To ask how media bias will affect the federal election is to assume that bias exists, to a significant degree, in the Australian media. This raises three questions: First, what are the principles under which unbiased media should operate? Second, how do the media influence Australians? Third, are the media biased to any significant degree?
The media are crucial to the functioning of a liberal democracy. More than a common carrier of information, they constitute an important and necessary check on the use and abuse of power. Thomas Carlyle referred to this quasi-constitutional role of the media when he famously attributed to Edmund Burke the observation that there are “three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all”. That role involves not only a right but a duty to inform the people.
What then are the principles which should guide the media in the performance of this duty? There are numerous codes of media ethics and statements of principle which attempt to indicate how this duty should be applied in various circumstances. Although the principles would seem to be fixed, these codes are reviewed and amended regularly.
To cut through the verbiage and the changes, the principles can be reduced to three, two of which are obvious and one is implicit and often overlooked.
Informing the public
The first duty of the press,” the Times declared in 1851, “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.
The “most correct intelligence” does not mean that legal standards of proof apply to the media. Take for example accusations of criminality sometimes made in the media against a deceased politician, accusations which could not prudently be made during his life because of the libel laws. It is sometimes said by new public members of the Press Council that such accusations should only be made if a conviction had been recorded. This is not so.
The ethical principle requires the journalist undertake a rigorous investigation, and then, having regard to the seriousness of the allegation, come to a conclusion which is reasonable in all the circumstances, and one which the journalist believes to be true.
Thus when the Financial Review once suggested I had been appointed to the Australian Broadcasting Authority because I was an old friend of Senator Alston, they could at least have asked one of us first. When an editorial in the Dubbo Liberal once said I had warned at a public meeting in Dubbo that an Australian republic would lead to a Hitler-like or Stalinist dictatorship, the editor could have asked me for my text or spoken to any of the more than a thousand people there. In neither case did the journalist bother to undertake the most basic investigation.
What are the “events of the time”? They are events assessed as newsworthy. This requires an objective judgment, free from any personal or political agenda. For example, I was curious that most of the mainstream media either ignored Lord Monckton’s 2009 visit or seemed determined to ridicule him. Lord Monckton’s involvement in the ETS debate was by any objective measure newsworthy.
A more recent example relates to the 2010 federal budget. It is likely that most people understand that the theme of the budget is the projection that the government accounts will be in surplus in 2012. It is doubtful whether most Australians are aware of the equally important fact that the budget projections suggest the government debt—all accumulated by the Rudd government—in that year will be around $100 billion and that the proposed resources super profits tax would just cover the interest on this debt. Instead, the average Australian would assume the debt would have been paid off in 2012, because this is what the unqualified news summaries implied.
Most of the media failed to convey to the public a fair summary of the nation’s financial position in 2012. Such a result is of course extremely helpful to the government. The media were under a duty to let the people understand that while the budget is projected to be in surplus, the government would carry a substantial debt. They failed to do so.
Most of the media also campaigned for the election of the government.
It is common, when government intervention is proposed, to base the need for this on some claimed “market failure”. The reporting of the 2010 budget is surely an example of “media failure”, a serious failure of the media in performing their fundamental duty of informing the public.
But this failure cannot be solved by government or parliamentary intervention, except of course in relation to any failings of the publicly owned media.
The second principle is, as the great editor of the Manchester Guardian C.P. Scott once declared, “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”
In 2001 the Australian Broadcasting Authority commissioned a survey which concluded that over 60 per cent of respondents could not distinguish fact from opinion in the media. Yet the media indicate in their various codes that they have a duty to ensure that readers, listeners and viewers can tell the difference.
The media are of course entirely free to editorialise, that is, to adopt a biased position in their editorials and other comment, provided the facts are not misrepresented or suppressed. To this there is a very important exception. The publicly owned media, the ABC and the SBS, have no power to editorialise. To do so is a fundamental breach, a gross abuse of their role and function. It was refreshing that the Chairman of the ABC recently warned, with particular reference to reporting anthropogenic global warming: “We must ensure that our town square is not a monologue.” This was immediately denounced, perhaps unsurprisingly, by two ABC presenters.
