Can we trust the media?

Debate at Splendour In The Grass – 26 July 2013

To work out whether or not you can trust the media you need to consider what the media is doing and what it is supposed to do.

In 2010 the Director of TED Talk, Chris Anderson, put it to Julian Assange that “WikiLeaks has released more classified documents than the rest of the world’s media combined…” Julian replied, “Can it possibly be true, it’s a worry isn’t it, that the rest of the world’s media is doing such a bad job that a little group of activists is able to release more of that type of information than the rest of the world press combined.”

And what about journalists? According to the Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists, “respect for truth and the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist”.  In other words, journalists must be servants to truth and they must be able to publish the truth. Their greatest assets must be intelligence, scepticism and determination.

As the late great writer and humanist Albert Camus observed,  journalists cannot put themselves in the service of those who make history,  they must be at the service of those who suffer it; they cannot compromise with lies and servitude, and they must focus not on reforming the world but the more important task of preventing the world from destroying itself. They are characteristics that a trustworthy media would encourage and defend in its journalists.

The release by WikiLeaks of more classified documents than the rest of the world’s media combined, laying bare graphic details of the suffering of those unknown to us and the duplicity of those who govern us, can only be admired and saluted.  It stands in stark contrast to the superficiality and inaction of mainstream media, dictated by agendas and priorities far removed from the fundamental aim of revealing the truth.

So can we trust the media? I don’t like talking in absolutes because I think many independent media organisations, journalists and filmmakers do a sterling job of examining issues of importance to many of us. And there remains a core group of investigative journalists within mainstream media who do outstanding work with limited resources.  But even when they’re combined there are too few in this country to affect the question whether we can trust mainstream media overall.

A fundamental problem is ownership of the media. Given the market share of Murdoch’s News Corporation, perhaps the more precise question is, can you trust Rupert Murdoch?

And to that I would say a couple of things, putting aside his recently publicised contempt for the English investigations that not long ago had him bowing with shame.

Firstly, not one of Rupert Murdoch’s 175 or so papers editorialised against the invasion of Iraq. Not one, even though citizens all over the world took to the streets in protest. It has since been reported that at the time Murdoch  predicted the war in Iraq would deliver an oil price of $US20 a barrel, which would be like a tax cut for everyone.

Secondly, he has an uncanny knack of predicting, or perhaps anointing, political winners. Endorsements are sought and given before elections and behind closed doors. No wonder our leaders and prospective leaders make the pilgrimage to New York for the compulsory dinner.

In that regard, I’m  not sure which comment I find more disconcerting: former Liberal Leader John Hewson’s comment that, “I most vividly remember an early meeting with Paul Kelly, then editor of The Australian. Kelly stated quite emphatically that The Oz had a specific policy agenda, and if I said the right things, consistent with that agenda, I would “get a run”. If I erred, I could expect to get a drubbing” or former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s advice to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair about Rupert Murdoch: “He’s a big bad bastard, and the only way you can deal with him is to make sure he thinks you can be a big bad bastard too. You can do deals with him, without ever saying a deal is done. But the only thing he cares about is his business and the only language he respects is strength.”

Is that a sound basis for a media you can trust?

But Murdoch isn’t alone. 98 per cent of Australia’s print media circulation is in the hands of three corporations:  News Limited, Fairfax Media and APN News and Media. Major shareholders in Fairfax media are heavily involved in the finance and mining industries, with Gina Rinehart now being the largest shareholder.

Add to that Kerry Stokes’s Seven Group Holdings, which also owns huge mining and construction equipment companies including Westrac, owns Channel 7, The West Australian and many regional broadcasters and newspapers.

Again, to a greater or lesser extent, the business interests of proprietors govern the operation of the media they control.

It’s not surprising then that Australians recently surveyed in Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer ranked political parties and the media as the most corrupt institutions in the country.  It was correctly pointed out at the time of that release that “Most of the biggest corruption risks we have is where those two intersect … The media has the capacity, not to control, but to influence political decisions, which means that politicians feel they actually have to anticipate what media owners want and avoid getting them cross.”

But are people’s perceptions about government and media correct?

Well we don’t know because there is still no overarching federal anti-corruption investigative body covering parliamentarians and federal agencies and, as the findings of Finklestein’s Independent Media Inquiry remind us, newspapers are regulated by the Australian Press Council. The Australian Press Council is funded by big media companies with nearly half coming from News Ltd and a quarter from Fairfax Media. The APC currently appoints its own members, which the Inquiry found is not sufficiently independent. The industry can come and go from the Council as it pleases without suffering any penalty. The Council relies on the industry for its funding and there is evidence the industry has used that or the threat of reducing funding to control the Council.

We do know that:

  • In 2010 the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism and Crikey found that nearly 55% of newspaper stories analysed were driven by some form of public relations.  Of the 55% a quarter had no significant extra perspective, source or content added by reporters and were merely regurgitated media releases from government or corporate sources.
  • In a survey conducted by Roy Morgan research in August 2004, 73 per cent of journalists surveyed said that media proprietors use their outlets to “push their own business and or political interests to influence the national debate”.
  • A 2006 Roy Morgan survey of journalists found that more than half claimed they were unable to be critical of the media organisation they worked for, 38 per cent reported they had been instructed to comply with the commercial position of the company for which they worked and 32 per cent said they felt obliged to take into account the political views of their proprietor.

Just this week on ABC’s Media Watch, Paul Barry warned that “Channel Nine nearly went bust last year. Channel Ten is in dire straits. And Australia’s newspapers are in a spiral of decline. So everyone is desperate for revenue and eager to give advertisers whatever they want.”

It’s perhaps not that surprising that the disintegration of the financial model for mainstream media mirrors the difficulty that major political parties have had recruiting members. The ALP membership, for example, a mere 44,000 last year from a base of 400,000 in the 1940s.

It’s a glacial drip but over time both the major political parties and the mainstream media have lost the trust of the general public and the ability to interest and persuade. But both are now so structurally entrenched they can rely on one another to retain power even though their foundations are weak.

To restore trust, you need to dilute media concentration and support media diversity. It is only strong, independent, truthful and fearless reporting that will engender trust in the media. And the starting point is establishing a framework for the independence and accountability of all media players.

Until steps like these are taken the status quo will remain and media generally will be viewed with suspicion if not contempt. It is only when media is democratised, when reporting is desensationalised and when journalists are freed from proprietorial dictates that people will come to respect and hence to trust the media. Until then, unfortunately, no, you can’t trust the media.

Concerns about our media are only one small part of the concerns we all need to have. The greatest concern for young people is that they are locked into policies that will mean they are locked into a lifetime of obligation and no power. Young people need to think about what’s happening and remember that in 20-30 years from now they’ll be paying for it all as well as supporting the legacy of the current generation in power. You need to start thinking about that now and you need to start doing something about it.

Thank you

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