Problems in Australian Journalism

(updated and expanded)

Whether we are being directed to a news story by an editor or an algorithm, the task of filtering the dross from the insightful remains the most important challenge for those who ‘consume’ political information.

This is a much more important concern than perennial angst about concentrated media ownership in Australia, or whether a Royal Commission should be held into News Corporation.

Despite new media platforms provided by revolutionary advances in information technology, the structural problems facing political journalists who create the ‘content’ of these stories are mostly the same today as they were in the past.

Here are four which help to shape our views about the world outside Australia, followed by those shone into high relief by the election campaign in Australia.

Missing Context

Too many journalists have a limited capacity for critical thinking because of an impoverished historical knowledge, and therefore cannot place real time announcements and actions by governments and their opponents in any philosophical or historical context for their audiences.

This is partly the fault of journalism courses at universities, which should provide post-graduate training rather than undergraduate degrees. Journalism is not an academic discipline nor an apprenticeship, and should be seen as a skill set built on top of foundational knowledge in the humanities and social sciences.

The veracity of sources should always be tested. For example, journalists should be very sceptical of “intelligence leaks” which cannot be verified, but which sound authoritative only because they are confidential or constitute confirmation bias. Open-source material is more reliable.

Everyone who faithfully reported the phony WMD pretext for the 2003 war against Iraq should have had the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin “incident” uppermost in their minds before giving Western governments the benefit of their doubts again. How many journalists covering the lead up to the 2003 war had even heard of it? Governments lie and deceive all the time, especially about their wars. Google ‘curveball’.

The new “China” scare, including exaggerated and preposterous claims about China’s military intentions in the region, reflects a paucity of knowledge about earlier bouts of Sinophobia in the West, and would be very different discussion if the Cold War and modern Chinese history were better understood. Those following events over the last three years who have no sense of déjà vu just haven’t done their homework. A good antidote is James Peck’s Washington’s China.

The same applies to Russia’s illegal attack on Ukraine. The starting point for understanding this war, especially its timing, is NATO’s eastward expansion into Europe since the implosion of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the role of the US in Ukraine since 2016. At the risk of stating the obvious, the challenge for journalists is to provide context for a better understanding of the causes of the war, not joining with governments to play the blame game. Unfortunately, how the attack on Ukraine has been covered in the Western media is strikingly similar to the way the 9/11 attacks were presented in their aftermath: context-free.

By the time a political claim is exposed as fraudulent, the media circus has moved on from ‘old news’ to another ‘new’ issue with an equally brief shelf life. This is because news and information have become disposable commodities to be consumed like fruit and vegetables. This is how capitalism treats information.

Flak and distractions are often taken at face value, uncritically reported thanks to a remarkable level of political naivety and quiescence across the Fourth Estate. Given almost everything is now searchable and recorded for posterity, there are no excuses for the success of diversionary tactics regularly undertaken by governments at the insistence of their spin doctors.

Obvious questions about policies are just not posed.

Why is this being announced now and in this way?

Which questions do the government not want asked of it?

Why is the media being steered in this direction — away from what?

What is the political motive behind this decision: who wins and who loses?

Often misconstrued as adversarial, critical journalism should be based on a comprehensive knowledge of the subject in question and a well-founded suspicion of those with power and wealth.

Overton Windows & False Balances

Journalists should continuously ask themselves: what is considered the permissible range of opinion on this subject and why is it circumscribed in the way that it has been? The Overton Window, as it is called, should be opened as widely as possible, otherwise key aspects of a topic will be misunderstood or ignored entirely.

It is always easier to repeat and recycle familiar nostrums and orthodoxies than to challenge them: the former requires no elaboration or any examples, while the latter takes time to explain and will confuse and confound pre-existing assumptions.

Alternative accounts must confront the tyranny of concision, which reduces detailed and complex narratives to sound-bytes and photo ops. If newspaper analysis cannot be reduced to 800 words, they must find another home where ‘long-form’ journalism is still practiced.

How does narrowing the spectrum of legitimate opinion work in practice? Here are some examples.

The discussion of politically-motivated violence, for example, presupposes that the West is always the innocent victim of terrorism but never its perpetrator. This is demonstrably untrue, but it sets the tone of the discussion to look at what is done to us rather than by us.

Why are the Pentagon’s remote controlled drone attacks on innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Syria or Yemen portrayed as self-defence when they constitute a textbook definition of terrorism? Why is there so little interest in the role of the US spy base which Australia hosts at Pine Gap in targeting people for assassination by the United States?

Why are the occupied people of Gaza not entitled to self-defence against Israel’s state terrorism when it periodically bombs them with US-made aircraft and munitions, acts which have turned the small strip of densely populated blockaded land into a living hell without safe drinking water? Why are incidents in a one-sided occupation described as “clashes”, implying some equality of power?

