A decadent profession surrenders to truthiness

2013-04-24 04.50.02 amNICK CATER

Published in The Weekend Australian, November 2, 2013.

 

THE information austerity drive is hurting. The political press pack, deprived of the government’s attention, is crying out to be fed. 

James Massola in The Australian Financial Review predicts the government eventually will be “mugged by reality”, declaring “the news business has changed and, with it, so has the business of governing”.

The ABC’s Barrie Cassidy writes that Tony Abbott’s approach “is working just fine now”, but adds a warning: “The political class will eventually claim back their relevance.”

Yet the grumbles about this exceptionally unforthcoming administration mask a problem closer to home. It is not the government that is in trouble but the news industry itself.

Journalism has succumbed to a culture of dependency and is losing that most basic of skills: the ability to nail the facts.

Criticism of the government’s so-called media-management strategy misses the point; Abbott’s approach is less a case of management and more of laissez faire.

The Rudd and Gillard administrations took a Keynesian approach, intervening heavily in the market and attempting to control the flow of news. It invested heavily in a state-owned media enterprise, the ABC, encouraging it to compete more aggressively with the private sector.

When all else failed, it tried to regulate the market through legislation to control the press.

Abbott, by contrast, is behaving like an ultra-dry economic conservative and is letting the news market rip.

The critical condition of modern journalism has been exposed.

The commercial pressures on the industry are well known. Newsrooms have been hollowed out. The disinvestment in journalism has accelerated as Fairfax has trashed its Sydney and Melbourne mastheads. In no other industry would executives respond to falling demand by making the product worse. Yet this is the story of the news business during the past two decades.

The degeneracy of modern journalism cannot be blamed entirely on falling revenue, however. The decline in standards has been at least as bad in public-sector journalism; indeed, some would say it is worse.

The guides to reporters issued by newspapers early last century illuminate the loss of discipline in a profession that once held facts to be sacred.

A recruit at The Detroit News would be told in writing that “the only mission of a reporter” was “supplying his editors with the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.

Speculation was forbidden. “NEVER GUESS,” the instructions read. “When you turn in your story KNOW that everything in that story is true.”

Today, the news industry is content to outsource information-gathering to public relations professionals and advocacy groups, accepting the facts they provide on trust.

Last month, for example, the ABC’s Peter Lloyd introduced an item on PM with the assertion: “An asylum-seeker being held in detention on Nauru is expecting twins.”

His next sentence betrayed his gullibility: “Advocates say the Iranian woman is six months pregnant.”

An advocate, in the view of the Macquarie Dictionary, is “one who defends, vindicates or espouses a cause”. Evidence offered by advocates may or may not be correct, but there is a high risk that it may be tainted.

Yet the credibility of Felicity Ogilvie’s subsequent story rested entirely on the testimony of Ali Mountfield, a representative of the Australian Multiple Birth Association and Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Commission.

Ogilvie claimed: “PM has been unable to verify it with the minister’s office.” Yet the minister’s office had made a statement that Lloyd read on the program: “The government does not respond to unsubstantiated claims about persons claimed to be resident at offshore processing facilities.”

At a press conference five days later, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison was asked again about the claim.

Morrison: This suggestion that there’s a pregnant woman with twins on Nauru is simply not true.

Question: They’re not there?

Morrison: It’s actually not true.

Question: So there’s no …

Morrison: … there is not a pregnant woman with twins on Nauru.

Question: We were told this by …

Morrison: … well, they are wrong.

In the ABC’s story, the onus of proof that would apply in a court of law had been reversed: the government is guilty until it can prove otherwise.

Morrison continued, somewhat testily: “This is why I’m stressing to you, I strongly suggest that the media should more thoroughly interrogate the sorts of claims that are being represented to you. That is a classic example. This suggestion that there has been a pregnant woman with twins on Nauru is simply not true.”

Press gallery veteran Laurie Oakes criticised the minister for his response in a column last weekend, saying: “Scott Morrison’s arrogance can be little short of breathtaking.”

