When Daniel Andrews announced that there would be a major reopening of the economy at the beginning of November, if not earlier, the bosses’ anger at having to endure any restrictions at all only intensified.
With an opening date within reach, big business saw an opportunity to escalate its campaign and force through bigger concessions sooner. By the time Andrews had finished his 18 October press conference, Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott had slammed what she called “inexplicable and unacceptable delay for Victorians and small businesses who are hanging on by a day, not a week”.
Seven of the country’s top chief executives wrote a joint letter to the premier demanding he accelerate his proposed timeline. The signatories represented massive corporations like BHP Billiton, the Commonwealth Bank and Coca Cola Amatil–companies not distinguished by a track record of concern for public health and community wellbeing.
And, of course, the mainstream media were happy to play along.
It wasn’t just Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, who have been campaigning for months against “Dictator Dan” and who are often seen as the biggest problem with Australia’s media landscape.
Fairfax’s Age and “our” ABC have for months campaigned against restrictions, openly or implicitly. Their liberal veneer adds illegitimate credibility to big business’s campaign for reopening.
The Age’s opinion pages were opened up to arguments that mystery cases will surely “peter out” if the economy were reopened, while ample space was devoted to three senior academics bemoaning “inequities in the rules” – like lack of access to holiday homes: “Those who have a regional residence have been denied access to their other home for many months now”.
This is absurd even in an opinion page. But over months, the sob stories of the rich have been normalised by the country's biggest media outlets.
The Age’s coverage of the easing of restrictions managed to source a quote from almost every industry group in the state, but could not find a single worker to interview.
The Business Council of Australia, the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group, Restaurant and Catering Australia, the Australian Retailers Association and Wesfarmers had their voices front and centre in an article that the Age rushed to publish online before Andrew’s announcement press conference had even finished.
That article had 14 sources. Seven were business owners or industry group representatives; three were politicians who have called for restriction easing. There was not a single worker quoted: not one nurse, teacher, abattoir worker, warehouse packer or hospitality worker. Nobody who might be exposed to the virus in their frontline job; nobody who might experience the “inequity” of being exposed to coronavirus for the economic benefit of their employer.
According to the 2016 Census, less than 7 per cent of the Victorian population, and less than 15 per cent of the working population, identified as “business manager-owners”–a vague category that blurs the line between small and big business. Yet business owners have dominated the media coverage of our biggest public health crisis for at least a century.
The last few weeks of the Age’s coverage make the obsession, and the bias, plain. The headlines speak for themselves: "Business blasts Victoria's plan for restrictions", "Business owners happy to reopen", "Tears of joy in the rush to reopen", "Ready to serve: riverside restaurant craves a date to reopen", "'It's horrendous': retailers fear worst amid doubt over reopening date".
The ABC’s approach is equally focused on the needs of bosses. The day after the announcement, ABC’s coverage led with: “As Victorian coronavirus restrictions ease, business pushes for concessions on Melbourne's path out of lockdown”. The piece quotes twelve sources, nine of whom were business owners and industry representatives–and none of whom were workers.
Business owners already have control over the economy. Why are their voices prioritised in the media–even the supposedly liberal media, like the Age and the ABC? Why are the people who suffer and risk the least–business owners with multiple homes–made into martyrs, while the media ignores workers who are exposed both to the most difficult aspects of lockdown and the greatest risk of coronavirus in a premature reopening?
Most of the country’s biggest media outlets are themselves big businesses. Their owners have an affinity with the rest of the business community in valuing profit over human lives. They have a degree of class solidarity with bosses who are suffering an interruption in the flow of profit, and they know how to campaign on their behalf. And they select and promote likeminded editors and journalists.
And the personal values of individual, aspirational, middle class journalists tend to align with the values of the status quo broadly. The ABC, despite being not for profit, is a state institution and one of the pillars of capitalist civil society. It is dominated by journalists who worship the establishment and the powers that be. ABC journalists’ obsequious attitude towards the rich has been disgustingly clear in much of the commentary.
The day after Daniel Andrews announced that Melbourne's lockdown would soon be eased, ABC’s Radio National started the day with an interview with Susan Alberti, the managing director of construction company DANSU, which they replayed throughout the day.
Alberti was named one of the most influential Victorians by the Herald Sun just last week. She is a wealthy business owner who has also spent millions building her profile as a “philanthropist”.
“I do my own research,” she told the ABC. “I’m not an epidemiologist, but evidence suggests that 99 per cent of people who are diagnosed or infected with COVID recover from the disease.”
She went on to bemoan her empty offices, the businesses that “aren’t coming back”, and, of course, the cost to mental health, about which she is no doubt deeply concerned. She asserted that cancer and diabetes were bigger problems than the global pandemic.
None of Alberti’s dubious claims were questioned by the ABC presenter, Geraldine Doogue, who instead asked Alberti: “Have you reflected, as business people in Melbourne, on where you don’t have agency? That’s what I’d be left with, if I was a business person in Victoria.”
“I just feel we don’t have a voice, we’re not being listened to,” Alberti responded. Her comments were replayed for the rest of the day, and remain on the ABC website.