1 May 2018

Barr's attack on the media will come back to haunt him

| Ian Bushnell
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Andrew Barr at Canberra Station this morning. Photo: Charlotte Harper

Andrew Barr at Canberra Station. He expects the media to get on board. Photo: File photo.

Was it just a brain snap from the Chief Minister? An expression of his increasing frustration with some sections of the Canberra community to accept his vision for the national capital?

Or was he just grabbing the attention of his audience with an ‘outrageous’ opening gambit?

Andrew Barr is an accomplished communicator, deliberate and strategic in all that he does. He would have known, given his communications professionals audience, that his now notorious ‘I hate journalists’ comments and loathing of The Canberra Times in particular, would have been leaked immediately.

The Chief Minister not only put more than a few shots across the bows of mainstream media, but flagged an intensified effort by his Government to connect with Canberrans directly without going through the ‘negative’ filter of journalists. He challenged his audience, as he said he had done with his own media staff, to be innovative and come up with exciting new ways to go over the heads of journalists to a public presumably eager to get the real news.

I don’t want to mention names but doesn’t this sound familiar?

Andrew Barr is obviously proud of the fact that he has gone to two elections with big issues such as tax reform and light rail, and won. In his mind, Canberrans have given him a mandate to get on with the job and any complaints from the usual suspects, including journalists, is just so much carping.

He has a point. How long must the light rail debate go on? How long must densification be challenged? How long must the Government’s long-term tax reform process, accepted by most economists as fair, efficient and equitable, be questioned?

Mr Barr’s Government is providing the infrastructure and services that Canberrans need and want. He may well view the ongoing criticism through the prism of the memorable scene from The Life of Brian where the revolutionaries ask the rhetorical question, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

The answer was quite a lot actually.

In Mr Barr’s mind he doesn’t deserve the negative depiction or reception he receives from mainstream media and in a changed media landscape, the means are now there to take his case directly to the people.

According to Assistant Professor in journalism at the University of Canberra, Dr Caroline Fisher, he has every right to do that and should be doing it but his attack on journalists was intemperate, foolish and showed a lack of respect for journalism’s democratic role.

“He may regret that because if he doesn’t like the coverage that he is getting at the moment, I can’t imagine that it’s going to become more positive or less critical,” Fisher said.

She said the Chief Minister would be a fool not to take advantage of the new communications platforms but mainstream media was still part of the suite of communication tools.

Calling it a flashpoint in the relationship between the Canberra news media and the Government, Fisher hoped Mr Barr’s speech galvanised media companies to increase resources to boost coverage of the Legislative Assembly and social issues generally in Canberra.

She said the media and the Chief Minister needed to find a way forward where they could treat each other with mutual respect.

A statement from Mr Barr and his ministers, saying they respected the role journalists play and weren’t seeking to subvert that, may go some way to mending fences.

But they also said where there was “concentrated media ownership, such as in Canberra, it is beholden on media outlets to accurately and fairly report, without prosecuting their own agendas”.

Dr Fisher also described Mr Barr as being a bit precious. One can only imagine how the Chief Minister would handle a Daily Telegraph in this town.

While some may prefer to get their news and information straight from the horse’s mouth, Governments and bureaucracies are not in the business of being willingly open and transparent. Despite Freedom of Information legislation and commitments to community engagement, they tend to obscure real intentions, hide mistakes and omit unfavourable facts.

Agencies set up virtually impenetrable walls to public access – there is even an Access Canberra that can be anything but. One only has to look at Centrelink, the federal Department of Human Services or Immigration/Border Force. Police now retain such a grip on information, ostensibly for operational reasons, that obtaining even the most basic information about a road accident or for example the recent fatal Bonner house fire is like getting blood out of a stone. Sometimes I am almost waiting to hear that insidious phrase ‘on-water matters’.

In a free and democratic society, one that has enabled Andrew Barr to become Chief Minister, the role of journalists, imperfect as the rest of us, to uncover the truth and shine a light on the unpalatable is crucial. Their job is not to climb on board the Government bus, or light rail vehicle for that matter.

To suggest they are the preserve of print, a dying medium, is mischievous. As I said when I left the Canberra Times in 2012, the platform may change but the work we do doesn’t. The Chief Minister and those like him, hopefully, are always going to bump up against journalists asking the difficult questions no matter what the tools are.

