ICAC is not a curse, and probity in government matters. The Australian media would do well to remember that


AAP/Bianca de Marchi

Denis Muller, The University of MelbourneJournalists are adept at creating and reflecting public sentiment. It is a reciprocating process: journalistic portrayal creates the sentiment, then the sentiment feeds back into journalistic portrayal.

This phenomenon can be seen clearly in the way the resignation of New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has been reported and commented on.

The problem is that public sentiment does not always remain tethered to the underlying facts, so journalism that continues to reflect that sentiment likewise tends to become unmoored.

The sentiment about Berejiklian is based on a narrative about a good woman and excellent state premier led astray by a rogue boyfriend who abused his relationship with her to advance his interests in ways that led to his being investigated for corruption. In the process, he dragged her down with him.

In essence, it is a tale we are familiar with, may even have experienced at close hand: a good person making decisions of the heart until confronted by an ugly reality. Beats there a heart so cold that cannot sympathise with this predicament?

Much of the coverage of Berejiklian’s resignation has drawn on and fed into this narrative.

It had worked for her previously when she first appeared before ICAC in October 2020, so she no doubt thought it would work again. To a large extent, she has been proved right.




Read more:
Berejiklian’s downfall derailed a career built on accountability and control. Now, who will replace her?


In this telling, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption deliberately brought down this paragon at the height of her powers to the detriment of the public welfare, disrupting the government at a crucial moment in the pandemic.

In this telling, too, ICAC becomes the wrongdoer. Instead of stalling its investigation until heaven knows when – the pandemic is over, the federal election is done – it irresponsibly pushes on regardless.

The surprising thing is that this line of chat has been accepted uncritically by so many elements of the media.

Their understanding is not improved by coverage like this.

The facts are that ICAC is investigating the suspected corrupt allocation of about $35.5 million in taxpayers’ money: $30 million to the Riverina conservatorium of music at Wagga Wagga and $5.5 million to the local clay-shooting club.

ICAC is investigating whether Berejiklian, while NSW treasurer, allowed or encouraged corrupt conduct by her ex-boyfriend, the disgraced former Liberal MP for Wagga Wagga, Daryl Maguire, in respect of those allocations.

ICAC says it is investigating whether, between 2012 and 2018, Berejiklian engaged in conduct that “constituted or involved a breach of public trust” by exercising public functions relating to her public role and her private personal relationship with Maguire.

It says it will begin a four-week inquiry into these questions on October 18.

It should not be presumed that ICAC will make adverse findings against Berejiklian. In similar circumstances in 1983, Neville Wran stood aside as premier during a royal commission into corruption in rugby league. He was exonerated and resumed office.

So a further fact in the present case is that Berejiklian chose to resign rather than stand aside.

It is a fair bet she was unnerved by the prospect of NSW being in the hands of her National Party deputy John Barilaro for any length of time. By her resigning, the state gets a new premier from within the Liberal Party. It was a calculated choice.

ICAC is not a curse. Anyone involved in public affairs in NSW before 1988 when ICAC was established – public officials, politicians, journalists – knew that certain parts of the state administration were riven with corruption. Police, planning, prisons, even the magistracy: repeated scandals engulfed them all.

ICAC has been and remains a remarkable force for good.

A sad irony was that Nick Greiner, the Liberal premier who had the courage to establish it, became one of its early victims. In 1992 ICAC found he had misused his position to secure an independent MP’s resignation for political advantage. Greiner fell on his sword.




Read more:
History repeats: how O’Farrell and Greiner fell foul of ICAC


It is instructive to consider how many of the Morrison cabinet would survive exposure to an ICAC investigation.

Berejiklian’s alleged conflict of interest is not a trivial matter. It involves substantial sums of public money in an exercise that she has previously dismissed as “pork-barrelling”.

This disarming term, rendered harmless by repetition, is actually about the improper distribution of public money. It is a form of vote-buying, as has been shown in the procession of rorts engaged in by the federal government over sports grants, community security grants and car parks.

ICAC exists to root out these and other ways by which the democratic process is corrupted.

It is undoubtedly a personal tragedy for Berejiklian that she has found it necessary to resign, and a misfortune for the state to lose a premier who was held in high public regard.

However, sentiment that draws a misty veil over underlying issues of probity in public life does not serve the public well.




