Denis Muller, The University of MelbourneElements within News Corporation are now fighting among themselves over how its platforms should position themselves in response to the worsening COVID crisis in New South Wales.
This has become clear with the decision by the editor of News Corp’s Daily Telegraph, Ben English, to ditch Alan Jones as a columnist.
Over the past few weeks, as the coronavirus outbreak got inexorably worse, the Telegraph ran a series of characteristically shrill columns by Jones attacking mask-wearing, lockdowns and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
Yet Jones also promotes these opinions on News Corp’s Sky News, where his Sky-at-Night slot is undisturbed. Indeed, Jones makes a virtue of this, telling The Sydney Morning Herald:
Have a look at Sky News YouTube, Sky News Facebook and Alan Jones Facebook and you can see. The same column that I write for the Tele goes up on my Facebook page.
On July 29, the Telegraph also took the opportunity provided by an outburst against Jones by the NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, to distance itself from its former columnist, referring to him as a “Sky News host”.
Trying to read the entrails of what goes on in News Corp is akin to Kremlinology, but this is the second piece of evidence in the past couple of weeks that the Telegraph is executing a delicate pivot.
A decision to switch to an overt anti-Coalition position would be well above the editor’s pay grade. However, a couple of weeks ago, the Telegraph’s editor-at-large, Matthew Benns, wrote a curious critique of Scott Morrison’s handling of vaccination and quarantine, written as if by the Morrison family dog. It contained quite a lot of nipping at Morrison’s heels.
It has continued to report the growing COVID crisis straight, publishing pictures of a strained-looking Berejiklian but refraining from attacking her in commentary.
Putting all this together, the Telegraph seems to be positioning itself as champion of an heroic people, contingently tolerant of Berejiklian, intolerant of attacks on her policies, restless with Morrison, yet anxious not to damage the Liberal Party politically.
The degree of difficulty involved in staying upright while executing this manoeuvre is considerable.
Meanwhile at Sky, Jones goes on as before, and Peta Credlin resorts to some very dodgy logic in an attempt to show that the performance of the Labor government in Victoria is still clearly inferior to the performance of the Coalition government in New South Wales.
Her proposition is that the 172 cases of the Delta strain reported on July 28 was nothing like as bad as the 700 cases a day at the height of the Victorian crisis last year, even though, she said, Delta was three times more infectious than last year’s strain.
This, she said, should cause people in NSW to “take heart”.
So a snapshot one-point reading of a curve that is still rising steeply – the case numbers on July 29 were 239 – is compared with the peak of a separate outbreak of a strain that Credlin says was three times less infectious.
If the people of New South Wales take heart from that, they are really grasping at straws.
Credlin does not attack Berejiklian, masks or lockdowns as Jones does, and she carries a torch for the Coalition while also trying to boost morale in Sydney.
Andrew Bolt threads his way through this maze by attacking politicians who he says have “smeared” the people who took part in the anti-lockdown marches on July 25. At the same time he remains uncharacteristically agnostic on whether lockdowns are right.
Last year Bolt was calling lockdowns an over-reaction. It evidently makes a difference when it is your side of politics doing the locking down.
As Australia enters a pre-election phase, it matters what the Murdoch media do. Its newspapers represent about two-thirds of the nation’s metropolitan daily circulation, with monopolies in Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart. In August, Sky News will re-enter free-to-air television via several Southern Cross Austereo regional channels, which it claims will give it an audience of seven million.
What the Telegraph does is particularly important because it is Murdoch’s main populist political attack dog in Australia. It circulates widely in western Sydney, where there are several marginal seats.
Reading the entrails is an inexact science, to put it mildly, but there is a public-interest reason for trying.
First, there was a highly questionable story in The Australian about China allegedly weaponising coronavirus, with the headline “‘Virus warfare’ in China files” splashed across the front page.
The author of the article, Sharri Markson, claims a document written by Chinese scientists and Chinese public health officials in 2015 discussed the weaponisation of a SARS coronavirus.
