Mixing opinion and news “is now done routinely”, the Daily Telegraph argued in its own defence before the Australian Press Council last week – which raises the question of whether anyone (except the ABC) still believes in the tired old dogma of journalistic objectivity.
The Australian Press Council’s adjudication shows the watchdog struggling to hold the line and getting tangled in contradictions as a result.
The Council said it is OK for a newspaper to be partisan, and okay to present opinion as news, so long as the reporting is fair and balanced.
The Press Council upheld a complaint by Mark Robinson about a 25 November report in the Daily Telegraph concerning a protest ride in which 1000 cyclists blocked Sydney peak hour traffic. The Tele’s first paragraph read: “These are the selfish fools who ruined last night for thousands of people by causing maximum traffic gridlock in Sydney.”
The headline read: “If you’re sick of this, call (the mobile phone number of Critical Mass spokesman Chris Mosley)”.
The Tele doesn’t claim to be objective. As editor David Penberthy has said, the aim is to be relevant and get a gut reaction.
But the dogma of journalism is that objectivity is vital. This is reflected in the Press Council’s principles, which recognise a publication’s right to be partisan, but call for clear distinction between fact and opinion, and for “fairness and balance” when people are singled out for criticism.
The result is a confused adjudication.
The Press Council found the opinion in the article was not a breach of the Council’s principles “in that, by its obvious bias, it distinguishes itself as that of the authors who are clearly identified by their bylines.” The problem, the Council said, was not opinion presented as news, but the lack of a balancing response and facts against which the validity of the opinion could be judged.
Such balance, of course, would have taken all the acid out of the Tele’s approach.
In this context an article in this month’s edition of the Walkley Magazine by the ABC’s new Director of Editorial Policies, Paul Chadwick, makes interesting reading.
Among other things, Chadwick says the national broadcaster’s new editorial policies implicitly acknowledge “that everyone regards the world through the prism of his or her values… no-one makes, absorbs or assesses any media content from a values free standpoint.” What the ABC has done is articulate its values – “fundamental democratic principles including the rule of law, freedom of speech and religion, parliamentary democracy and equality of opportunity”.
What are the values of the rest of the media? Penberthy has claimed the Tele articulates the views of mainstream Australia – although it is surely no simple thing to divine a mainstream among all the rivulets of Australian opinion and life experience.
It is all very complicated, but perhaps journalists would be better off dropping objectivity as tired and often hollow dogma and trying hard to work out what it might mean in practice, whether we still value it, and why.
Simon Rumble writes: Chris Mosley is not a “spokesman” for Critical Mass. CM doesn’t have such people. He’s just a guy who goes along for the ride and happened to speak to the media about it. Critical Mass has no organising committee. It’s a group of people who meet once a month for a ride. There’s an email list, where some rough plans are discussed but decisions aren’t made. The media have a real problem accurately reporting groups without command-and-control structures, chiefs and indians, generals and GIs. Given it’s becoming a very common way of running movements of people, they need to get used to it.