The impartially partisan political journalist
Part 1 of ‘Truth with partisan on the side’ ended with the suggestion that we might be in a muddle in political journalism in Australia, a muddle about ‘partisan, but not biased, journalism versus impartial or objective or “neutral” journalism’. If this is so, what kind of a muddle is it?
It may be a muddle about what we the people — the readers, the listeners, the ‘reliers’ on information we can’t easily track ourselves — want and need from political journalism. It may be a moral muddle about what political journalists themselves see as their role in providing what they think we (the people, the reader etc.) might need and be looking for.
It is certainly, for me, the muddle inherent in, and driven by, a long-taught practice in journalism — that the journalist should be a non-partisan presenter of facts.
In The Year My Politics Broke Jonathan Green argued that the public ‘make a pervading assumption of impartiality’ and that political journalists fail this test via ‘misinterpretation’ or ‘abrogation’ or ‘partisan journalistic activism’. One might guess, and only guess, that Green’s faith in the impartiality mantra has been strong all of his professional life.
In May 2013, well before publishing The Year My Politics Broke, Green had written ‘Journalism tainted by conviction is not journalism’. It is a short piece wholly dedicated to the impartiality theme and disdainful of anything that does not measure up to journalism ‘untainted’. And it is salutary to compare some of the words, phrases and examples Green uses to flesh out what untainted and ‘conviction’-tainted journalism are for him:
|Journalism untainted||Journalism tainted|
|… a craft, a set of trade skills that can be applied pretty universally to a range of situations||a polemic…a cynical exercise in the promotion of any or various propositions|
|…true calling at the heart of the craft: to simply inform without bias or favour.||the sort of polemic that may have limited commercial worth but enormous political purpose|
|… a cornerstone of smart democratic practice||… cynically political purpose while claiming all the protections, rights and respectability of the fourth estate|
|… created with intellectual curiosity to inform||Fox News … an entirely parallel universe that determines its own agenda, facts and logic according to an often bellicose political mission|
|… practiced with calm objectivity and simple curiosity||The Australian, a paper whose political purpose and occasional flights of “truthiness” can routinely obscure its better journalistic angels|
|… neither of the right or left; it is, for want of something less pompous, of the truth.||… the opinion formers of the tabloid blogosphere. Little s-bends of ill-humour like the Daily Telegraph's Tim Blair, or great vaulted Taj Mahals of polished ego like the Herald Sun's Andrew Bolt.|
|In any … worth its salt the convictions of the reporter are an irrelevance||… produced under the influence of personal prejudice is a betrayal of professional practice and the implied trust of all who consume it|
|Who knows how many journalists have personal political sympathies to the left or right. What is certain is that it should not matter.||the paranoid, fact defying columns of the proselytising right … where … any measured objective assessment of reality is dismissed as being 'of the left', the facts are mutable servants of argument|
|Journalism is a trade in which personal conviction is one of two things: an irrelevance or a death sentence|
But what niggles about the piece was captured, for me, in Paula (@dragonista) Matthewson’s response in The Myth of Objectivity, which introduced some needed subtlety:
The most obvious examples are the political journalists who specialise in policy ...
While bias is probably too strong a word for these predispositions, they still shape how journalists present stories and therefore our perception of the issue at hand [my emphasis].
Far less subtle than Matthewson’s, of course, was a February 2014 Gerard Henderson response to, well, not just Green and his The Year My Politics Broke but Green, as an exemplar extraordinaire of ‘our ABC’, otherwise known as that appalling collective of left-y, partisan-y groupthink-y bias. Subbed with the give-away title ‘It's easy being Green when you can sneer while on the public purse’ Henderson gives himself licence to sneer away at Green:
Whenever commenting on journalism as practice Green clearly argues for impartiality and objectivity, considers himself impartial and, further, that his personal political stances are, and should be, private. Consequently, he believes they just don’t show.
Matthewson argues from the opposite position and for the inevitable subtle evidence in everything a journalist writes, of belief, conviction even, by virtue of the individual journalist having almost sole power to choose the content of any story and shape its telling so absolutely. In the light of this, look again at Green; at, say, his policy-change suggestions to the Labor Opposition in ‘Where is the alternative to Manus Island cruelty?’
And Henderson would never consider anything Green says or writes as impartial, but not for any of the reasons Green puts forward against ‘tainted’ journalism. In the ‘conviction’ piece, Green is trying out a philosophy, if you like, of impartiality. Matthewson teases out some complexity. Henderson just plays the man (or lots of them in this piece) to snipe at the ABC in News Corp’s ever more savage way for its failure to provide ‘balance’ or ‘equal time’ to so-called left and right.
No-one, of course, can rip the balance myth (as antidote to the dreaded evil of bias) a better one than David Horton did in, for example, his open letter to ABC CEO Mark Scott:
Or here again in ‘Steering the ABC Titanic’:
For Horton, the ABC’s over-striving after ‘false’ balance (or false equivalence) to placate its critics from conservative camps leads to presenting non-fact as if it had the same weight as fact; and for Horton, this way the mad obsession with avoiding bias truly lies. For Green, pure bias is the personally prejudiced, politically purposed, paralysingly paranoid, polemical propaganda journalism of a Bolt or a Blair (amongst others). For Henderson, bias is Green’s wicked adherence to, for example, those ‘catastrophic’ issues loved by lefty greenie progressives such as anthropogenic causes for a changing climate.
But the Henderson view on bias and the never-ending drama about the ABC’s journalistic ‘balance’ are little more than ‘look over there’ or ‘ooh, shiny thing’ tactics from the naysayers and the no see-ers whom both Green and Horton so rightfully excoriate. Such views offer no help to moving us from adversarial charges that conviction is partisan in a ‘bad’ way, is bias, is propaganda, to something else — perhaps something like recognising that owning and stating your position may be offering some first steps in reviving trust in the integrity of political journalism?
