Biased against objectivity
MALICE IN MEDIA LAND
by David Flint
Freedom Publishing Australia, Paperback RRP: $24.95
The final words of Professor David Flint, in his latest book Malice in Media Land, neatly summarise his thesis. Flint says the fact that the media do not have the confidence of the people should be a matter of concern for all Australians, and in particular for the media itself. The purpose of Malice is to draw attention to the reasons for this, to raise concern, to propose some solutions and to encourage debate.
In his introduction, Flint points out that in his childhood the press and the radio (the only media at that time) enjoyed a respect which seems to have been lost. The news then was seen to be objective, and objectivity was not only desirable, but was possible and attainable.
Flint points out that this situation was changed by the many teachers in the humanities faculties in universities, who had effectively prescribed as dogma the bizarre and outdated theories of a handful of French philosophers. These theories not only militated against objectivity, but asserted it was unachievable; truth did not exist and culture was relative.
Significant portions of the Australian media, together with those of the USA and the UK, were to come under the influence of these teachers.
Whereas journalists (once the product of a trade learned on the job) tended in the past to have views not far removed from their readers, today they tend to take on and freely express the opinions of the world of the elites, the world so well described and analysed in Flint’s earlier book, Twilight of the Elites (2003), to which Malice is an immediate sequel.
In a 19th-century editorial cited by Flint, the London Times clearly enunciated the principal role of the press and indeed of all news media. It said, “The first duty of the press is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them to make them the common property of the nation.”
Whilst most Australians would readily accept this principle, it is obvious the majority of journalists today see their principal role in a very different light.
Research undertaken in Australia demonstrates that the beliefs of today’s journalists tend to be well to the left of the general population. Only 9 per cent of journalists describe themselves as “conservative” or “right”. At the same time, the standing of journalists among the general public, as evidenced by regular polling, could not be lower.
Opinion as news
The media is now dominated by opinion and that opinion is highly political. Yet all ethical codes in the past required that the news be objective and distinguishable from opinion. Today, opinions and gossip are often presented as news.
What has occurred is evidenced by many recent phenomena such as “branding”. The term “conservative” or “right-wing” is frequently used in relation to what are really mainstream positions, politicians and commentators. The left are never so branded, implying they are mainstream, or are gently described as “moderate” or by some other similar misleading term.
Flint asks: what does the now-beleaguered citizen do, who perceives a whole segment of the media to be alien to his view of the world? Tabloids have provided a partial antidote to the dominance of the elites over so much of the media.
Another balancing outlet has emerged in the form of commercial talkback radio. Increasingly, too, the internet is becoming a valuable tool for communicating important information. It was internet bloggers, not the media, who proved the Vietnam war documents, so damning to President Bush in the 2004 US election, had been fabricated at a much later date.
This incident destroyed the credibility of CBS guru, Dan Rather, who announced his retirement shortly afterwards.
In his introduction, Flint lists numerous examples of media bias, and even more importantly, emphasises the Australian media’s failure to analyse important issues such as the financial disaster of the Victorian state government of Joan Kirner.
In consequence, her government was never placed under any proper scrutiny by most of the media, which thereby failed very badly in its duty to the people of Victoria.
In succession, despite their obvious many faults, the press fell in love with Paul Keating, Cheryl Kernot and finally Mark Latham. Further examples came in the 2004 federal election when, for example, Latham was reported to be the victor in the debate – a question of opinion dressed up as a news item. Similarly, almost invariably Latham was reported to be the “winner of the week”.
A further problem for all democratic governments today is the additional burden of campaign journalism. It makes the task of modern government to wage war or to act firmly against border incursions more and more difficult. The ultimate and leading example was the Vietnam War. It had all the elements of a just war – South Vietnam defending itself against communist attempts to overthrow it. The United States was not defeated on the battlefield, but rather on her own television screens and in the press. What occurred in the United States was closely mirrored in the Australian media, many of our returning soldiers being treated as pariahs.
In the second chapter of Malice, which deals with Australia’s Constitution, the law and the media, Flint points out we Australians are the heirs of a wonderful gift – the way we govern ourselves and our nation – and that such a society can only function effectively where speech is free.
