March 9, 2013

The public, the press and the pollies

Recently I attended a Walkley Media Talk at the Queensland State Library, entitled Trust Me, I'm a Journalist. Three journos – an activist (from Green Left Weekly), a senior political journalist ( and a features writer (The Weekend Australian magazine) – debated the ethics of journalism in the context of current Australian disillusionment with the media and politics.

At one point, the features writer told of having a piece he'd written given back to him by his editor in order that he produce a more balanced account. Two things worry me about balance in the media.

This award-winning journalist seemed a nice enough chap and I'm sure his intentions are good. Fortunately his subject is not politics. Since he works for the Murdoch press, I would be seriously concerned about the aforementioned 'balance' had he worked on the politics news desk. In the UK, Murdoch-owned newspapers* have occasionally backed a Labour government during my lifetime, but for the most part they are openly for the right wing of politics. In fact, in 1992, one of the stable's rather unsavoury titles was allegedly more than a little responsible for a surprise Conservative general election victory after an infamous headline on polling day. It read: 'If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights'. At the time, the tits-and-bums rag was on its way to its peak circulation, in 1994, of 4.3 million†.

Then there's the other kind of balance: the one that says, if you are interviewing a proponent of one side of a debate, you should automatically follow it with the views of someone holding the opposite view. This is all well and good and noble, but when the research has advanced far beyond the investigative stage and the evidence for one side or the other is overwhelming, then you cross a line that makes your balanced reporting downright misleading.

Both these problems of balance are set to come increasingly into play during the lead-up to the federal election in September. Since Julia Gillard's announcement of the date of the election and her denial that the campaign would begin from that that point on – she has just made a rather unusual five-day tour of the suburbs of western Sydney – the media and politicians alike have started pumping themselves up. The 7.30 Report already seems to have started featuring key issues as if voting were just around the corner. I have a lot of time for anchorwoman Leigh Sales, but I would expect her to rise above election fever at this juncture.

The media have already decided the result is a foregone conclusion and that the LNP have it in the bag. This will either produce complacency, apathy, fatigue or despair in voters, none of which will encourage constructive political debate.

I think the Australian people get a pretty poor service from many of their political representatives. A cry from the heart was heard from one caller to 612 ABC Brisbane a couple of days ago. The Queensland Government's Attorney General and Minister for Justice Jarrod Bleijie had just been interviewed about his support – or lack of – for Federal attempts to deal with biker gangs across Australia. Since bikies can ride across state borders to do their business, legal or otherwise, it does not seem beyond the wit of man to work out that the same law extending across all states might enable law-breakers to be apprehended more easily. But no, Mr Bleijie doesn't trust the Federal Government to get it right, and in any case the Queensland State Government is already legislating its own solutions to the problem. Na na na-na na. The caller was not impressed by the Attorney General's performance and wearily pleaded with all politicians to lay aside petty party squabbles and abandon the states-vs-Feds preoccupation in the best interests of the country.

There are far, far bigger issues than bikies requiring a macro approach.

The media play a huge role in perpetuating parochial spats, seemingly oblivious of their responsibility to convey information and encourage meaningful engagement. They are part of the reason why Australians and Americans are hugely ill-informed when it comes to scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. A majority of the population on either continent still believes scientists are divided on this issue when in fact nothing could be further from the truth†.

Everyone seems to be in agreement, however, that the prospect of seven months of electioneering is a grim one. Enough to make you plan an extended trip into the outback.

* Murdoch owns most of the UK's newspapers. I am proud to say I have never worked for one of his publications
** its highest average sale was in week ending 16 July 1994, at 4,305,957. Highest ever one-day sale (at full price) was on 30 March 1996, at 4,783,359. Source: News International Circulation Reports Archive


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  2. This pursuit of "balance" quite often also requires that the extreme views from both sides have to be presented. Like there's nothing in between. I hate that too.

  3. Yes, that's certainly true of politicians. Less so of scientists, who always try to put a measured argument. And, of course, there aren't any scientists who vehemently argue that climate change has nothing to do with human activity!!

  4. Not peer-respected, highly qualified scientists at any rate.

  5. Yes, certainly. I meant less scientific kinds of discussions and there are plenty.