And for all Andrew Barr’s embrace of things digital, his response to a standing invitation at The RiotACT, definitely a ‘new media’ company, to present his case direct to our readers has been lukewarm.

The RiotACT welcomes as many people as possible to the great conversation about where we live and work but we also reserve the right to advocate for the community, question those in authority and hold them to account.

The Chief Minister has an undeniable passion and vision for this city and the region, but he is not the Messiah, and in relation to how he treats the media, just a very naughty boy.

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Robert of Braddon10:48 pm 16 Mar 18

I can understand why journalists have concentrated on the ‘I hate journalists’ comment; but as a community we should all be horrified by his none too latent disparaging and discounting of older people whose taxes have bank rolled his pet projects. What was he thinking?

Barr’s assertion that he has a mandate is wrong, and his belief that light rail, densification, poor municipal services, Mr Fluffy and other policies are ‘mandated’ and therefore beyond criticism is infantile. The simple fact is that at the last election we had no alternative to vote for (PLEASE Liberals give us some worthwhile candidates). Barr had NO mandate, and the above policies and many others are either wrong at the outset or have been implemented badly.

Light rail is financially and efficiency-wise a loser. While the proposed secondary densification resulting from it is good in theory, poor building design, poor construction and poor town planning all mean we are not getting what we are pay for and we’ll end up with a second-rate urban landscape that we’ll be stuck with for a very long time.

Barr’s endless war with motorists is a completely unjustified mission to make driving in Canberra a miserable experience. Insufficient parking, poor roads, proliferating speed bumps, ridiculously restrictive road rules and enforcement, favoritism to tiny numbers of cyclists (and comparatively tiny public transport), poor speed limit signage at schools and overemphasis on speeding (seemingly the only crime for which you can get caught in Canberra) … it’s an ideological war with no winners. Apparently this is part of Barr’s obsession with making Canberra a ‘real city’ by importing every problem of big cities but none of the advantages, and in the process destroying the previous advantages that our small city status provided. Graffiti, cavernous concrete cityscapes, poorly designed poor quality apartments and traffic jams are not what we want. The government deserves every bit of stick the Canberra Times dishes out. The only thing we know is that he takes enough notice of the Crimes to hate it, but not enough to listen.

Capital Retro10:14 pm 15 Mar 18

I was planning to add to that but on review, you have said it all.

Apparently, Mr Barr has stated he never listens to anyone over 40. He has also said anyone complaining about the future proposed heights of the buildings in Northbourne Avenue is out of the 40’s and against development.
Mr Barr is certainly ageist and is also showing his intolerance to any form of discussion. He seems to be setting up his own dictatorship

Capital Retro7:37 am 16 Mar 18

Only he will be able to get the trams to run on time.

Belconandonandon3:18 pm 15 Mar 18

Barr chose his words very poorly but I think we should be able to have open discussions about media bias and sensationalism. The media is an important part of our democratic system and it’s for that very reason it should not be immune from criticism. And let’s not be naïve about this – Fairfax is not a charity, it’s a profit driven company that has plenty of political connections and its own editorial agenda. This is particularly significant in a place like Canberra where there’s only one major newspaper – not to mention how concentrated media ownership is in Australia generally (almost every Australian newspaper is owned by Fairfax or News Ltd).

Capital Retro8:34 am 14 Mar 18

With Katy Gallagher about to depart The Senate, there is a great opportunity for Andrew Barr to “do a Katie” and step down from the position of CM ACT and become Senator for the ACT.

He could still live in his “greatest little capital in the world” and who knows, he may become the new Minister for Urban Renewal in the next Shorten Labor Government.

and if someone publicly voiced their opinion that they ‘hated’ SSM . . . . . .

If he is afraid of the left leaning Fairfax paper not reflecting his vision, I reckon there are many skeletons in the closet that will come out in the end that he will be afraid off.

“All glory is fleeting” is what was whispered into the Cesears ears as they rode their chariot back into Rome.

Capital Retro8:37 am 14 Mar 18

Did they use the Appian way or Northbourne Avenue?

