Saturday, September 9, 2017

Why journalistic objectivity is vital in a democracy

(First published in The Dominion Post, September 8.)

What a civilised election campaign this has been – so far, anyway. And what a contrast with the firestorms of 2014, when Nicky Hager and Kim Dotcom did their best to skew the election result.

To their credit, the voters paid no attention to the noisy distractions. They took the phone off the hook.

Eric Crampton, chief economist at free-market think tank the New Zealand Initiative (and a Canadian), wrote in a recent essay that New Zealand is the world’s last sane place, and he could be right.

Admittedly Crampton was mainly talking about economic factors and freedom from heavy-handed state intervention in people’s lives, but his description could equally be applied to the way we generally conduct our political affairs.

I remember watching a television debate in 1973 between the Labour and National leaders, Norm Kirk and Jack Marshall. It was such a relaxed and cordial encounter that I half expected the moderator – I think it was Ian Johnstone – to produce a flagon of DB and pour them a beer.

Monday night’s debate between Bill English and Jacinda Ardern wasn’t quite that cosy, but it was a mutually respectful contest between two basically decent people who want the best for their country.

Even the studio audience seemed admirably even-handed. We should be proud to live in such a mature democracy.

Sure, the campaign has had its moments of high drama. And elections are always polarising, the more so when you factor in the angry buzzing on social media, which amplifies ideological differences.

Besides, New Zealand politics hasn’t always been so good-tempered. The 1984 campaign, when Robert Muldoon was fighting for his political life, comes to mind. With Muldoon, there was always an undercurrent of menace – a feeling that you never knew quite what he was capable of, if pushed.

But back to that 1973 television debate. I had been living in Australia at the time and was struck by the contrast between our style of politics and that of our neighbours across the Ditch.

Everything about Australian politics was, and still is, more extreme and combative. Their conservatives are more reactionary, their radical lefties more doctrinaire, their factional powerbrokers more ruthless and their mavericks more unhinged.

Even when Australia’s not in election mode, its politics are far more febrile and polarised than ours. Right now the country is on the point of combusting over same-sex marriage, with the gay rights lobby using all manner of spurious arguments to torpedo a government proposal that would – heaven forbid – give voters a say on the issue.

It doesn’t help that the Australian news media are highly politicised, with the major Fairfax papers and the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation actively taking a left-leaning line while the Murdoch-owned Australian adopts a conservative position. People who complain of media bias here don’t know the half of it.

The danger to democracy of journalists taking sides is amply illustrated by a recent article in which the editor of the leftist Guardian Australia, Lenore Taylor, made it clear she wouldn’t be giving editorial space to opponents of same-sex marriage because … well, because she didn’t agree with them.

Here, laid bare, is the logical consequence of the insidious notion that the principle of “objectivity” in journalism is a myth and therefore can be disregarded.

Objectivity means, among other things, an obligation to be even-handed in the presentation of news. This concept has underpinned mainstream journalism for decades, but journalism textbooks and tutors now teach that “balance” gets in the way of truth-telling and serves the interests of the rich and powerful.

The result is that many journalists (who tend, by instinct, to have leftist sympathies) now feel they have licence to ignore anything that doesn’t align with their own views.

Objectivity serves as a vital check against abuse of media power, because the moment journalists take it on themselves to decide which opinions are fit for public consumption, democracy is in trouble.

New Zealand isn’t immune from this trend, as is obvious from the increasingly common usage by journalists of loaded words such as “sexist”, “racist” and “misogynist” to dismiss views they don’t approve of. But it’s not happening on the same scale, and certainly nowhere near as brazenly, as in Australia, where the media are up to their armpits in partisan politics.

The implications, if the principle of objectivity is abandoned, don’t need to be spelled out. Democracy depends on people casting an informed vote, and once news organisations start withholding information they don’t like, the liberal democracy model that we’re now seeing in action is at risk. 

1 comment:

Ron Atkin said...

Well stated Karl. Relieving for this member of the public to see it stated. And the bolder the better. Once the media is happily biased, then it is easy for it to be the tool of tirants to use for wrong. And lets start with those who owns them; Murd...?