The ABC has some firm rules which seem more honoured than the Charter and the Code of Practice, in particular the requirements as to balance and impartiality and the principle that the ABC not take an editorial stand. One rule is that except for determined high-level interviewees, gentlemen, even the elderly, must appear without a tie on Sunday mornings. Another is that much of ABC television current affairs takes extended leave at Christmas and over summer and frequently at other times, for example Easter. (This does not seem to be related to the practice of religion.) Even when major events occur—the resignation of Mark Latham, the tsunami, or the rise of Tony Abbott—much of ABC television current affairs does not return. When the Henry tax review was released, the ABC’s weekend current affairs program The Insiders moved, inexplicably, to London to make a program about the coming British election. (They wore ties on this occasion. Was this the ABC maintaining the cultural cringe?)
More importantly, ABC television current affairs seem to apply a rule that they normally will only engage one conservative journalist for one program each week. Fortunately those they engage are formidable, such as Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt and Gerard Henderson.
There is a third principle, usually undeclared, but implicit in the role and function of the Fourth Estate and the practice of good journalism. The leading Fairfax and ABC journalist David Marr once described this principle as the “natural culture of journalism”. This involves, he said, “a kind of vaguely soft-Left inquiry sceptical of authority. I mean, that’s just the world out of which journalists come. If they don’t come out of that world, they really can’t be reporters.” Indeed, he said that any journalists not of this culture should leave the profession. “I mean, if you’re not sceptical of authority, find another job.”
David Marr was absolutely right to say a journalist must be a sceptic—how else can you find the truth? But to say a good journalist can only come from one part of the political spectrum, the vaguely soft Left, is of course wrong. Perhaps Marr’s statement was a poor formulation of the principle. Perhaps he let the cat out of the bag. But locking in good journalism to the Left leads to the situation where the journalist reporter—I exempt the commentator of course—puts on his armour, seizes his sword and descends into the political arena as another combatant.
This is political campaign journalism. One egregious example was when Fairfax promoted, rather than reported, Earth Hour. Earth Hour is an annual celebration when the bien pensants turn off their lights for one hour, many then proceeding in four-wheel-drives to candlelit restaurants, thus reducing their carbon footprint.
This led one Fairfax newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald of April 2, 2007, to publish photos purporting to be of Sydney before and during Earth Hour. The ABC’s Media Watch concluded that the “before” shots were taken two days before the lights were switched off, when weather conditions helped make the scene look much lighter.
This is what happens when journalists abandon scepticism and embrace some fashionable agenda. A journalist may do that in her private life; not when she is reporting the news.
It is essential that in a democracy all manner of propositions be subjected to rigorous testing. Unlike dictatorships and primitive societies, a modern liberal democratic society allows the citizenry the privileges of scepticism and opposition. In journalism, in the conduct of trials, in science and in the formulation of public policy, any argument has to be subjected to rigorous examination. Without the right—and on many occasions the duty—to be sceptical, we could not long remain a liberal democracy.
It is difficult to see how certain professions can be carried on if the practitioners do not employ a healthy degree of scepticism in the exercise of their functions. Among such professions are science, the law, history and of course journalism. Scepticism is not a failing; it is a badge of honour.
A popular modern theory is that we are going through a period of dangerous global warming, driven primarily by carbon dioxide emissions linked to the use of fossil fuels, and that the principal cause of this is anthropogenic, that is manmade. This, it is said, requires policies and laws to drastically reduce those emissions.
Paul Monk, writing in Quadrant, rightly says that we need to hear the most rigorous challenges to such conclusions, because this is the best way known to test their accuracy. He declares that this is fundamental to scientific method, to the practice of liberal politics and the achievement of sound public policy.
In recent years the claim has been frequently made in the news media that the theory of anthropogenic global warming is fully supported by the scientific establishment. “The science is settled” is a chilling rejoinder identifiable more with Stalinist Lysenkoism rather than Western science, and more appropriate to a tyrant than to a minister in a democratic government, or worse, a journalist. The duty of the journalist is not to relax the application of the sceptical principle merely out of a fear of being wrong, or as is sometimes said, “to give the planet the benefit of the doubt”. Rather, it is the duty of journalists to intensify the rigour of this process.
