Newspapers should hold governments to account according to John Hartigan, News Limited chairman and chief executive. Interviewed on the ABC’s 7.30
last week by Leigh Sales, the actual words to this effect that appeared in the transcript were: “I think we take them to their official capacity and responsibilities.”
This boldly expressed assertion, backed by many other similar statements he made, begs the question: “Who assigned the responsibility for holding governments to account to newspapers or for that matter any section of the media?” I for one certainly haven’t; how many others have? I have always believed that it is the electorate that should hold governments to account, not a third party. Does the media have a role in this process. If so, what is it?
Tony Abbott seems to be in accord with Hartigan. In rejecting the notion of an enquiry into the media, Abbott declared that politicians ‘complaining about the media is like footballers complaining about the umpire’. To use the term ‘umpire’ seems be assigning an even more onerous role to the media, one where it not only holds politicians and governments to account but also imposes penalties for misbehaviour. What is going on here? As it’s an Abbott utterance, not scripted, I expect it is in the category of a glib but superficially plausible off-the-cuff quip without depth or meaning. If pressed, he might not be so willing to be subject to media ‘penalties’, as evidenced by the way he walks away from pressers when the going gets tough.
Let’s begin then by agreeing what we mean by ‘holding to account’. One definition
that seems to fit the bill is: “The strength of resolve to hold others to account for agreed targets and to be held accountable for delivering a high level of service.”
Although written to apply in a business context, it seems applicable to any endeavour that involves reaching targets and providing service, such as governing.
In a political context there are several aspects where accountability might apply: ideology, planning and implementation
Although governments are elected for a variety of reasons, many of which are financial (the hip pocket syndrome), there as still some who vote according to the ideological base
on which their preferred party rests. Labor supporters prefer the concept of social justice and concern for workers that that party espouses, whereas Coalition supporters prefer the free enterprise and market based approach of that party. Of course there is now much overlap in ideology between the parties, but the basics are still there for voters to choose.
More important to most voters are the policies and plans
that the parties present to the electorate for the time ahead, how they will be implemented and at what cost.
Traditionally governments are expected to detail plans and costings, whereas oppositions are allowed to be much more vague about them. Why that is so can be attributed, at least in part, to different treatment by the media of governments and oppositions, where scrutiny of the latter is too often lacking.
Perhaps as important to voters as plans for the future, is the way in which past policies and plans
have been implemented – the Government’s record of achievement. The current federal Government has been criticized heavily for the way it has implemented its policies and plans, by both the Opposition and the media. Hartigan had this to say: “…I think most people would think that the BER program was a sham and very badly organised and I think that some of our newspapers reflected that very strongly. Some of the other issues - the NBN, I think, you know, Australians are asking a lotta questions about the transparency of huge amounts of billions of dollars. So I would suggest that we're acting in the public interest.”
Here we have it again: ‘acting in the public interest’, which is code for ‘holding to account’.
The fact that three Orgill Reports have documented a 97% satisfaction rate with the BER seems to have had no influence on the views of Hartigan or his editors. They have made up their minds that the BER was a ‘sham’, whatever that means, wasted a lot of taxpayer’s money, and therefore deserves to be repeatedly castigated by The Australian
, which took up the cudgels against this program from the outset and pursued it relentlessly. It seems to believe that it has not only the right, but also the responsibility to pursue this matter. Is this pursuit on behalf of the electorate, as it likes to imply, or is it simply following its own anti-Government agenda?
In his masterful piece on The Failed Estate: If the cap fits…
Mr Denmore had this to say on this issue: “A vigorous, questioning press is indeed an asset to a functioning democracy. But only if it employs that vigour against all sides in politics. News Limited does not do this on even the most charitable measure. Instead, it has run a nakedly partisan anti-government line on the NBN, the fiscal stimulus, asylum seekers and any number of issues with the clear intent of breaking down a minority government it has never accepted as legitimate and in which a major part is played by a party it has openly vowed to destroy. What's more, it has done this with little respect for the facts.”
What is it that gives the media the belief that it has an entitlement to act on the electorate’s behalf in holding governments to account?
I submit that this is an assumed entitlement, one that the media has taken on itself, without public authorization, and having enjoyed the power that such entitlement endows, exercises it ruthlessly in pursuit of its own political agenda. Hartigan went on to say: “…we're the only organisation that really takes it up to the Government”
, and talking about The Australian
says: "...it really is very strident in the way that it covers politics and I'd argue it's really the only newspaper in Australia that properly covers politics, national politics."