Read more:
The ‘car park rorts’ story is scandalous. But it will keep happening unless we close grant loopholes


The Conversation


Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why Clive Palmer’s lockdown ads can be rejected by newspapers on ethical grounds


AAP/Jono Searle

Denis Muller, The University of MelbourneClive Palmer’s United Australia Party advertisements inferentially objecting to COVID-19 lockdowns demonstrate one more way in which the freedoms essential to a democracy can be abused to the detriment of the public interest.

Democracies protect freedom of speech, especially political speech, because without it democracy cannot work. When speech is harmful, however, laws and ethical conventions exist to curb it.

The laws regulating political advertising are minimal.

Section 329 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act is confined to the issue of whether a publication is likely to mislead or deceive an elector in relation to the casting of a vote. It has nothing to say about truth in political advertising for the good reason that defining truth in that context would be highly subjective and therefore oppressive.

Sections 52 and 53 of the Trade Practices Act make it an offence for corporations to engage in misleading or deceptive conduct, or to make false or misleading representations. The act has nothing to say about political advertising.

Ad Standards, the industry self-regulator, has a code of ethics that enjoins advertisers not to engage in misleading or deceptive conduct. It is a general rule that applies to all advertising, political or not.

The Palmer ads do not violate any of these provisions.




Read more:
News Corp walks a delicate line on COVID politics


So where does that leave media organisations that receive an approach from the likes of Palmer to publish advertisements the terms of which are not false, misleading or deceptive, but which are clearly designed to undermine public support for public health measures such as lockdowns?

It leaves them having to decide whether to exercise an ethical prerogative.

Short of a legal requirement to do so – say, in settlement of a law suit – no media organisation is obliged to publish an advertisement. It is in almost all cases an ethical decision.

Naturally, freedom of speech imposes a heavy ethical burden to publish, but it is not the only consideration. John Stuart Mill’s harm principle becomes relevant. That principle says the prevention of harm to others is a legitimate constraint on individual freedom.

Undermining public support for public health measures is obviously harmful and against the public interest. Media organisations are entitled to make decisions on ethical bases like this. An example from relatively ancient history will illustrate the point.

In the late 1970s, 4 Corners ran a program alleging that the Utah Development Corporation’s mining activities in Queensland were causing environmental damage. A few days after the program was broadcast, The Sydney Morning Herald received a full-page advertisement from Utah not only repudiating what 4 Corners had said but attacking the professional integrity of the journalists who made the program.

I was chief of staff of the Herald that day and the advertisement was referred to me, partly because it contained the seeds of what might have been a news story and partly because there were concerns it might be defamatory.

I referred it to the executive assistant to the editor, David Bowman, who refused to publish it.

He objected to it not only on legal grounds but on ethical grounds, because it impugned the integrity of the journalists in circumstances where they would have no opportunity to respond. In his view, this was unfair.

A short while later, the advertising people came back saying Utah had offered to indemnify the Herald against any legal damages or costs arising from publication of the advertisement.

Bowman held to his ethical objection and was supported by the general manager, R. P. Falkingham, who said: “You don’t publish something just because a man with a lot of money stands behind you.”

The advertisement did not run, not because of the legal risks but because it would have breached the ethical value of fairness.

Palmer’s ads – which say lockdowns are bad for mental health, bad for jobs and bad for the economy – contain truisms. There is nothing false or misleading about them. But they clearly seek to exploit public resentment about lockdowns for political gain.

The clear intention is to stir up opposition and make the public health orders harder to enforce.




Read more:
Alarmist reporting on COVID-19 will only heighten people’s anxieties and drive vaccine hesitancy


We live in an age where there are not only high levels of public anxiety, but also a great deal of confusion about who to believe on matters such as climate change and the pandemic. It is against the public interest to add gratuitously to that confusion, and harmful to the public welfare to undermine health orders.

These are grounds for rejecting his advertisements.

Nine Entertainment, which publishes The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review, has rejected Palmer ads that contain misinformation about the pandemic, including about vaccines. Clearly such ads violate the rules against misleading and deceptive content.

But the ads opposing lockdowns on economic or health grounds were initially accepted by Nine, and are still running in News Corporation.

The question now is whether media organisations are willing to make decisions based on ethical considerations that are wider than the narrow standard of deception.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Media and politicians often defer to the AMA on COVID policies. But what role should the doctors’ group have in the pandemic?


Lesley Russell, University of SydneyAlmost every day in recent months, Australian Medical Association (AMA) president Dr Omar Khorshid has appeared in the media, commenting on various issues related to the coronavirus pandemic.