The extent of the dissimulation, obfuscation, illegal activity, apparent deliberate misrepresentation, the use of fear and exaggeration, the financial conflicts of interest and other examples of impropriety by some of the leading proponents of the theory of anthropogenic global warming only affirm the need for journalists to remain faithful to the sceptical principle.
The need to be sceptical can be damaged when journalists develop close relationships either with a government, or a particular party, or particular politicians. A succession of surveys here and in the USA indicates that the views of most journalists are more consistent with the centre Left than, say the Right. But just as with a judge, a member of jury, or a scientist, their professional duty is to put aside their personal views when reporting the news. Journalists must never be only selectively sceptical.
This also means they should not share power and become part of the government, as some did during the 2020 Summit. The media must always maintain a professional distance from those exercising power. As Lord Jacobson once informed the House of Lords, “My Lords, relations between Government and the press have deteriorated, they are deteriorating, and they may deteriorate even more. And on no account, on no account, must they be allowed to improve.”
If the media are not sceptical, their reporting will either be gullible, accepting too much of what they are told by those in power, or will involve suppressing or underplaying facts. Three examples follow.
First, in the 2007 campaign, Kevin Rudd famously campaigned as a fiscal conservative, a safe pair of hands. He had the endorsement of most of the mainstream media. The following letter from Senator Boswell appeared in the Australian on May 6 this year:
The sole flaw in your otherwise excellent editorial … is the suggestion [that Rudd] “seems to have forgotten everything about the policy conviction of the Goss era”. Would that he had.
The Prime Minister behaves now as then when he was head of Wayne Goss’s cabinet office. The policy disasters of the era are reflected in the disasters of today because they had the same architect. The health budget doubled but the system all but fell apart, largely because of a massive increase in the bureaucracy. A once fully funded workers compensation scheme developed a long tail, massive liability via a curious policy of reduced premiums alongside increased benefits and a blind eye to increasing common law claims. Long-term power security was crippled by a decision to scrap a project and not move to plug the gap for years despite dire and public warnings from the then Queensland Electricity Commission and the premier’s own department.
A prison was shut down to save a few million dollars based on a hunch that prisoner numbers were dropping. They were not. A public housing scheme borrowed from Neville Wran left thousands of Queensland battlers owing more to the government than their houses were worth, and more than their original loans. The list of policy disasters then is as endless as it is today.
Given that almost all of the mainstream media endorsed Rudd in 2007, and if what Senator Boswell says is true, one question arises: Why weren’t the people told by the media about his performance in Queensland?
Second, we have seen the widespread media acceptance of the argument that the government’s stimulus package saved us from recession in 2009–10. This surely required some reasonable investigation.
A third example relates to the Copenhagen climate conference. Anyone who at any time seriously thought that the Chinese, Indians and Americans at Copenhagen would enter into a firm enforceable agreement to reduce carbon emissions to any significant degree—and thus shoot themselves in the foot—was gullible in the extreme and lacked the scepticism necessary in a good reporter, or indeed politician.
Many in the media predicted that if the coalition did not support the government’s wish to legislate before Copenhagen to put in place an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), it would be doomed electorally. They were not only wrong, but they also demonstrated that they had abandoned the scepticism necessary for the practice of good journalism.
The Daily News Cycle
The second question posed earlier was how the media influence ordinary Australians. Essentially, much of this is done through filtering a minute selection of the news and comment produced by the well-resourced newspapers and at times the well-funded ABC into the evening television news.
This news cycle has changed remarkably. A few decades ago the news media consisted mainly of newspapers and ABC radio bulletins. The commercial radio bulletins were derivative and current affairs hardly existed. Television killed off the afternoon newspapers, the ABC introduced current affairs, and this and commercial radio talkback became a force. But until John Howard became Prime Minister, the already vibrant commercial radio current affairs and talkback were not taken seriously by the press or the intelligentsia.
