Andrew Fowler flew across two continents from his native UK to make Australia home, so his interest in foreign affairs makes perfect sense. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he says. What was supposed to be a short-term stay turned into a long acclaimed career in journalism in his adopted country.
An eye for the bigger picture, and innate curiosity about the outside world meant he was custom built for a career in international journalism. The buzz and excitement of travelling the world and meeting interesting people have obvious appeal to this self-described humanist.
“There’s more that keeps us together than apart,” he says. However, there’s also a journalistic sense of duty that drives him. “We seem to cover our domestic policy differently from our foreign policy. So, things that happened in this country get a lot of scrutiny. Things that happen overseas, but that are also very important to this country, seem to get less scrutiny. So that’s really what drew me to it.”
After an illustrious career at the ABC, SBS, Channel 7 and The Australian, he retired from TV and print journalism. He spends part of every year in France, with his wife Pamela, writing.
His book, The War on Journalism paints a grim picture of the state of mainstream media in Australia and the Western world. In it, he covers in great detail how The New York Times published the dubious claims of a CIA informant, that he had personally visited 20 weapons of mass destructions sites. Two pivotal events prompted his decision to write War on Journalism – the invasion of Iraq and the ascendance of online news.
The former, he says, divided the profession into to two camps. Insiders, journalists-come-activists, who didn’t properly hold the Bush and Howard governments to account and the few dissenting voices who were willing to ask the tough questions. He says that there have always been journalists “on the drip”, and that they have their uses. However, at a crucial time in our history, they acted as a mouthpiece for the government of the day, doing a great disservice to their profession and the public.
The latter, he says, has overseen a drop in journalistic standards and that newspapers aren’t coping with the change. It has resulted in structural changes to newspapers and how they make their money, leading to recalibration of funds away from investigative reporting. “Without that money, you don’t have independence and you don’t have the ability to do good, substantial journalism.” This has given way, he says, to sensationalist reporting by both commercial and publicly-funded news outlets.
“Outsider” and ‘”bomb thrower” are two labels used by both admirers and detractors to describe Andrew. He wears these labels comfortably. To become an insider, he says, is to be captured by the people about whom one reports. Therefore he makes a point to avoid reporting on people he knows and likes. He cites Canberra as a tight knit clique where the lives and careers of journalists and apparatchiks are intertwined at the expense of quality journalism. In order to inform the public properly, he says, it’s paramount to be an outsider.
“I try to put myself in the street, rather than the boardroom, I don’t think journalists belong inside the halls of power. I think they belong outside with the people who are effected by the decisions made inside those sealed rooms.”
Although he doesn’t shy away from criticising his peers, his criticism is entirely without malice. He’s reluctant to name names, unless it’s necessary to illustrate the structural problems and cultural malaise within the mainstream media.
“If ever I do name people, it will be because it’s an example that needs to be told. It’s normally not too harsh. It just goes to show the way the world works. The way the media establishment works in this country.”
A lot has changed since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, obviously. Over a million people have been killed and the resulting geopolitical disaster is ongoing. There is, however, some silver lining, according to Andrew. “It was an eye opener. It opened our eyes, it opened the eyes of younger people, some of the greatest whistleblowers the world has seen so far.” He mentions whistleblower Edward Snowden’s refusal to approach The New York Times as proof that public trust of the mainstream media has been compromised.
These developments, he claims, have repercussions that are still playing out. One of the latest revelatory findings from Snowden’s leaks is the apparent financial support given by Saudi officials to the 9/11 hijackers. In recent months, numerous mainstream news outlets have reported on the 28 pages omitted from the 2002 US Senate report into the 9/11 attacks. It is suggested these 28 pages support these claims. What started as a bogus conspiracy theory is now front and centre of international news.
He blames “cultural capture” for mainstream media’s reluctance to scrutinise the Bush administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. “We’re culturally captured by what’s acceptable to our peers, you are constrained by those pressures on you.” It’s incumbent, he says, on all journalists to ask absurd questions and then to prove they’re absurd before moving on to a less absurd position to try to discover what the truth is.
While he pulls no punches criticising his peers and former employers, Andrew Fowler is refreshingly self-aware. He acknowledges his susceptibility to “cultural capture”.
“I’m sucked into a point of view shared by a number of people,” he says. His advice to aspiring journalists and writers is to relish the joy of being independent. He believes journalists owe it to those who are alienated, ignored and unable to express themselves to give them a voice. “That’s what journalism is… the weak, with the truth, can challenge the powerful. And it’s playing out right now.”
Andrew Fowler joined political academic and journalistPeter van Onselen, and academics Anne Tiernan and Julianne Schultz to discuss how our institutions both support and fail us, and what we can do about it, yesterday in the session Fixing the System.