These include changing recommendations about the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, urging the New South Wales government to institute tighter lockdown measures, and welcoming National Cabinet’s roadmap out of the pandemic.

The raft of AMA media releases, doorstops, and television and radio slots goes beyond the pandemic to expressing concerns about climate change and doctors in Myanmar. Khorshid even outlined the AMA’s Vision for Australia’s Health at the National Press Club address in June.

Why is the AMA so regularly deferred to by politicians and media alike? And what is its role in the pandemic?

Historically, it has protected doctors’ professional and financial interests

The AMA (and its predecessor, the British Medical Association) built its reputation as a powerful, aggressive lobby group – essentially a medical union. It’s focused on protecting doctors’ professional interests and financial autonomy, and preserving the status quo in health care.

The self-published volume to commemorate the AMA’s 50th anniversary – ironically titled “More than Just a Union” – boasts of efforts to forestall government attempts to make health care universal and affordable.

The most egregious of these was the relentless opposition to the introduction of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, Medibank and then Medicare.




Read more:
The AMA and Medicare: a love-hate relationship


Underpinning this opposition was a fear of controls and interference by both governments and health insurers, and efforts to expand the scope of practice for health-care providers other than doctors.

How the AMA has shaped past health policies

Those past fears are echoed today in the AMA’s continuing opposition to a range of proposals that are seen as impinging on doctors’ autonomy.

These include resistance to payment mechanisms that would move from fee-for-service (an itemised fee charged for every visit) to capitated fees for ongoing care of a chronic condition.

Concerns about the adequacy of doctors’ Medicare rebates are ongoing and, in some cases, justified. These concerns have led to the AMA issuing its own fee guidance to doctors.

The AMA has a particular aversion to “US-style managed care” which it describes as “a recipe for cost-cutting and less choice”. The AMA fears Medicare and private health insurers will try to push doctors, hospitals and patients into coercive contracts with capped funding payments, and require defined standards for performance, quality and outcomes.

Meanwhile, the AMA has consistently pushed back on increasing the roles for midwives and nurse practitioners in the health-care system, and is vehemently opposed to pharmacists having an increased prescribing role.

A nurse shows a doctor a patient file.
The AMA has opposed nurses doing work traditionally done by doctors.
Shutterstock

Yet the AMA has also played a significant leadership role in highlighting important issues as varied as Indigenous health, tobacco and vaping regulation, boxing injuries, treatment of refugees, and climate change.

Inside the AMA machine

The AMA’s federal secretariat has excellent resources to assist with this work – experts in policy development, economic analysis and communications. This is highlighted in the report cards it regularly issues, which have the capacity and status to influence public opinions and government policy.

The AMA is diligent about making sure its voice is heard with budget commentary and submissions to a range of enquiries and reports. According to the AMA website, in 2020 it made 45 submissions – a mammoth task of preparation and approval.




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Patient advocate or doctors’ union? How the AMA flexes its political muscle


This latter task is never easy for the AMA. It is an inherently conservative body, more comfortable with the conservative side of politics, although this has varied with the public face of the president.

Internal infighting was conspicuously highlighted when Dr Michael Gannon, in his successful 2016 run for AMA presidency, chided then-president Dr Brian Owler for opposing funding cuts in health in the 2014-15 Budget and the medical treatment of asylum seekers.

Gannon said:

The criticism that is made of the current leadership [of the AMA] is that it’s strong on progressive policies but not listened to by the conservative government.

Ultimately, these in-house conflicts undermine the effectiveness of the organisation’s loud public voice. It can agree with or oppose government proposals, but is rarely able to generate enough internal consensus to offer alternatives.

All this serves to cast the AMA today as something of a chameleon organisation trying to be all things to all people. On the one hand, it’s always at war with government (regardless of political party) over members’ interests. On the other hand, it elevates issues of social responsibility and publicly positions itself as seeking to advance community health.

We see this dichotomy playing out in the pandemic. Along with supportive words to the public and comments on governments’ actions, the AMA is raising the usual concerns and is “working tirelessly” to shore up its influence in the corridors of power.

How the AMA is using its influence in the pandemic

It is likely the AMA’s influence on the federal government led to the initial decision to roll out the vaccination of the general public primarily through GPs.