Oakes claims journalists are in a “catch-22”, unable to check the facts because the government has shut off the flow of information. Yet Ogilvie and Lloyd’s report, which seemed to require neither of them to leave the office, is a parody of journalism. Information-gathering was outsourced to a partisan lobby group and fact-checking was outsourced to a partisan government. To cap it all, the press gallery squeals when the minister refuses to answer the question: When did you stop beating your wife?

The truth has become secondary to what American comedian Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”, the selection of facts one wishes to be true, rather than facts known to be true.

The apparent consensus at the ABC that offshore detention is cruel and inhuman, and that the activists are fighting a noble cause, leaves no room for scepticism.

Former ABC chairman Maurice Newman says the concept of truth has largely been abandoned. “What passes for journalism these days shows no respect for the facts,” he says.

“It is particularly apparent in the reporting of issues like climate change, where the evidence simply doesn’t matter any more.”

Newman is highly critical of journalism schools: “Students who are not taught to be curious or approach a topic with an open mind will struggle to bring rigour to journalism.”

Tim Wilson, of the Institute of Public Affairs, says it is a mistake to think advocates for environmental, public health and other causes are objective sources.

“When was the last time you heard a taxpayer-funded activist argue everything’s fine, or there’s a problem and the solution is for the government to get out of the way?” he says.

 

“Advocates for paternalism have a predisposition to government interference. It is only which taxes, regulations and laws they want to use, rather than an assessment about whether they should be used in the first place.”

Journalists complain they lack the resources or expertise to check complex information when in fact there is a failure of basic common sense. The assertion that “smoking costs the community $31 billion a year”, for example, is regularly recycled by governments and lobby groups, and is frequently reported as fact by experienced journalists.

The figure is self-evidently ridiculous; if true, it would account for more than half the total federal government health budget.

Eric Crampton, an economist at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, says only $312m of that figure represents costs to the health system.

“The vast majority of the costs included are the intangible costs of premature mortality: costs smokers impose upon themselves,” he says. “All up, the government is in pocket because of smokers’ contributions.”

He says journalists commonly assume that “good” groups campaigning for better health will not mislead them: “Journalists under time pressure don’t seem to look very closely at the big scary numbers.”

The casual outsourcing of news-gathering to activists was on display again this week, with the broadcasting of images provided by the group Animals Australia, purporting to show sheep being improperly slaughtered in the Middle East.

The ABC was prepared to take it on trust that the footage was shot in September in Jordanian streets, as the activists claim. Yet the provenance of any footage supplied in this manner should be treated with scepticism and, at the very least, should be screened with the caveat that it cannot be independently verified.

The naivety and lack of worldliness so often on display in news coverage is seeping into editorials that once provided a newspaper’s intellectual grunt.

Witness the thought bubble in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald demanding an “ethical test for spying” to ensure “the minimum possible impact on individuals and organisations”.

 

In a democratic system that relies on the news industry to hold institutions to account, journalistic timidity at senior levels comes at a high cost. The pusillanimous coverage of Kevin Rudd’s first term in government in much of the media meant his party’s decision to replace him in 2010 caught many voters by surprise.

Editors and journalists who broke from the pack during the Rudd years paid a high price. From June 2008, when The Australian ran its now famous “Captain Chaos” story by John Lyons, the newspaper came under intense pressure to pull back.

Government ministers openly attacked it, and corporate and commercial pressures were applied. The Australian’s critical examination of Labor’s policy failures, including the school building program and the National Broadband Network, heavily criticised by its competitors at the time, has been vindicated.

“If you start pulling your punches in the hope that the government will put you on the drip it’s game over,” says The Australian’s editor-in-chief, Chris Mitchell. “It takes spine for a reporter to resist a government that is prepared to go to war with a newspaper that does not toe the line. The machinery of government is a powerful force. Yet the strong growth in subscriptions to The Australian over the term of the last government shows readers expect a newspaper to hold governments to account.”

The Australian’s motive, rather than the accuracy of its facts, was the principal avenue of attack for the Labor government and rival journalists as they sought to counter the extensive probe into the AWU slush fund matter and the involvement of former prime minister Julia Gillard.

The ABC’s Media Watch seized on comments from the SMH’s Peter Hartcher, who claimed The Australian was “dedicated to the destruction of the Labor government”. The program alleged The Australian’s reporters had been “aided by members of the Labor caucus”.

