Francis Cardell-Oliver on News Limited in Australia
Amid calls from the Greens for an inquiry into the media of this country, elements of the Murdoch press have leapt quickly to their own defence. A selection from the letters page of The Australian gives a taste of the rhetoric: ‘The Australian excels with [sic] objectivity and fairness’, ‘the only broadsheet newspaper that attempts to hold the government to account’, ‘fearless yet fair reporting’. The real problem, in the eyes of a Mr Brenton Minge, is ‘the ABC’s incorrigible leftist bias… a relentless anti-Coalition, anti-US and anti-family jihad’. Leftist conspiracies from the ABC and The Age are a staple of The Australian’s daily offering of childish snide remarks in its ‘Cut & Paste’ column, whilst its editorials regularly extol in grandiose terms its merits as a bastion of journalistic integrity – fearless and fair. In light of this campaign of – utterly objective, of course – reporting on itself, one can only conclude that Mr Minge sincerely believes that The Australian has been telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth whilst its competitors spout nothing but what the Prime Minister recently so succinctly termed ‘crap’.
The Australian goes to great lengths to prove its point, recently publishing online an analysis of its editorials for the past year which reveals that its official (i.e. explicit) editorial position has been relatively balanced. The accusations made against the newspaper are serious. Senior figures in Labor have recently suggested that The Australian is after regime change in Canberra. This reader was inclined to agree that the tone of the paper is usually hostile toward the government. To check this general impression I did a little Politifact-style statistical analysis of my own. Let us take the issue of the carbon tax. In the week 11-17/7, of 26 opinion articles published on the topic approximately four were generally supportive of the scheme whilst no fewer than 20 argued strongly against. The remaining two contained a sufficient mixture of opposing views and objective reporting to classify as neutral. And yet at the end of that week the same newspaper which had just published five times the quantity of material against the carbon tax as it proffered in support thereof dismissed suggestions of bias aired by the ABC and Fairfax as a ‘peculiar fascination’, ‘attempting to settle old scores’, before, in a masterstroke of hypocritical payback, attributing Bob Brown’s attacks ‘not just to the favourable treatment he and his colleagues enjoy on the ABC’. Quite what we are meant to infer is the other reason for Mr Brown’s appreciation of ‘special virtue in publicly funded media’ is a matter, naturally, for conjecture, though this author detects a whiff of the old lefty-cum-communist-cum-totalitarian slur. I am quite prepared to submit that the bias evidenced above is true of just about any given week in The Australian. The subtext of partisan slurs in the weekend editorial is more indicative of its position than the high rhetoric about the integrity of democracy. However vociferously it denies it, it would appear The Australian has been ‘writ[ing] crap’. By that I do not mean that the editors have been peddling lies per se, à la Fox News, but simply that they have been selective, very selective in fact, with the truth.
Nor is the bias limited to this one issue, or those nether regions of the newspaper officially labelled ‘opinion’. The Australian has a proud history of holding the government to account, as it likes to phrase it. But not of giving it any credit. And certainly not of paying the same attention to the alternative government. At the height of the BER programme, at least before it was eclipsed in the limited attention span of the public (on which more later) by the carbon tax, The Australian was determined to show us exactly how our money was being spent, regularly featuring the topic on the front page. And yet it didn’t seem to be interested in the 95%+ of school principals who told the auditor general they were pleased with the programme. Instead it selected anecdotal evidence from the handful who were unhappy and plastered their testimony across the front page, day after day: [Insert large picture: subject looking suitably stern and outraged, arms crossed, with appropriate caption and shocking headline]. Sometimes it couldn’t find a principal, so it selected a single parent, from a single school, and turned their opinion into front-page news. Now, front-page news carries, by the very fact that it constitutes news, and important news at that, the implication that it conveys information which will concern the whole community, or at least a significant portion thereof. By that definition the opinion of one randomly (or perhaps not so randomly) selected interviewee does not constitute news, even for a local newspaper, still less for the front-page of a national broadsheet. And yet the same technique – find angry person, take picture (with arms crossed), ask ‘em what they reckon, write up their travails, sufferings and anxieties and print it in the morning edition – has been used again and again and again to show us just how much the carbon tax is going to hurt us. All of us. Because John Smith here (he of the folded arms) reckons it will. To be entirely fair, the ABC has been known to use the same technique. One of the first articles it published online in the wake of ‘carbon Sunday’ consisted of one family saying they liked the tax and another saying they didn’t, because it would cost them a few cents here, a few cents there (this author’s response to that particular line of reasoning was later summed up in a post on the Heathen Scripture blog which I encourage you to read, but I digress). Yes, I know publication of views from both sides of the issue kind of undermines the great leftist conspiracy. Perhaps they got permission from Bob to throw a red herring in there, put us off the scent (if you will forgive the Rudd-esque mixing of metaphors). The Australian could learn something from its arch-rival if only it would listen. Its own reporting, though often technically truthful (containing all relevant facts) consistently presents those facts in a manner which can only be calculated to paint Labor in the worst possible light. The headline writers must have great fun finding the most derogatory verb they can to describe the PM’s latest announcement. I recall one article that predicted the loss of millions of jobs in the coal industry from the carbon tax, before admitting, two thirds of the way through, that the modelling was based on the assumption that there would be no assistance package, and finally confessing, further in still, that the government’s position was firmly in support of such a package. Yes, to the critical reader it would be possible to reach a fair conclusion. But in a world where 99% of users don’t go past the first page of Google results, how many readers read articles beginning to end, putting aside any prejudice occasioned by the headline and/or the tone of the prose, before balancing up the facts and concluding that the headline should really have been in the conditional, not the future tense, appropriate conditions attached.