According to the article, the document was headed “The Unnatural Origin of SARS and New Species of Man-Made Viruses as Genetic Bioweapons”.
Markson reported the US State Department had obtained the document in the course of investigating the origin of COVID-19. In her article and others that followed, there was talk of a third world war in which biological weapons would be deployed.
However, Chengxin Pan, an associate professor at Deakin University, offered a different explanation for the document’s origins. He said in a tweet the document Markson cited was in fact a book, the contents of which could be found on the internet or at a Chinese online bookstore.
Dominic Meagher, an economist at the Lowy Institute with an extensive China background, tweeted the book was
pretty clearly an idiotic conspiracy theory about how the US and Japan had introduced SARS to China.
The ABC program Media Watch raised these questions and more about the article’s credibility.
Markson has replied that the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Global Times newspaper viewed the document as legitimate and not a conspiracy theory. She said while none of the critics quoted by Media Watch were bioweapons experts, she had interviewed multiple high-level specialists in biological weapons compliance.
The ethical problems here are twofold. First, there are clearly questions about the provenance of the document. Was the document uncovered by a US State Department investigation or is it a book available for public sale?
It is a basic fact that colours the entire article, and the questions are not resolved by Markson’s response.
Second, the way the story is framed as revealing Chinese weaponising of biological material is highly alarmist. This generates further public anxiety about COVID-19 and adds to the climate of Sinophobia in Australia. The justification for doing so is, on the available evidence, highly questionable.
In a pandemic or any other emergency, the first ethical duty of the media is to report accurately and soberly, and specifically not to induce unjustified anxiety or panic.
In another major ethical lapse, the Australian Financial Review ran a story that named and shamed a Sydney man who had tested positive for the virus. To make it worse, the newspaper put his photo on the front page.
This was wrong and irresponsible for several reasons.
The man had visited several barbecue shops across Sydney while unknowingly positive. When this became known as part of the media’s general contact-tracing publicity, he was dubbed “Barbecue Man” by the Sydney media.
So he was already a figure of fun when the Financial Review identified him. Its excuse for naming him? He was a financial analyst doing due diligence on the Barbecues Galore chain. The AFR’s editor-in-chief, Michael Stutchbury, claimed this meant it was in the public interest to identify him as carrying COVID.
That is absolute drivel. There is no rational connection between the man’s health and the health of the barbecue business.
Other media, including the Daily Mail and news.com, jumped on the bandwagon and named him, too. Both outlets even ran a photo grabbed from Facebook of the man and his wife. No moral compass whatever.
If the media go on doing this, it will discourage people from coming forward for testing. Who wants to see themselves plastered over the front page and given names like Barbecue Man? That is where the irresponsibility lies.
The Age was guilty of something similar a couple of months ago when it published a map of the weekend movements of a young man who was unwittingly COVID-positive and wrote an article holding him up to ridicule.
This kind of media behaviour is mediaeval: like putting people in the stocks and chucking rotten tomatoes at them. And it is a gross breach of privacy. A person’s health is among the most private classes of information that exists. To breach it for the sake of a cheap laugh is indefensible.
These weren’t the only problematic reports. On May 13, the Australian Press Council found a subhead in the Herald Sun saying “Six People Died During Pfizer Trial” was misleading because it implied the vaccine caused the deaths, when in fact the deaths were not related to the vaccine.
Four of the six deceased had been given a placebo during the trial, and the other two deaths were not related to the vaccine.
The Herald Sun defended the subhead on the basis the story said the US Food and Drug Administration had been told about these deaths because they occurred during the period of the trial.
That is materially different from implying – as the headline clearly did – that the vaccine caused the deaths.
The press council said that newspapers needed to take more than usual care to avoid misleading the public in the midst of a pandemic. And by failing to do so, the Herald Sun had breached two of the council’s principles — one concerning accuracy and the other concerning fairness and balance.
