(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 7.)I recently had what might be termed a difference of professional opinion with some of my fellow journalists. It was touched off by a newspaper editorial that took a whack at “enthusiastic amateurs” sounding off on such issues as climate change, vaccinations and fluoridation.
Everyone was entitled to their opinion, the editorial writer loftily pronounced, but not all views should be accorded equal weight. The views of people with years of study and experience behind them were worth more than those of non-experts.“Everyone is free to disagree but ignorance does not have an equal right to be heard,” the editorial concluded.
A member of an internet journalism discussion group to which I belong applauded the editorial, saying she couldn’t agree more. “These amateur know-it-alls are a menace,” she declared.I thought this a peculiar position for a journalist for take. I mean, aren’t we supposed to believe in freedom of speech?
Another member chimed in that the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s Garth McVicar should be added to the “list of nutters”. Then someone else suggested a couple of other names for what was shaping up as a blacklist: David Round and Lindsay Mitchell.For the benefit of those who haven’t heard of them, I should explain who these people are.
David Round is a University of Canterbury law lecturer who has written extensively over many years about Treaty of Waitangi issues. Unusually for an academic, he scathingly dismisses the Treaty settlement process as a rort and a gravy train.Lindsay Mitchell is a Wellington researcher who, in her own words, sets out to debunk the myths surrounding the welfare state, which she describes as economically, socially and morally unsustainable. Hers is a courageous and often lonely voice challenging the vast body of agencies, bureaucrats and academics with a common interest in propping up an unwieldy and seriously flawed welfare system.
What was immediately noticeable was that the individuals dismissed by some of my fellow journalists as not deserving any publicity were, loosely speaking, all right of centre.I noted that no one suggested that the ubiquitous, all-purpose left-wing activist John Minto gets far too much attention from the media. Yet over time, Minto has been on our television screens and in the news columns of our newspapers far more often than the three people mentioned above.
Minto irritates me, but I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that he should be silenced. Yet here were journalists arguing, in effect, that the media pays far too far much attention to activists from the other side of the political divide.I concluded that among journalists who belong to the group, or at least those who take part in the online discussions, there was a pronounced bias against the right.
Is this true of journalists generally? I’m not sure. It may simply be true of the journalists who feel strongly enough to express an opinion. Journalism has always attracted a percentage of people who are motivated by idealism, and idealists are often left-wing.But the individual political leanings of journalists are not so important in this context. What matters is that they should be committed to freedom of expression, regardless of whether they agree with the opinion being expressed.
That’s fundamental to journalism in a liberal democracy, and I found it highly ironic – and said so – that people who called themselves journalists appeared to be arguing that certain views, right-wing views, shouldn’t be given the time of day. (Some denied my accusation that they were arguing for suppression, but it was hard to see what other inference could be drawn from their statements.)In any case, let’s examine this question of “expert” versus “non-expert” a little more closely.
It was clear from the discussion that the word “expert” is generally equated with a university degree. In the climate change debate, you’re not considered credible unless you have a relevant academic qualification.But in more than 40 years in journalism, I’ve come across any number of highly-qualified “experts” whose opinions seemed to owe more to ideology than to academic credibility.Many academics are moralists by nature, always ready to lecture us on what they perceive to be the world’s failings. I remember sitting in a university lecture theatre several years ago, surrounded by gullible young students, and being appalled by the brazenly ideological cant spouted by the eminent academic addressing us.
Whatever the subject – whether climate change or alcohol law reform, to choose two topical examples – many academics are inclined to cherry-pick the theories that suit their political leanings. They often give the game away by indulging in extravagant rhetoric that is more emotive than scientific.
But assuming that academic qualifications confer some sort of authority, how does one of my fellow journalists explain his suggestion that David Round has no credibility? According to the University of Canterbury website, Mr Round has an honours degree in law. I can only conclude that in the eyes of some journalists, left-wing people with degrees are entitled to respect but right-wing people with degrees should be ignored.Let’s take this further still. Why should we bow to academic experts anyway, when they are notorious for getting things wrong?
Political scientists are hopeless at predicting election outcomes. Seismologists and meteorologists are often wise only after the event (only last January our own Niwa confessed it had got its summer weather outlook completely wrong). Historians differ wildly in their interpretation of events - which means at least some of them must be wrong - and the study of economics is famously inexact. And don’t get me started on media “experts”, many of whom have only the most tenuous grip on reality.Journalists of all people should know to treat “experts” with a healthy degree of scepticism.
Besides, there are other ways, apart from a university education, to acquire knowledge and expertise.A diligent, intelligent and enthusiastic amateur can acquire a body of knowledge to rival that of any academic. For that reason it’s dangerously elitist to dismiss a group such as the Sensible Sentencing Trust as having nothing of value to contribute to the debate on crime and punishment.
Amateur pressure groups play a crucial role in a participatory democracy. Confine public debate to “experts” and you risk excluding legitimate and often highly knowledgeable participants.Take Lindsay Mitchell, for example. She is an assiduous researcher who frequently exposes flaws in the arguments of welfare “experts”. Such individuals should be treasured in a free and open democracy – yet here were journalists, of all people, arguing that they should be ignored.
Should we be worried by this? You bet we should.