The AMA highlighted that rolling out the campaign through general practice was the best way to encourage the community to get vaccinated and noted “significant reservations” about the role of pharmacists in the vaccine rollout.

This follows years of opposition to pharmacists playing a role in the flu vaccinations rollout, as you can see in this media release from 2014:


AMA media release screenshot

But many busy GP practices were unable to gear up for COVID-19 vaccinations and initially they were unable to manage the storage requirements for the Pfizer vaccine. These were later modified and since June practices can apply to also administer the Pfizer vaccine.




Read more:
Grattan on Friday: We will need an inquiry to learn from rollout mistakes


Responding to questions The Conversation’s political correspondent Michelle Grattan raised last week about how the AMA shaped the vaccine rollout, Dr Khorshid said the program was slowed by “supply constraints and hesitancy due to changing advice”:

In recent weeks, we have seen how both GPs and pharmacists are needed to ramp up
vaccine delivery, especially in coronavirus hotspots.

On other issues, the AMA has been very supportive of the expanded telehealth services that were put in place early in the pandemic to allow patients to have a consultation with their doctor by video or phone.




Read more:
What can you use a telehealth consult for and when should you physically visit your GP?


Initially these consultations were required to be bulk billed, but the AMA has now persuaded the government to remove this requirement. This means patients whose doctors do not bulk bill will now have out-of-pocket costs for telehealth consultations.

Meanwhile, AMA media releases also credit the organisation for proposing the government’s yet-to-be-implemented vaccine indemnity scheme.

Striving for relevance and public trust

The AMA is driven by the need to demonstrate relevance to today’s cohort of doctors and the public in the face of increasing competition for members and attention.

When the federal AMA was formed in 1962, 95% of doctors were members. As of 2018 it was less than 30%.

The specialist colleges have captured many doctors and most GPs belong to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) and/or the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine.

So it’s no surprise the RACGP is also an active player on behalf of its members – the advocacy pages of its website show it claims some of the same policy victories as the AMA. Its president is also a frequent media presence on the pandemic and other issues.

Many of Australia’s problems with vaccine rollout and compliance with lockdowns are due to confusing communication strategies from governments and the poor quality of public education campaigns. There is certainly room for effective communicators, speaking in language that everyone understands, to step into this space.




Read more:
Just the facts, or more detail? To battle vaccine hesitancy, the messaging has to be just right


The public sees doctors as trusted voices and doctors working at the coalface are uniquely placed to comment on the health-care consequences of the pandemic.

The AMA (and other medical organisations) have spent decades building access to media and politicians. This means that often their voice is heard above those who have more expertise and their concerns are more obvious than those of affected communities. This is a privileged situation that should be used for public good, ahead of any organisational self-interest, during the pandemic and in the years ahead.


Editor’s note: The Conversation contacted the AMA for a response and in a statement, Dr Omar Khorshid said, “the issues the AMA advocates on are in the interests of doctors, the wider health professions, and patients”. He said these issues “go to the heart of our healthcare system and all health professionals, including nurses”.The Conversation

Lesley Russell, Adjunct Associate Professor, Menzies Centre for Health Policy, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

News Corp walks a delicate line on COVID politics


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”.

At The Australian on July 30, Jones’s opinions were confined to rugby union.

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.

Meanwhile, the paper’s opinion columns have been replete with morale-boosting propaganda reminiscent of the 1940s and 1950s.

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.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Right-wing shock jock stoush reveals the awful truth about COVID, politics and media ratings


Denis Muller, The University of MelbourneA COVID-induced rancour that has broken out between Sydney’s commercial radio shock jocks and the Sky News night-time ravers over Sydney’s lockdown would be funny if it were not so serious.

It is mildly entertaining to see 2GB’s Ray Hadley excoriating his former colleague Alan Jones, now at Sky, for his “ridiculous stance” against the lockdown, with Jones calling New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian “gutless” for extending it.

Hadley went on to brand Sky’s Andrew Bolt a “lapdog” for agreeing with Jones, and Bolt retaliated by calling Hadley a “weak and ignorant man who panders to an ugly pack”.

It takes one to know one, of course, but behind all this spittle-flecked slanging there is a serious issue: the disproportionate political power of a small group of radio and television broadcasters in Sydney.

It is one factor that helps explain the procrastination and prevarication that have marked the premier’s response.

Long before COVID-19 afflicted the world, the shock jocks of Sydney commercial radio stations, particularly 2GB and 2UE, had created a successful business model built on outrage.