In a reply to then presenter Jonathan Holmes, The Australian’s Hedley Thomas demonstrated the absurdity of Hartcher’s premise by pointing out that story had been pursued by investigative journalists at other news organisations, including Fairfax’s Natalie O’Brien, who was “not a nut-job or a misogynist, or a feverish Gillard hater, or an employee of The Australian, or a tool of the Labor Party caucus”.

“There appears to be an abundance of Canberra-based commentators who express opinions about the reporting by others on important issues,” Thomas wrote. “These commentators do not appear to do investigations themselves. It is wrong and offensive to suggest that any of my reporting is motivated by The Australian’s so-called dedication, as Mr Hartcher described it, to ‘the destruction of the Labor government’.”

By abandoning the pursuit of truth, modern journalism appears to have fallen for the philosophical error that blights modern academe, the training ground for almost every recruit to the profession. The empirical route to knowledge through investigation, observation and reason is rarely respected. Instead, journalists have come to believe knowledge comes through revelation, a reversion to the pre-Enlightenment when the truth was revealed by the Almighty and mediated through his priesthood.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who uncovered the Watergate scandal, relied less on the benevolence of their famous “Deep Throat” than is commonly imagined. Deep Throat’s only role was to confirm what they had already established. The anarchist circus of WikiLeaks is not journalism as Woodward and Bernstein would understand it. The story that helped bring down president Richard Nixon was not magically “revealed”, as many assume. It took more than a year of forensic investigation to get to the truth.

Today’s journalists are content to let competing “truths” collide in he-said, she-said journalism that is as tedious as it is uninformative. It is pick-a-box journalism offering multiple “truths”, none of which is given any more weight than any other. When Tony Abbott announced before the 2010 election that he would expand the education tax rebate at a cost of $760m, for example, the response from Labor’s Simon Crean surprised no one: “Tony Abbott has created the first black hole for the Liberal Party in this campaign, and our conservative estimate is that the cost will be at least double.”

At that point most journalists left the story in the mistaken belief that by reporting claim and counterclaim their duties had been fully discharged. Yet The Australian, unfashionably, persisted in the pursuit of facts. Would Abbott’s policy cost $760m or more than $1.5bn? They could not both be right, but they could both be wrong, which turned out to be case.

The Coalition had assumed only half the eligible students would apply for the grant. Labor, on the other hand, had assumed it would be 80 per cent. The Coalition’s mistake was understandable. Eight days earlier, Gillard said 2.7 million students were eligible for the education tax refund, but only 1.4 million took it up. Her press release later gave different figures: 2.1 million and 1.7 million.

No one who has worked in a commercial newsroom in the past five years could underestimate the pressures of the business as it attempts to meet the challenges of fast-changing technology and shifting demand with fewer staff and resources.

The cuts have been brutal, yet this is, by nature, a labour-intensive business if it is to be properly executed. Undoubtedly, this is part of the explanation for the weakened state of the news business, but journalists are deluding themselves if they believe this is the full story. “This is a very interesting moment for journalism,” says Peter Fray, editor-in-chief of PolitiFact Australia and a former Fairfax editor. “It is a test not just of the business model, but of journalistic mettle. It offers the chance to restate what journalism is for and how it should be practised. We keep talking about the watchdog role of government – now let’s get out and do it.”

This week another example of the news industry’s inability to hold institutions to account came to light when The Australian broke the story of plans to remove the words “Known unto God” from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson had announced the change on September 18 at a lunch at the National Press Club to which every major news gatherer, including this one, had sent at least one reporter.

Yet none of the journalists present questioned Nelson about the plans afterwards and none of them reported the story. Michael Brissenden, ABC: “Why is it that the War Memorial continues to refuse to acknowledge the fierce battles between Australians and Australian Aborigines and pastoral settlers – the Frontier Wars?”

Mark Kenny, SMH: “I guess what I’m asking you is to reflect on whether we get the quality we expect out of our elected representatives, given that they’re, you know, earning $200,000 a year base salary?”

Kimberley Granger, the Canberra Weekly magazine: “How do you see the parking issue playing out for the Australian War Memorial?”

Granger, a local journalist, at least knew her audience. The rest of the pack had no excuse.