It’s not often you’ll hear me praising the Green Left Weekly. To me, they’re like political Mormons: over-zealous both in their beliefs and their attempts to convert you. When offered a copy (as one incessantly is at university) I always give the same reply: ‘No thanks, I’m a fascist.’ It appears to be working; increasingly the spruikers seem to recognize me, narrow their eyes and walk past me without incident. No doubt, word has spread about the Uni of Wollongong’s most fervent National Socialist.
I must, however, pay credit to their acknowledgement of their own bias. It’s all there in the title, ‘we are left-wing!’ it screams.
By the same token, nothing irritates me more than political players or commentators attempting to pass off their partisan dissertations of current events as ‘middle-ground’, merely ‘sensible’ or ‘just common sense’; trying to make themselves appear to be ‘moderates’, or a ‘voice of reason’ above the fray of the battling sides. Worse still are the ones who do it by not defining themselves as politically centrist, but accusing their opponents of extreme bias, attempting to characterise them as the only one being partisan in the debate.
Thanks to Peter Nicholson at The Australian
At least, John Howard has had the decency to acknowledge that he doesn’t stand for middle-ground politics, that he has bias. At a press conference in London last year, Howard admitted to being ‘a loyal centre-rightist’. While his critics may quibble over the ‘centre’ part of his admission, his acknowledgment that he has bias, that he has opinions and ambitions that can’t please everyone, deserves credit for its candour.
The expectation with a politician as canny as Howard would be for him to assert how he avoids ascribing to a single school of thought, that his decisions are formed solely on the basis of personal belief and experience. Instead, here was a confession that his beliefs are strongly aligned with a particular set of ideals, that he does have a set of pre-conceived views that influences his decisions. It may seem like a somewhat obvious truth, but the fact is that most politicians would rather be seen as moderates who judge every issue on their individual merits free thinkers whose only political guide is their conscience. The only true centrists at all, however, are the swinging voters, who by their very nature as the uncommitted, don’t engage in politics actively.
It is time for all political players to ‘cop to it’, to be honest and declare their personal biases. The risk they run, of course, by not declaring their bias is having someone declare it for them, usually incorrectly. It’s a common tendency for politicians and political journalists to accuse their opponents of possessing extremely (and as their contention holds, excessively) partisan views. It is a two-fold ploy, making their opponent appear partisan, and therefore speaking for a minority, whilst simultaneously depicting themselves as the moderate, the opposite of biased, the centrist looking for the middle-ground that will accommodate the greatest number of people.
This technique was memorably displayed by George Bush Jr at the third US Presidential debate with Democratic candidate John Kerry in October last year. Bush proclaimed to Kerry that ‘There is a mainstream in US politics, and you sit on the far-left bank.’ Whilst, admittedly, from where Bush is sitting, Josef Goebbels probably looks like he’s on the left bank, quite how Bush imagines Kerry to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Che Guevara is a mystery. Unless one can see it for what it was, an insult, an attempt to characterize Kerry as a typical Massachusetts liberal who can’t be trusted with representing ‘middle-America’.
The same thing happens in political journalism, as columnists such as Phillip Adams and Janet Albrechtson label their opponents as ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’, as if these were discrediting arguments or insults rather than mere factual observations. Bias is inevitable in journalism when we demand (as we must) that political journalists be well-informed and engaged with the issues. Political journalists are, by their very nature, politically educated and concerned, and it is unreasonable to expect them to remain sufficiently detached not to have a single opinion. And yet, any journalist who ventures an opinion on any subject is pilloried for being ‘biased’.
It is an assumption grounded in the American journalistic tradition that biased journalism is inherently flawed (this is further explored here). In fact, most journalistic cultures have a tradition of acknowledging their bias; many European newspapers, for example, are notable for their partisan approaches whilst still being quite well respected: The Guardian, The Times, Le Monde and Le Figaro, to name a few. Australia has, by and large, avoided this European tradition. But perhaps it is not too late to change.
Let’s just be honest, we all have biases. Having preferences and inclinations are part of what make us human, of what make us a diverse and interesting people. Criticising anyone who admits to their own biases, or accusing others of having them as if there’s something wrong with that, is perverse and irrational. And that’s my opinion, however biased.
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