John Howard knew the press gallery was his sworn enemy. They did not want him as Prime Minister and his removal was at the top of their agenda. Because he did not trust them, he ended their monopoly. He gave the instant unedited media—especially breakfast radio and television—almost unlimited access. In addition he seemed almost always to be well informed, that is, on top of his brief. His message went straight to the people, and that helped to keep him in power for eleven years. Alan Ramsey, Mike Carlton and Phillip Adams cursed, saying what many in the gallery were thinking. But John Howard changed the media landscape.
Kevin Rudd does not have John Howard’s mastery and recollection of detail, and does not knowingly submit himself to hostile or robust interviews. He prefers the “soft” media, FM radio, variety television, Facebook and Twitter. With their help he was able to establish a pleasant persona, but these outlets cannot handle the serious issues, particularly when these issues begin to concern ordinary Australians. Those issues are not the same as those that concern the elites such as the electors of Wentworth, and they cannot be answered by some underling sending out a series of Tweets.
Tony Abbott, on the other hand, is not afraid of entering even the most hostile arena. Dismissed by the press gallery from the time he was Executive Director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy to his election as the Leader of the Opposition, they have grudgingly come to concede that he must be taken seriously.
The daily news cycle in which the two leaders operate begins with the newspapers, now dominated by the Australian, followed by radio, dominated in Sydney by 2GB, and Sky television, with some breakfast television segments from Channels Seven and Nine. It continues through the day with radio, still dominated by 2GB, Sky television, ABC current affairs, occasionally some internet sites, the evening television bulletins and ABC television’s current affairs. The weekend newspapers and Sunday television current affairs complete the picture.
The components of the news cycle are not fixed. Before Alan Jones and then Ray Hadley joined the station, 2GB was in the doldrums. Before Chris Mitchell and Tom Switzer joined the newspaper, the Australian was a reflection of the other centre Left broadsheets with the centre Left ABC.
To be informed—some might say obsessively informed—about the political life of this nation, the Australian is essential reading. The informed citizen should hear directly or by accessing stored internet material, certain key broadcast interviews and comments, especially those from the Alan Jones and now the Ray Hadley programs. She will have to have access to Sky, and watch the ABC television’s evening current affairs programs. On Sunday she will watch current affairs on ABC and commercial television. She will also be aware of various internet alerts of relevant news and comments in other outlets. She will also watch as many evening television bulletins as she can, but not so much for information as to stay in touch, to find out what news ordinary Australians are aware of.
If we exempt the free newspapers, the percentage of Australians who read a daily newspaper has declined significantly. Few young people do. Many will say they read newspapers on the internet, but few actually do so. The look of a newspaper is crucial: where a report is placed, the headline, the images, the succession of pages. Digital versions excepted, on the internet you lose not only the smell and feel of a newspaper, you lose all these important and subtle messages. Few internet users read more than a few selected reports from a newspaper.
I suspect the advent of such devices as the iPad will not change this significantly for some time. People, especially the young, believe that some things should be free, such as beaches, general practitioners and news. They believe news should be free because of their long experience of free-to-air radio and television, the existence of rules which ensure major sports are the preserve of free-to-air television, and the generous access newspapers have previously allowed to internet readers. They are conditioned to paying enormous sums on mobile phones, alcohol, motor cars, restaurants and drugs, but reluctant to spend money on such things as news, general practitioners, medicines, hospitals and dentists.
The Derivative Media
There is a crucial class of newspaper readers: journalists, especially those who decide what will feature on commercial radio and later on those very important evening television news bulletins. The newspapers are particularly influential in guiding them not only on content but also on what is newsworthy. With minimal reporting resources, they derive much of their material from the newspapers.
So people who are seriously interested in politics will watch the television bulletins more to see what their fellow Australians are seeing. These bulletins are the principal source of news for most Australians. Not that the audience pays great attention. Viewers are easily distracted by movement and colour.
I once asked my barber and his assistant what the then Governor-General Peter Hollingworth should do. They both unhesitatingly said he should resign. I asked why. Their reason was that he had admitted that he was guilty of child abuse. On examination, I found they confused him with another bishop. All they saw and heard was a story about a bishop, and Dr Hollingworth was almost always shown in a cope and mitre.