Why is Iran described as a rogue state which sponsors terrorism in the Middle East when its scientists and officials are routinely murdered by Mossad agents and US drones?

Given the preoccupation with Russia’s crimes in Ukraine, why can the US and Israel regularly bomb Syria without any media discussion of these violations of that country’s sovereignty? Who gave Washington the right to grant the Golan Heights, Syrian territory under international law, to Israel?

The short answer to these and many similar questions is that we judge our own actions, and those of our friends and allies, by a different set of ethical standards to the ones we apply to designated enemies. Our foreign policy is hypocritical and unprincipled, though such a view is considered “dissident”.

The very opposite should apply. As Noam Chomsky explains the basis of moral consequentialism:

People are responsible for the anticipated consequences of their choice of action (or inaction), a responsibility that extends to the policy choices of one’s own state to the extent that the political community allows a degree of influence over policy formation.

Responsibility is enhanced by privilege, by the opportunity to act with relative impunity and a degree of effectiveness.

For profession of high principles to be taken seriously, the principles must first and foremost be applied to oneself, not only to official enemies or those designated as unworthy in the prevailing political culture.

Our own behaviour, and the actions of friends and allies, should be scrutinised first. That’s where we have moral responsibility and some influence, however small. We have almost no influence on governments with which we have strained relations. It is the citizens of those states who bear responsibility for the actions of their governments, though in many cases dissent is more perilous than anything we might face: no doubt Julian Assange would demur here about the suggestion of “might”.

This is less ‘whataboutism’ and more to do with barracking for the West and supporting its interests by reinforcing existing narratives which remain unchallenged. One cost of this is the loss of our own credibility in advocating universal human rights. Another, significantly more important, is greater human suffering.

Legitimate concerns should be expressed about Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs

in Xinjiang and restrictions imposed on Hong Kong and in the South China Sea, but there is very little we can do to influence decisions taken by a government we are distancing ourself from. Given China is our most important trading partner and the West must engage with Beijing if climate change is to be seriously addressed, this approach is counter-productive.

As a fellow member of the Quad and the so called ‘club of democracies’ we have much more influence over India, but Western leaders remain mute about Narendra Modi’s Hindu extremism, especially his appalling policies in Kashmir. This is because, with few exceptions such as Brian Toohey, they aren’t asked questions by the media who have easy access to them. The Morrison Government does not want to be asked about Modi’s outrages and a supine media class is happy to oblige.

The demonisation of Vladimir Putin and all things Russian, is a very different story. It goes without challenge, context or a consideration of the logical consequences of widening the cleavage between Moscow and the West.

Riyadh’s atrocities in Yemen leading to a cholera epidemic, Jakarta’s brutal 50 year repression in West Papua and Morocco’s illegal occupation of the Western Sahara should be higher priorities because the West is complicit in these crimes with arms sales and diplomatic protection offered to the culprits. Again, there is silence from the media, and therefore governments are not held to account for their actions.

It’s a simple truism that concerns about human rights violations are universally expressed and applied or they are not principles at all.

Russian “election meddling” is a preoccupation of governments in the North America and Western Europe, while promiscuous US interventions in the politics of countries around the world, including the overthrow of legitimate democratic governments, attracts little if any media interest at all.

Compare China’s behaviour towards Taiwan, whose sovereign control the West acknowledges, with US behaviour towards Cuba or its “meddling” in Ukraine on Russia’s border. Or Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank. Which of these violates international law and the ‘rules-based global order’ we hear the West boasts about?

Why would anyone with a knowledge of the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in 1953 by the US and UK be surprised by Iran’s hostility to the West? Journalists should not think that history is as conveniently forgotten in these countries as it is here.

There are not always two sides to every story, with a ‘balanced’ position to be found at the ‘sensible centre’. When it comes to immunology, environmental science or the holocaust, to take only three examples, there is no range of legitimate opinion. Seeking the centre is not about being even-handed, it’s a claim that there is always a range of legitimate opinion on most subjects and safe harbour should centre on compromise: don’t pick sides. This is dangerous nonsense.

Stenography

Many journalists are too dependent on drip feeds from political elites, ranging from the unedited stenography of government ‘messaging’ to ‘exclusives’ — beating competitors to a story. Authorised leaks from incontinent MPs may be welcomed by the ideologically aligned, but they almost always come with conditions attached — usually favourable media coverage. Editors are largely to blame for this by privileging exclusivity and ‘insiderism’ over detailed analysis. It is never the role of the media to be the propaganda arm of political parties or governments.

There is nothing wrong with commentators cheering for their political team, as they openly do in Murdoch media and increasing in Nine newspapers. No-one should approach the op ed pages expecting balance or fair analysis. But when front page reporting becomes indistinguishable from government talking points, the audience is being short changed.

