The ABC’s chief economics correspondent, Emma Alberici, did her job the other day. She wrote a well-researched analysis piece investigating whether the Turnbull government’s proposed company tax cuts would grow the economy and break Australia’s wages deadlock.
Alberici’s article came in for a lot of criticism from the Turnbull government for its one-sidedness and lack of balance. Later, the ABC took down the article from its website.
If you read her piece, you’ll see that, yes, she could have included more voices, and yes, the case for company tax cuts was forcefully argued against. But the argument and analysis was built on sound research, as Saul Eslake (one of Australia’s most senior and respected independent economists, who was quoted in Alberici’s story) has pointed out.
So, why on earth did ABC take the article down?
Part of the answer to this lies in the very editorial policies that are supposed to safeguard the ABC’s independence. The current wording of these polices function as a straitjacket on ABC journalists and make it hard for them to toe the line between analysis and opinion.
And that in turn makes the ABC look less independent.
High level of trust
One of the ABC’s greatest assets is the high public trust it enjoys compared to many of its commercial media competitors.
That trust is to a large extent built on the broadcaster maintaining and defending its independence from commercial, political and any other societal interests.
There are a lot of misconceptions regarding what a public broadcaster is. But one thing it is not is a government or state broadcaster.
There are certainly examples of some public broadcasters that are. One prominent recent case was when the Polish government in practice took control of the country’s public broadcaster and turned it into a government mouthpiece.
A serious case of self-doubt
The ABC Act and the ABC Charter are the safeguards of ABC’s independence from the government of the day. This independence was challenged to unprecedented levels by the Abbott government a few years ago.
A new major challenge to the ABC’s independence is the current change, driven by One Nation, to the ABC Charter requiring it to be “fair” and “balanced” in its reporting. If you recognise these terms, that’s because it used to be Fox News’ catchphrase.
The ABC is not turning into the Polish Broadcasting Corporation, but it has clearly lost a lot of confidence lately. In Alberici’s case, it appears it bowed to government pressure when it should have stood its ground.
But getting heat from the government of the day (regardless of the particular side of politics) is an indication that a public broadcaster is doing its most important job (provided you get your facts right): holding power to account. If you bow to political pressure, you’re not doing your job.
A public broadcaster with a confidence problem is a serious issue for political and democratic wellbeing.
Globally, there are between ten and 15 properly funded public broadcasters (depending on what level of funding you define as proper) with enough funding and safeguards to be able to call themselves editorially independent. This means there are only ten to 15 large repositories of in-depth public interest journalism – globally.
So, the case is strong for the Australian public to get behind the ABC and ask it to snap out of its crisis of confidence. Then it can get on with the job of keeping power to account – just like Alberici tried to do.
The Barnaby Joyce saga has given a great boost to what might be called “shake-the-tree” journalism: you shake the tree by running a sensational story and see what falls out.
The Daily Telegraph’s original public-interest case for publishing the first story of Joyce’s relationship with ex-staffer Vikki Campion was weak when weighed against the privacy intrusions on Joyce, his estranged wife, his daughters, and Campion.
However, that story has resulted in the emergence of three genuine public-interest justifications.
The first is whether Joyce breached the ministerial code of conduct by employing his partner in his office. On this he has prevaricated, saying that his partner was not so employed. Here he was clearly referring to his wife, not Campion. In the circumstances, this was a distinction without a difference.
The second matter of public interest concerns the expenditure of public money on jobs said to have been found for Campion when her presence in Joyce’s office became untenable. Her salary is reported to be about A$190,000.
The third is whether the Prime Minister’s Office was informed of this or whether Joyce misled them by omission.
Once the story came out in The Daily Telegraph, the media as a whole piled into a story they had all known about for months. And they have done so with a kind of shamefaced gusto, making up for lost time.
How much better it would have been if someone – anyone – in the Canberra gallery had succeeded in establishing at least one of those substantial public-interest justifications and broken the story framed around that.
