Editorial: Desperate measures

Why is the mainstream media so obsessed with FOFA?

Of the 12 minutes Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen was interrogated by ABC TV’s Emma Alberici on Lateline last Tuesday, more than half were spent talking about the proposed amendments to FOFA.

In a week in which Australia’s last car manufacturer packed up shop, a Royal Commission into corruption in the union movement was launched and Schapelle Corby was released on parole, the fact that such prominence was given to a sub-clause of a Corporations Act amendment affecting a profession of less than 20,000 indicates something bigger is at play.

From the moment the FOFA amendments were announced – in line with the Coalition’s policy position of more than three years – the mainstream media went into an orgiastic frenzy, employing hyperbole not seen since Y2K.

The line adopted by a number of mainstream mastheads, and perpetuated continuously over the past month and a half, is that the amendments effectively dismantle the entire FOFA regime, allowing a wholesale return to conflicted remuneration.

As many in the financial advice industry already know – thanks to the tireless work of the industry associations and some other key stakeholders – nothing could be further from the truth.

So, why then, is the media so obsessed with this inaccurate narrative?

First, the previous government’s operatives have been keen to salvage Shorten’s legacy, along with its allies in the labour movement. Chris Bowen and Bernie Ripoll have repeatedly made the absurd suggestion that the amendments will make financial product collapses more likely – as though a major international fraud like Trio could be mitigated by tweaks to the Australian Corporations Act.

Then there is Industry Super Australia, which has not shied away from outlining its plans to ramp up “rhetoric” against the changes. With a microscope about to be shone into Australia’s increasingly irrelevant trade unions, perhaps the industry super funds – many of whom have boards littered with former and current union bosses – are extra eager to portray an image of squeaky clean pro-consumer credentials.

These stakeholders have been extremely effective in peddling these messages to mainstream journalists – many of whom may already be pre-disposed to a 'big government' agenda.

But secondly, the coverage around FOFA reflects changes in the media itself.

With circulations and subscriptions in terminal decline and a 24 hour cycle to feed, mainstream media outlets are increasingly unable to critically engage with policy and regulatory issues.

The idea of FOFA being a battle between a pro-business Coalition government and a pro-consumer Labor opposition fits neatly into a sellable and easy-to-digest narrative that the newspapers are all too happy to perpetuate.

It also fits neatly into the global mainstream media’s narrative of financial service providers as the ‘bad guys’ that led to the GFC, thereby fuelling what journos call a story “with legs”.

Helping to ‘save consumers’ from caricature villains is a tactic by which mainstream editors can try – desperately – to maintain relevance in a world headed instinctively towards social media and niche publishing.

The advice industry associations have called for a grassroots response to combat the lies. While others in the press adopt an attitude of moral superiority or bland objectivity, ifa will continue to assist in this campaign and ensure consumers have access to more than one version of the truth.

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