An Inquiry Should Get The Facts Straight


When did you last see a newspaper headline telling you something may have happened? News is definite — not the way it could be but "that’s the way it is", as Brian Henderson used to say at the end of the old National Nine News, a catchphrase filched from Walter Cronkite of CBS.

It’s the certitude of news that can make it a reliable channel for propaganda — smuggling claims, suppositions and distractions into our consciousness under the guise of "reporting the facts". How many in western media asked the question, in the months leading up to the invasion of 2003, whether Iraq really did — or could — possess "weapons of mass destruction" in any meaningful sense? It was usually presented as a fact. Journalism about asylum seekers here in Australia generally accepts without question that their arrival is a "problem", requiring a "solution".

This is not good for us. Good journalism subjects its assumptions to critical scrutiny, and it does so by juxtaposing perspectives and versions of events peddled by one source against different ones. The ascendancy of Canberra politics, in the version of public affairs presented to Australian readers and audiences, keeps important questions from being properly debated — such as the continuing rise in Australian military spending and war preparations with the United States. When the declared view of the Labor and Coalition front benches is basically the same, it’s never questioned.

My complaint to the ABC over their presentation of this story was met with reference to an internal document setting out "news values". These included "prominence: status, power of the information source, or of the individuals or institutions involved in the event" and "personification: involvement of famous people even when what happens to them is commonplace". These trumped the famous obligation to balance, enshrined in the ABC Editorial Policies and to be delivered by "presenting principal relevant views on matters of importance". You have to be powerful or famous to have your viewpoint covered, apparently.

It underlines the pervasive sense of narrowness in media here, encapsulated in the infamous figure of 70 per cent. That’s the extent of newspaper circulation controlled by Murdoch’s News Ltd. The problem set out by Robert Manne, in his Quarterly Essay, is, in a sense, the opposite from the one I have briefly sketched here. The Australian newspaper errs by presenting opinions as facts, but also by presenting facts as opinions.

The existence of anthropogenic climate change is a matter of scientific consensus: beware of suggestions, such as those insinuated into the paper’s editorials and opinion columns, as chronicled by Manne, that it is just one of two (or more) equally valid claims. See also the proposition that Palestinian rights to the West Bank and Gaza Strip arise from one of two competing narratives, with equal credentials to be regarded as true.

Journalism must be more transparent and more plural, prompting and equipping us with cues and clues to form our own opinions on matters of public importance. But it must remain committed to establishing truths about events — and processes. To build up into a useful guide to the world around us, journalism requires contexts and backgrounds to be added in.

In my present research, I am looking at a global standard for reporting conflict. This involves showing focus groups and audiences different versions of familiar television news stories. Participants have seized with gratitude on elements that allow them to engage, intellectually and emotionally, with the lives of people caught up in them. The Palestinian refugee who describes the experience of living under military occupation: imagine setting out to travel from "Marrickville to Glebe" only to face "14 checkpoints" along the way. The refugee who explains why he had to flee his home in a boat, and now lives and works in Sydney, and wants "Australia to be proud of me".

Establishing facts, and bringing them to life by providing such material, does not come cheap. Sure, we can all self-publish now, but that is not the solution: it probably makes us more in need of professional journalism — cutting through the babble, with trained observers producing edited copy — not less. Wikileaks is an iconic new media project, but it turned to partnerships with established news organisations to secure due prominence and salience for its disclosures.

So here’s my proposal for the media inquiry: set up a national, publicly funded grant-giving body, at arm’s length from government, to support good journalism, on the criteria I’ve indicated here. To give something for good journalism is automatically more appealing than a state expanding its role in taking action against what it sees as bad journalism: there are already plenty of those, notably in our own Asia-Pacific region.

It could give out, say, 50 grants a year, worth up to $100,000 each. A drop in the ocean of public finances, and capable of making very little difference to the balance sheets of corporate media, but a potential lifeline for worthy journalism projects, committed to offering a public service, like … well, like New Matilda itself.

One of the issues the inquiry is tasked with examining is, "The impact of technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organisations in quality journalism and the production of news, and how such activities can be supported, and diversity enhanced".

If good journalism can no longer be adequately supported by market mechanisms, there is a case for supporting it with extra-market mechanisms. So there needs to be some way of identifying good journalism: a public interest, as distinct from the sectional interests that wield too much power over the Australian news agenda and the public sphere here more generally.

So please, Judge Ray Finkelstein (ably assisted by Matthew Ricketson, like me a journalist-turned-academic), whatever else you do, use your recommendations to urge public investment, in the public interest, in a greater plurality and diversity in truth-telling by Australian journalism.

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