Instead, the story that broke was coloured by the salacious moralism beloved of tabloid newspapers since time began.
It featured a large picture of Campion, heavily pregnant, a gross violation of privacy if ever there was one.
Here it was: the fruit of sin. The impregnated mistress, to borrow some of the vulgar moralising language that has disfigured the coverage.
The photo has been defended by The Daily Telegraph’s editor as proving the truth of the story that Barnaby Joyce had got his staffer pregnant. It proves nothing of the sort. It shows a woman pregnant. It says nothing about paternity.
Then on Valentine’s Day, The Daily Telegraph was at it again, this time with a page-one picture taken in 2016 in which Joyce and Campion are sitting next to each other at an official function.
Campion is in the foreground and Joyce, according to the caption, “eyes off” his media adviser. The headline says: “Bad look”.
There are many ways of interpreting this picture and headline. One of them is that Joyce had sexual designs on Campion back then, which from the caption is clearly the main message The Daily Telegraph wished to convey, regardless of truth or context.
But the picture is also about Campion. Although she is oblivious of the glance from Joyce, the reader is given the opportunity to inspect her as the “other woman”: we get a good look at her face, her figure and her legs.
Put the “bad look” headline with that, and the reader is invited to draw negative conclusions about her appearance and her character.
This judgemental tone, redolent with sexual possibilities and consequences, is a throwback to the busybody moralising of the 1950s and 1960s.
Then – before the sexual revolution and the rise of second-wave feminism – it was a staple of middle-class morality to take a gossipy and often hurtful interest in marital breakdowns and pregnancies out of wedlock.
Professor Alison Dagnes, a political scientist at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania and editor of a textbook on sex scandals in American politics, proposes a theory that goes like this: there is a well-documented loss of trust in institutions, one consequence of which is that the public is inclined to regard all politicians as scumbags.
Digital technology has equipped everyone with a camera and social media has provided everyone with the means of publishing. This has created a competitiveness of unprecedented intensity among media.
Scandals pique everyone’s interest, even among those who are not usually interested in politics. So any scandal that shows politicians to be the scumbags we suspect, guarantees lots of “likes” and “shares” on social media, generating a frenzy in traditional media and opening up the scandal to instant and reiterative public judgements.
This, in turn, adds to public distrust in institutions.
To this theory might be added two more possible factors.
The first is the shift in norms of privacy induced by social media and the ubiquity of mobile phones with cameras. Old understandings of the boundaries between private and public have been obliterated and new ones have not yet taken their place.
The second is people’s sense of entitlement to pass judgement on matters of which they have personal experience: intimate relationships, the primary school curriculum, the quality of driving on the roads. This is not new, but it is a powerful driver of attitudes.
Doubtless there are other factors, but whatever they are, Western society does appear to be in the grip of a new moralism, and the tabloid media are adept at making the most of it.
The Senate inquiry into the future of public interest journalism began as a gleam in the media-trained eye of Labor senator Sam Dastyari. It ended on February 5, 11 days after he left parliament, his political reputation in tatters over his conduct in relation to Chinese donors to the Labor Party.
This suggests the inquiry’s recommendations are unlikely to get much traction, but the very real issues it was investigating remain unresolved. How did quality media get into such a pickle and what can be done about it?
The three main developments that fed into the inquiry were: proposed changes to media ownership restrictions; the collapse of the business model that has for years sustained print media’s profitability; and the rise of “fake news” and its influence in the 2016 Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump.
The government had made two previous attempts to change the media ownership laws created in a pre-internet age. But the effect of the changes, which were finally passed in 2017, has largely been to protect existing mainstream media companies while failing to encourage new entrants into a highly concentrated market.
Meanwhile, according the journalists’ union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the collapse of the business model has prompted mainstream media companies to lay off around 25% of journalists between 2012 and 2017.
Media companies have cut costs but have been powerless to stem the flood of
advertising revenue to global behemoths Google and Facebook. Google’s market capitalisation is about half Australia’s gross domestic product, the Senate report notes.