In an atmosphere where there is already a degree of resistance to being vaccinated, the Herald Sun subhead was clearly a beat-up with the potential to harm the public interest.
So, in the space of a couple of weeks elements of the print media have sought to capitalise without justification on public anxieties about China and the safety of COVID vaccines, and have pilloried an innocent man while at the same time committing a gross breach of his personal privacy.
In an age when the public must rely increasingly on the mass media for reliable and responsible information — since social media has shown itself to be unreliable and irresponsible — these newspapers have abrogated their first duty to the public.
Tony Walker, La Trobe UniversityWhen China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, summoned journalists to the Chinese embassy last week, this was not an occasion for polite exchanges on a troubled relationship between Beijing and Canberra.
In some media reporting of the press conference, the exercise was referred to as a “charm offensive”. However, a more accurate characterisation would be to describe it as an attempt by China to draw a line under increasingly negative foreign reporting of its activities.
This reporting is having real world consequences for China’s image abroad. It is inviting pushback from an international community that is mobilising against Chinese overreach. Beijing will not be insensitive to the risks of brand damage to China’s reputation, or risks of sanctions.
The Biden administration’s canvassing of a potential boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China will have got Beijing’s attention. If countries, led by the United States, stay away this would represent a significant loss of face.
Global campaign against unfavourable reporting
Senior Chinese officials and Uyghurs appeared via video during Cheng’s embassy briefing to refute media accounts of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region as “Western lies”, “fabrications” and the work of “anti-China forces”.
Cheng’s press conference was part of a larger, global campaign against unfavorable reporting in which Beijing has resorted to a combination of bluster and in some cases reprisals against journalists who have cut too close to the bone.
Australian citizen Cheng Lei appears to be a case in point. Cheng, an anchor for state broadcaster China Global Television Network (CGTN), was detained in China last year without explanation, but now stands accused of ill-defined national security breaches.
China appears to have been particularly displeased by the reporting of the BBC. In February, Beijing banned all BBC broadcasting in China in retaliation for British authorities having revoked the license of the Chinese overseas broadcaster, CGTN. This represented a significant escalation in the conflict between the Chinese authorities and Western media.
What Chinese propaganda is seeking to achieve
Cheng’s propaganda exercise should therefore be seen as part of a global campaign to stifle what China regards as unfair and damaging criticism of its policies at home and abroad under paramount leader Xi Jinping.
If this Canberra media event was designed to dampen negative reporting in the Australian media, however, the campaign is unlikely to work for the simple reason there is little, or no, sign of Beijing reversing its antagonistic behaviour towards Western media.
Scarcely a day passes without criticism of foreign media in Chinese state-controlled outlets. These attacks underscore the gap that exists between Western perceptions of the role of journalists in democratic societies and China’s view that media should serve the interests of the state.
What some media have done is exaggerate Chinese authorities’ fault in a bid to overthrow the Chinese system. Take the BBC. This British media outlet did not call on the British public to overthrow the British government even if it has miserably failed to effectively curb the spread of COVID-19. This is double standards.
This level of naivete is hard to credit, but it is revealing nevertheless of the gap that exists between Chinese views of the Western media and vice versa.
China’s bluster against Western media may play to nationalist sentiment at home, but it is hardly likely to be effective in neutralising foreign media criticism.
Australian media will not stop providing a platform for legitimate and widely publicised concerns about China’s mistreatment of its minorities; its disrespect for the “one country, two systems” agreements it signed with the UK to facilitate the handover of Hong Kong; its threatening behaviour towards Taiwan; and its expansion of base facilities in disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Beijing’s trade war against Australia smacks of the sort of overreach that may have become a staple of Chinese propaganda in state-run media, but in reality this is not a campaign that serves China’s own interests.
That is assuming Beijing is concerned about promoting itself as a reasonably constructive citizen in its own Indo-Pacific neighborhood.
China’s dismal treatment of journalists
China’s press freedom record leaves a lot to be desired.
