The Fourth Estate’s undeclared activists

Undeclared bias is a problem in reporting, but the answer isn’t the limitation on speech the Left is demanding. The solution is to help media consumers choose between outlets by requiring the same transparency of journalists that journalists demand of politicians.

Recent attacks on media freedom from the Left – Finkelstein, Bendigo MP Steve Gibbons, fellow Labor backbencher John Murphy and others – seek to use coercive regulation to deliver what they see as balanced media coverage.

However, there is nothing wrong with media outlets having a strong policy view and publishing biased material – if it is identified as opinion. Media consumers clearly like the biases of opinionated commentators. The Press Council (http://www.presscouncil.org.au/statements-of-principles/) recognises that and sets a framework for it:

Publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the bylined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion.

Where bias becomes an issue is in material delivered by people designated as reporters, journalists, correspondents and editors. Those job titles have traditionally implied a rigorous attempt to set aside personal biases and to report as neutrally as possible.

While they may quibble over the size and direction of bias, people of all political persuasions would agree that reporters in our media do not live up to that standard.

One of the problems is that too many opinion writers describe themselves as journalists or carry the bland title of editor or correspondent when a more accurate job description might be that of pundit or advocate. The other key problem is conflict of interest.  Journalists are the gatekeepers of debate and shapers of perception, and infinitely more powerful than the average elected backbencher. It’s more than overt support or opposition for a policy view.  How journalists choose words, shape questions, select quotes, edit stories, co-locate images, or even respond through body language can all shape voters’ perceptions of politicians and their policies.

Voters never get the chance to hold journalists accountable for how they exercise this power. Journalists never face election. Voters can only choose to consume media output or not. That consumer choice should be as informed as possible about journalists’ conflicts of interest.

In any other industry that last statement would be unremarkable. Yet in journalism it has never been taken seriously.

For example, there has been no formal disclosure of political journalists – not commentators – who may be former staffers for Ministers, married to the party funtionaries, or living with a Minister whose portfolio they write about. There is no formal disclosure that a journalist mediating debate is a paid campaigner for a signature political issue. There is no disclosure that an environmental editor used to work for an advocacy group promoting one side of an environmental debate. There was no disclosure that a journalist drove a damaging story about a political enemy of a former girlfriend.

Only insiders know this type of information. Ordinary media consumers find out by accident.

This is despite clear formal requirements in Media Alliance  and The Age  codes of ethics that insist journalists disclose possible conflicts of interest, including personal interests or anything that may be seen to affect their independence. In practice, disclosures seem to be limited to financial conflicts.

Yet when presenting ideas, mediating political debate or discussing policy, journalists’ political commitments are a far more serious conflict. Our ideas, our moral commitments, our relationships and our engagement in civil society are far more powerful elements of our identity than the odd funding source.

As parts of our identity, they are far harder to set aside when performing our roles. Those political and social commitments are relevant for reporters or interviewers, in just the same way as financial commitments are relevant for legislators. In both, the public need to reassure themselves that the agents involved aren’t conflicted.

For a media consumer, it is relevant –highly relevant — if a journalist has worked for a politician, a union or an industry association. It is relevant if they are a member of a political party. It is relevant if they have supported or even donated to any type of advocacy organisation in the area being discussed. It is relevant if they are in a relationship with a politician.  It is relevant if they have campaigned to promote a cause. It is relevant if they are a public sector union representative interviewing a politician about public sector reform.

Media consumers should know this so they can make informed judgements about what they are seeing, reading or hearing. In this regard media is no different from any other industry. This is not meant to impugn journalists’ integrity. Rather, like the judiciary, they are powerful and unelected, so that they need to take clear steps to remove any perception of bias. And media codes of ethics recognise that perceived conflict of interest is just as important as actual.

Yet undisclosed conflicts continue nonetheless.

Where there is a conflict or the perception that there may be a conflict, media publishers should ensure that consumers know about it — preferably through a comprehensive declaration of interests and activities. In the worst of conflicts, journalists shouldn’t report at all.

This isn’t a redefinition of journalistic conflict of interest. It is merely asking that they apply what is already required of others. It is the minimum first step for journalists to be recognised as independent reporters of integrity. In an internet age, creating and accessing a register of such interests is simple. Without it, media consumers are justified in seeing journalists as little more than activists with access to megaphones.

Rather than telling people what they are allowed to say, to read and to hear, our media thinkers – including our MPs and leading journalists – should trust consumers, reveal their conflicts and hold themselves to the same standards of transparency they expect of other public figures.

Goose, gander, and all that.

James Falk stood as the Liberal candidate for Balmain

Leave a Reply