It is based on a political ideology that appeals to an older audience living in what Jones is pleased to call “Struggle Street”. It is not conservatism, as they like to claim, but rank reactionaryism.

In marginal electorates, largely in western Sydney, there are enough people who find this ideology attractive to make politicians nervous.

That is what has given these jocks political power incommensurate with their position in Australia’s democratic institutional arrangements.

They have become a kind of shadow government in New South Wales.

For example, in 2001, when Bob Carr, a Labor Premier, was about to appoint Michael Costa police minister, he sent Costa to Jones’s home to discuss law-and-order policy.




Read more:
The times suited him, then passed him by: the Alan Jones radio era comes to an end


In 2017, a former Director of Public Prosecutions in New South Wales, Nicholas Cowdery, QC, singled out Jones and Hadley, as well as the recently resurrected John Laws, as wielding disproportionate power over politicians and other policy-makers.

They hate, to differing degrees, independent statutory officers such as Directors of Public Prosecutions who speak out objectively on issues in criminal justice.

In more recent times, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has relied on Hadley to provide him with a friendly platform on which to propagandise.

The relationship between the two has been described as a “bromance”, although it had a temporary rupture in 2015 when Hadley tried to have Morrison swear on the Bible concerning any role he might have had in the demise of Tony Abbott as prime minister.

Scott Morrison often relies on sympathetic interviews on Hadley’s show to get his message across.
AAP/Mick Tsikas

Berejiklian, as a Liberal premier, has also prospered in her commercial radio relationships, most notably from the benignity of Jones’s successor in the 2GB breakfast slot, Ben Fordham.

He was supportive of her even during the embarrassing disclosures about her relationship with the Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire, who is the subject of an ICAC investigation.

So she had a stake in not rattling the shock jocks’ cages. That meant trying to hold the line against lockdowns.

However, that calculation changed abruptly last week after the latest Sydney radio ratings showed that for the first time in 18 years, 2GB lost the breakfast time-slot.




Read more:
Contrasting NSW and Victoria lockdown coverage reveals much about the politics of COVID – and the media


The winners were the KIIS FM pair of Kyle Sandilands and Jackie O, whose shtick involves penis pageants and a determination not to be “woke”.

Horrified fellow-travellers in the right-wing commentariat pounced on Fordham. Jones was especially vitriolic. His successors, he said, didn’t have the “balls” to stand up to “cancel culture warriors”. Government, media and big pharma seemed to be all in bed together, and the media were too ready to accommodate the left.

Management at 2GB were also aghast. The Australian reported they told Fordham to take a harder line with Berejiklian, and Fordham duly delivered. Three days after the ratings results had come out, he unleashed this on-air tirade against the Premier’s lockdown decision:

The virus hasn’t killed anyone this year, but the lockdowns, the extensions, the excuses, the mistakes, the missed opportunities, they are killing this city fast. And stop telling us it’s about the health advice!

By now Berejikilian was in a bind.

There was her own hubris, proclaiming her state doesn’t do lockdowns.

There was Scott Morrison’s hostility to lockdowns, exemplified by his repeated attacks on the Victorian Labor Government. Was she to be a source of further embarrassment to him over how the pandemic is playing out?

There was Morrison’s cosy relationship with the likes of Hadley, in which their reciprocal position on lockdowns was self-reinforcing.

And there was the demonstrated willingness by 2GB station management to go after Berejiklian in pursuit of better ratings for Fordham’s breakfast show.

In the circumstances, it is hardly a surprise that she has procrastinated and prevaricated.

If, as many epidemiologists are saying, the so-called “light” approach is condemning Sydney to a long lockdown and exposing the rest of the country to avoidable risk, the role of the jocks in creating the political climate in which Berejiklian is operating since the Delta strain took hold should not be underestimated.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Media reports about vaccine hesitancy could contribute to the problem


Heather Green, Griffith University and Joan Carlini, Griffith UniversityAlongside logistical and supply issues, vaccine hesitancy has been a notable hurdle in Australia’s troubled vaccine rollout.

The news the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) now recommends Pfizer over AstraZeneca for everyone under 60, owing to a rare blood clotting disorder, is proving another blow to vaccine confidence.

With active local COVID cases in Victoria and New South Wales, it’s timely to be considering all possible factors which may be contributing to vaccine hesitancy.