In the latest Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index, China rated 177 out of 180. It is by far the world’s largest captor of journalists with at least 121 detained, some in life-threatening conditions.
In March, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China reported an intensification of harassment of foreign reporters and increased use of “visa weaponisation”. This had led to the expulsion of 18 foreign correspondents in the first half of 2020. Others, like ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith left because of concerns about being detained..
China regards the FCCC as an “illegal” organisation. As Cedric Alviani, Reporters Without Borders’s East Asian bureau head, said,
In recent years, Chinese regime apparatus has come to consider foreign correspondents as unwanted witnesses and goes to great length to prevent them from collecting information that doesn’t mirror its propaganda.
China has the world’s most extensive and sophisticated censorship apparatus. […] Since 2017, no website or social media account is allowed to provide a news service on the internet without the Cyberspace Administration of China’s permission. Internet users are blocked from foreign search engines, news websites, and social media platforms by the Great Firewall. […] Foreign social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are banned.
This is the lived reality for foreign journalists in China in the Xi era, and for Chinese consumers of uncensored news, for that matter.
At no other stage since China began opening to the outside world in the Deng Xiaoping era of the late 1970s have conditions for foreign correspondents in China been more threatening — or more counterproductive from Beijing’s point of view.
China’s war against the foreign media is at a tangent to its proclaimed ambition to continue opening its economy to foreign investment. The anti-Western media campaign jars with hopes that it would become a responsible international stakeholder, as well.
If Ambassador Cheng’s press conference marks a new stage in China’s battles with foreign media, this promises to be a long march.
After almost a year of heated discussion about the News Media Bargaining Code, there will shortly be a new law of the land – one that’s unlikely to be applied to the platforms it was intended to reign in. But that’s not to say it hasn’t done its job.
With some final tweaks expected to the draft legislation, Facebook on Tuesday announced it would restore news for Australian users and strike up commercial agreements with local publishers. It signed its first deal with Seven West media yesterday.
Meanwhile, Facebook threatened to stop providing Australians access to news — and did (while also blocking domestic violence helplines, children’s cancer charities and the Royal Australian College of Physicians).
In return, the federal government said it would stop all advertising campaigns on the platform. Interestingly, it’s this move which most likely “assisted” the recent negotiated outcome with Facebook.
The changes made to the code — other than the opportunity to sell advertising to the Commonwealth again — were small, but important. It’s worth remembering the code’s aim was to balance out the bargaining imbalance between big tech platforms and news media businesses.
Essentially, it provides a mechanism to force a deal when a commercial outcome can’t be reached voluntarily. The code is mandatory, since the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) took the view the platforms would not otherwise get to a commercial offer, let alone a commercial settlement.
As set out by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, there were four changes made that have met Facebook’s needs:
before a digital platform is made subject to the code by being “designated”, the minister must first take into account whether it has reached commercial agreements with news media businesses
the government must give at least one month’s notice of designation to any platform it intends to make subject to the code
the non-discrimination provisions (crafted as an anti-avoidance mechanism) will not be triggered in respect to remuneration amounts or commercial outcomes that arise in the course of usual business practice
final offer arbitration will be a last resort and should be preceded by good faith mediation, provided this lasts no longer than two months.
The above amendments made by the government are not major, in terms of changing the scope of the News Media Bargaining Code. However, they do include some important clarifications regarding how the code will operate.
Both Google and Facebook were very concerned the approach of “final offer arbitration” would adversely affect them. In this, if a deal couldn’t be struck, both the platform and media business would have to present their offers and defer to an arbitrator to choose one.
Google and Facebook initially argued for “commercial arbitration”, where the arbitrator acts with more discretion. Commercial arbitration tends to favour the party with the most information or bargaining power.
The compromise of requiring good faith mediation before any compulsory arbitration (whether commercial or final offer arbitration) is a classic dispute resolution approach.
Win some, lose some
The News Media Bargaining Code has changed in a way that is a compromise, but hasn’t lost its original intention. The process of negotiating changes to the code has revealed the private values of Facebook, Google and any similar parties that could be impacted by the code.