The then leader of the Tasmanian opposition Michael Field once appeared on ABC television. The next day he was walking down the street in Hobart. A constituent said: “Saw you on television last night, Mike.” Field was chuffed. “Don’t know what you were talking about, but your tie was crooked.”
The scope for political stories on evening television is very limited. This probably reflects a sound commercial judgment. The television producers know the audience is not much interested in politics; it is a necessary evil. But ordinary Australians are interested in political matters which affect them, especially matters which affect them deleteriously. And of course they have some interest in elections, especially in a country where voting is compulsory.
With advertisements, scenes of endless traffic jams from a helicopter, stories about Lara Bingle or Tiger Woods, accidents, crime, human interest stories, shark stories, promotions of other programs, sport where the cameras sometimes show the stands are next to empty, interviews with inarticulate sportsmen and women, vast details on the weather including the temperatures in Nairobi and Ulan Bator, ending with entertainment from the weather man, how much time is there for politics? The small amount of time means that prime ministers have precedence, and news about, say, state leaders of the opposition rarely reaches the screens. And if the Prime Minister is wearing a fluorescent jacket and a hard hat this is considered newsworthy, whatever the content. The newsworthiness is increased where trucks are seen to be moving around in the background, although the site may have been absolutely still before and after.
The political apparatchiks have realised this, but sometimes they go too far. One was when they began dressing the Prime Minister as if he were a surgeon, which created mirth even among the most gullible. Even the Fairfax columnist Mike Carlton, who is usually dismissive of anything not left-wing, begged him to stop. The message is of course that he is doing something. Having aides and colleagues behind him, nodding, is thought to reinforce the message.
Seeing what is shown on evening television bulletins helps an interested observer assess what news ordinary Australians see and the slant that is being put on it. From these may emerge the issues in the election.
To the evening news must be added the commercial talkback stations. They have large audiences, especially the retired, the house-bound, and drivers of trucks and taxis. They will be better informed as to the issues. Radio broadcasts extend over twenty-four hours, and presenters are quick to see failings of government. Radio itself draws heavily on the newspapers. Accordingly, journalists on the well-resourced newspapers and the ABC have a powerful indirect influence on the public.
Leaning to the Left
The Howard government was subject to a high level of scrutiny, and most things senior ministers said were treated with the maximum degree of scepticism. This is perfectly proper—provided, of course, it is not limited to conservative governments. The matters subject to close and continuing media scrutiny included David Hicks, Cornelia Rau, Vivian Solon, Dr Haneef, the “Children overboard” affair, the Apology, Kyoto, Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X (“SIEV X”) and Peter Hollingworth. Then there was WorkChoices.
All of this was robustly reported with the maximum degree of scepticism. Take for example the GST. John Howard was never allowed to forget that he had once said “Never, ever”, even though he went to the 1998 election openly seeking a mandate to introduce the GST.
Then think of the Rudd government. Until recently a vast part of the media did not subject the Rudd government to a similar degree of robust scepticism. As the Australian said in an editorial, when Julia Gillard announced an inquiry into the financial management of the stimulus package for schools under the Building the Education Revolution (BER), readers of the Fairfax press and ABC listeners and viewers must have wondered why.
When the Howard government established a judicial inquiry into alleged corruption in Iraq by the Australian Wheat Board, the media was replete with complaints about the terms of reference, although the judge made it clear that if the terms needed amending he would so advise the government. There has been no media campaign for a similarly open inquiry into either the roof insulation program or the BER. Virtually no outlet has gone into the rushed and probably unnecessary domestic bank guarantee which still means many thousands of Australians still cannot access their savings in the property and mortgage funds.
There was no surprise or concern that the governance panel at the 2020 Summit contained no one who argued the No case in the referendum. It voted in favour of a republic by ninety-eight to one; the one who voted against was until then thought by many to be a republican.
Let us consider the many policy failures of the Rudd government. How would the mainstream media have reacted if the Howard government had committed any one of them? Remember the exquisite rigour of the reporting analysis and commentary—the Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon affairs, the “Children overboard” affair, and the rest. How would Fairfax and the ABC have reported grocery watch, fuel watch, the green loans affair, border control, over 160 deaths of asylum seekers, the way funds were spent for the BER, pink batts, the absence of any judicial inquiries, the way the Henry review and the government response were released, if a Coalition government had been in charge?