One is the media. While news reports of vaccine hesitancy may well be describing genuine community concerns, they could be inadvertently fuelling COVID vaccine fears.

Why are some Australians reluctant to get a COVID vaccine?

While Australians perceive their environment is safe and relatively free from COVID-19, some will remain unmotivated to have the jab. They may hesitate to be immunised as they believe the vaccine could pose a greater risk than the virus itself.

This is not the case. ATAGI’s evolving recommendations ensure the benefit of getting vaccinated against COVID outweighs the risk for every age group.

Fear, meanwhile, is a behavioural motivator. The latest outbreak in Melbourne saw record numbers of Victorians turn up for vaccination.




Read more:
From smallpox to polio, vaccine rollouts have always had doubters. But they work in the end


A Griffith University survey conducted in the middle of 2020 found 68% of people would take a COVID-19 vaccine if one was available. Those who said they wouldn’t had concerns regarding side effects, quality of testing, and speed of vaccine development.

So we can see even when community transmission in Australia was higher, and before we knew about rare adverse events like the blood clots, safety was a key concern.

A person puts their hand up against their upper arm, so as to block an injection.
Vaccine hesitancy can stem from concerns about the safety of the vaccine.
Shutterstock

Reporting on vaccine hesitancy could worsen the problem

For the past several months, it seems as though every other day there’s been a new report or survey in the news, revealing x proportion of people are hesitant about getting a COVID vaccine.

Our attitudes and behaviours are shaped by what others in society do — social norms. A recent study found university students in the United States who perceived their peers felt COVID-19 vaccination was important were more likely to report they intended to get a vaccine themselves.

Similarly, it’s important to acknowledge there’s a real danger hesitancy and delay in vaccination, when reported widely in the media, could catch on to more people.




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Diverse spokespeople and humour: how the government’s next ad campaign could boost COVID vaccine uptake


A review of 34 studies found the way parents interpreted media reports about vaccination depended on their pre-existing beliefs. For example, a report of a “rare” side effect might reassure parents who already believed vaccine benefits outweigh risks, whereas the same report could discourage parents who were already concerned about side effects.

Indeed, humans are prone to confirmation bias — paying more attention to information that fits with prior beliefs. Seeking and considering evidence which goes against our beliefs is hard for our brains.

But the media can help with this in the way they frame their reports. For example, emphasising that the majority of Australians want to and intend to vaccinate is a better option than focusing on the number who don’t.

For people already hesitating, another report could further shift the balance away from vaccination. So reporters should think carefully about the way they present vaccine hesitancy stories (and the need to present them in the first instance).

Reporting on vaccine safety also must be handled carefully

In Italy, media reporting about a small number of deaths following a batch of influenza vaccines in the winter of 2014/2015 was linked to a 10% reduction in influenza vaccination among people 65 and older compared to the previous season.

These deaths were quickly confirmed as unrelated to vaccination, but it seems the early reports had a significant effect on behaviour.

In a global study, three of 13 national and state level immunisation managers interviewed said “negative information conveyed in the mass media” contributed to vaccine hesitancy in their countries.

On the flip side, media reports about influenza and vaccination can also increase vaccination uptake. In this study, careful data analysis showed higher numbers of news reports with “influenza” or “flu” in the headline corresponded with higher flu vaccination uptake in the same year.

A man on a tablet computer.
Media coverage about vaccines can both help and hinder vaccine confidence.
Shutterstock

What should the media aim for in reporting on COVID vaccination?

Any reporting on Australians’ inclination to vaccinate should reinforce what is in fact the social norm — the intention of the majority to receive a COVID vaccine.

Further, media reporting on COVID vaccines should be careful to contextualise the benefits alongside the risks, and regularly remind consumers of reliable sources such as federal and state health departments and ATAGI.




Read more:
Alarmist reporting on COVID-19 will only heighten people’s anxieties and drive vaccine hesitancy


And while the media must be cognisant of its role, the government needs to act quickly to reverse the hesitancy trend. People are looking for reasons to have the jab; they are desperate for a national roadmap out of COVID-19.

If Australians could see how becoming vaccinated would contribute to economic prosperity (for example, reopening tourism and international education), and facilitate other things returning to normal, such as our ability to travel overseas, they would be motivated into action.The Conversation

Heather Green, Senior Lecturer, School of Applied Psychology, Griffith University and Joan Carlini, Lecturer, Department of Marketing, Griffith University

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