The exposure draft, the introduction of the Bill, the Senate committee and Facebook’s petulant actions: all have acted to identify a financial outcome for each of Google, Facebook and the Australian news publishers.
The process has been a classic, but painful, exchange of information that would otherwise have been held close to the players’ respective chests.
For Google, it has shown Google Search must remain untouched, even if this means forking out millions in a matter of days. For Facebook, it has demonstrated that rapidly changing social media offerings (such as trying to remove news in Australia) can’t be done without major complications.
It may be too soon to judge whether Facebook’s approach of taking its lobbying to the brink worked in its favour, or to its detriment. The platform’s first interactions with the new UK Digital Markets Unit (a regulatory regime targeted at big tech firms) will likely shed some light.
And finally, the ACCC can claim it was right in its initial recommendation; after a long drought, there will soon be money flowing to public interest journalism.
The code is meant to help alleviate the revenue crisis facing news publishers. Over the past two decades they have made deep cuts to newsrooms. Scores of local print papers have become “digital only” or been shut down completely.
If legislated, the code will require the platforms to negotiate payments to news publishers, as well as disclose changes in algorithms affecting traffic to news sites.
But the code is unlikely to do much to fix the crisis faced by journalism in the internet age. It isn’t even a band-aid on the problem.
The traditional commercial news business model is broken beyond repair. If the government wants to save the social benefit of public-interest journalism, it must look elsewhere.
Newspapers didn’t sell news, but readers
To understand why the commercial news model is so broken, we first need to recognise what the primary business of commercial news media has been: attracting an audience that can be sold to advertisers.
Newspapers attracted readers with news and feature journalism that provided public value, but also information of interest such as weather forecasts, sports scores, stock prices, TV and radio guides and comics. Readers even sought out papers for their advertisements – in particular the “classifieds” for jobs, cars and real estate.
Before the internet the newspaper was the only place to access much of this information. This broad bundle of content attracted a wide range of readers, which the economics of newspapers – particularly the cost of producing the journalism – required.
Why the business model is broken
Internet technologies introduced two changes that have dismantled the newspaper business model.
They offered new and better ways to connect buyers and sellers, pulling advertiser spending away from newspapers. More than 70% of revenue for a typical daily newspaper came from advertising. Before 2000 print media attracted nearly 60% of Australian advertiser dollars, according to an analysis for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Digital Platforms Inquiry. By 2017 it was just 12%.
Australian advertising expenditure by media format and digital platform
Internet technologies also provided better ways to access the non-journalism information that had made the bundled paper valuable to a mass of readers.
Readers also now access news in many other places, through news apps, aggregators and social media feeds such as Twitter, Reddit, Apple News, Flipboard and many others, including Facebook and Google. Research by the University of Canberra’s News and Media Research Centre published in 2019 found just 30% of Australian news consumers accessed online news directly from news publishers’ websites.
The bargaining code doesn’t solve the main problem
If Google and Facebook are “to blame” for news publishers’ malaise, it is not in the way the bargaining code suggests. Separate from their linking to, or featuring, these publishers’ content, the digital platforms are just more effective vehicles for advertisers seeking to buy consumers’ attention. They serve ads based on consumer interests or in relation to a specific search.
The simple fact is news publishers’ core content is not that important to the platforms’ profitability.
Research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism during the 2019 UK general election – tracking 1,711 people aged 18-65 across mobile and desktop devices for six weeks – found news took up just 3% of their time online (about 16 minutes and 22 visits to news sites a week).
So if stories from Australian news outlets disappeared from Facebook or Google search results, it would barely make a scratch on their appeal to advertisers.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Digital Platforms Inquiry has rightly noted the revenue crisis has crippled commercial provision of public-interest journalism “that performs a critical role in the effective functioning of democracy at all levels of government”.
But the core of the problem is that funding such journalism through advertising is no longer viable. Other solutions are needed – locally and nationally – to ensure its survival.