The business model problem remains. As a result, the loss of journalistic talent and experience has led to significant gaps in reporting, especially in courts, state parliaments and local and regional reporting, according to the Civic Impact of Journalism research project.
Lack of resources has also made news organisations increasingly vulnerable to “fake news”. Indeed, it was the growing alarm about “fake news”, coupled with yet another round of redundancies at Fairfax Media, that provided Dastyari with the public and political impetus to begin his inquiry.
In addition to Dastyari, the inquiry lost two of its most knowledgeable members – Greens senator Scott Ludlam, who resigned from parliament over his dual citizenship, and Nick Xenophon, who resigned to contest a seat in next month’s South Australian election.
The Coalition government was always unlikely to pay much heed to a Labor-chaired inquiry, but in its 149-page report the senators have grappled with important public policy issues. Their eight recommendations are:
Adequately fund public broadcasters, the ABC and SBS.
Guarantee future funding for community broadcasting.
Embed digital media literary in the Australian curriculum.
Extend deductible gift recipient status to not-for-profit news media organisations who engage in public interest journalism.
Ask Treasury to do modelling on extending tax deductibility to all
Australians who subscribe to news media outlets engaging in public interest
Ask the Australian Law Reform Commission to conduct an audit of current laws that hinder journalists’ ability to report on national security and border protection issues.
Review defamation laws.
Expand legal protections for whistleblowers and other confidential sources for journalists.
These ideas are all worthy of further debate. The final three recommendations all tackle crucial press freedom issues. The call for adequate funding for the ABC and SBS follows sharp cuts under the past two Coalition governments. The community broadcasting sector has also been treated with disdain.
Teaching children the value of public interest journalism, and how to distinguish it from what the public is interested in, would be a good first step to developing a generation of more savvy media consumers.
The middle two recommendations tackle the vital question of how to pay for quality journalism. One recommendation supports not-for-profit outlets while the other would potentially benefit media outlets that rely on subscriptions. The latest in a long line of industry hopes for finding a sustainable business model is to build subscription numbers.
The senators rejected submissions from numerous people and organisations recommending some form of direct subsidy from government, either for existing media companies or to encourage new entrants.
There are clearly issues here of potential government interference in editorial independence, but the senators overlooked three points. First, many other countries around the world already provide direct subsidies, as is detailed in chapter five of their report. Second, there is evidence that editorial independence can be safeguarded. Finally, there is a long history in Australia of directly subsidising the news media industry, as outlined in both this report and the Finkelstein media inquiry in 2012.
Whatever happens to these recommendations, the clock is ticking. If public interest journalism continues to be starved of resources, journalists’ ability to unearth maladministration or corruption will be winnowed even further. Of course we won’t see it, because journalists won’t have been able to tell us.
As Bob Woodward of The Washington Post observed:
The central dilemma in journalism is that you don’t know what you don’t know.
Imagine a world where we didn’t know about the Watergate scandal that Woodward was first to uncover.
The government’s own intelligence watchdog, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, argues the bill is so widely worded that its own staff could break the law for handling documents they need to access to do their job.
A case in point is whether the ABC’s publication of confidential and secret cabinet documents would be in breach of the proposed bill. Two filing cabinets full of thousands of confidential cabinet documents were given to the ABC by a source who, astonishingly, had bought them for small change at an op-shop in Canberra.
The ABC made an assessment and chose to publish a very limited number of the documents it deemed in the public interest. The ABC has so far clearly acted responsibly, and no documents that could harm Australia’s national security were in the first publication.
Some of the published documents are embarrassing for both the current and former Coalition and Labor governments, but that should not stop publication – rather, the opposite.
The foreign interference bill, in its current form, suggests it should be criminal for anyone to “receive” and “handle” certain national security information. It would seem that by just receiving the filing cabinets and assessing what to publish, the ABC staff would be in breach of the provisions suggested in the bill.
The bill is an overreach in many respects. But one of the worst aspects, from a transparency and accountability point of view, is that it seeks to extend the draconian Section 70 of the Commonwealth Crimes Act.