Andrew Barr won one election as leader of ACT Labor and formed a minority Goverment so any claims of a “mandate” are highly questionable. How long must the light rail debate go on and densification be challenged? For as long as it takes. The lightfail was a sop to the Greens and progressed based on the spurious value capture metric. As a stand alone project, the lightrail was not viable. Barr was able to find $1b for the lightrail yet the much needed $500m extensions to the Woden hospital won’t materialise until 2025. What grates people is Barr’s penchant for big projects over the delivery of day to day services. Hospital and surgery wait times are some of the worst in the nation, road maintenance and construction are years behind where they should be, schools are crowed with education standards, while still good, are beginning to slide. Once well maintained suburbs are looking ratty. In Palmerston, weed control and park maintenance are sorely wanting.

How long must densification be challenged? Again for as long as it takes. General consensus appears to be there is a need for high-rise living to slow the urban sprawl however there is also consensus the Barr Government is too inept to deliver such an undertaking. You only have to look at the poorly designed over priced shoddy dog boxes springing up around Canberra to know this Government is not in control. Judging by the Governments standard response of “it’s under review” to the litany of substandard building practices, which even had the MBA say enough is enough, says a lot about their in-action to a problem that has been widely known for many years. On the land tax issue, I do support that. Stamp duties are an inefficient tax and prone to cyclical variations.

The policy of densification has been in effect since at least the release of the 2012 planning strategy. The people have voted again and again and the same goes for light rail.

I’m on the record as not supporting the light rail (because it’s a croc) but the government clearly has the mandate to enact their policies as the public keeps on voting for them.

Capital Retro10:01 pm 13 Mar 18

We should salute Paul Costigan for writing an article 2 years ago which was about Barr’s current problem when it was incipient.


Great insight there Paul and several examples that you cited in that article have all proven to be chronic problems that Barr has been in the midst of.

Re the Canberra Times, it has always supported not only Barr but also the ACT Labor party and any leader that they choose. As long as the CT is a Fairfax Media publication that stance will never change. There is only a “measured negative response” from the CT now in order to acknowledge mainly to it’s diminishing reader base (ironically conservatives) that to say nothing would only confirm what else I say in this paragraph.

Is this the same Canberra Times that backed the Liberals at the last election? Yes, they have “always” supported the ALP and their leader…..

But it’s great that you highlight the article by Paul Costigan which is exactly the type of self interested and non-representative reporting that the Chief minister was talking about. Small, self selected groups of people who are shocked that others don’t think (and vote) the way they want them to and are mortified when the elected government actually begins implementing the plans that they’ve gazetted and promoted for years.

Don’t like it? Stop voting for them. But if they win, it’s a bit rich to then continue to complain about the implementation of the policies they were elected from as somehow being undemocratic or not supported by the “community”.

HiddenDragon6:02 pm 13 Mar 18

“Ms Fisher also described Mr Barr as being a bit precious. One can only imagine how the Chief Minister would handle a Daily Telegraph in this town.”

The latter would certainly be entertaining. By way of an interesting contrast to what we do actually have here, let’s think back to a certain event around the time of the last Territory election and then, by way of comparison, imagine the national media reaction and coverage if, just before the last federal election, Malcolm Turnbull’s government had created a too-amazingly-attractive-to-refuse taxpayer funded job and allowed Tanya Plibersek or Anthony Albanese to be appointed to that job. The screams would have been absolutely deafening, but in “nothing to see here”, “so what?”, Canberra, it’s a one day wonder.

We have a unicameral legislature with a four year fixed term, we’re still waiting for something vaguely resembling an anti-corruption watchdog, and it’s an oh so cosy little town – we (the voting, tax-paying public) need all the scrutiny we can get of ACT government activities.

No idea what Barrs on about with this.There’s zero scrutiny of the ACT government by the CT. All puff pieces or press releases. It astounded me last year when
Andrew Barr and likely an entourage went to Spain to look at our Trams. CT article didnt think to ask why he went, what it cost or who paid for the trip. All of which are in the public interest especially as the tram issue has been to two elections so theres no need for more PR. Reeks of a junket, but the CT just ran it as a photo op.

Robert of Braddon10:50 pm 16 Mar 18

All good points…..

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