Commercial news organisations no longer offer value to advertisers. Instead of searching for ways to make an obsolete business solvent, efforts should focus on alternative ways to fund public-interest journalism.
More funding for independent public broadcasters is one solution, and incentives for philanthropic funding and non-profit journalism organisations are proving successful in other countries.
It’s a global problem. To solve the crisis in Australia will require focusing on the core problem and thinking bigger than a bargaining code.
For transparency, please note The Conversation has also made a submission to the Senate inquiry regarding the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.
The Australian government’s push to make Google pay news organisations for linking to their content has seen the search giant threaten to pull out of Australia.
Google Australia’s managing director Mel Silva said if the government’s proposal goes ahead, “we would have no real choice but to stop making Google Search available in Australia”.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison pushed back saying he won’t respond to “threats”. Even the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia says Google needs “strong and stringent” regulation because of its monopoly on searching the web.
What if Google pulls out?
Google’s proposal to make Google Search unavailable in Australia means we would need to search the web using other systems and tools. If this really happens, we could no longer go to google.com and google.com.au to search the web.
It is important to note that Google is not just web search. Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc also runs key web portals such as YouTube, and productivity tools such as Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs and Google Maps (which actually started in Australia). Those services are not going to be removed from the Australian market, even if web search does get pulled out.
Online advertising is another sector in which Google is the market leader and where it makes money. Pulling Google web search out from Australia does not mean businesses would no longer be able to advertise using Google’s services.
But with no Google Search here, those adverts would no longer appear ahead of any other search results and be visited by Australian users.
Businesses would still be able to put their adverts on other Australian websites that use the Google Ads service.
The issue with this scenario is that Google’s key competitive advantage is the ability to access data from people using its search services. Pulling web search out from the Australian market would mean Google missing out on that data from people in Australia.
That said, it is also unfair for a search engine to make money using content that others have created.
It is also true that most of Google’s revenue already comes from asking others to pay for links on the web. This is how Google’s online advertising works: Google Ads makes advertisers pay for every impression users get or click users make to navigate to the advertised web page.
If users end up buying the advertised product, Google gets an even higher payment.
More likely than Google pulling out of the Australian market, the government and the search giant should diplomatically find a compromise in which Google still provides its web search product in Australia and there will be a return to news organisations for Google making use of their content.
Terrorism, political extremism, Donald Trump, social media and the phenomenon of “cancel culture” are confronting journalists with a range of agonising free-speech dilemmas to which there are no easy answers.
Do they allow a president of the United States to use their platforms to falsely and provocatively claim the election he has just lost was stolen from him?
How do they cover the activities and rhetoric of political extremists without giving oxygen to race hate and civil insurrection?
How do they integrate news-making social media material into their own content, when it is also hateful or a threat to the civil peace?
Should journalists engage in, or take a stand against, “cancel culture”?
How should editors respond to the “assassin’s veto”, when extremists threaten to kill those who publish content that offends their culture or religion?
The West has experienced concrete examples of all these in recent years. In the US, many of them became pressing during the Trump presidency.
Silencing the president was an extraordinary step, since it is the job of the media to tell people what is going on, hold public officials to account, and uphold the right to free speech. It looked like an abandonment of their role in democratic life.
Against that, television’s acknowledged reach and power imposes a heavy duty not to provide a platform for dangerous speech.
Then on January 6 – two months later to the day – after yet more incitement from Trump, a violent mob laid siege to the Capitol and five people lost their lives. The networks’ decision looked prescient.
They had acted on the principle that a clear and present danger to civil peace, based on credible evidence, should be prioritised over commitments to informing the public, holding public officials to account and freedom of speech.
This case also raised a further dilemma. Even if the danger to peace did not exist, should journalists just go on reporting – or broadcasting – known lies, even when they come from the president of the United States?
Newspaper editors and producers of pre-recorded radio and television content have the time to report lies while simultaneously calling them out as lies. Live radio and television do not. The words are out and the damage is done.
