some public penance). The church in which Americans worship this religion are public events such as football games, where fighter jets display their divinity as the congregation prays.
This is the religion — of militarism and tribalism — that is the one thriving and pervasive in the West. The vast, vast majority of political discourse about foreign policy — especially from U.S. and British media commentators — consists of little more than various declarations of tribal superiority: we are better and our violence is thus justified. The widespread desperation on the part of so many to believe that Muslims are uniquely violent, primitive and threatening is nothing more than an affirmation of this religious-like tribalism. And nothing guarantees quicker and more aggressive excommunication than questioning of this central dogma.
That’s why Scott McIntyre was fired: because he questioned and disputed the most sacred doctrine of the West’s religion. In a free, healthy and pluralistic society, doing so would be the defining attribute of a journalist, the highest aim. But in societies that, above all else, demand unyielding tribal loyalty and subservient adherence to orthodoxies, it’s viewed as an egregious breach of journalism and gets you fired.
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Just by the way, bestowing McIntyre with a free expression award would be actually meaningful and would take actual courage, since the speech for which he was punished is actually unpopular in the West and offensive to numerous power centers. That is when defenses of free speech are most meaningful: when the prohibited speech is most threatening to, and thus most maligned by, those who wield the greatest power.
Photo of Prince Charles, Prince Harry, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott at Anzac Day celebration: Burhan Ozbilici/AP