He discounted the Fairfax media and the ABC as sympathetic to the Government. Anyone who still doubts the role New Limited believes it has in politics should read the full transcript of the 7.30
interview, particularly about his paper’s assault on Rob Oakeshott. If you are still not convinced of his aggression towards the Gillard Government, look at the video
Another of the News Limited newspapers, The Daily Telegraph
, has engaged in vigorous anti-Government behaviour ever since the new editor, Paul Whittaker, took over in April. Its negativity has been so gross, turning as it does even positive stories for the Government into negative ones, that it has been named and attacked by Stephen Conroy. He has accused the newspaper of ignoring the basics of journalism - accuracy and balance: "The problem you have when you run campaigns in newspapers is that you are not prepared to give equal coverage to both sides of the argument…the Daily Telegraph is interested in distorting the debate, it's interested in demanding an election campaign purely intended to try and get rid of the Government."
So we have two papers hell bent on attacking the Government with a view to removing it from office; other Murdoch papers are following similar lines.
Conroy acknowledged that newspapers were entitled to take a political position, but my question is whether they are entitled to do so without declaring their hand, instead covertly, and often overtly, undermining the party they oppose by distorting the facts and offering their influential opinions in a way that steers public opinion.
The Murdoch empire has exercised an influence over political debate here and in the US and the UK. In the US, through Fox News, it has become a virtual mouthpiece for the Republican Party, promoting its position relentlessly; some celebrities, such as Sarah Palin, even have their own segments on that network. In the UK we have seen recently how much influence Murdoch has had on politics there. In The Drum Opinion
, Stephen Mayne reports on what UK PM David Cameron actually said about the relationship between the Murdoch media and politicians: “Over the decades, on the watch of both Labour leaders and Conservative leaders, politicians and the press have spent time courting support, not confronting the problems. Well, it's on my watch that the music has stopped and I'm saying, loud and clear - things have got to change. In future, politicians have got to stop trying to curry favour with the media, but instead regulate properly. We were all in this world of wanting the support of newspaper groups and, yes, broadcasting organisations and when we are doing that do we spend enough time asking questions about how these organisations are regulated, the malpractices and the rest of it? No, we did not. We have to.”
If the media has no inherent entitlement to be the voice and opinion of the people, what are its rights and responsibilities?
For my part I expect the media to report the facts, the verifiable facts, and to report them accurately and in full. The media is geared to ascertain the facts, and ought to do so. It then has an obligation to inform the public of them in a balanced and unbiased way, so that voters can use that information to make a judgement about the Government's performance when they come to cast their vote.
Is the media entitled to express a political opinion? It must be in a society that has enshrined free speech as one of its basic tenets. In turn the public is entitled to know what is opinion, as distinct from the facts. Yet opinion and fact are too often inextricably mixed so that it is difficult to know which is which. Murdoch believes that opinion is news, never mind the facts.
So we have Hartigan volunteering on 7.30
that the BER was a ‘sham’, an opinion unsupported by any facts he was prepared to offer. It is simply a sham, don’t ask how or why it was. Opinions such as these are offered endlessly by The Australian, The Daily Telegraph
and other News Limited outlets, with little or no confirmatory evidence, opinions deliberately cast before the public, much of which unthinkingly accepts opinion as fact. Indeed because the purpose of these Murdoch outlets is to influence public opinion to their way of thinking, facts are irrelevant and sometimes inconvenient. So they do a typical Murdoch – misrepresent the facts, leave out those that don’t suit their case or dispense with them altogether; instead just offer an opinion.
Later in his piece: If the cap fits…
Mr Denmore offers a similar view: “…the media also has a responsibility to get its facts straight and provide honest reporting of primary information before it starts opining on it. It should also separate out straight reporting from analysis and opinion. This is not the way of the Murdoch titles, which revel in openly partisan journalism. And while fearless scrutiny is wonderful, it needs to be applied to everyone - including Tony Abbott. ‘Accuracy, balance and fairness’ were the three principles rammed down the throats of journalism students when I went into the trade and they still should be the bedrock upon which everything is built.”
Mr Denmore’s whole article is well worth a read.
In my opinion the media has a responsibility to give us all the information we need to make a judgement about our governments, information that we otherwise may have difficulty accessing. It has the right to express an opinion so long as it’s clear that it is just that. Its opinions would be worth having if they were based on all the verifiable facts and a well-reasoned argument, but to hope for that from most of today’s media is pie in the sky.
In my view, the media has no right to arrogantly inflict its opinion or its personal biases and preferences on us, devoid of facts and reasoning. Yet that is what it does over and again. It has no entitlement to hold governments to account on our behalf. It ought not to assume that it has a divine right to speak for us, or to influence us to its views. After all, the media is just the media, a group of people: proprietors, editors and journalists, who gather and analyze facts, reach conclusions and offer opinions, which we are entitled to take or leave. They ought not to assume that their opinions are more worthy than ours, and they ought not to believe they have they right to tell us how to think. Yet that’s just what many do, especially those from the Murdoch stable. Let the voters hold governments to account, not the media.
What do you think?