So the medium, the nature and size of the risk, how the informational and accountability functions of journalism are prioritised against the risk, and the free-speech imperative all play into these decisions.
Similar considerations arise in respect of reporting political extremism.
The ABC’s Four Corners program is about to embark on a story about the alt-right in the US. Having advertised this in a promotional tweet, the ABC received some social media blow-back raising the question of why it would give oxygen to these groups.
The influence of the alt-right on Western politics is a matter of real public interest because of the way it shapes political rhetoric and policy responses, particular on race and immigration.
To not report on this phenomenon because it pursues a morally reprehensible ideology would be to fail the ethical obligation of journalism to tell the community about the important things that are going on in the world.
It is not a question of whether to report, but how.
The Four Corners program will not be live to air. There will be opportunity for judicious editing. Journalists are under no obligation to report everything they are told. In fact they almost never do.
Whether the decision to omit is censorship comes down to motive: is it censorship to omit hate speech or incitement to violence? No. Because the reporter doesn’t agree with it? Yes.
Integrating social media content into professional mass media news presents all these complexities and one more: what is called the news value of “virality”.
Does the fact something has gone viral on social media make it news? For the more responsible professional mass media, something more will usually be needed. Does the subject matter affect large numbers of people? Is it inherently significant in some way? Does it involve some person who is in a position of authority or public trust?
Trump’s use of Twitter was an exploitation of these decision-rules, but did not invalidate them.
Social media is also the means by which “cancel culture” works. It enables large numbers of people to join a chorus of condemnation against someone for something they have said or done. It also puts pressure on institutions such as universities or media outlets to shun them.
It has become a means by which the otherwise powerless or voiceless can exert influence over people or organisations that would otherwise be beyond their reach.
There are those who are worried about the effects on free speech. In July 2020, Harper’s magazine published a letter of protest signed by 152 authors, academics, journalists, artists, poets, playwrights and critics.
While applauding the intentions behind “cancel culture” in advancing racial and social justice, they raised their voices against what they saw as a new set of moral attitudes that tended to favour ideological conformity.
It led to a lively debate in the profession about the extent to which moral preferences should shape news decisions. The riposte to those who argued that they should, was: whose moral preferences should prevail?
This was yet another illustration of the complexities surrounding free speech issues arising from the social media phenomenon, the Trump presidency and the combination of the two.
Terrorism has also added its contribution. Over the decade 2005-2015, what became known as the Danish cartoons confronted journalists and editors with life-and-death decisions.
In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten (Jutland Post) published cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed. It was a conscious act of defiance against “the assassin’s veto”, violent threats to free speech by Islamist-jihadis.
In 2009, a Danish-born professor of politics wrote a book, The Cartoons that Shook the World. Yale University Press, which published it, refused to re-publish the cartoons after having taken advice from counter-terrorism experts about the risks.
The world’s media were confronted with the decision whether to re-publish the cartoons again in defiance of “the assassin’s veto”. Some did, but most – including Jyllands Posten – did not.
The necessary limits of free speech
Free speech is an indispensable civil right under assault from all these forces. But none of the philosophers whose names we immediately associate with free speech have claimed it to be absolute.
The social media platforms, having for years proclaimed themselves extreme libertarians, have in recent times begun to recognise this is indefensible, and strengthened their moderating procedures.
Some of Australia’s senior politicians seem baffled by the issue.
When Twitter shut down Trump’s account, acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack didn’t seem to know where he stood, saying in one breath it was a violation of free speech to shut down Trump while in the next that Twitter should also take down the false image of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child.
And he is a former country newspaper editor.
This was followed by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s remark that he was “uncomfortable” with the Twitter decision. He quoted Voltaire as saying something Voltaire never said: the famous line that while he disagreed with what someone said, he would defend to the death his right to say it. It was a fabrication put into Voltaire’s mouth by a biographer more than 100 years after his death.