On all of these, robust sceptical inquiry was restricted to a minority of outlets and certain commentators, including those who appear on Sunday morning on the ABC as that network’s weekly nominal conservative voice. Apart from them, there was until recently little scrutiny, and rather than scepticism, there was gullibility worthy of the media of some authoritarian form of government. This was then reflected in the news items selected for the evening news. This had a crucial impact on the great mass of the electorate. Little wonder then that the government had such a long honeymoon which has been reflected in the opinion polls. But as Abraham Lincoln said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
In 1999, Lord Deedes wrote of the referendum: “I have rarely attended elections in any country, certainly not a democratic one, in which the newspapers have displayed more shameless bias. One and all, they determined that Australians should have a republic and they used every device towards that end.” But when the people voted, the referendum was defeated decisively.
In those days and for some years after there was little difference between the Fairfax press, the Australian and the ABC. What is needed are strong editors supported by strong proprietors. The worst thing is to have outlets under the control of collectives, with the boards of directors only concerned with the bottom line, or as regards the public broadcaster, made powerless to require compliance with the broadcaster’s charter.
Bias is there and it is unlikely to go away. You could see this as the government began to slip in the polls in autumn this year. At the time of writing the gallery seems to have adopted a pincer movement. One arm of this is to predict that Kevin Rudd will be replaced in due course by a more popular Julia Gillard, while minimising the fact that she has presided over the gross mismanagement of the BER with around $5 billion wasted, and that she has been part of the kitchen cabinet which approved everything the government has done or not done.
The other part of the pincer is to try to demonstrate that Tony Abbott is not suited to be prime minister. Abbott is a highly intelligent, athletic man, a prolific writer and yet very much in touch with ordinary Australians. Were he from Labor, or the left of the Liberal Party, he would be the media’s pin-up boy. But he is a conservative Catholic monarchist, and thus anathema to the bien pensants.
Tony Abbott’s answer to a question on the ABC’s 7.30 Report on May 17 gave the gallery the opportunity to make his character the news, and distract attention from the more newsworthy issues of the mining tax, border control and the government’s and especially Julia Gillard’s extraordinary continuing failure to provide anything close to value for money in the BER program. Abbott stated what is obvious and true, that “sometimes, in the heat of discussion, you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark, which is one of the reasons why the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth are those carefully prepared scripted remarks”.
He was soon “verballed” across the media as admitting that he often lies, which is not what he said. His comment accurately described, in a way which few politicians would be honest enough to concede, what can happen in a robust interview. The story was reported on many evening television bulletins in the style of the Sydney Morning Herald’s biased shorthand, “Tony Abbott Admits to Lying”. This media lie was, ironically, reported on the derivative and most watched media as fact.
It will no doubt be repeated endlessly until at least the election, and probably beyond.
The bias is such in our media that confidence in the institution will continue to decline, as will sales. This will not of course affect the public broadcasters. If the New Zealand experience and limited Hawke government reaction are any guide, they are more likely to be corrected or punished for their excesses by a right-wing Labor government.
In the meantime, loyalty will accrue to certain journalists and outlets where trust has been established. But while much of the mainstream media refuse to subject the centre Left to the same robust scepticism which is applied to the Right, a large majority of the population will be denied the information which they are entitled to receive in a democracy.
Thus the Right will go into the election with the handicap of mainstream media bias. By the access he offers to the instant media, Tony Abbott will to a considerable extent counter this, as he already has. He began this practice in that period when politics normally goes away, summer. He has been constantly in the media, doing things the commentariat tell him not to. He has built extraordinary momentum, assisted by a series of tactical errors by the government.
The duty of the media is clear. It is to inform the people on the events of the time by proper investigation to ascertain the facts and by subjecting all parties, interests and issues to a continuing healthy, sceptical analysis. Media bias did not win the referendum. It may not win the election.
David Flint is an emeritus professor of law and a former chairman of the Australian Press Council and the Australian Broadcasting Authority. This is the edited text of an address he delivered at a Quadrant dinner in Sydney in May.