The Herald Sun’s implied lies

Anyone remotely following the CFA dispute knows that the Herald Sun has led the charge when it comes to smearing professional firefighters. Yesterday’s front page story is yet another skirmish in their war on emergency services workers.

There are various tried-and-true techniques involved in smearing people who have done no wrong.

One is to simply make up outright nonsense about them, and publish it. The trouble with this is, if your intended victim has the pluck to stand up to a 12.9-billion-dollar business empire, then you might find yourself the subject of Supreme Court defamation writs, and forced to publish a Clayton’s retraction.

But sometimes it works. If you let a politician tell the lies, and the rest of the media is equally beholden to that politician’s party, and the other parties are too scared to speak the truth lest the biased media crucify them, then you can print complete lies and get away with it, scot-free:

Outright lies, written by Matthew Guy (Liberal Party) and published by the Herald Sun. Any competent journalist could have easily ascertained that Guy was lying, by consulting the readily available proposed EBA. None did.

There’s a second option for smearing good people who have done no wrong, which is worth considering, especially if your saturation coverage is beginning to arouse suspicions, or you’ve been burned by a Supreme Court case against you.

Implied lies: that’s the second option, bread and butter for the gutter press.

The method of implied lies works like this: avoid saying anything that is clearly and literally untrue, but slant the entire article to encourage the reader to jump to the desired, factually incorrect, conclusions. The headline is a key weapon in this strategy, supported by suggestive and misleading word choice, and underpinned by an ordered presentation that guides the reader’s thought processes as if they were following a script. Which, of course, they are.

The implied lie is established from 50 feet away, with the headline.

Yesterday’s Herald Sun smear splash follows the implied-lies formula. To avoid the tedium of word-by-word analysis, just read it through and imagine you’re a naive reader with no prior knowledge (or, potentially, with misconceptions created by previous Herald Sun articles). What conclusion are you inexorably drawn to?

The conclusion you’re no doubt drawn to is that a host of sweet kickbacks have been given to the UFU, a payoff made in exchange for dropping their demands for “control” over the CFA.

You may have noticed already that the article didn’t actually make those claims directly. Actual naive readers (who, unlike you, weren’t just pretending to be naive) might also have noticed that, and so would have patted themselves on the back for cleverly reading between the lines, for being, in their minds, ahead of the curve — all the while without comprehending that both their false conclusions and their self-congratulations were entirely choreographed by media operatives with a malicious intention to mislead.

Therein lies the art of the implied lie: to carefully polish a turd and surreptitiously leave it, glittering irresistibly, between the lines.

All that’s left then is for faecophile politicians to take it on board and make the implicit explicit:

Inevitably, the punters follow suit:

Of course, the problem with the implied lie is that it’s entirely false. The supposed “perks”— in actual fact, unremarkable conditions of employment — are nothing new and have been part of the proposed EBA all along. No-one has yet complained, indeed, critics of the EBA have been at pains to point out that they have no issue with the pay claims in the EBA. Numerous leaks of the proposed EBA are available online, and have been for almost 12 months. All that I have checked contain the clause:

Not only is there no new suite of sweet kickbacks; as far as I know there is no quid pro quo. No-one is reporting or announcing that the United Firefighters Union is willing to drop its claims around consultation and staffing, made in the interests of firefighter safety and public safety, labelled as a push for “control” by the Herald Sun.

Clearly, the article is designed to encourage conclusions that are entirely at odds with the known facts.

And yet, read the article again. How would the Herald Sun fare at Australian Press Council or the Supreme Court? Can they plausibly deny responsibility for the false conclusions drawn by their readers? Did they actually say explicitly that the increased allowances were in excess of those long-proposed in the draft EBA? No. Did they actually say that the UFU is expected to drop its demands around consultation and staffing? No.

That’s the point of the strategy of the implied lie. Play your readers like marionettes, but cover your arse.