Voltaire, Milton, Spinoza, Locke and Mill, to say nothing of the US Supreme Court, have not regarded free speech as an absolute right.
So while the media face some extremely difficult decisions in today’s operating environment, they do not need to burden themselves with the belief that every decision not to publish is the violation of an inviolable right.
The blame for the recent assault on the US Capitol and President Donald Trump’s broader dismantling of democratic institutions and norms can be laid at least partly on misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Those who spread misinformation, like Trump himself, are exploiting people’s lack of media literacy — it’s easy to spread lies to people who are prone to believe what they read online without questioning it.
We are living in a dangerous age where the internet makes it possible to spread misinformation far and wide and most people lack the basic fact-checking abilities to discern fact from fiction — or, worse, the desire to develop a healthy skepticism at all.
Journalists are trained in this sort of thing — that is, the responsible ones who are trying to counter misinformation with truth.
Here are five fundamental lessons from Journalism 101 that all citizens can learn to improve their media literacy and fact-checking skills:
1. Distinguishing verified facts from myths, rumours and opinions
Cold, hard facts are the building blocks for considered and reasonable opinions in politics, media and law.
And there are no such things as “alternative facts” — facts are facts. Just because a falsity has been repeated many times by important people and their affiliates does not make it true.
We cannot expect the average citizen to have the skills of an academic researcher, journalist or judge in determining the veracity of an asserted statement. However, we can teach people some basic strategies before they mistake mere assertions for actual facts.
Does a basic internet search show these assertions have been confirmed by usually reliable sources – such as non-partisan mainstream news organisations, government websites and expert academics?
Students are taught to look to the URL of more authoritative sites — such as .gov or .edu — as a good hint at the factual basis of an assertion.
Searches and hashtags in social media are much less reliable as verification tools because you could be fishing within the “bubble” (or “echo chamber”) of those who share common interests, fears and prejudices – and are more likely to be perpetuating myths and rumours.
2. Mixing up your media and social media diet
We need to be break out of our own “echo chambers” and our tendencies to access only the news and views of those who agree with us, on the topics that interest us and where we feel most comfortable.
For example, over much of the past five years, I have deliberately switched between various conservative and liberal media outlets when something important has happened in the US.
By looking at the coverage of the left- and right-wing media, I can hope to find a common set of facts both sides agree on — beyond the partisan rhetoric and spin. And if only one side is reporting something, I know to question this assertion and not just take it at face value.
3. Being skeptical and assessing the factual premise of an opinion
Journalism students learn to approach the claims of their sources with a “healthy skepticism”. For instance, if you are interviewing someone and they make what seems to be a bold or questionable claim, it’s good practice to pause and ask what facts the claim is based on.
Students are taught in media law this is the key to the fair comment defence to a defamation action. This permits us to publish defamatory opinions on matters of public interest as long as they are reasonably based on provable facts put forth by the publication.
The ABC’s Media Watch used this defence successfully (at trial and on appeal) when it criticised a Sydney Sun-Herald journalist’s reporting that claimed toxic materials had been found near a children’s playground.
This assessment of the factual basis of an opinion is not reserved for defamation lawyers – it is an exercise we can all undertake as we decide whether someone’s opinion deserves our serious attention and republication.
4. Exploring the background and motives of media and sources
A key skill in media literacy is the ability to look behind the veil of those who want our attention — media outlets, social media influencers and bloggers — to investigate their allegiances, sponsorships and business models.
For instance, these are some key questions to ask:
who is behind that think tank whose views you are retweeting?
who owns the online newspaper you read and what other commercial interests do they hold?
is your media diet dominated by news produced from the same corporate entity?
why does someone need to be so loud or insulting in their commentary; is this indicative of their neglect of important facts that might counter their view?
what might an individual or company have to gain or lose by taking a position on an issue, and how might that influence their opinion?
Just because someone has an agenda does not mean their facts are wrong — but it is a good reason to be even more skeptical in your verification processes.