If I may continue the history lesson a little longer we may dispose of one further defence of The Australian; we’re not just right-wing, they say – look how hard we were on Howard. Undoubtedly the paper’s editorial position was pretty rough on the tail-end of the Howard government. Unfortunately that does nothing but strengthen the charge that it is now, and has before, selected one side of a political debate and relentlessly pushed an editorial agenda. Far from dismissing the accusations of regime change, it just provides a precedent.
The Australian still claims to be tough on the Coalition. In its weekend editorial it claimed to have ‘delve[d] beneath [Tony Abbott’s] rhetorical flourish for evidence of credible public policy’. Well, yes and no. Yes, there was one article (out of the 26 in the week we looked at earlier), by a certain Craig Emerson, MP, discussing the gaping holes in the fabric of the opposition’s climate change policy. But, to start off with, I’m not entirely sure that counts as The Australian doing the delving (though they do get some credit for publishing the article); more to the point that makes a ratio of 20:1 between criticism of the current government and criticism of its now likely successor. Citing fearless delving into the policies of each in the same paragraph is at best stretching the truth.
The editors of The Australian, its columnists, correspondents and other contributors are, of course, quite entitled to their personal political views. But when you produce a national newspaper you are not just putting your views out there to be judged, you are imposing them on others. The press has a position of immense power in any democracy. Most readers won’t look beyond what they see on the pages of The Australian, or any other media outlet; they have neither the time, nor, perhaps, the inclination to do their own research into the raw facts – who said what, when, what the economic analysis looks like, on which assumptions – and reach their own reasoned conclusions. Consequently, political discourse tends to consist of the bartering of second hand arguments, opinions and facts. There is little to be done about the last; people cannot be expected to find everything out for themselves, so we must trust the media not to make up complete rubbish. The Australian is not run by Glenn Beck. We can trust them not to run a story tomorrow about the PM’s secret Nazism. The question is whether they are telling the whole truth and how they are telling the truth – the line between opinions reported as opinions and opinions reported as fact and alongside fact. Many of the points raised by The Australian in its 20-articles-a-week against the carbon tax are legitimate criticisms. The articles do not, in themselves, constitute ‘writ[ing] crap’. But the presentation of a tidal wave of negativity against a tiny, perhaps token resistance does. We like to judge politicians. Some take it far too far, as some of the ignorant and thoroughly disrespectful abuse hurled recently at the PM and fellow citizens has shown. They try to change our opinions by offering arguments. The beauty of this system is that if we aren’t convinced we can disagree; we frequently do so. Unfortunately, most don’t extend their intense distrust of politicians to the media. Those who like to hurl terms such as liar (and worse) at the PM for having an opinion that isn’t theirs will unquestioningly accept that when The Australian pushes an agenda it’s just delving, fearlessly, impartially into the filth of politics and coming out with clean hands (NB: this theory is, prima facie, unable to cope with the all-questioning skepticism of the Mr Minges of this world, though the problem is solved if he actually just missed the logical link between revelations of ABC jihad and thinking twice about The Australian). So when the press starts presenting partisan viewpoints as news, we accept it. That doesn’t mean we’re stupid, just that we’re vulnerable. Political discourse can only consist of reasoned, personal arguments when we are presented with the materials to form our own views. We cannot have an intelligent public debate if people are given only some of the facts, limited to particular issues, and see only, or predominantly, a particular brand of opinion based on those facts. That doesn’t mean that The Australian can’t keep up its fearless delving into governmental incompetence or present as many articles against the carbon tax as it wants, but merely that its coverage should be balanced – it should write about something new, give the government credit for positive aspects of its policies, compare these with the alternative (i.e. criticise the Opposition), and stop using ‘Greens’ as a dirty word – because without that its readers are left unable to form their own intelligent opinions and contribute to the democracy which belongs to them, not the editors of The Australian. The alternative is a crude form of debate, generally on no more than two issues (pick any two out of refugees, insulation, refugees, BER, refugees, carbon tax) which have been polemicised before they have yet encountered the public eye. Politicians can argue for themselves – they don’t need newspapers to take sides, and that is certainly not something the public needs. A partisan press only destroys the remnants of reason and personal jurisdiction which are essential to a functioning democracy. It gives us what passes for political debate now: a public with a two second attention span, reciting incomplete and second hand facts or (more often) unsubstantiated and frequently prejudiced opinion, in arguments which consist of the repetition of assertions at your opponent ad nauseam until everyone gets upset and switches to heckling, intimidation and abuse. It is neither civilised, sensible nor particularly democratic. It propagates ignorance and breeds paranoia, stupidity and hatred – bile spewed forth against the phantom of a ‘relentless anti-Coalition, anti-US and anti-family jihad’.