For this Flint says there are at least three reasons: namely, (1) people need to be informed on all matters of public interest, (2) democracy requires that both good and erroneous ideas be allowed in the market place, and (3) the exchange of free and full information is the oxygen of a competitive market economy.
Flint is highly critical of the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 as one of the worst examples of unnecessary restrictions on free speech. Those who have already complained about the injustice done to the two Catch the Fire Ministries pastors will welcome his authoritative supporting comments.
The generally accepted international standard for legal restriction is those restrictions reasonably necessary in a democratic society. Outside of laws in those specific areas regulated by law, the responsibility of the press is an ethical issue. Flint says the press must deal with this itself under its self-regulatory ethical codes and the principles of the Press Council. Radio and television stations must similarly deal with this under their own co-regulatory codes of practice.
One of the principal themes of Malice is that our media law should be reformed not only to liberate our media, but, at the same time, to make it more accountable.
In the third chapter of Malice, Flint uses his vast experience to discuss how this should be done. Inter alia, Professor Flint served on the Australian Press Council (APC) as chairman from 1987 until 1997, and from 1997 to 2004 was chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Authority.
He details both the history of the APC during that period, and some of the more important matters which came before it, such as the series of complaints about stories that Sir Robert Askin was corrupt – an allegation which was never supported by hard evidence.
He concludes that, although improvements could be made, the council is one of the most efficient and active councils in the world.
Flint proceeds to analyse how news is made in Australia. In his view, commercial talkback radio has emerged as an important agenda-setter.
Media proprietors, thought by the public to be most influential, in fact have increasingly lost their power. Power now seems to be largely vested in the journalists themselves who, unfortunately, tend to have a “herd” mentality on the great events of the day in the world of politics.
Typical of what is now occurring was the general support of the press in 1999 for an Australian republic. Those who wanted to retain the Constitution were portrayed as ridiculous and old-fashioned. There was singularly little attempt, as there should have been, to present the cogent arguments for the retention of our own present Constitution – a Constitution which has worked extremely well. Its very success is a strong and powerful argument for its retention.
In Chapter 5, Flint elaborates the principles of good broadcasting. The overriding principle is again that, like the press media, the broadcasting media must be free. It must be diverse and an affirmation of our culture. It must also be a responsible media. Public broadcasters have the highest duty to the nation and to its citizens for both impartiality and accuracy.
Flint then moves on to consider ownership and control. He says it should be a matter of concern to all Australians that the government of the day can actually take decisions about who may own a newspaper, an absolute discretion in relation to persons who are not citizens. When Conrad Black sought to acquire an interest in Fairfax, he was restricted to an unviable 25 per cent and in consequence sold his interest. Yet, from the point of view of quality and the independence of his papers, Black was an excellent proprietor.
Chapter 7, “Feeding Frenzies”, deals with that well-known media phenomenon which is both mindless and hysterical – the scramble by journalists to occupy what they perceive to be the high moral ground.
The classic instance of this was the 2001-02 campaign against the Governor-General, Dr Peter Hollingworth. Flint gives a very detailed and informative account of this campaign. It is important to realise, as perhaps few ever understood, that there never was any evidence that Dr Hollingworth was guilty of any wrongdoing either under the law of the state or of the church.
In the following two chapters, Flint analyses the targeting of talkback radio by the media elite. Most of us would have a limited knowledge only of the inquiries into the behaviour of Alan Jones and John Laws and radio stations 2UE and 2GB. Flint suggests that they were targeted not so much because of any technical wrongdoing, but rather because their views did not coincide with the elite agenda.
In his final chapter, Flint poses the all-important question: what is to be done? He says we now have the elite media regularly and unethically campaigning to achieve the agenda of no more than 10 per cent of the population. He says that, above all, the solution lies with the readers, listeners and viewers of the media to make their expectations very clear.
Professor Flint is a distinguished and richly experienced academic. In writing Malice in Media Land, has performed a singular service to the Australian people. Equally, Freedom Publishing is to be congratulated for producing this very valuable work.