Section 70 makes it a crime, punishable by a maximum of two years in prison, for public servants to communicate or supply information to anyone outside government without permission. The ABC’s publication of the cabinet files clearly illustrates that media organisations with ethical and thorough editorial polices are perfectly capable of assessing what to publish.
The bigger picture is that the current bill is part of a pattern that started after the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001.
Our main conclusions are that the current fear-driven security environment has made it much harder for investigative journalists to hold governments and security agencies to account. This is partly due to anti-terror and security laws making it harder for whistleblowers to act.
Add to this the truly awesome powers of mass surveillance making it increasingly difficult for investigative journalists to grant anonymity to sources that require it for their own safety, and you end up with a very complex journalist-source situation.
Another important factor in Australia and the UK is that all national security agencies are exempt from Freedom of Information laws. This makes it virtually impossible to independently acquire information from the security branch of government.
The balance between national security and transparency is complex. As citizens, we want to feel safe and know what is being done to keep us safe. In our book, we have labelled this the “trust us” dilemma, meaning governments argue they can’t disclose what they are doing security-wise, lest the “bad guys” find out.
That leaves us needing to trust the government’s security actions and policies. But the problem is, how can we as citizens decide if we trust the government if we don’t have the information on which to base this decision?
There is no easy answer to this question. Political philosopher Giorgio Agamben takes our reasoning one step further when he argues that the liberal democratic world has been in a “state of exception” since September 11. This has granted powers to security agencies that are creeping increasingly closer to those of the totalitarian regimes in Europe in the 1930s.
Agamben traces various states of exception all the way back to Roman times. The pattern is similar through history: governments point to an “other” – often a hard-to-define enemy – as a reason for increased powers to the security apparatus. They are convinced they are doing the right thing.
The problem is that if we don’t roll back the strengthened security laws in times of lower threat, we start from a high level next time we enter a “state of exception”. This in turn can lead to a never-ending war on real or perceived threats where our cherished democratic civil liberties become part of the collateral damage.
If we allow the “state of exception” to become permanent, we risk allowing the terrorists to win.
We are living through a period of fragmentation and polarisation in public discourse on a scale mankind has not before experienced. By far the greatest fragmenting and polarising force is social media.
An increasing proportion of the population, especially those under 40, get their news from social media, overwhelmingly from Facebook. The algorithms that tailor what Facebook prioritises for each individual allow users to choose only those topics or opinions that they want to hear. This has led to the formation of echo chambers or information cocoons.
So we have the paradox of the internet: the technology that provides a global village square also provides the means by which people in the square can block their ears and shut their eyes to things they don’t want to hear or see.
This places great strain on democracy. In the words of William Butler Yeats, things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.
In Australia, the effects of this phenomenon are made worse by the increased polarisation of the country’s two main newspaper companies, News Corporation and Fairfax Media.
Australia has very little diversity in its traditional media sector, especially its newspapers. News Corp controls roughly 70% of daily circulation and Fairfax roughly 20%. And for all their cutbacks in journalistic capacity, it is still the newspapers that inject the most new material into the 24/7 news cycle.
So when these two companies become polarised to the extent they have, there is a void at the centre. Notably, this is where The Guardian Australia has positioned itself (in reporting, at least – its opinions still lean to the left).
Sharp differences in political outlook among newspapers are nothing new, of course.
In Melbourne, The Argus was conservative, the paper of the squattocracy and the merchant class. It opposed land reform and favoured free trade, while The Age was progressive, supportive of the miners at Eureka, in favour of land reform and a crusader for protectionist trade policy.
In Sydney, The Sydney Morning Herald was profoundly conservative. The paper was opposed to democracy (which it called mobocracy) and supportive of a property franchise for the New South Wales Parliament. By contrast, The Empire, founded and edited by Henry Parkes, was guided by the principle that, in a colonial society, the working classes were the nucleus and makers of a democratic nation.
