Insiders, Outsiders: Media And Climate Change And Repeating, Without Question

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The impotence of the media is never more apparent than when it lets governments make outrageous claims on climate, unchallenged, writes Nick Pendergrast.

This week, Scott Morrison, speaking at a press conference in Melbourne aired on ABC News 24, repeatedly claimed Australia is reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.

This is not supported by the evidence yet none of the journalists at this press conference challenged this claim. It has been repeated on ABC News 24 throughout the day, also without challenge. You can see a simple graph on emissions here, at the The Guardian.

To the credit of the journalists, while they did not specifically challenge Morrison’s claim about reduced emissions, they did separately raise The Climate Change Performance Index released at the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP25, which ranks Australia as having the lowest climate performance in the world, of all of the countries analysed.

Morrison dismissed the report as not credible without giving any evidence/explanation as to why, then the journalists just moved on. Apparently no follow-up questions were required. This is very Trump-like – dismissing any reports that highlight the negatives of the government as fake news, without feeling any obligation to make a case as to why the report is inaccurate – or in this example even being asked to make this argument.

The question arises, why don’t we get more challenging of the claims made by politicians in the media?

Insiders and Outsiders

One factor is maintaining access to politicians and press conferences such as these. Critical questions are tolerated to a degree from “insider” journalists who don’t ask questions that too regularly/fundamentally challenge the claims of politicians. Those who push too much may lose access to such press conferences.

I remember hearing independent journalist Antony Loewenstein pointing out that many of the journalists in the mainstream media are quite proudly insiders – it’s even in the name of the ABC show Insiders! There certainly are journalists such as Loewenstein that are more critical but for those who choose to be “outsiders”, they lack the access and won’t get invited/invited back to press conferences like this.

This perhaps helps to explain the lack of critical questioning in this press conference and beyond.

Objectivity

The dominant understanding of objectivity also plays a role. Repeating the claims from politicians from interviews and press releases unchallenged, as the ABC have done in this case, is typically viewed as “objective” journalism. In contrast, doing investigative journalism and fact checking these claims can be dismissed as “subjective”.

Max Suich, a past editor-in-chief of Fairfax, explains that the news is mostly “an unobstructed conduit of ‘news events’ and official statements – both from government and opposition”. Objectivity is often interpreted as limiting the questioning of such sources and confining criticisms to narrow limits. Content outside of these limits is often excluded from the news because it is labelled as not being objective.

Those pursuing more critical journalism may face backlash from their media outlets and once again, may find themselves as outsiders rather than insiders.

Money and Politics

There can also be financial reasons as to why the claims of politicians often go unchallenged. Confronting power is costly and difficult, due to the high standard of evidence and argument required. This is particularly an issue for commercial media, as for private companies focused on making profit, it is much cheaper to simply regurgitate the talking points of politicians, rather than engaging in costly investigative journalism to fact check their claims.

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The ABC, as a government-funded media outlet, does not face the exact same constraints as commercial media. However, there are certainly factors that limit the questioning of politicians from the ABC. While not a commercial organisation, they face financial constraints that can limit costly investigative journalism, particularly in light of constant budget cuts.

There is also the related issue of the threat of further budget cuts from the government in power if the ABC is viewed as being overly critical. Recent examples include criticisms of the ABC from some in the Coalition government regarding ABC journalist Emma Alberici’s analysis of the government’s corporate tax cuts and the ABC comedy show Tonightly calling Australian Conservatives Party candidate Kevin Bailey ‘a cunt’.

Tonightly was cancelled by the ABC after just one season.

This is not a new issue for the ABC. The ABC comedy show The Glass House was cancelled by the ABC after criticism from John Howard’s Coalition government, despite ratings before the cancellation being the highest they had been for the show. While the Coalition appears to be particularly focused on criticising and cutting funds from the ABC, these pressures are not only in place when the Coalition is in power – the Labor governments of Hawke and Keating also resisted oversight from the ABC.

So just as the commercial media face barriers to challenging the claims of politicians, so does the ABC.

Independent Media

This is not to say that all media funded by governments or private companies is equally uncritical, or that the claims of politicians or other powerful figures are never challenged by such outlets. Journalists vary greatly in the extent to which they can work within these constraints to produce investigative reporting.

Nevertheless, these constraints are real and funding from private companies and governments limits the extent to which the media is able and willing to challenge the claims of governments and other powerful forces in society.

This points to the importance of independent media not funded by commercial or government interests, if we want media that is investigative and critical, rather than uninformative and compliant.

In the context of the necessity of meaningful political action on climate change, the questioning of the claims of governments by the media is more important than ever.

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Nick Pendergrast

Nick Pendergrast teaches Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Melbourne and his research is in the areas of social movements, social change and Critical Animal Studies. He is also a host of the political podcast Progressive Podcast Australia.

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