In a recent piece, ‘Facts are futile in an era of post-truth politics’, Gay Alcorn lamented:
Andrew Elder responded:
Despair as media cop-out, really. Elder goes on to suggest that the media, more than the politicians and the political system, needs faith in evidence and correctives in the way it reports politics, or journalists like Alcorn are already out of a job. He adds: ‘If you have more experience in media than I do you could do more to fix it.’
Speaking at the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2011 Jay Rosen drew on, as a springboard for some of his ideas on how to change or rescue ‘political coverage’, a 2008 essay, ‘The power of the pen: A call for journalistic courage’, by Walter Pinkus that set out the Pinkus approach to how to ‘fix’ political coverage. Pinkus, from fifty years of practice in the business, had reminded his profession of their origins in presses begun by families who took partisan positions in their politics, but played the game with integrity nevertheless:
Pinkus argued that the political media participated in the political process: that the actions and decisions of the media directly affected government, making the media powerful, and thus allowing it to play ‘activist’ roles in governance. A recent development is the media’s rejection of this activist role — which he views as a ‘threat to our democracy’.
For Pinkus, courage in the political media field is ‘a journalist [who] stands up to a government official or a politician who he or she has reason to believe is not telling the truth or living up to his or her responsibilities’. It isn’t eliding, omitting or denying evidence or fact. But it isn’t playing at being ‘neutral, unbiased and objective, presenting both or all sides as if they were on the sidelines refereeing a game in which only the players—the government and its opponents—can participate’. For Pinkus, the ‘neutral’ journalist is an unfortunate evolution away from the origins of the profession (at least in the USA) into becoming PR mouthpieces for governments.
When first picking up the Pinkus essay in 2008, Jay Rosen argued that neutrality (another word for balance) needed to be ‘uncoupled’ from fairness, which should remain a tenet of modern journalism. But more importantly, the political press needed to let its readers know what it was doing with its own power. Nothing quite as simple as letting us know who they vote for, but what evidence they could provide for claiming their position of authority in the first place.
In 2011 in Melbourne, Rosen offered his audience several aspects of political coverage that ‘impoverished it’: what he described as ‘politics as an inside game’, ‘the cult of savviness’ and ‘the production of innocence’. He then suggested a possible model for change based on political coverage reflecting what is real, and letting the public know what is not, after all, real or true. In Rosen’s model a political journalist should assess the information they garner in four ways and ask themselves whether they are seeing:
- appearances rendered as fact; e.g. the media stunt
- phony arguments; e.g. manufactured controversies; sideshows
- today’s new realities: get the facts; e.g. the actual news of politics
- real arguments; e.g. debates, legitimate controversies, important speeches.For Rosen, this is what citizens need from the political media.
Andrew Elder’s response to Gay Alcorn’s piece raised the issue of how difficult it might be, when you are on the inside of a profession or institution, to see what is happening and to make change from the inside. Ideally, you are best placed to do so. But it’s also possible to be so long or so far in that it’s hard to see how, when, where, why and what change might be needed.
Jonathan Green argued, in The Year My Politics Broke, for a game changer in Australian politics a, change agency person, preferably a different kind of Prime Minister or leader.
I’d argue, perhaps with Elder, that we need Australian game changers in political journalism far more, right now, than we might need a different kind of political leader or politician generally.
There are those, quite a few, who suggest that the rise of the fifth estate is such a change agent. And I would argue that while exciting in its possibilities, it simply isn’t true. Not yet. Not when online only starts-up like The Global Mail fold so quickly. Not while the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun or the Australian or The Age are the probable reading fare of the hundreds of thousands of Australians who don’t yet read the political media online and don’t know how to find it. Neither New Matilda nor The Conversation nor yet Guardian Australia (though it’s growing fast) has yet the extent of readership to influence the voting mind as rapidly as News Corp’s paper-based rags have.
The fourth estate still matters more, because of its power, because of its reach and because of its capacity to influence our governance for the worse or for the better, which is probably why some of us get as angry with it as we do. It’s way past time for the fourth estate to throw up journalists as change agents working from the inside.
One might look just like Jonathan Green … if he’d only seize his impartial partisanship (he doesn’t put a fact wrong) laud it, and teach that, instead of its opposite. (To be wholly in love with Jonathan Green would be quite something.)
One might look like Paul Syvret, working out of the News Corp stable in Brisbane, who produced this astonishingly open piece stating what his own personal positions on many issues were, but equally arguing no reader should simply box him into ‘left’ or ‘right’. Syvret has become one of my other most trusted journalists. It may be that his every article reads like the perfect practice of the Rosen model. I know where he stands. And I trust his evidence.
And one indeed might look like Margot Kingston, who practises now in the fifth estate after a long time in the fourth, and who very recently described herself, when challenged on whether she was ‘really a journalist’, in these words:
"My policy has been, for a long time, to be very open about who I am and what my beliefs are, and I hope that people trust me because of my honesty and transparency. All I want, as a journalist, is for what I say is the truth or report as fact, is believed. I think I have got that, I think my work is trusted journalistically, but yes, this is a very extreme way to report a protest." [my emphasis]
I want real change in my political coverage in Australia.
What do you want?
I see journalists who seem to actively pursue what we might call ‘a partisan impartiality’ in their practice in Australia.
Do you, and if so who?
What do you think?
I think I see some glimmering causes for optimism.
* This article was first published on The Political Sword. Republished with permission.
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