MUA---Here to Stay ...Today!

The Waterfront---A View from the Press

Alan Mitchell

The basic rights and the wrongs of the waterfront dispute are fairly obvious---and the thuggery of the MUA, the inefficiency of its work practices, and the cost to the wider community, especially other workers are all well documented.

And yet in the recent waterfront dispute I think it is fair to say that the Government and Patrick failed to win the battle for public support. This failure has been blamed on the media in general and the ABC in particular, which is accused of taking a bias against Patrick and the Government.

I think there is some truth in that criticism of the media, but not as much as many in Patrick or the Government believe. True, the media coverage was not particularly helpful to the Government and Patrick. But the Government and Patrick did much to bring about that unfavourable publicity. From the first news of the Dubai exercise, there was a strong whiff of Government involvement.

Was it credible that the service personnel could be in Dubai without the knowledge of their superiors? I found myself asking at the time. Was it believable that the army would approve of such an activity without alerting the Government?

When the dispute moved to the Webb Dock and then the entire Patrick waterfront, it appeared increasingly that the Government was closer to events than it was prepared to admit. There was the NFF popping up as a convenient catalyst for change, just when it appeared that no-one was prepared to do battle with the MUA armed only with the Government's utterly inadequate industrial reforms. And there was the Government ready with its offer to sponsor an industry retrenchment fund.

Of course this was no ordinary dispute, and there was good reason (in common sense if not in industrial relations law) for the Government to be closely involved. We are talking about an important reform, and a dispute with the potential to have large externalities. And, the technicalities of the Industrial Relations law aside, the Government's involvement on the side of the employers against the MUA need not have been of much political consequence. I mean, the Hawke Government had taken a similar stand against the pilot's union.

The problem in this case was

(a) that there was a strong suspicion that the Government was being unduly modest in admitting its role; and

(b) the tactics employed by Patrick were highly controversial.

So, there were two stories: one about the waterfront, which of course was unfavourable to the MUA; and one about the Government's involvement in what increasingly appeared to be a controversial means to an end.

In circumstances such as these, the media will always be obsessed with the political controversy---who said what to who. The media, especially the electronic media, are relatively poor at covering issues and good at covering political drama. The people employed by them don't have much of an understanding of the issues, but they do understand politics, and they also understand what excites the public. (It is trite to say that the media reflects the strengths and weakness of the public. But the most important principle of media management in my view is the one we all learned on the playground of primary school: it takes one to know one. Selection and self-selection ensures that the reporters and news editors of Channel 10 have similar interests and prejudices to Channel 10 viewers.)

Much of what I think people regard as bias in the media coverage is not bias in favour of the MUA, but a bias in favour of the sexier, political story. These days, the battle for the public's approval is fought out mainly on the evening television news and on talk-back radio. Television's comparative advantage is colour and movement: balaclavas, dogs, picket lines. And it is images such as these, and whether Chris Corrigan has an honest face, or whether John Coombs wears a suit (and he did, you will notice), or whether Peter Reith looks shifty, or whether Vice President Nixon has a five o'clock shadow that does much to shape public opinion. And I think I'm right in saying that the images were on balance more favourable to the MUA than to Patrick.

I understand John Coombs was advised on his general media relations by Jane Singleton. If her advice had much to do with his performance, I must grudgingly take my hat off to her. In all of the dispute the unions made only one serious tactical error on the propaganda front---and that was to put children in the front of the picket line. If Jane Singleton had been advising Patrick I'm sure she would have told it to avoid the image of security guards in balaclavas. Of course, Singleton was working with extraordinarily good clay in the form of John Coombs. But the point I should stress is that Singleton and the union knew from experience that the battle for public support would be crucial in a long dispute, and would be won or lost on television.

Neither the Government (which I must say has shown very little finesse in its dealings with the media on any matter) nor Patrick appear to have had such a clear view of the role of television. The television news---from Channel 10 to the ABC---should be criticised for its superficiality. But its superficiality should not be confused with bias in favour of the MUA. At least not by those who want to use the lessons of the last war in order to win the next one. Television will always be thus. It was an error on the part of Patrick and the Government (which is hardly short of media and political advisers) not to have recognised that and to have exploited it.

I presume that the article that got me the invitation to speak here was the one in which I argued that governments were primarily to blame for the inefficiency of the waterfront, since they had allowed the stevedoring industry to develop into a lazy duopoly. The duopolistic nature of the waterfront was to greatly complicate the industrial relations, legal and political task of reform, and would have a great bearing on the media's reporting of the dispute and the public's opinion of the players. Not that most of the media or the public were keenly aware of the implications of the industry's structure.

The waterfront dispute had something of the character of a falling out among thieves. Patrick previously had been content to be shippers and share the spoils with the union. The MUA had, however, become too greedy. As part of the division of the spoils, the management of Patrick had effectively given up its right to do what the managements of the breweries and the newspapers and many other enterprises had done over the years---and that is replace an unproductive unionised workforce with contract labour.

Having effectively signed away the right to use contractors, Patrick was forced to adopt highly artificial corporate restructuring in order to dispense with its MUA workforce. I gather this technique was borrowed from the US, but to Australian eyes looked like a ploy that belonged more in the world of tax avoidance than in the realm of industrial relations.

In any case, it took little imagination to see how unscrupulous individuals might follow the Patrick example in order to try to avoid legal obligations to their employees. Most of us are wage slaves, and my guess is that very few wage slaves, in the media or out of it, felt comfortable with the means by which Patrick was seeking to achieve reform.

For the media, the questionable means employed by the company was a legitimate story. And it made the question of the closeness of the Government's involvement an even bigger issue. Basically, a good deal of the unfavourable reporting of the dispute was the media chasing issues which Patrick and or the Government had created. And of course, as the dispute moved into the courts, the flow of events became increasingly less favourable to Patrick and the Government side.

I'm not seeking to defend poor journalism. And I'm sure that, on average, the private opinion of the journalists covering the dispute was more favourable to the union than to the employer.

Like Chris Corrigan, I was sure that I could detect a certain lack of impartiality in the ABC's reporting---although that could be my bias. I see that an independent review of the ABC's performance has concluded that Mr Corrigan and I were both wrong and that the ABC's coverage was unbiased.

I'm interested in dissecting the issue only so that we can learn something useful for the future. In that spirit, I might say something about the related issue of the government's management of the ABC. You can readily see the logic of having complaints of bias tested by an independent tribunal, in the way that it was done on this occasion. However, I must say I feel uneasy about the inadequacy of the process. Bias is a fundamental issue for the management of any broadcaster. A basic justification of pubic broadcasting is the quality of its output. The ABC news was established partly because of concerns about biased journalism in the press. The ABC management should have a strong view about whether there is bias in ABC journalism---and should be able to defend their views and act on them. This is no more than saying the management of General Motors Holden should take responsibility for the quality of their product. And just as the management should judge and act on the bias of its staff, the Government should judge the management and board of the ABC by the quality of the organisation's output.

The Government cannot intervene in the management of the ABC. But Governments have ways of making their views known to, and their priorities felt by, the boards of statutory authorities.

If the Government were doing its job properly, it would make clear that continued expansion and prosperity of the ABC would depend on the quality of its work. And any serous review by the board and management of the ABC of the quality of the ABC's work would form an adverse opinion of the repetitive diet of undergraduate essays on the environment, women, aborigines and the evils of capitalism that passes for much of public broadcasting.

Of course, the Government won't seriously pressure the ABC. It's too much trouble. The mismanagement of the ABC is like the duopoly on the waterfront.

It is easier to complain about it than do something to fix it.