Too many journalists, as opposed to commentators, see nothing wrong with partisan advocacy as their job focus. In doing so they not only debase the profession, but more importantly they do their readers, listeners and viewers a grave disservice by denying them the capacity to evaluate alternative policies.

Stenography is fatal to the credibility of any journalist. If you want to be an ideologue and work for a politician and a cause, join their staff formally.

It is also boring and repetitious. According to the late international politics expert Fred Halliday, the term corkscrew journalism originated in the film The Philadelphia Story directed by George Cukor in 1940. Halliday defined it as “instant comment, bereft of research or originality, leading to a cycle of equally vacuous, staged, polemics between columnists who have been saying the same thing for the past decade, or more.” Ring any bells?

Professional Ethics

Philosophically and professionally, too many journalists have a poor understanding of their role in holding the powerful to account and how to represent their audiences. They fail to see the difference between being liked and being respected. Many want to be players and insiders, forgetting that their function is to ask the questions that their readers, listeners and viewers want posed. First and foremost, journalists are conduits for their audiences, not celebrities.

Some are willing hostages to opinion management and the public relations techniques of media minders. However, if they are to perform their roles properly, they must remain at arms-length from the subjects of their inquiries.

It’s not that difficult. They should avoid being schmoozed by drinks at The Lodge, and say no to junkets and being duchessed around the Middle East on the dime of local lobby groups acting for a foreign state. If a foreign state lobby awards a journalist a prize for their reporting, they have been fatally comprised.

Politicians and their staff are not friends to cultivate, no matter how hard they try to flatter or invite a journalist into the inner sanctums of power. Success should be measured by the enemies made amongst the powerful. The shakers and movers are always looking to co-opt the sympathetic and impressionable. After all, the overwhelming majority of leaks come from politicians not whistleblowers.

Interviewers should learn how to control verbal exchanges with media trained politicians by anticipating their tactics and working around them. They should press hard without being personal, highlighting contradictory and inconsistent remarks over time.

‘Gotcha’ moments such as Anthony Albanese’s stats “gaffe” might be tempting for journalists seeking a headline, but like fast food they are not very satisfying to information consumers. Leadership contests and elections attract subscriptions and clicks. They are headlines designed to sell audiences to advertisers, but they are usually poor substitutes for the hard slog of detailed, substantive research.

Too many journalists are comfortable with ‘personified politics’ rather than the evaluation of policies. They rigidly focus on leaders, personalities and the election race when they could easily forget the ephemeral gimmicks and photo ops which spin doctors want to see on the nightly news. Their focus should be on policies, both what is openly presented and what is deliberately concealed or omitted. Politics is a lot more than third rate entertainment for ugly people.

Journalists and editors do face significant challenges. The death of a thousand funding cuts to the leading public broadcaster, and the implied threat of future reductions linked to unfavourable political coverage, induces ABC management and journalists to be less critical of the government of the day, especially hostile and suspicious LNP governments. Consequently, they position themselves in the “sensible centre” which is actually the conservative right, and become increasing indistinguishable from their privately-owned competitors.

Technical competence is emphasised and privileged at the expense of intellectual knowledge, background preparation and professional skill. Mouse clicks, page views and social media feedback now structure the delivery of news content and analysis.

One consequence of this during an election campaign is a shrinking insular media bubble, where dubious opinion polls, headlines, partisan barracking, ‘who won the week?’ and the daily agenda repeat themselves in an endless and co-ordinated loop. The underlying assumption is that the horse race will be decided inside the bubble, not outside where the great unwashed are starved of serious policy discussion and evaluation. That is why insider status is so highly valued by journalists: they can be players, not just observers. On the odd occasion when policy analysis leaks outside the bubble, it is invariably refracted through the question of how this will influence the vote rather than whether the policy might be good or bad for the country. This amounts to professional misconduct.

Calls for a Royal Commission into News Corporation assume there are problems with the media in Australia that can only be uncovered through an investigation by the Crown. Yet there is probably very little that isn’t already well known.

Anti-competitive practices are there for everyone to see. The alignment of business interests with right wing opinion and calls for the privatisation of the ABC are neither new nor subtle. The concentration of media ownership is hardly secret, but at a time when private media owners struggle to build viable business models, greater diversity in the mainstream isn’t coming any time soon. Besides, thanks to the internet there are more sources of information available to the curious today than at any time in history. They are often superior to the mainstream.

If journalists were more diligent and professional, and information consumers developed better filtering mechanisms, most of these problems would disappear.

An earlier version of this article was published at Pearls & Irritations on 8 January 2022.

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Scott Burchill

Dr Scott Burchill taught International Relations at Deakin University for 30 years