So there has never been a golden age when newspapers were heroically detached from interests and ideologies.
However, in the post-war period, the ideal of impartiality in news coverage gained a strong hold on the journalistic mind. American newspapers were the exemplars of this ideal. They were heavily influenced by the 1947 report of the US Commission on the Freedom of the Press, which had been set up to try to rebuild public confidence in the media after a period of corrosive sensationalism and propagandising in the early 20th century.
Appointed and paid for by the media itself, the commission consisted of intelligent and high-minded people from the media, government and academia. Its intellectual leader was a Harvard philosopher, William Ernest Hocking.
The commission’s report laid a solemn duty on the media to render a reliable account of the events of the day: factual, impartial and accurate. Comment was to play no part in news reporting, and was to be confined to pages set aside for it.
Generations of journalists in Western democracies – including me – were trained in this ideal.
Over time, however, it reduced news stories to a desiccated collection of unexplained facts, devoid of context and analysis. And anyway, the idea of a completely impartial and detached reporter came to be seen as fanciful, not to say fraudulent.
Gradually, news stories became more analytical, which introduced an overt element of subjectivity. Comment began to infiltrate news pages, so that now we have reached a point where news reportage, analysis and comment are commonly woven together.
Alongside these developments, ideological fissures were opening up in Australian society. The period of post-war social unity around a white Australia, opposition to communism, and other components of the Australian Settlement, such as wage arbitration and industry protection, began to crack.
Newspaper ownership also became more concentrated. In 1983, the Syme family sold The Age to Fairfax. In 1987, changes to media ownership laws introduced by Paul Keating enabled Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp to swallow up the huge but ailing Herald and Weekly Times.
Meanwhile, in Britain, Murdoch was getting a taste of what it was like to wield power over governments. Margaret Thatcher in particular was in thrall to him, as scholars such as David McKnight and Rod Tiffen have shown in their biographies of Murdoch.
His stable of newspapers in Britain included populist tabloids appealing to conservative blue-collar voters and influential broadsheets such as The Times and Sunday Times. These became increasingly conservative under his control, as the distinguished editor of those papers, Harold Evans, pointed out in his memoirs.
It seems Murdoch wanted to replicate this model in Australia. He had already started out with populist tabloids, yet his national broadsheet, The Australian, had begun life in 1964 as a vibrant small-l liberal newspaper.
However, as Murdoch’s vehicle for exerting influence on policymakers, it became increasingly conservative. By 1975 it had become so biased to the right in its political coverage that its own journalists went on strike in protest.
Murdoch makes no bones about his right to control what goes in his papers, and his editorial staff have to accommodate themselves to this – or exercise the privilege of resignation.
At Fairfax, the internal culture has been entirely different. In 1988, journalists at The Age persuaded Fairfax management to sign a charter of editorial independence guaranteeing no improper interference in editorial decision-making. Over the following three or four years, the company’s other titles adopted this charter.
These contrasting cultures are reflected in the editorial values of the companies’ newspapers. As the News Corp papers have become more stridently conservative, the Fairfax journalists seem to have taken it on themselves to provide at least some ideological counterweight.
It can be seen any day in the choice of stories given prominence and in the contrasting angles taken on political stories.
A good example was the treatment given to the controversy last year and early this year over the Australian Human Rights Commission. The Australian was campaigning vigorously to have the commission president, Professor Gillian Triggs, removed. The Fairfax newspapers focused on sustaining her position, particularly in respect of refugees and asylum seekers.
Similarly, with climate change, deniers get a prominence in News Corp papers that they never get in Fairfax.
This polarisation also reflects the deep divisions in the composition of the federal parliament, which in turn reflect deep divisions in the community over issues such as climate change and asylum seekers.
The fragmentation of political discourse brought about by social media only serves to heighten these divisions.
In these circumstances, the body politic would benefit from a renewed commitment by journalists to the qualities that underpinned the ideal of impartiality: accuracy, fairness, open-mindedness and above all balance, which follows the weight of evidence, not the bias of ideology.